By Sadia Sheeraz
You have to like Kant the way that I like The Smiths. You see, I am a proud Mancunian. With that comes the heavy burden of appreciating the musical output of Manchester. So, of course I love The Smiths – an indie band that was formed there – but I make sure to do it begrudgingly. “I hate Morrissey!” I rush to say when I am found out.
It is much the same for philosophers, my political theory teacher tells me. Her friend, who focuses on Kant in his work, often asserts his anti-racism before launching into deep discussions of Kant’s philosophical ideas and contributions.
This rush to disclaim, to absolve ourselves, is our responsibility. It is the cost of enjoying the content. We must be ready to engage with, and accept criticism from, those who call us out on our bullshit: I do not have to be a far-right British supremacist to listen to Morrissey, but I do have to acknowledge the moral inconsistency of listening to the music of a man whose ideology I so vehemently oppose.
It is much the same with many ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers: to suggest otherwise is ridiculous. When teaching or discussing ‘the canon’, topics such as the influence of racism, colonialism, and the British Empire on liberalism are often treated like tangents, diversions and subplots. But what if they were the main point all along? Even if the goal is not to centre them, it shows a lack of true understanding when somebody can discuss liberalism and justice without mentioning the relationship between race and the accessibility of these principles.
Many fans of The Smiths feel conned by Morrissey. With albums titled “The Queen is Dead” and “Meat is Murder”, as well as a stage presence that stood in the face of the hyper-masculine expectations of male celebrities, it appears almost criminally inconsistent for him to be anything other than a vegan anti-monarchy leftist. Similarly, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the personal convictions of some mainstream philosophers. For example, Kant, a central Enlightenment thinker on issues of peace, equality and morality, also wrote extensively about the biological ‘inferiority’ of people of colour and is sometimes referred to as the father of modern scientific racism. Another example is Locke, who is regarded as the father of liberalism, but also justified stealing land from the Native Americans and invested in slavery. Both writers refused to extend personhood to people of colour, a belief that was once justified and is now simply ignored. How can their conception of liberalism and justice be imagined to apply universally when clearly, they were only conceived for white European males?
The use of Enlightenment principles to justify the exploitation of non-white people by white people is too often ignored by philosophers as something insignificant, or uncomfortable to address. Similarly, listeners of Morrissey’s music can become numb to the truth about their icon: dismissing the problematic things he has said and done, and choosing instead to focus on the Morrissey content and facts that are comfortable to digest.
But Morrissey’s behaviour isn’t some ridiculous moral inconsistency, and would not surprise those who have properly followed him from that socially liberal era. Morrissey writes music that self-victimises, and he seems to be driven by image over moral convictions. The rich sense of injustice he portrays is something people who experience oppression can relate to, despite him not intending to represent them. When I hear “please, please, please, let me get what I want”, I am thinking of my experiences of yearning as a disabled, working-class, person of colour, who has often found myself wanting the sense of security, peace, and health that I see in the lives of the more privileged. I am not thinking as Morrissey seems to; what he wants these days is a far-right nationalist state which keeps Britain for ‘the British‘.
Morrissey appeals to both the left and the far right because both believe in a grand scheme of injustice, and Morrissey has always simply joined whichever side is least popular – chasing the position of the outsider. Similarly, Kant and Locke are cited by thinkers on both the left and the right, as inspiration for their conception of a good society.
But much like Morrissey’s fans, these thinkers must accept that Kant is not being a little bit inconsistent when he writes the principles of justice whilst fathering scientific racism. In fact, he is being entirely consistent, because his principles of justice are not universal. His definition of personhood deliberately excludes white women and all people of colour, as the philosopher Charles Mills explains. Likewise, Locke’s ideas of natural rights have not yet achieved great equality and freedom for these marginalised groups because liberalism has excluded them, both theoretically and practically. I would go as far as to say that liberalism was constructed, as it has been practiced historically, entirely in opposition to these people. Social contracts are not signed universally; instead, they are contracts between the powerful to cooperate and collaborate in their exploitation and abuse of everybody else. Caroline Pateman calls this the “patriarchal contract”, signed amongst men to reinforce and support their collective power over womankind. Mills further extends this, calling it a “racial contract”.
My point is that, perhaps much like Morrissey’s musical ability, Lockean liberalism and Kant’s conceptions of justice are often overindulged as the foundations for an ideal society. Centring Enlightenment ideas in political philosophy as the saving grace of humanity is akin to behaving as though The Smiths are the pinnacle of Northern music. Personally, I much prefer Pulp. Morrissey doesn’t hold a candle to Cocker.
I enjoy the results of liberalism much like I enjoy Morrissey’s music – tentatively and self-critically. I limit the indulgence, I don’t encourage my friends to explore it the same way I might promote other music (stream Mitski’s “Working for the Knife” now!). I do not centre the limited and often contradictory concepts of liberty and justice in the forms these writers gave them to us. I prefer to discuss the more realistic work of contemporary critical theorists such as Charles Mills. It is our moral duty as humans, whose ideas and behaviours have real life impacts, to acknowledge the limits and failures of these founding philosophers. Only when we recognise the irresponsibility and dishonesty of this excuse-making and denial can we stop to look at why such grand notions of freedom are compatible with slavery and colonialism. And maybe then, we will be ready to ask how these ideas have not only failed to prevent the exploitation, abuse, and even murder of the marginalised, but how they are continually maintained.