Philosophy, Politics

Recognition in the Hierarchy of Political Needs

Free Photo: School Students in Bleachers, Forming the American Flag in 1910

This is another post in the series exploring the idea of a hierarchy of political needs. Can we better understand political change — and, in a democracy, voting behavior — by thinking of voters as a kind of “body politic” motivated by a relatively stable hierarchy of concerns, with national security above the economy, and the economy above largely altruistic concerns such as responding to the risks of climate change?

After writing the first post, it occurred to me that there might a political concern that trumps even national security: roughly speaking, what Thucydides called “honor,” what Hegel called “recognition,” and what is sometimes discussed today using terms like “cultural identity” and “dignity.”

A political entity, like an individual, might forego even its own security from external assault in order to avoid being humiliated or stripped of its identity. Extreme examples would be occasions when groups of people defined by a shared identity choose to die together rather than surrender to an opposing group — like the rebels at Masada or the Texans at the Alamo. A less extreme example might be the government of the United Kingdom, which, unlike the government of France, chose to resist Nazi Germany rather than reach an agreement involving the loss of sovereignty and national political identity.

Even more common, and more relevant for my concerns (such as the discussion of civil disobedience in previous posts), would be marginalized groups who willingly expose themselves to violence — at the hands of oppressive states, or non-state actors such as mobs — in order to gain some kind of recognition. The civil rights protesters in the 1960s, for example, and many gay rights protesters (such as at the Stonewall riots), chose to put at heightened risk their personal security because they valued it less than obtaining recognition for the dignity of their group and the validity of their concerns. (Of course, one of the grievances of both African Americans and gays was the violence already directed against them. But protest created a greater risk of violence in the short term than a strategy of quietly avoiding confrontation.)

One of the troubles with putting honor or recognition at the top of the hierarchy of political needs, however, is its unpredictability. Another is its indeterminacy.

With regard to unpredictability: states and groups often sacrifice a little pride to protect themselves, or even to advance their economic prosperity. Political entities vary in their sensitivity to slights, and change over time.

On the other hand, there may be regularities in the degree to which states (or other political entities) will be willing to sacrifice other interests in order to defend their pride or self-respect. Past humiliation and newly obtained power seems to increase the likelihood that insults will lead to the political equivalent of duels — as in China today. Past power and present lack of power may result in the same sensitivity — as in parts of the Middle East. The least sensitive, recognition-driven state may be the one most secure and comfortable in its present position of power — as in northern Europe and the United States today.

The same general rules could apply to political or cultural groups within a state. Who is more sensitive to perceived slights in the United States today than the viewers of Fox News — aging, white, culturally southern Christians who see their longstanding political power gradually being eclipsed? Or, to take a sharply contrasting example, could African Americans after World War II be an instance of past humiliation and rising power leading to heightened demands for recognition?

With regard to indeterminacy: it may often be unclear whether a political issue intersects in a significant way with a question of honor or recognition. This too can vary over time. Proclaiming support for gun rights hasn’t always been a powerful way of signalling political identity in the United States, as it is today. The same could be said of climate change. Asserting the need to address the threat of climate change is now perceived as an attack on conservative identity. It has become a question of honor on both sides of the issue, rather than simply a technical scientific issue, or even an economic or national security issue.

At a state level too, there may often be a great degree of indeterminacy about whether an issue poses a significant threat to honor. An uninhabited, worthless territory may be ignored for decades and then suddenly become the focus of a high-stakes territorial dispute.

Both because it can be unclear whether an issue threatens a political group’s recognition, and because it can be unpredictable whether a political group will care enough about their threatened recognition to elevate the issue above other concerns (potentially even above economic or national security self-interest), questions of honor or recognition would appear to be potentially very significant wildcards in the hierarchy of political needs…

In any case, there are a lot of inconsistencies and ambiguities in all of these thoughts — especially with regard to what the project is, what is being explained and what isn’t. Is this a way to explain state behavior? Political coalition behavior? In democracies only? What kinds of democracies? Et cetera. One of the advantages of pseudonymous blogging is that I feel no obligation to straighten all of this out in advance, rather than letting the notes toward notes continue.


One thought on “Recognition in the Hierarchy of Political Needs

  1. Pingback: Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas | Against the Logicians

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