“Responding Ethically to Complicity and Complexity”
Association for Practical and Professional Ethics – February 20, 2020
Slides for this talk are available here
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
― Frederick Douglass (died February 20, 1895)
As I write this, the Canadian state has deployed military force against Indigenous people for practicing relationship with the land they care for, and police have moved against locked-out union members who voted to strike to defend their pensions. Of course, I could be writing those words about Canada at many different points in history, since Canada has done precisely these things many times in the past. One gets the sense, following journalist Jon Milton’s tweet,
Right now, the RCMP are simultaneously:
➡️Launching a militarized invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory to clear land for a pipeline
➡️ Repressing Coop oil workers who are fighting to keep their pensions
The entire Canadian state is just three oil company CEOs in a trenchcoat.
Canada’s relationship with oil is not complex, except in the sense that it is multiply connected and overdetermined; as a state, Canada relies on extractive industries and the colonial land-theft that sustains them. Canada seems to be committed to doing anything and violating anything in order to continue current practices around oil (not to mention trees, uranium, nickel, and many other substances rendered as extractible resources for profit). My relationship with oil, as an immigrant to Canada, is complex. I believe Canada should respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and thus Wet’suwet’en law, live up to our commitments to address global warming and thus not build new oil pipelines, fulfill the explicit and implicit treaty agreements that founded the nation, end military interventions in other nations (including within our borders), and much more. As a Canadian, I pay into an unregulated pension plan that invests heavily in oil futures, as well as tobacco advertising, and migrant detention facilities on the US-Mexico border; I cannot change this investment. My taxes pay for military interventions and fund the politicians who ignore treaty relationships. I drive a car, turn on heat and lights, and fly to conferences. I’m complicit in Canada’s protection of resource extraction from pretty much any angle I think of, simply in virtue of the complex web of relations through which I live and breathe. I benefit differentially as a white immigrant mortgage-owner from histories of and present social relations of land theft and colonial oppression. In complex situations like, let’s be honest, just being alive, we make all sorts of compromises and become complicit in all sorts of things we would like to wash our hands of. I’m complicit.
When people, scholars and non-scholars alike, charge someone with complicity frequently the result of that charge is a particular kind of immobility; when we, scholars and non-scholars alike, are charged with complicity we might tend to turn inwards with shame, or an overwhelmed feeling of how impossible it would be to extract ourselves from currently ubiquitous relations of extraction. Often feeling complicit means that we give up on action. Indeed, as I’ll investigate below, frequently the charge of complicity is meant precisely to claim that if you are complicit in something you do not have standing to oppose that thing. This is worth investigating, because if calling out complicity is meant to prompt effective ethical or political action but instead it derails precisely that action, the charge of complicity may itself produce further complicity – or at least not help precisely with furthering the goal of reducing the relevant harm or wrong. I am interested in whether identifying complicity can produce collective solidarity, the kind of struggle that causes power to hear demands, instead of individual immobilization.
I’ll begin with a short section on why complexity and complicity so often evoke moral immobilization, which I think comes down to some problems with individualism. I’ll lay out my sense of when it is coherent to say we are complicit, and when we should reject the language of complicity. In section two, I’ll offer Elizabeth Minnich’s distinction between intensive and extensive evil, putting it in conversation with Elizabeth Spelman’s account of repair as a creative form of destroying brokenness. In section three, I’ll outline practices of relationality that offer moral traction for choosing which side we’re on, recognizing that we are frequently complicit without our own will or intent, but resolving to act anyhow.
- Complicity & Complexity
I observe two things about responses that mark what I am calling the “usual view” of complicity as foreclosing opposition. First, a common response to charges of complicity is epistemic; people often say that they didn’t know about the relation that has been pointed out to them, and they respond by trying to know more and to educate others. Perhaps because often those of us who benefit from social relations of oppression learn about its harms in spaces dominated by epistemophilia – notably universities – this response makes intuitive sense. If we experience ourselves as well-intentioned, not meaning to cause harm, and feel that the main problem was that we did not know ourselves to be in a complicit role, responding epistemically is quite understandable. We can learn more, follow better Twitter organic intellectuals, host teach-ins, educate others about how they too are implicated in terrible things. Consciousness raising is still, I believe, a politically important project and I do not mean to disparage it here. However, if we take an entirely epistemically-focused approach to social relations of oppression and benefit, we commit to epistemic action and political inaction. Call this the know-it-all reaction.
Complicity awareness can also take the form of identifying the complexity and interrelatedness of our world, highlighting the inescapable embeddedness of our being in the world. This can freeze us in two ways – dispersing responsibility or giving up responsibility. The complex and big nature of the problems confronting moral agents today can make it seem that no one in particular is responsible for taking them on. As Eva Haifa Giraud argues in her book What Comes After Entanglement?,
Though it might be important to recognize the nuances of a given situation, this can also make it difficult to determine where culpability for particular situations really lie, let alone offer a sense of how to meet any ethical responsibilities emerging from this situation. Irreducible complexity, in other words, can prove paralyzing and disperse responsibilities in ways that undermine scope for political action (Giraud 2).
When there are actions we can take to oppose systemic racism, or use less plastic, or support libraries and education workers, or reduce our carbon footprint, and so on, many of us succumb to a kind of moral fatigue – there are so many things we know we would like to do or stop doing, so many ways we are connected to the suffering of the world, that we just get tired. I think this tendency is what leads to a kind of counterphobic reaction to, for example, thinking about global warming, rising seas, climate catastrophe, and the extinctions of so many nonhuman beings: Since I cannot solve all of these things, I may as well fly as much as I like, eat as many single-serving high-fat yogurts as I want, or and so on. Call this the fuck-it reaction.
Conservatives and liberals alike, particularly the subspecies whose main political work is trolling people on the internet, are fond of a complicity line of critique. It can take the form of calling hypocrisy on people who now are saying something when they did not raise a protest in the past. It also takes the form of pointing out inconsistencies, as when trolls tweeted to a friend that she could not both oppose human-fueled global warming and drive her car. Or it could be arguing that if someone benefits from something they cannot protest it (as when people say that it is impossible to criticize the US military and enjoy the supposed peace that it is supposedly protecting). Each of these criticisms deploys what we can call “purity politics”: because the person expressing the desire for another world is complicit or compromised, they are supposed to give up. Conservatives and liberals alike use purity politics to try to close down critique and action, or, to put it another way, to motivate particular kinds of actions and inactions.
Bridging prioritizing knowing it all and deciding to give up on it all, then, purity politics picks out the salient problem with how we normally engage complicity. Only an individual can aspire to be pure, to know everything that it might be important to know. Or perhaps better to say: Only the conceit of a delimited individual, sovereign in his skin, independent and unreliant on others, sufficiently potent to be able to make any needful changes in the world around him, capable of knowing in advance what the correct course of action might be and not deviating from it, capable of knowing everything relevant to any given situation, someone who does not make mistakes – only such an individual would be invulnerable to charges of complicity. No such individual exists. All of us are open to one another, afford one another subjectivities based in part on mutual regard and recognition, are interdependent and needy, relatively helpless to change things we care about, quite limited in our knowledge and understanding but educatable, changeable in light of new circumstances, and routinely err. Beyond that, of course, the scale and scope of problems we collectively face are laughably far beyond any individual’s capacities to solve.
At this point, I am hoping that you and I share two views. First, that the situation of the world in 2020 is complex in such a way that simply existing as a person who eats food, turns on heat or air conditioning, relies on infrastructure, pays taxes, and other very basic things implicates us in harms that we would prefer were not happening, such as global warming, the extinction crisis, or the indefinite detention of migrants in profoundly unjust conditions. Second, that the sense of complicity emerging from this sort of complexity is morally interesting – although, unfortunately it is also currently configured in such a way that it forecloses action.
My central proposition is that complicity can produce solidarities oriented towards collective action. Let me underline that although we may not be able to individually solve something, we may still be considered morally responsible to try solve it as best we can – which, often, is going to mean making collective, social, or systemic change. Another way to put this: Our implication in material complexity implies moral complicities unsolvable by individual will or action. We need a relational ethical approach to work with this situation, an approach that holds relations as our smallest unit of analysis. This kind of ethics is always political, in the sense that moral decisions in conditions of complicity depend on factors beyond the scope of the individual. Political decisions refer outside the individual to receive their normative weight. Such decisions and, I would argue, complicity ethics generally, do not depend on innocence for their decision-making. Rather, they depend on the understanding that we confront hard problems, problems that always leave what Bernard Williams thought of as a moral remainder, which can produce agent regret. As Lisa Tessman elucidates in her important work on burdened virtues and the “ordinary vices of domination”:
These forms of moral trouble are common under oppression, arising as they do when adverse conditions make even the very best possibility a morally problematic one or when bad luck leads one to engage in morally problematic ways or even to develop a morally problematic character (Tessman 5).
Perhaps we can begin to truly confront moral trouble only once we give up on the idea of innocence and purity, only once we begin from complexity and complicity, only once we regard collective ethical decisions as inherently political.
I believe we can meaningfully be held responsible for a number of complicities that are beyond our personal control: Wrongs that we benefit from but cannot personally right; wrongs that we identify and could do something about but do not take action because it is difficult or inconvenient; deaths and sufferings that did not need to happen or did not need to be so awful but that are produced by the social organization of oppression and benefit in our society; and, most generally, how Ruth Wilson Gilmour articulates racism as the social organization of “group differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
However, not every horrible thing that happens in the world is a site of complicity. Perhaps we should be understood as complicit only in horrible things that could be prevented and to which we are in some way connected. When someone dies in a landslide or avalanche I may be sad for the people grieving their loss, but barring unusual responsibilities for avalanches I am likely not to be complicit. When a miner dies at work in a cave-in beneath my city which the mining company could have prevented with more investment in safety infrastructure, which they chose not to build because they calculated that the cost of life insurance for one miner’s death per year was cheaper than the infrastructure, and when my government provides that company with substantial tax-write-offs to keep them in the country, I likely am complicit in that death. Of course, I am less implicated than the person in the company who made the decision based on a profit-loss ledger that weighs people’s lives against insurance claims. Complicity is very much a matter of degree of connection, capacity to change the circumstances, and the distribution of power. Taking connection, complexity, complicity as a starting point for action rather than a reason to give up opens possibilities for transformation – for ethical decision-making.
- Evil and the creativity of repair
In this section I turn to an Arendtian approach to the question of the relation between individuals and systems in assessing moral agency in relation to social complicity, supplementing this with an account of forward-looking commitments to repair as a moral virtue. Elizabeth Minnich was a student of Hannah Arendt’s and worked with her as a teaching assistant after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Minnich’s article “The Evil of Banality: Arendt Revisited” distinguishes between intensive and extensive evils. She writes:
Intensive evils are horrific, episodic rather than sustained acts, performed by individuals or small groups. The acts may stretch through time, but they do not infect many people: typically, they are carried out in secret, in isolation, because they are precisely not normalized for a whole society or polity. … Most people remain outside of, unimplicated in, acts of intensive evil. (Minnich, 172)
Extensive evils, in contrast, “can become so woven into the fabric of lives that individuals enact them with a sense that they are simply serving or protecting a good and necessary way of life” (170). Extensive evil is woven into the fabric of our “ordinary normal lives.” These are, as Minnich puts it, “massively violative harms kept up over time that—simply, factually—could not be done by one or a few monstrous people.” Such harms are accomplished by ordinary workers and enablers, who cannot be understood simply as monsters enacting crimes of passion or prejudice. She argues, “There are still differing kinds and levels of complicity and guilt among the many doers and enablers of extensive evil, of course, but from enabling by-stander to front-line agent of horrific harm, there is a web of mutual implication. Extensive evils require them all to continue to show up and keep doing their work” (173). It is not only a question of the numbers of people involved in, as she puts it, “genocides, slavery, colonialism, radically exploitative labor practices, and other horrific harms” that calls on us to consider the moral weight of massively distributed wrongs; it is also a question of how evils like these become banal, ordinary, accepted.
I continue to rely on Claudia Card’s expansive definition of evil: “[R]easonably foreseeable intolerable harm, produced by inexcusable wrongs” (Card 2010). While Minnich does not give an explicit definition of evil, her examples give us a sense that extensive evil as a web of mutual implication produces ordinary complicities. Taking this sort of orientation, complex harms such as climate catastrophe, widespread human-caused extinctions, imprisoning refugees in camps or causing them to drown in the Mediterranean, and violating Indigenous land relationships to run dirty pipelines through vulnerable ecosystems would count as evils. Again, none of these problems can be solved by a single person’s actions, no matter how little plastic they use or how rarely they fly. Individuals retain moral responsibility for our actions, of course, but we are also placed in relation to societal practices that contribute to the meaning we make of those actions. And yet, as Minnich underlines, “While it does not work to focus only on individuals as if we live, love, and have our being all on our own, it also does not work to give all agency over to systems, whether conceptual, moral, political, and/or economic. We need to think through experiences as we find them in reality” (Minnich 161). Reflecting on our experiences as we find them in reality may allow us to perceive how our personal agency is bound up with, enabled by, or constrained by, the agentic effects of the systems within which we exercise it. Sociologists think of this as exercising our “sociological imagination,” perceiving how our personal biography is simultaneously a social matter.
I am understanding extensive evils such as colonialism, the extinction crisis, unjust treatment of migrants, ecological devastation, and so on, as sites of complicity with profound harm that invite repair, moral and practical. Elizabeth Spelman’s book Repair: The impulse to restore in a fragile world offers resources for this response to damage. She writes:
To repair is to acknowledge and respond to the fracturability of the world in which we live in a very particular way – not by simply throwing our hands up in despair at the damage, or otherwise accepting without question that there is no possibility of or point in trying to put the pieces back together, but by employing skills of mind, hand, and heart to recapture an earlier moment in the history of an object or a relationship in order to allow it to keep existing (Spelman 5-6).
In a moment I will jettison, for reasons I believe are fully consonant with Spelman’s own account, the restriction of repair to putting pieces back together or recapturing an earlier moment in the history of an object of repair. I find her approach generative in part for its understanding of repair as an action manifesting a response to damage and the despair it can engender. Repair enacts a commitment to not giving up.
Spelman elaborates approaches to repair that include restoration – returning something to a previous state in such a way that one could not tell that it had undergone repair – but I am most interested in bricolage, the using what is ready-to-hand, as an approach to repair. It is through this approach that Spelman articulates a conception of creativity as central to repair. She begins with contrasting repair with destruction:
Perhaps repair is more distinct from destruction than it is from creation. After all, what intentional or unintentional destruction accomplishes is the end of something, its demise, its irreparability. If repair is about trying to preserve some kind of continuity with the past, keeping some aspect of it alive, destruction is about producing discontinuity with the past, trying to make sure the past is past, that it’s over and done with (Spelman 13).
Again, I am not convinced that we need the backward-looking part of this conception of repair. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that in some cases destroying relations of the past will be necessary embark on a project of repair. The continuity with injustices of the past that continue to structure social relations of oppression will likely involve resisting what Gary Kinsman calls the social organization of forgetting – it will involve a continuity of memory – but it will require important forms of discontinuity with the past. Consider only one among many of the inheritances of chattel slavery; it is vital to the project of destroying the current racial organization of imprisonment in the United States that we hold in view the continuities of slavery’s translation into the prison system.
Spelman turns to movements for restorative justice to think about how repair can grapple with political inheritances of complex harms, and it is here that I believe she should agree with my rejection of the idea of returning to a past state. Valuing flexible, situationally-responsive approaches to damage, she argues that we can think about repair as itself as a form of destruction. As she puts it: “Repair is the creative destruction of brokenness” (134). If we can understand extensive evils of the sort in which we are implicated as a pervasive state of brokenness, we might aim to destroy the state of brokenness (132) we perceive. In this sense, Spelman argues that offering an apology can be a form of attempting to destroy a state of rupture between people (134). Thinking about repair as a way of becoming more engaged or connected with a state of brokenness may open space for creative, collaborative approaches to complicity. And we can destroy brokenness even if there is no state of wholeness to which we can return. Indeed, the creative destruction of brokenness may be a better way to think about our response to extensive evil; such evils affect so many people in so many ways, producing moral damage and weakening our sense of moral agency, that the capacity to respond may well require practices of creation we cannot yet predict. In the final section of this paper, I turn to sketching modes of the creative destruction of brokenness that I think may help us in the project of crafting non-teleologically-bounded futures.
- Being brave enough to be in relation
One reason for rejecting a conception of repair that depends on previous states is, as I’ve discussed, to retain the possibility that we could repair relations that have never been not broken, relations that need to be destroyed before any other ethical engagement can begin. I also worry about arguments based on a return to prior states because they may commit us to a kind of purity politics – the idea that only if we are innocent in relevant ways can we take action. Again, very few people are innocent in the complex moral terrain we currently navigate. Recognizing our involvement in and complicity with things we think are wrong, fully understanding the weight of wrongdoing in the history we inherit, or understanding the harms that have come from our failure to act can feel quite awful. The right uses purity politics against the left because we’re the ones who respond to being implicated in doing harm. They’re correct that we are involved in the very things that we want to stop, but they’re wrong to think that being compromised means we should stop protesting. If we stop working against them, terrible things simply continue. If we are to be effective, we who want to have a world in which many beings and ecosystems can flourish, we should reject purity for purely tactical reasons – it demobilizes us
But we should resist purity politics for deeper reasons, too. Purity has long been the domain of the racist, nativist, and eugenicist right. It has been the technology through which laws about miscegenation were formulated, and it’s still the emotional hinge on which today’s alt-right argues that the white race is dying. Purity of the nation has been the rallying cry for tightening borders against the free movement of people; it is the engine that drives vigilante border patrols and murderous refugee policies. Purity of the species has been the scalpel that forcibly sterilizes disabled people, and that continues to support policy based on the idea that disabled lives are not worth living.
Alongside all these problems with purity politics – if we needed any further convincing! – allow me to lay the problems of individualism. Purity discourse depends entirely on a lie: The idea that there is any way to be alive without being connected. Charges of complicity can be read as simple statements about being relationally shaped – frequently, of course, relationally shaped in connection with social relations and effects that we reject or abjure. When we begin from relationality, understanding our complicities is not a ground for despair or shutting down. Complicities instead are anchors, points of attachment and connection that give us traction for movement. It is not because I am innocent of racism that I have standing to oppose racism; it can be precisely because I am implicated in racism that I oppose it. For surely if innocence and purity are requirements for political action, none of us are qualified to do anything.
We do better to aim for an ethics and politics of imperfection. If we do not fit the mold of perfection – if we’re disabled, sick, young, old, not working, not productive – we are definitely beings who offer care, help, solidarity, and presence to the world. If we’ve failed to help in the past, if things we do are implicated in harm, if we benefit from something that harms others, or if we accord only some people access to a podium, we can still be of benefit to this world. Even people who have harmed others or the world, whose ancestors owned slaves, whose current government is actively pursuing genocidal colonial policies, who regularly make mistakes — even we can be useful.
But how to unfurl a practice that holds our imperfections? Ethically, I believe a model of the creative repair of brokenness can take us a long ways. Insofar as that ethics demands a politics, I suggest taking up a “politics of responsibility,” a concept from social movement scholar Gary Kinsman (http://radicalnoise.ca/). He defines this as involving “those of us in oppressing positions recognizing our own implication within and responsibility to actively challenge relations of oppression.” (http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/01-the-politics-of-revolution/) A politics of responsibility recognizes our relative, shifting, and contingent position in social relations of harm and benefit; it enjoins us to look at how we are shaped by our place in history. We can take responsibility for creating futures that radically diverge from that history, seriously engaging that work based on where we are located, listening well to the people, beings, and ecosystems most vulnerable to devastation.
The question then is not, How will we be innocent of implication in complex and distributed harms? The question becomes, What forms of implication will we take up as points of connection for anchoring our activities? With whom will we become complicit? Whose side are we on?
Asking which side we are on raises the prospect of binary, purist thinking about politics, as though it was easy to delimit sides and as though complicity would make it impossible for us to be on the side of justice. It’s probably clear by now that I believe we’re complicit no matter what we do, that we cannot excuse ourselves from implication, that we’re always connected. It is precisely these political features of ethical decision making in complex and relational contexts that makes this ethically interesting terrain. The good news when there are not easy answers is that we have the capacities to elaborate the stakes and reasons for our decisions; we have the capacities to make strategic decisions and to know when we are effectively fighting evil and pursuing repair.
I’ve learned the most about how to approach this in trainings in activist strategy, notably in the model of a “spectrum of allies.” As I’ve understood this idea, it names a common tendency in activism: To direct our attention and work towards the people we most oppose, the people most directly responsible for the harm we have identified as the problem at hand. In the case of Canada’s invasion of Wet’suwet’en land, if I am standing with the Wet’suwet’en people, I might address my moral and political work to the provincial government, the chief of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or the Prime Minister of Canada. It’s true that these people have decision-making power. But the spectrum of allies approach is interested in what causes the people with decision-making power to make different decisions about the things in which we are mutually implicated. A key shift in the spectrum of allies is to stop addressing oneself to people who directly or ideologically oppose one with the idea that they will reverse their position solely through moral suasion. Taking a spectrum approach, one aims to move people from where they are one or two positions over – to move people who are passive allies to become active allies, or people who are passive opponents to be “oblivious neutrals.”
Crucially, the spectrum of allies approach assumes that we are all connected, that no one is essentially or fundamentally pure or evil, and that anyone can change their minds through changing their activities. Grounded in nonviolent communication, it also presupposes prioritizing listening to opponents, especially to the people directly across from us on an issue. Listening to people different than us, and especially listening to people we consider complicit in evil, is perhaps unpopular in our moment. I think it is an ethically and politically interesting proposition. The kind of listening we’re interested in here remains political, however, in the sense that it is committed to certain worlds and not others. Again, as we are complicit, we can act in solidarity and stand with some people and not others. As Katrina Shields put it in the book In the Tiger’s Mouth:
Although listening to the opposition’s point of view is important it is equally important to put your position and be heard – both by the opposition and by the public. This can be quite an anxiety-provoking experience when you are not used to doing it. Something I have found useful is imagining those I represent standing behind me – whether they be environments, creatures, or humans, including those of the future. They require me not to betray them by giving up my power in these situations. This has been a source of strength enabling me to speak up and not compromise (Shields 58-59).
I think of this approach as a kind of brave relation, of building the capacity to stand in relation even to situations and evils with which we would like to cut off relation.
Listening well, taking responsibility, practicing mutual aid, and acting even though we recognize that we can’t be pure is going to be much harder than disengaging would be. Two poems have helped me think about this. Johnetta Elzie co-founded an organization (https://www.joincampaignzero.org/) working to end police violence. Her poem “Where were you” (http://www.teenvogue.com/story/a-poem-by-johnetta-elzie) addresses itself to people – largely white women – who participated in the enormous protests march the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It asks a lot of questions, and on the surface many of those questions sound like an immobilizing, complicity-charging troll – the last line of the poem ends “We’ve been marching for years — where the hell have all of you been?” But Elzie’s questions are the opposite of trolling. She is calling her listeners in to responsibility for not having been there, asking us to reflect on how we are placed in history, and then inviting us to step up now. She asks,“What happens tomorrow? Will you march with us when we need you most?” Danny Bryck’s poem [“If You Could Go Back”](http://jocsm.org/if-you-could-go-back/) likewise calls us in to a politics of responsibility. Drawing on the fact that many of us in the present believe, looking back, that we would resist fascism, racism, and oppression with every fiber of our being, it points to things that are happening now:
“That’s King. And this is Selma. And Berlin. And Jerusalem. And now
is when they need you to be brave.”
Let us be imperfect, for we are, but let us be brave too.
We may want to extend this sort of imagination to developing a capacity to perceive how ecosystems and the changing interconnected, living, world exercises agency.
 I thank Jessica Cadwallader for offering this formulation, in her generous engagement with this thinking as part of a facebook thread in the spring of 2016.