An Ethics of Refusal – Public Seminar


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During the COVID-19 pandemic, many American workers participated in what the media called “The big resignation“- changing jobs, disengaging from stressful work, or attempting to regain control of one’s job. The term has come to mean demanding remote work options at least as much as it means refusing to work in a degrading environment. As NPR puts it, “The big resignation? Rather the Great Renegotiation.” Overall, the big quit was about better pay, more secure work, and more flexibility.

But what if we were to imagine going beyond these considerations and realizing a real ethics of refusal, linked to a denial policy?

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, here on the pages of Public seminarI co-organized a series of discussions on ethics and politics necessary at the start of a new crisis. The purpose of these discussions was to make a collective intervention in a public discourse where the desire for a return to a capitalist “normal” was still dominating. In response, authors such as Joy James, Bonnie Honig and Ayça Çubukçu called on activists to mourn the tragedy of what we had lost and to make a plan how we could build together a reoriented society.

I think it would be fair to say that our project failed.

Joe Biden’s vision of a fossil fuel Democratic Party won against Bernie Sanders’ more socialist option. A global pandemic, and sheaves of brilliant critical theories about it, have not been enough to achieve consensus on the need for universal, publicly funded health care in the United States alone.

On the contrary, many in the United States see the war in Ukraine, the debt in Barbados and the school shootings across the country as not clear evidence of a growing need to divest from fossil fuels, rethinking global accountabilityand to implement common sense gun control, but as signs that we need to drill more at home, to make sure the debt is paid even if it means hospitals are not built, and to arm teachers.

Confronting such permanent violence, on a daily basis, has become the condition of life in the 21st century. It has always been part of the thinking in this country. And that leaves many of us, myself included, feeling helpless.

But beyond “The great resignation”, I was able to see that the actors of justice still have a clear and feasible option: to carry out, in community, a ethics of refusal (echoing Audra Simpson).

We can divest ourselves of fossil fuels, banks and arms manufacturers, a collective divestment that I want to call here “ethical resignation”, “resignation” suggesting that we can respond to our feelings of resignation, to accept something something unjust as inevitable, through this other meaning of “resignation”, that is to say the abandonment of a post.

Many requests for divestment remain at the institutional level, such as calls for university endowments or public pension funds divest from companies that contribute to the occupation of Palestinian land. These calls are of crucial importance for the future of humanity and of life itself in this century. But as a thought experiment, in the rest of this essay, I want to consider divestment on a personal level.

I wonder, as we keep claiming a policy of refusal institutionally, how we might also cultivate an ethic of denial in our personal lives. I imagine it would be very difficult for an oil company to operate if its employees – as well as those of the law and accounting firms that serve these clients – resigned to work elsewhere on the grounds that they were in favor of human survival, having decided, perhaps after a conversation with their business and law school friends, to live up to their personal justice-oriented statements that had brought them to those schools in first place.

Allow me to get involved in these issues as well. When I got my last college job, I was told that after working in college for a year, it would contribute to my retirement account. When I investigated fund options, it was clear that many funds were invested directly in oil. Those who have not invested in oil, the so-called environmental, social and governance, or ESG funds, were often only one step away from these investments. For example, rather than having stakes in ExonnMobil, they had stakes in JP Morgan Chase, a bank that finances pipelines. (And many ESG funds now own oil and gas companies due to their recent net zero reporting.) Some ESG funds also held stakes in Nestlé, who violated the sovereignty of the Six Nations of the Grand River in so-called Canadaor in the credit card companies, which prey on the poor.

What I mean by raising these specific examples is that we should know better than to call out oil companies, arms manufacturers and colonial business practices in parts of our lives, to literally invest in these companies or their funders in other parts of our lives, and then act righteously outraged when the planet heats up, another school shooting happens, or a decolonized world seems too hard to imagine.

In the United States, we live in a country where someone who works for a law firm that serves Big Oil is generally considered smart and successful, maybe even ethical because of their pro bono representation, no matter what. such a cabinet, for example, did not represent victims of foreclosures during the 2008 housing crisisbecause its customers were the banks.

On a first date, such a lawyer would probably be seen as an attractive potential partner: steady job, bright smile, smart wardrobe. We will know that our values ​​as a society have changed when these professionals receive more questions than nods, and when those questions, asked with respect and care, become part of larger conversations among young people choosing career paths. and life different from large offices. , green lawns and elegant cars that have shone so brightly in the imagination of our country.

It is usually in making this suggestion – that we simply refuse to participate so directly in what we are saying that we object to – that I am told what I envision, a Grand Refus, to borrow Herbert Marcuse’s famous phrase, is unrealistic. There are houses to pay for, medical bills that keep piling up, education for the kids to pay for, and much-needed vacations to take in order to achieve a “balance” between work and private life. Not to mention that the person who holds the position in a large corporation or a prestigious company could support generations of their family in different parts of the country or the world.

And who am I to suggest that they are unethical to do such jobs? My intention is not to make such implications. The decision of any person in a situation of acute precariousness is understandable, whatever it is. Asking someone not to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt in order to meet their ethical commitments might be too much of a request for one person.

That such a call for a big denial raises such pressing questions about how we could ever pay off our debt, pay for a house, pay for our children’s college, take a vacation or retire with enough money shows that ethics is fundamentally a matter of ways of life in its entirety, about how different parts of our lives are always intertwined.

For many of us to live out that call, we would first need government cancellation of student loans and medical debt, access to universal health care and high-quality public education until at the university level, of a real social safety net as we age and of a sense of the good life beyond being tourists on remote islands. In other words, living such an ethic might depend on what we are able to demand and achieve politically.

But no matter how overwhelming such a denial may be, and regardless of the political realities of our time, it is this essay’s suggestion that in addition to demanding institutional divestment, we continue to have difficult conversations. about the values, norms, laws, and attachments that govern our lives.

In my view, the problem is not that such an ethic of refusal is unrealistic; human life itself is unrealistic if we continue to let pipelines, oil and gas companies poison groundwater. Today, some writers, religious leaders and artists are making a clear call to refuse to contribute to institutions that poison the water. As the poet Dionne Brand writes in a new collection“I don’t believe in time / but I do believe in water.”

Such a call for an ethics and a politics of refusal is not so much my idea as it is an echo, not only of Marcuse, but also of Indigenous peoples around the world are asking those in the West to change the way we live.
Thought of in this way, the experience of a new Grand Refus calls into question the daily life that we tend to take for granted in the West. In this light, personally divesting from institutions that threaten life on earth is not simply a denial. It is also a creative affirmation of another way of being human. It is the concrete affirmation of an unshakeable hope that Another world is possible.

Benjamin P Davis is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of African American Studies at Saint Louis University and author of Choose your orientation: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics, forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press. With Jon Catlinhe wrote “Theory theses in times of crisis“and co-hosted the following series”condemn the present” at Public seminar.


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