Clayton James Raithel | On Norms and Practice

By Clayton James Raithel

I would like to say a few words about norms, because I think how we understand norms is crucial for our conversation, particularly as it pertains to Steven Lukes’ essay. My discussion will be broadly Hegelian in theme (at least, on the reading of Hegel provided by people like Robert Brandom, Thomas Lewis, and Jeffrey Stout), but without much reference to his metaphysics. What I would like to draw our attention to throughout – and wonder further about – is how norms can change through praxis, and what evaluative criteria these norms provide and fail to provide us in terms of justice, freedom, and equality. In what follows, I aim to show that a) a commitment to certain forms of norm participation need not be opposed to freedom and agency the way some Marxist readings would suggest and b) just because we are committed to norms does not mean that we must settle for a notion of norms as static and incapable of revision. Rather, I suggest a normative theory of praxis, in which our evolving practical activity informs our understanding of norms, and our understanding of norms influences our practical activity.

As a point of departure, I will begin with a debate that is fairly prominent in religious and feminist studies. I hope the relevance to our readings will be apparent, but I will attempt to make more explicit connections below. The debate was brought to our attention by Saba Mahmood in Politics of Piety, in which she asked whether it is possible to think of female agency in terms other than resistance. Mahmood discusses the Women’s Mosque Movement in Egypt, and recounts numerous conversations she had with women who have chosen to adopt the veil. In fact, the story she tells goes beyond mere choice – in many instances the women feel compelled to adopt the veil; they feel that God has commanded it, and that by adopting it, they partake in a process of ethical formation enacted through repeated disciplinary habits. This ethical formation leads to the cultivation of the virtues of humility and shyness. Should we think of this in Marxist terms, as a form of false consciousness, a repressive ideology that must be eschewed for the liberation of the feminine subject? Recounting a conversation with Amal, a young woman who long ago chose to adopt the veil, Mahmood expresses skepticism about equating agency and resistance:

To many readers [the conversation with Amal] may exemplify an obsequious deference to social norms that both reflects and reproduces women’s subordination. Indeed, Amal’s struggle with herself to become shy may appear to be no more than an instance of the internalization of standards of effeminate behavior, one that contributes little to our understanding of agency. Yet if we think of “agency” not simply as a synonym for resistance to social norms but as a modality of action, then this conversation raises some interesting questions about the kind of relationship established between the subject and the norm, between performative behavior and inward disposition. (157)

And so we have a problem: there is no doubt that norms are deeply implicated with various forms of power, institutional power being the most obvious example. But is expressing a commitment to norms (whether explicitly or implicitly through the practices we engage in) always granting legitimacy to oppressive forms of power? Another way of putting the question is this: how do we pick out the good norms from the bad ones?

When thinking about this question, I want to suggest at the outset that the “hermeneutics of suspicion” described by Ricoeur – in which the default orientation with which to evaluate society is one of deep skepticism about what forms of power are operating underneath our practices – gives us important resources to call attention to, say, unjust practices and forms of domination, but that we must be careful to not let our only critical orientation be one of suspicion. In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Eve Sedgwick warns that reading with a lens of suspicion can quickly turn into a theory of paranoia, which is as seductive as it is unproductive. Sedgwick argues instead that we ought to take the tools of suspicious hermeneutics as only one subset of a larger set of tools with which to read, and that picking and choosing tools to meet the occasion will be important to our practice of reading (or, to put it in terms of this course, engaging in praxis). I am inclined to agree with her. I say this because it is as important for us to be able to interrogate norms in terms of oppression and domination as it is for us to be able to identify and support norms that contribute positively to the type of society we want to live in.

Steven Lukes makes reference to such norms in the fields of science, journalism, the law, and public administration. And it is important to recognize that, without such norms, we would be at a loss for how to determine what distinguishes, say, good science from bad science. So norms do not always operate – or perhaps do not operate solely – on the level of constraint (or oppression), as Lukes acknowledges throughout his post. They also empower us, give meaning to our practices, and provide us with various forms of evaluative criteria for those practices. We might not be free from governance by norms, but we are free to participate in them.

The question, though, is how we conceive of norms – say, the norms of democratic governance – in terms that both allow us to participate meaningfully without forcing us to intolerably compromise or sacrifice the other commitments we may have. Here, Rawls and Habermas are key players, as Lukes mentions when discussing the deliberative-democratic model he endorses. Read broadly as a form of democratic conversation in which we give each other and ask for reasons, I also endorse this model. But as many have pointed out, including those proponents of the agonist model, the deliberative-democratic model is often unfairly biased in that it proposes a set of “universal” criteria for what ought to count as a reason or as reasonable, criteria which we may not all – particularly those with religious commitments – agree with.

But I do not think this critique of the deliberative (also called “contractarian”) model means that we must adopt an agonistic understanding of democracy, as a struggle between adversaries. One other theory was proposed by Jeffrey Stout in Democracy and Tradition, in which citizens are free to propose reasons for their political views and actions based on their own particular commitments – and free to make those particular commitments explicit – rather than based on some set of universal criteria in the Rawlsian sense, defined in advance of the discussion. One particular advantage of this theory is that it acknowledges that the norms of political deliberation – particularly those norms about what ought to count as reasonable – are subject to our practices of recognizing the commitments of others and acknowledging those commitments. We would therefore always allow for the possibility of normative misfire and change – of refining and reshaping our understanding of norms based on the practices and conversations we engage in. Doing so would help us constantly clarify as we go what norms we hold dear, and in what ways.

We can make this more concrete by considering the contemporary example of civility in politics, which has been subject to much scrutiny in the last few years. It was thought once that civility was a fundamental norm that we must adhere to in order to have productive political conversation. But we have become rightly concerned lately that insisting on civility in politics also often performs a policing function against marginalized voices. So, we learn that civility is not actually so fundamental, and ought not be considered a necessary part of the criteria for political deliberation and expression. Calling attention to this does not force us to take a suspicious stance against all the norms we currently endorse or to seek some underlying Marxist “ideology” that explains why we were inclined to endorse civility in the first place. Rather, it allows us to clarify what the current normative status of civility is – in what circumstances it is called for, and in what circumstances we would be better off without it.

The primary reason that I think all of this norm-talk is relevant to our broader discussion of praxis and theory is that the Stout-ian model described above shows a way in which practice and knowledge will always be bound up together. We have an intuition about what just political practice involves. We make speeches, march in the streets, go to meetings, and vote according to those intuitions. As we engage in each of those acts, we revise and update our understanding – our knowledge – of what just political practice entails. This is a form of epistemology that the pragmatists, particularly John Dewey, endorse. Eddie Glaude, Jr. tells a story in his preface to In a Shade of Blue along these lines that may provide some clarification for those unfamiliar with Dewey:

“Knowledge is power,” declared a young African American man attending the Tavis Smiley Foundation Leadership Institute… “I will do everything in my power to continue to get knowledge.” Another young man stood up and offered a slight correction to his colleague’s impassioned remarks. He said, “I agree with what has just been said, but we should know that knowledge without action is useless. We must do something with that knowledge.” The conversation that followed was instructive… I asked, “What if we understand knowledge not as separate from doing, but rather as a consequence of it? What if knowledge is simply the fruit of our undertakings?” (ix.)

If knowledge is the “fruit of our undertakings,” a phrase that Glaude borrows from Dewey, then it becomes clear that action (Dewey calls for directed operations) is necessary to obtain it.

I have not said as much about the coercive forms of power here that we have to reckon with in this process as I would have liked. And it is certainly true that what we consider to be knowledge (and also truth, despite Arendt’s claim that truth is characterized by a certain stubbornness) is contingent upon what forces of power are operative, to reiterate a broadly Foucauldian point. But I would insist that while we recognize that fact, we also recognize the way that we (and who this “we” is remains an open question) can mobilize our own forms of power to create new meanings, new norms, and new knowledge. For the hope of our democracy will not only rest on the success of the unmasking project typically pursued by the critical left, but on, as I said before, continuously identifying, endorsing, and revising those norms of political practice that will allow us to build something we want to be a part of. Agency requires resistance, sure – but it also requires, as Mahmood said, other “modalities of action.”


Clayton James Raithel is a second-year MA student in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.