Answering the Standard Objections to the Politics of Meaning

Tikkun, May 1996 | Go to article overview
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Answering the Standard Objections to the Politics of Meaning


What are the central goals of the Campaign for a Politics of Meaning?

A. To build a society that encourages mutual recognition, caring, ethical and spiritual sensitivity, and ecologically attuned social practices.

But will this be imposed by government?

No. The politics of meaning is a political movement in the same sense that feminism is a political movement. Feminism does not seek to create legislation to regulate how people treat each other in their private lives, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom, but does seek to create a new ethos of mutual respect that would change how people act toward each other. It also turns to government in some rare instances to support its agenda (e.g. by seeking to rectify past discrimination in hiring, or to require equal pay for equal work). Similarly, the goal of a progressive politics of meaning movement is primarily the creation of an ethos in civil society, in economic life, and in our private lives that supports ethical and spiritual sensitivity.

Today, our economy supports the opposite. It rewards selfishness and marginalizes ethical and spiritual sensitivity. Similarly, the dominant consciousness in our political and social institutions reflects a technocratic attitude toward human beings that makes it difficult for us to recognize the sanctity in each other, dulls our sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of the universe, and creates skepticism about the possibility of living in a world based on loving and caring.

We want to build a different kind of world. Government can play a small part in this process, and where it can we welcome it. But just as the most important changes in the status of women were brought about by a movement of millions of women demanding that they be treated differently and working to implement their vision, so a politics of meaning will only be possible when there are millions of people challenging the technocratic, selfishness-oriented, materialistic and cynical norms that permeate contemporary social reality.

So, if someone says to you, 'I don't want government imposing values or a particular vision of meaning on us," you can reply, 'Neither do we. That's why we want to change a world that seems to assume that we are all isolated individuals, rewards us for being selfish, and treats us as though we were commodities rather than infinitely precious beings.'

The Right, fearful of the potential power of a progressive politics of meaning, distorts our message by claiming that our goal is to expand government. In fact, we want to focus on civil society as the appropriate place to build a new societal ethos.

B. To change the definition of productivity or efficiency

Our society tends to define institutions as productive or efficient to the extent that they maximize wealth or power of those in control. We want a new definition: Institutions are productive or efficient to the extent that they tend to help foster ethical, spiritual, and ecological sensitivity and to strengthen our capacity to sustain long-term loving and committed relationships. By this definition, American society is extremely inefficient and unproductive.

C. To create a politics in the image of God, according to which all human beings deserve to be treated with full recognition of their infinite preciousness and sanctity.

In secular language, people are intrinsically valuable, deserving of care and respect, not because they are "human resources" or useful for society.

Do I have to believe in God to support the politics of meaning?

No. This is an approach that recognizes a sacred dimension to existence and calls upon us to develop our spiritual sensibilities. But some of those involved in building a politics of meaning are strongly critical of traditional religious communities. They do not accept any traditional conception of "a Supreme Being," or any other theological formulation. Yet they recognize that there is more to existence than can be described or understood by a reductionist empiricism.

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