The Problem With Recognition

Hegel, as you know, started his account of social life with the struggle between master and slave. The master’s dependency on the slave meant that ultimately the slave was stronger. Alexandre Kojève (born Kojevnikoff) read this struggle as a combat for recognition, in which only humans could engage. Need a definition of “the human”? Recognition makes us human. At the ends of the spectrum of which ordinary human consciousness occupied the central band, you had pre-human animality (mere struggle for resources) and post-human dandyism (purely aesthetic competition, with no material stakes).

This always seemed to me a heretical revision of the Marxist-materialist account of society. But an immensely successful one. Napoleon used to marvel at how he could make men brave death for the sake of little plaques of metal tied to bright ribbons. By choosing to translate economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy into the common currency of recognition, Kojève launched a lot of ships, including a certain Lacanian armada and multiculturalism in its Charles-Taylorish version.

But there’s a problem with recognition: it works all too well. As Napoleon observed, the thirst for recognition can cause people to transcend their most intimate material interests. When people’s basic needs are taken care of, they quite regularly pursue recognition in its various guises: fame, respect, honor. And they consider insults to their “good name” offenses done to their body.

This fact leaves human beings sporting an enormous handle for manipulation. The enemies of equality have tossed out a lot of arguments against redistributive justice in its various forms: it won’t work, it leads inevitably to the Gulag, it will make us mediocre, it will leave us all in debt, it will sap the sources of our national power, it’s a plot of subhuman scum to drag us all into the mud, etc. But the most effective trick so far has been the weaponization of imputed scorn.

One of the Tea Party idols crystallized this approach in a book with the perfect title: They Think You’re Stupid. If you didn’t have a real reason to hate “the elites”– say you are one of the people most apt to benefit from good public schools, affordable healthcare, mass transit, and labor unions– now you have a made-up one: the elites disrespect you. They have been lying to you all along and they laugh at you every time you buy into their lies. Thus envy, which is related to the feeling of slighted honor (why does the world reward those schnooks, and not me?), turns into a form of fake egalitarianism. “I didn’t go to those fancy Ivy League schools like you, Obama, but I’m not going to be fooled by you.” Get a few million people shouting in this way, with the help of appropriate TV programming, and you can indeed achieve the miracle of people acting, not “against their own interests” (as the old Marxist wheeze has it) but for their least important interests. They will take it as a point of honor to refuse their share of what is rightfully theirs, if you call it charity and make its acceptance seem insulting. This is utter genius on the part of the manipulators and I salute their success.

Of course, it’s evil genius, and even the governor of Florida has figured out that every joke comes to an end.

Another situation in which this pursuit of “respect” delivers untoward consequences: nationalism versus reform. We in the US make quite a specialty of this, refusing to go along with lots of perfectly sensible international agreements (ones that would make the world safer and better for everybody, including us) on the grounds that they would “impinge on national sovereignty.” This sounds like a teenager saying No just for the sake of saying No.

And, zooming down to the tiny-furniture level of academia, it’s seen, for example, in the objection often put forth (with success) that human rights are intrinsically a flawed concept because they are often preached by the powerful as a good that they are to bestow on the backward, miserable masses of less enlightened and fortunate countries. Well, yes, human rights have often been made a pretext for horrible acts, as I’ve been mentioning quite a bit lately. And there is a long-lived discussion of the moral dubiousness of putting oneself (or one’s nation, or worse yet one’s nation’s entire military) in the position of a hero, of stories that present the expansion of empire as a matter of “white men saving brown women from brown men,” and so forth.

All this is well-known. But hypocrisy is not the Sin Against the Holy Ghost. Or– I take that back. Maybe it is the Sin Against the Holy Ghost In the Domain of Conversation. But it is not as bad as killing people, depriving them of their land or their livelihoods, cheating them of the chance to get educated or get well, destroying their culture and memory, forcing them to endure avoidable pain, etc., all of which are frequent occurrences and all of which a proper human-rights doctrine would make punishable (for the sake of deterrence). Comfortable people whose happiness is indexed by the amount of recognition they get (since more banal supporting conditions are assured) are apt to overrate the seriousness of offenses to group honor. But the real work of human rights (from which the substantive rights must never be excluded) has little to do with defending the Third World from imagined slights and more to do with making it possible for a larger number of people to live good lives. Before you get all tangled up in the Complicity Blues, ask yourself: Cui bono?