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Occupying London, Wall Street and Toronto - Foucault, George Carlin, and the Enlightenment Tradition

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On November 15 of this year, I read about how the City of London Corporation wishes to evict Occupy London. Hannah Borno intends to resist such efforts. My sympathies are with her.

It was on Saturday 28 October, that I first spent a few hours at Occupy Toronto in St. James Park. As an addiction scholar and activist, I had a contribution to make: not only did I participate in a Skype chat/interview in the media tent, I also donated a copy of my recently published book to the makeshift library. Since then I've been back several times.

The occupation got me thinking about how such disparate groups - Christians, feminists, Marxists, libertarians, and many, many more - could all converge in what seemed to be a common cause. Given that my home base, Toronto, is probably the most multicultural city on Earth, the energy was seriously thought provoking. So I got to thinking about my own role: that of an addiction researcher - self-described 'PhD Crackhead' - out to place the politics of drug addiction into the broader context of our western, liberal democratic tradition.

The many voices I heard hit me like an echo. Figures such as Rousseau and Jefferson kept flashing before my mind's eye. I felt that somehow we were all picking up where they had left off. Yet it did occur to me that these (and other) revolutionary Enlightenment figures were monolithically white, male and (as far as I know) heterosexual - and that they held many views that would be dismissed today as reactionary. Was this fight - going on right then in Toronto, London, and all over - their fight nonetheless?

I will answer in the affirmative.

Often I draw parallels between the mistreatment of drug addicts and that of other marginalised and oppressed segments. Often, I point to historical patterns such as overcoming the acceptance of beating children and others in weaker positions, and then I explain how addicts being said to require hitting bottom (which can involve beatings and much worse) is another ugly myth we need to overcome. Typically, these points I make are well received.

But when I add that is it all one struggle - whether it applies to children, the racially oppressed, gays and others - I get some flack from my activist friends. No, no, no, I am told: you can't say that. You mustn't say that. You have no right to say that!

Hmmm... and I thought this was a liberal democracy.

Still, the reactions are understandable. Currently, oppositional political thinking and practice are in a reactive mode. Big, totalising visions of justice and liberation - typically put forward by privileged white men - had often neglected many "details", such as the very existence of women and of people who are not white and heterosexual. So today, big ideas are out of fashion. And there is surely much to be said for not presuming to know another's situation - such presumptions are not only oppressive, they are downright insulting. 'Understandable', however, need not be synonymous with 'right.'

Despite their blind spots, and despite holding to opinions and attitudes that many today would find unpalatable, those first Enlightenment figures were on the right track. At least in the west, they were the ones who opened up a new space that enabled later generations to forge ahead. Like it or not, any activism in which we currently engage here in western cities is possible only because of those earlier - perhaps primitive - forays into questions concerning liberty and equality.

Yet the current political mood is not always receptive to that fact. An idea that has governed oppositional thinking, now for a few decades, has had many forms of expression. Here is one: we need to avoid essentialism. While the term has had many meanings, in this context it's like so: to conflate the struggles of different groups - to essentialize - is to blur the differences. Fair enough, but we have gone overboard: an uncompromising insistence on difference has become just as myopic as the essentialism against which it once railed.

The terrain has changed. Today we need more essentialism, and less emphasis on difference.

I will ask the reader to consider: A middle aged white lesbian with schizophrenia, a young transgendered Hispanic, a 30 year old white male union rep, an old black woman in a wheelchair, and a middle aged heterosexual crackhead with a mild case of Tourette syndrome (that's me, and you'll have to guess my gender and color), are sitting in a room. Despite our differences we share a common cause. What is the cause? What holds us together?

I'll do you one better: another individual, representing a type of oppression the others have never heard about, knocks on the door and asks to join. The person is welcomed warmly, and encouraged to enlighten the room about an injustice they have not even considered. "Hey, in your struggles for freedom and all that, you forgot about me!" So we learn. How is it that we are ready to accept someone whose situation we don't know? To identify that common bond, whatever it may be, has become anathema, taboo.

Repeat: what holds us all together? Here is a possible answer: one struggle, one morality, one truth.

During the middle and later twentieth century, authors such as Michel Foucault were pivotal in challenging big ideas and totalizing conceptions of justice, enlightenment and so on. Yet near the end of his life, when Foucault knew that he was dying, he wrote an article wherein he put himself squarely in the western Enlightenment tradition.

As someone who spent a big chunk of his PhD studies reading Foucault, and as one who has written on Foucault's ideas, I think I know why. Recently, I have come to a realization. After loosing two friends to overdose less than two years ago, and making a decision to start writing for the public and not just for academic peer review, I quickly had to achieve clarity on my own values. I think that Foucault experienced a similar need.

Already twenty years ago I was wondering whether we had gone too far with the emphasis on difference, and paying too little attention to what we share. An understandable reaction to totalizing, white-male-hetero discourse, had led to reactive politicking. So, how to engage more proactively? As I see it, the time has come for the pendulum to swing: I've come to believe that we need more essentialism. Not the old, tired kind, but something better.

I understand that what I suggest flies in the face of some 30-40 years of oppositional thinking.
This is not the place to address all the points and counterpoints. I will simply identify a problem that has dogged oppositional thinking and practice for a few decades now. Our efforts to avoid presumptions about the struggles of others, to remain open to new challenges, to avoid sidelining or offending those we might not understand - all of this has left us with a taboo on the identification of what holds us together.

As I was writing this column, a friend sent me the link to a George Carlin video wherein the great social critic pokes fun at wars the West has been waging against brown people across the globe. Lately they've always been brown, not white, haven't they? Carlin finishes by mentioning how the mainstream media talks incessantly about the differences between people - "the things that separate us" - and rarely about what we have in common. "That's the way the ruling class operates in any society: they try to divide the rest of the people."

Carlin is no longer with us, and I miss him dearly.

The video got me thinking even more about the recent occupations of Wall Street, Toronto and other venues: if we're all so different, why are we doing the same thing? Though still searching for final answers, I am sure of this: Oppositional movements today could benefit from giving some consideration to an option that many deride as passé: one struggle, one morality, one truth.

While the conclusions we reach will surely vary, honest reflection on this matter must be taken as a duty in the near future - if there is to be a future at all.

On my very first day at Occupy Toronto I heard a very radical, and very likable, young man sound off about this and that: cell phones as carcinogenic, you name it. Then he mentioned how Thomas Jefferson himself had said that we ought to have a revolution every forty years.

I can't help thinking that Jefferson's spirit is there right now, in the park - because our fight is his fight, too.