Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Masquerade Of Universality: Rousseau

“I perceive God everywhere in His works. I sense Him in me; I see Him all around me.” ~ from Émile
Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes it all sound so decent and reasonable. His advocacy for a social contract that emphasizes a "common good" based on mutually recognizing a "common self" in others sounds ideal. It's essentially the golden rule - love your neighbor. Yet there remains an insidious paradox at the bleeding heart of this version of liberalism. It leaves little or no room for differentiation, for disagreement or particularity. Any form of dissent - any attempt to recognize difference - is heresy. As Charles Taylor has written, Rousseau conjures a particularism masquerading as a universal.

I encountered this inanity while living in Hong Kong. Despite the banal fact that foreigners differ in many ways from local Hong Kong citizens, any attempt at accommodation (ie: decrees or laws prohibiting racism) was seen as an unfair advantage bestowed upon a minority. If everyone is equal there can't be room for difference; racism doesn't really exist when Rousseau's quaint illusion of universality is to be maintained.

To be fair, "citizen" for Rousseau was fundamentally different than "human." A contract was a necessary evil needed to regulate citizens governed in a society of laws. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, the problem with Rousseau is that society is made up of a plurality of humans and not a singular human collective. Rousseau made the mistake of suggesting that the plural can be substituted with the singular. The notion of "common good" is therefore nothing more than a particular viewpoint imposed on a plurality by a powerful elite. It's no wonder David Hume concluded Rousseau was "plainly mad, after having long been maddish."    

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