Tag Archives: Margaret Gilbert

Palmater on the Right to Say ‘No’

The very first post I wrote for The Asking Project set out always take no for an answer as a cardinal rule of asking, and I’ve revisited that rule a couple of times since, drawing connections with Margaret Gilbert’s ideas of joint commitment, looking at the way saying no turns the ethical spotlight back on the person doing the asking and — most important of all — sets conditions for new respectful relationship.

There’s a strong connection between this (ethical) rule of asking and (legal) considerations of consent. This is complex territory, so an illustration might be useful. Consider, for starters, this piece Pam Palmater wrote back in October on the indigenous “right to say ‘no’,” as enshrined in the doctrine of free, prior and informed consent.

A little background. After a Canadian court ruled against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the Trudeau government announced that instead of appealing the decision, it would undertake a consultation process with First Nations. Palmater accused the government of conducting a charade, of “using” or abusing this process “to force the expansion of this pipeline.”

Regardless of whether the new consultations are led by a former Supreme Court justice or Trudeau himself, Canada has already decided that the pipeline will be built, before ever talking to any of the impacted First Nations, including those that have asserted Aboriginal title. This renders our constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights meaningless. What legal value is the federal government’s constitutional obligation to consult, accommodate and obtain the consent of First Nations before taking actions that would impact our rights and title, if “consent” is interpreted as the right to say yes but excludes the right to say no? It makes no logical sense to interpret the law in such a way, especially to a constitutionally protected right.

Imagine if consent was interpreted this way in both the ordinary and legal understanding of the word “consent.” When a school sends home a permission form seeking a parent’s consent to allow their child to take a field trip, if the parent does not give consent, the school cannot allow the child to participate. Similarly, if a patient refuses to give consent to an operation to have their hip replaced, then the doctor cannot perform the operation. The absence of consent means no — in other words, a veto that has real legal power and meaning. Imagine if consent was interpreted in this illogical and diminished manner for sexual relations as it is for Aboriginal rights. Imagine if sexual consent in law meant that a man could consult with a woman on whether she wanted sexual relations, and was even willing to accommodate (“where appropriate”) her wishes about how to have sexual relations, but she had no right to say no — no veto over whether or not sexual relations occurred? That is called sexual assault and it is a crime.

The greatest injustices that have ever been committed against First Nations in Canada have resulted from denying the sovereign right of our Nations to say no. The right to have a real veto over infecting our blankets with smallpox; from scalping our people; from stealing our children and raping, murdering and torturing them in residential schools; sterilizing our women and girls; from the forced adoptions of our children into white families during the Sixties Scoop; to the murders and disappearances of our women and girls; to forced human trafficking and now the destruction of our lands and waters for profit.

The right to say no is an inherent part of the legal concept of consent. To interpret this concept otherwise is racist, discriminatory and self-serving, not unlike the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius. Surely, even the Supreme Court would not interpret their own decisions in such an impoverished manner. To do so would render Section 35 [of the Constitution Act, protecting First Nations rights] an empty shell of a constitutional promise.

How Things Are Between Us, 2

As I wrote in a recent post, it’s reductive and misleading, but all too common, to think about conversations as mere transactions. I ask and you bid; I have my say and you have yours. But in conversation with another person or a group, I can’t be indifferent to how things are between us. If I am actually and persistently indifferent, then I might be a sociopath or another kind of dangerous person. If I am a relatively decent person and happen to lapse into indifference, you can justly complain that I am neither respecting the standing and authority you and others have, nor am I seriously committed to our conversation, which amounts to the same thing.

Grice writes about conversation as “talk exchange,” and that formulation worries me a little, but he clearly has in mind something more than the transaction we entertain when we talk about “an exchange of views.” The phrase, which might suit diplomatic occasions where distinguished persons stand up and make speeches to let their official positions be known (before retreating from public view to have a conversation about what to do), falls short of capturing exactly the point Grice invites us to make: talking things over, figuring out what to do, making meaning, reaching agreement or finding out where we disagree — all of that is a cooperative undertaking, a joint activity.

Cooperation doesn’t mean we set aside differences; even the most charitable interlocutors can be deeply and persistently antagonistic. Like all good collaboration, conversation tends to bring differences to the fore. It puts them out in the open, we sometimes say; and it’s worth pausing over that expression and considering where that open ground might be, and why we regard it as open. But if we pretend we are just trading or trafficking in (different) views, we are ignoring the common ground already beneath our feet. This ignorance opens to the door to all sorts of abuses and indecencies.

Charles Taylor goes much further in this regard:

…language serves to place some matter out in the open between interlocutors. One might say that language enables us to put things in public space. That something emerges into what I want to call public space means that it is no longer a matter for me, or for you, or for both of us severally, but is now something for us, that is for us together.
Let us say that you and I are strangers travelling together through some southern country. It is terribly hot, the atmosphere is stifling. I turn to you and say: ‘Whew, it’s hot.’ This does not tell you anything you did not know; neither that it is hot, nor that I suffer from the heat. Both these facts were plain to you before. Nor were they beyond your power to formulate; you probably had already formulated them.
What the expression has done here is to create a rapport between us, the kind of thing which comes about when we do what we call striking up a conversation. Previously I knew that you were hot, and you knew that I was hot, and I knew that you must know that I knew that, etc.: up to about any level that you care to chase it. But now it is out there as a fact between us that it is stifling in here. Language creates what one might call a public space, or a common vantage point from which we survey the world together.
To talk about this kind of conversation in terms of communication can be to miss the point. For what transpires here is not the communication of certain information. This is a mistaken view; but not because the recipient already has the information. Nothing stops A making a communication to B of information already in B’s possession. It may be pointless, or misguided, or based on a mistake, but it is perfectly feasible. What is really wrong with the account in terms of communication is that it generally fails to recognize public space. It deems all states of knowledge and belief to be states of individual knowers and believers. Communication is then the transmittal, or the attempted transmittal, of such states.
But the crucial and highly obtrusive fact about language, and human symbolic communication in general, is that it serves to found public space, that is to place certain matters before us. This blindness to the public is of course (in part anyway) another consequence of the epistemological tradition, which privileges a reconstruction of knowledge as a property of the critical individual. It makes us take the monological observer’s standpoint not just as a norm, but somehow as the way things really are with the subject. And this is catastrophically wrong.

When Lily Says “No”

Always take no for an answer is a cardinal rule of asking, I wrote in my first post on this theme. It’s a version of the golden rule that’s especially worth bearing in mind when making plans to collaborate or act with others, or just talking about what we are going to do.

While giving someone an order might be a way to delegate authority and raise her stature in a group, asking recognizes the authority and standing she already has. According this basic respect takes precedence over extracting promises and concessions or getting to yes in a conversation or negotiation, and unless another person can say “no” and have that answer heeded, she will never really be able to say “we”. “No” marks the spot where you stop and we begin.

In other words, taking no for an answer is not just about respecting others, but about respecting and caring for how things are between us (the theme of a post I wrote earlier this week) and for the sense of us we have. That sense of us is how we make up and maintain the social world together. When we ask someone to do something, or ask what we are going to do, we openly acknowledge that there is — or can be — a “we,” not just you and I, but a plural first person. Asking creates an opening. It puts us out in the open.

The philosopher Margaret Gilbert seems to be heading in this same direction when she remarks in passing: “successfully questioning someone involves entering a joint commitment with that person.”

Take a moment to consider the example she offers. Bob addresses Lily with the question, “Shall we dance?” And Lily answers, “Yes, lets!” From this point on, the usual Gilbertian scenario unfolds. Having expressed their readiness to enter a joint commitment — indicating “that all is in order as far as one’s own will is concerned” — Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to dance together.

Once they start dancing, or, actually, even before that, once Lily has said yes and as she rises from her seat, each will have to answer to the other in the event one of them violates the joint commitment, or at least Lily would be justified in complaining if Bob were to drag his feet, go outside for a smoke, or give in to sultry Melissa, who is beckoning with her eyes from the other side of the room.

Unfortunately, Gilbert never elaborates on what “successfully questioning someone” entails, or what might make it different from unsuccessfully questioning someone. On the surface, it looks as if Bob “successfully” questions Lily here because she says “yes” to his request: she accepts his invitation to dance. Bob and Lily have therefore reached an explicit agreement. But let’s not confuse successfully questioning someone with getting to yes, or confuse getting to yes with reaching an agreement. (It’s worth noting that for Gilbert, joint commitments don’t always entail explicit agreements. The way Gilbert puts it is: “everyday agreements can be understood as constituted by…joint commitments” [her emphasis]).

What if Lily says “no”? What if she rolls her eyes, or sticks her nose in the air? In that case, has something like an agreement been reached?

Maybe. As long as Bob takes Lily’s no for an answer, we can say he and Lily have agreed not to dance. Of course, Bob might not like our putting it that way. He might say he failed to get Lily to dance with him, but that might also go to show that he was not prepared to take no for an answer and regarded Lily’s consent as the only acceptable outcome. We might do better if we were to characterize Bob’s questioning Lily in terms of Lily’s responsiveness — on that score, both yes and no would count as success — or if we think about what Bob’s asking Lily to dance and Lily’s refusal puts between them, how it constitutes them as a plural subject.

Though not committed to dance together, Bob and Lily are not done with each other or free of shared commitments after Lily says “no.” In a very important way, their relationship has just begun. When one person addresses or flags the attention of another, with a question or a nod, the squeak of a chair or a sneeze, they “jointly commit to recognizing as a body that the two of them are co-present,” Gilbert writes. People mutually recognize each other in this way all the time, on queues and in coffee shops, in bookstore aisles and on city sidewalks. Here we are, a “we”. Asking helps get us there.

So even if Lily politely refuses Bob with a “no thank you,” or rudely brushes him off, Bob can take solace in the thought that he has successfully questioned Lily. Bob’s failed bid to dance with Lily commits Lily and Bob to recognize that the two of them are co-present, there in the dance hall. Bob and Lily now have a sense of us, even if Lily will never dance with Bob, and that sense — that relationship — will endure.

With that enduring sense of us between them, Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to Lily’s refusal as well. So if Bob were to order Lily or insist that she dance with him, or grab her by the arm and drag her to the dance floor, coercing her, Lily has every right to complain. And if the next time Bob saw Lily he were to pretend that she never refused him at the dance, he would be doing Lily wrong.

How Things Are Between Us

Time now to say something about the tendency, nearly everywhere apparent, to reduce human relationships to transactions, as promised in an earlier post. The topic is vast and I won’t pretend to give it comprehensive treatment in this short post. Instead I’ll just outline some of the problems I have with this tendency, and try to work my way back to some of the thinking and reading I’ve been doing about ordinary first-person plural activities, like conversations, taking a walk together, and so on.

I’m going to pass quickly over what seems to me the most obvious point about this transactional way of thinking about human relationships: namely, that it’s crass to recast human relationships as mere exchanges of goods or information or words. I can easily conceive of situations in which a transactional approach might become abusive, destructive or reach sociopathic proportions; and examples (like this ugly item from today’s news) wouldn’t be very hard to find. But I think crass is the word I’m looking for at the moment, especially if we’re talking about the everyday activities of relatively decent people. “Crass” denotes coarseness and a lack of intelligence and refinement. It’s bad manners, we might say, as long as we remember that manners are more than etiquette, but a respect for how things are between us.

In a commercial transaction the seller can be indiscriminate: usually it doesn’t matter who the buyer is, as long as the seller’s price is met. (Of course there are special cases even here: the Christian baker who will not sell a decorated wedding cake to the same sex couple; the Soup Nazi — “No soup for you!”; and so on.) In relationships, on the other hand, we regularly discriminate and sort out our feelings toward people. Attitudes matter. We are friends, lovers, enemies. I like or dislike you, or I am bothered by what you said. It’s easy to spend time with this person; but that one gets my goat within the first few minutes. She is my mentor with whom I enjoy having lunch at the Greek restaurant on Wednesdays; here comes the tedious colleague with whom I despise talking. All these attitudes are fluid and subject to change, but the point is that in relationships we are always discriminating, reacting and adjusting. Relationships involve moral judgments and ground us in moral community.

Transactions tend to be finite; once the price is negotiated and paid in exchange for goods, the transaction is over. (I recognize that there are transactions that trigger other transactions and so on, but even so the extension of that scaffolding does not necessarily amount to a full-fledged relationship.) Relationships are not events but enduring states; and while some relationships may involve negotiations of price (e.g., we talk about relationships with longstanding clients or customers), those negotiations have as it were been imported into the relationship or continue within it, and they can be destructive of it.

Relationships properly speaking involve much more — above all, a sense of “us,” and all that the first-person plural brings with it: mutual recognition and mutual authority, a whole range of changing attitudes, evaluations of beliefs and actions in light of recognized norms, as well as all sorts of promises and obligations, claims and grievances.

In a word: relationships involve care.

Obviously, but care for whom? This, for me, is the essence of the matter. Most of us would probably be quick to say that a relationship involves care for another or someone other than oneself, for a second person or persons. But all the attitudes we have toward others and the actions we undertake on behalf of second persons demonstrate, at a minimum, that we care not just for the other but also for how things are between us. And that is probably the more important point here, or at least the point I would like to stress: that in a relationship we are jointly committed to how things are between us. We are not only a first and second person who have each made an individual or personal commitment, but a first-person plural, a “we.”

A Note on the Latest No-Platforming

There are currently a number of arguments being made on both sides of the question whether the no-platforming of Peter Tatchell constitutes censorship. I won’t say they are all good arguments; but I’d like to suggest there’s more at stake in all this than the speech rights of one very outspoken person. This thought was brought home to me by a turn of phrase in Jerry Coyne’s very thorough post on the Tatchell affair:

If someone is invited to an event and then is disinvited, or someone who’s already agreed to speak at an event withdraws because they don’t like the views of another invited speaker, then that is a kind of censorship, as it constitutes breaking an agreement previously made in an effort to prevent someone’s views from being expressed and heard.

Censorship might well have been the intended outcome of Fran Cowling’s childish refusal to take part in a debate with someone who had signed a letter defending the free speech of Germaine Greer and other writers whose views she found unsavory. I don’t know for certain that she meant to do anything other than stomp her feet in public (some people call this behavior “virtue signaling”) or if she had thought her actions all the way through.

All that involves very complicated questions about her intentions and so on, and it’s beside the simpler point I want to make. Before jumping into questions of what Cowling intended or what were the intended or unintended consequences of her actions, I suggest we pause to consider the simple fact that (as Coyne puts it, or almost puts it) Cowling broke an agreement. Full stop.

Of course, we make and break agreements all the time, sometimes reaching and then rescinding an agreement jointly with others, and sometimes in violation of commitments we’ve made, or without fulfilling the explicit or implicit terms of the agreement. It’s in making and breaking agreements where we come up against questions of what we owe each other.

In this instance, the breaking of the agreement could stand at least as much discussion as the censorship question or the question what Cowling hoped to accomplish by breaking the agreement. It’s not simply that Cowling broke or withdrew from the agreement she’d made to appear alongside Tatchell. He’s even said that he’s ok with that (“She has a right to refuse to speak alongside me, but not to make witchhunting, McCarthy-style, untrue allegations.”). It’s her denouncing him as a “racist and a transphobe” that really bothers him.

But there was a much much more basic agreement in place even before the invitation to either speaker was made, and that’s something like a shared commitment to debate, or the very idea that it’s worth talking things over and listening to what others have to say — as opposed to, say, might makes right or some equally ugly proposition. It’s hard to believe that this even needs saying: when we deny others who share a commitment to talking things over the standing to talk, we wrong them and invite all sorts of abuses against them and against ourselves.

This is one reason why Cowling’s actions appear to be unethical and dangerous even if it can be argued that they are not, as her supporters insist, a violation of Tatchell’s individual rights.

Serious Conversations, 5

It’s difficult to have an uninterrupted conversation. We can retreat to some quiet spot, turn off all our devices, put the do-not-disturb sign on the door, and chances are we will still have to deal with interruptions. Bar all intruders, but we cannot bar ourselves from the place where we are. A noise, the aroma of cooking, thirst or a rumble in the gut, a change in the weather or the position of the sun, the sight of a passerby, a bird or squirrel, a tugboat making its way into the harbor: it’s remarkable how little it takes to distract us or take our attention away from the conversation, stop us in mid-sentence or change the point of view.

If the interruption can be pinned on one of our party or an interloper, we are likely to go on the offensive, and start blaming. When we’re done, or if there’s no one to blame, we almost always go on the defensive: we try to go back to where we were, retrench or retrace our steps, restore equilibrium. The truth is, there’s no going back. If conversation can feel like a place we create together, then an interruption can feel like the loss of a world.

Or now it’s a world with a history. When we ask, where were we? what were we talking about? we are already speaking of ourselves in the past tense. There’s no need for nostalgia or remorse, and we shouldn’t lose time searching for a thread that is no longer there. The warp has changed. So must the woof.

Interruptions give us a chance to react, reset, review and recount, to advance new claims or make new demands of ourselves or of others, or simply to renew the joint commitment we made to having the conversation. So we should not think of interruptions merely as noise to signal, but learn to welcome them and think of them as an intrinsic part of the conversation itself.

Polite conversation may be a matter of knowing when and how to interrupt; serious conversation involves give and take, a socializing of attention. Interruption doesn’t have to mean talking over the other, but listening and then redirecting. We attend seriously to the matter between us by making reciprocal claims on one another’s attention.

To put that another way: conversation assumes a shared intention to shift attention.

Serious Conversations, 4

The sculptor Richard Serra tells the following story about a Charles Mingus session at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, sometime around 1956.

The performance was in the afternoon and there was a fan on. It was really loud and Mingus was going through his set and they were recording, and the bartender turned off the fan. Mingus had an apoplectic fit. He jumped over the bar and practically throttled the guy. ‘That fan was one of my instruments,’ he said. And it made me think, as someone who wanted to be an artist, that you had to pay attention all the time to everything that was going on, because everything was of potential use, if you could see the potential.

Place matters, whether you are playing music, making a sculpture or — as I like to remind people — simply having a conversation. From Mingus, Serra learned “to pay attention to everything that was going on,” and that ambient attention or awareness of place has figured prominently in Serra’s own art, which frequently involves creating site-specific, large-scale sculptures that both fit with and alter their surroundings. Place furnishes the sculptor with context, material and ideas: everything is of “potential use, if you..see the potential”. Place can be both potent and useful, a power and a utility. For Serra, it’s all a matter of paying attention.


Richard Serra creates large-scale, site-specific sculptures that draw on and amplify the power of place.

How, then, might we tap the power of place and put it to use when it comes to serious conversations? How do we pay attention to the place we are and how does that attention get repaid?

This is a vast topic, so for now I want to set out a few markers, just to get the discussion started.

First and most obviously, place situates the participants. We can talk about place in this basic sense as the setting of a conversation — not merely a location, site or spot; the setting is more like a scene in which we are the actors. I am not entirely sure about the theatrical metaphor (which is inescapable when we talk about place as a scene or setting): I don’t mean to imply that conversations are performances for the benefit of anyone other than the interlocutors, that they require an audience, or that the place has the temporary and artificial qualities of a stage or set, put up or constructed for the sake of staging a conversation. That all sounds too contrived, and it implies a grand designer or author behind the scenes. Of course every conversation involves some element of make believe and there is a performative aspect to all conversation, but we ought to imagine an unscripted play, spontaneous or at least unplanned, in which the actors themselves are sole authors and creators — an improvisation.

Place sets conditions and defines limits: this is where we are, not over there, not elsewhere, maybe not even where we most want to be, but here. Limits imply presence, a here and now, and it’s up to us to recognize and attend to that. Our attention registers the basic obligation we have to one another, which is simply to be in this place (and in this conversation). The word ‘obligation’ here shouldn’t be misleading or mistaken for mandate or coercion: when a conversation is serious, we are not under any compulsion. We claim each other’s attention. It makes sense, then, to talk about place as a space of commitment, a setting to which we can both lay claim and which permits us to make some simple claims: stay and talk awhile; listen to me; help me understand what you are saying.  As I’ve said before, you can’t just walk away or start playing hula hoops and I can’t take part if I am whistling Dixie or daydreaming of someplace far away. This place is not just incidentally a backdrop for our conversation and our conversation is not a backdrop for some other action that will define or disrupt the place; our mutual presence here commits us jointly to the conversation. Attending to place helps us respect and keep that commitment.

Place creates new possibilities in the conversation, as participants discover and avail themselves of their situation in all sorts of ways. This is close to what Richard Serra is getting at when he talks about paying attention to everything that’s going on — a noisy fan, the voices of children playing nearby, the smell and feel of the lush green grass, the roar of traffic or the flow of a nearby stream, a tweeting bird or a passing cyclist, the wail of sirens or the approach of the police, the patter of the rain, the creak of the wood as we settle on a rough-hewn bench. The important point here is that in conversation we experience a place from the inside and in company with others. To keep company is to be a participant, not merely an observer of the place, looking in or looking on from the outside. Our conversation is what’s going on there — or at least one of the most important things going on.

Place is intrinsic to the unfolding of conversation, the warp to its woof; and to an appreciable extent, place and conversation may be indistinguishable — especially once things get going. Or it might be easier just to say conversation is the place we create between us. It’s not a question of your place or mine. It’s ours.

Serious Conversations, 2

Nora [after a short silence]. Isn’t there one thing that strikes you as strange in our sitting here like this?
Helmer. What is that?
Nora. We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?
Helmer. What do you mean by ‘serious’?
Nora. In all these eight years–longer than that–from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.
Helmer. Was it likely that I would be continually and forever telling you about worries that you could not help me to bear?
Nora. I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything.
-Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act 3

Preoccupations may be harder to escape than promises. I went to see a performance of A Doll’s House last night at the Harvey Theater, and this exchange between Nora and Torvald in the final act of Ibsen’s play reminded me of my pledge to say something more about serious conversations. (My first effort to make good on this pledge is here.).

There’s an important point here that I don’t want to overlook. A serious conversation requires something more than a serious subject to discuss. It may not have anything to do with the things we take seriously: business matters, for example. Well before we consider things, or the topic at hand, we have to sit down “seriously together” — alvor sammen, as Nora puts it to her husband Torvald in Ibsen’s Norwegian.

Of course, Torvald Helmer’s “honor” will not survive the serious conversation he and his wife have. The respect Nora ultimately demands —  the claim she makes on Torvald and on herself — will destroy their marriage and upset the bourgeois respectability of the Helmer household, or show it for the sham that it is. Torvald should have known: to sit down seriously together is always more about honoring the other than safeguarding personal honor. Or at least it’s a matter of honoring the joint commitment to have a serious conversation.


Torvald (Dominic Rowan) and Nora (Hattie Morahan) are about to have their first serious conversation in the BAM Harvey Theater production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

I’m using “joint commitment” here in Margaret Gilbert’s sense — a commitment by two or more people as a body or plural subject, a we, to some act or activity: a walk or a conversation, for instance. For Gilbert, these joint commitments are commonplace associations by which we make up “the social world, the world of conversations, friendships, marriages, sports teams, discussion groups, religious orders, partisans, citizens and so on.”

In entering and living up to joint commitments, we share agency with others, and all parties are obligated — have a duty — to act in accordance with the commitment. “If our acting together, our conventions, and other central aspects of our lives together involve our jointly committing ourselves in one way or another, then our lives together are run through with obligations to one another and rights against each other, with the correlative standing to insist on various actions and rebuke for non-performance.”

To read the essays collected in Gilbert’s Joint Commitment (Oxford, 2013) is to appreciate above all how often and how effortlessly we enter into these joint commitments, just as a matter of course, and to be reminded that assumptions of trust, respect and mutual accountability infuse our everyday social experience.

These are all the issues that come to the surface when Torvald and Nora sit down seriously together, for the first time, to have their serious conversation. Whether we commit jointly to take a walk together (to use Gilbert’s favorite example) or have a conversation about work or a stifling marriage, what makes the activity serious is that we are on equal footing and mutually obligated to one another. Acknowledge that, honor it, and we have started to take one another seriously; deny it, or cover it up with patronizing gestures or power grabs, and we are probably heading for crisis or failure.