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Saturday, 1 January 2011

Refugees and intellectual freedom

Rowan Williams throws a different angle on the issue of immigration and the role of the refugee in his address Refugees make us strange to ourselves.

So the refugee intellectual brings into our insular discussion the knowledge that justice is vulnerable and has to be defended against the silencing of discussion and the silencing of particular classes or racial groupings. ...  And there are two interconnected issues that come into focus as a result of this recognition.
One is about the need to sustain a culture in which genuine and strong disagreements over the shape of the 'good' society are given space to unfold and interact - the need for a robust public intellectual life, supported by a university culture which is not simply harnessed to productivity and problem-solving.

The second, closely related, issue is about the need for access to these arguments on the part of all citizens. An intellectually lively society nourished by a vigorous and independent academy, appears actually to presuppose certain things about universal education and democratic accountability, the imperative to resist the restriction of argument to those already possessed of ideological and material power.

It might be objected, of course, that this formulation itself takes for granted a pluralist and democratic society and thus stifles any discussion of whether society could or should be otherwise - whether absolute monarchy, say, or religious uniformity enforced by law, might be the form of a good society.

But the point is that as soon as you are asking whether absolute monarchy is a possibility for a good society, you are granting that it needs to be - and could be - justified. You are allowing that an argument could be mounted for absolute monarchy; and this implies that absolute monarchy is not the only thinkable shape for society - which is already a decisive move away from the historic understanding of absolutism.

If you want a theological reference in the margin here, you might recall St Augustine's deep scepticism about any suggestion that this or that social order could be identified with the City of God. History, in his eyes, certainly has a momentum and an overall story, but it is not one that moves inexorably towards the perfect human society. The task of the citizen with Christian conviction is to work for the changes that reflect the justice of God - and always to recognise that such changes can be reversed, in a world of endemic rivalry and acquisition.

The need for 'argumentative democracy', as it has been called, is not to be confused with either a passive tolerance for diverse points of view that never engage with each other; nor is it a recipe for a Babel of populist prejudices. The former - as Michael Sandel put it in his excellent recent book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? - can mean "suppressing moral disagreement rather than actually avoiding it." Whereas the ideal situation is neither suppressing nor avoiding but engaging.

Engaging, however, is possible only when there is an assumption that it is safe to say what you believe, and that there is a process in which you will be heard, so that any ultimate outcome will have at least registered your own conviction even if it does not endorse it completely. Passive tolerance suggests an underlying nervousness about conviction of any kind and a serious lack of confidence that there are processes and contexts that make disagreement bearable.
Beyond this account of the conditions for a pluralist society Rowan Williams goes on to draw attention to an important theological warrant for thinking about the Christian as a migrant.

... one of the mainsprings of Christian self-understanding in the formative years of the Church's life was the idea that the believer was essentially a 'migrant', someone who was in any and every situation poised between being at home and being a stranger. In the New Testament and a good deal of the literature that survives from the first couple of Christian centuries, one of the commonest self-descriptions of the Church is in the language that would have been used in the Mediterranean cities for a community of migrant workers, temporary residents.

As a 'resident alien' in whatever society he or she inhabited, the believer would be involved in discovering what in that society could be endorsed and celebrated and what should be challenged. The Christian, you could say, was present precisely as someone who was under an obligation to extend or enrich the argument - sometimes indeed to initiate the argument about lasting social goods in settings where there was previously no possibility of thinking about what made a social order good or just or legitimate.

In the context of a religiously diverse modern society, something of this role is bound to be played by all communities of faith, to the extent that they operate with different ideas of accountability from those that mostly prevail around them; they believe they are accountable to transcendent truths or states of affairs. But it is worth noting how deeply and distinctively this language is embedded in early Christian literature. And this suggests that, if it is the case that the stranger is always necessary to make any society think about itself both critically and hopefully, the believer's role is always, in modern societies, going to show some intriguing parallels with that of the refugee intellectual.

Perhaps we may understand the social role of the religious believer more adequately if we think of it in terms of extending or enriching argument, offering resources for thinking about social pluralism rather than either deploring it or reducing it to the passive tolerance I mentioned earlier.

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