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Revisiting the Open Society: A Canadian View


I am so deeply honoured to accept this award, not least because I hold such admiration for the fine scholarship being done at Linnaeus University and for the openness colleagues here have shown to me, a visiting scholar and collaborator from another society.

As a literary critic, I always look at words and the stories they tell. So I start today with the puzzle posed by the open society—the theme of this Linnaeus lecture series this year. My research leads me to wonder: Can there be such a thing? The open society only takes on meaning when contrasted with a closed society. Yet are not all societies closed in some ways, and differentially open in others? Openness is a matter of degree, not identity. To be meaningful, it must always be open to challenge, and hence to the possibility of revision. Openness cannot be fixed; it must be an ongoing process. At the same time, for a society to be a society, it must have a sense of itself and a sense of who belongs to its imaginary—and who does not. Who is inside and who is outside? What makes this society different from other societies? Where are the borders and who inhabits the borders? Borders block and they also link. So where are the linkages between this society and others? Finally, the absolute nature of that definite article “the” gives me pause. Can there be only one open society and if so, who gets to determine its openness? Whose interests does such a descriptor serve? Would not the indefinite article, “a”, serve us better in describing the nature of societies and their relations with each other?

From my work in postcolonial and decolonial studies, I have seen the damage caused by a single civilizational ideal imposed on others. As a student of globalization, I see how the world has moved from the bipolarity of the Cold War era into the unipolarity of US dominance. That era now seems to be over. We are now shifting into a dynamic and unstable multipolar world. Within that world, competing models of openness seek to win our loyalties. The most dramatic oppositions may be between two starkly opposed models with very different starting points and views of what is at stake. One links societal openness to ethical calls to welcome recognition of our interdependencies with others, human and nonhuman, and to respect our co-dependencies. The challenges energizing but also to some extent blocking such initiatives come from climate change and migration as well as from the second model, which seeks to expand neoliberal capitalism further into individual lives and the global governance system. This second model links openness to those calls from business communities and their allies to embrace so-called free trade deals or lose our global competitiveness.  Both versions claim ownership of true openness yet differ on their understanding of the goals and natures of society. Each model offers a different view of how its open society might operate globally. The first imagines a world of no borders for people in a world where “no one is illegal.” The second imagines a world of complexly negotiated borders, in which goods, ideas, capital, and a privileged class of global elite might circulate freely but in which others remain ideally confined to the place of their birth.

Is either model truly feasible on a global scale, and if it were, would that necessarily be desirable? The answer depends on how each version of the open society were to be defined and implemented. The first version of a global open society is associated with organizations such as The World Social Forum and the second with the World Trade Organization. A third attempt at a middle way between the two might be linked to the Soros Open Society Foundation. It works “to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.” Its beliefs in “fundamental human rights, dignity, and the rule of law” and “in encouraging critical debate and respecting diverse opinions” place it firmly within small l liberal traditions of democracy promotion. As a Western feminist myself, I find these ideals appealing yet I am also aware of how regularly they are seen in other parts of the world as an alibi for imposing a colonizing and Christianizing agenda on alternative modes of defining these value concepts. Each of these terms, human rights, dignity, and the rule of law, are highly disputed and carry problematic histories that cannot be forgotten. One group’s common sense contradicts the experiences of others. There is a huge literature within postcolonial studies pointing out the difficulties with these discourses that I do not wish to go into here because my main point is simply that none of these categories can be taken for granted and their meanings are not transparent.  The open society is no different. It follow that our key task is to continually test and negotiate the meanings of these practices, working our way toward shared understandings of their value and the best way to implement them within our communities.

I believe our current models of international and global relations are flawed and it will be important to rethink how people might reorganize our efforts within the global arena differently. At the same time, however, I think the best ideas for rethinking the global are more likely to come from a coalition of bottom-up initiatives rather than from above. As a starting point for discussion,  I do not believe that versions of the open society implemented in one nation-state can usefully be imposed or even borrowed to work within another polity nor can one model usefully be  scaled up to operate unchanged within the global arena. When Will Kymlicka, for example, suggests that Canadian multiculturalism might offer a model for finding unity through diversity to other nations across the globe, I think he underestimates the specificities that render Canadian multiculturalism a model unlikely to travel well. Even within Canada, multiculturalism remains a debated concept and Quebec has offered interculturalism as a preferable alternative. It follows from this that Canada and Sweden can learn from each other but we each need to find our own way that will be true to our needs and our own evolving sets of values as we renegotiate our national imaginaries for a global era defined by time/space compression, continual rapid change, and associated growth in precarity.

In my classrooms and research teams, we look at a variety of stories from around the world and from different disciplines to think about what they can teach us about living together and living well. Stories told from within a variety of epistemic communities, whether these be place-based, discipline-based, or anchored within any interest-based community, can in the situated experiences they create, help those of us who think about them with “critical intimacy” learn more about what it feels like to open oneself to other realities. By “critical intimacy,” a phrase I borrow from Gayatri Spivak, I mean a way of opening oneself imaginatively to the experiences created by a story, with a generous willingness to take its premises seriously enough to consider them thoughtfully. For a long time, literary criticism was dominated by a lopsided focus on critique, which culminated in a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”  Now critics are moving away from that automatic suspicion toward more balanced engagements with the richness of story. “Critical intimacy” restores balance to the act of literary reading, providing room for the kind of intimate engagement that open up to a text’s difference without sacrificing the kind of careful examination we associate with the exercise of reason. If we can encounter stories in that spirit, then interpreting them can help us both appreciate their complexity and work through that complexity to achieve greater clarity.

If you are not a literary critic, that may sound rather abstract. I will offer two stories, one fictional and one non-fictional, to show the value of stories about the productive frictions generated by encounter. The first works as a “thought-experiment” (as described by Ursula Le Guin) and the second as “a kind of intellectual travelogue” that engages in contemporary debates about “how to approach diversity and disagreement” (Fraenkel).

First, science fiction author, Le Guin, imagines a type of open society operating across the Universe as an ever expanding federation of planets in The Left Hand of Darkness. Her envoy from this Federation (called the Ekumen) has been sent to the remote planet of Winter, where he experiences severe culture shock in attempting to communicate with these new peoples and then again when after three years, he reunites with others from his Federation. The major stumbling block for him arises from the people of Winter’s alternatively gendered embodiment and resultant behavioural norms. The story focusses on two nations on the planet Winter that are both open and closed in radically different ways and the confusions and political machinations that block the alien envoy’s route to establishing relations with these new peoples. Different ideas about governance, the rule of law, the economy, and the nature and values of community, of public and private, dignity and honour, distinguish these two Winter societies from each other. But what unites them, and differentiates them from the envoy, is what we would call the transgendered and fluid nature of their embodied identities and the associated roles they perform. These people are neither male nor female, and therefore not transgendered either in the ways we understand that term here on Earth today. Each person can fulfil the biological functions we conventionally associate with both male and female here and they can move fluidly between these roles. As a result, they do not think in binary gendered categories. Their freedom from that interpretational grid continually puzzles the envoy, and forces we readers to stretch our imaginations along unfamiliar lines.

Le Guin’s alternative societies with their alternative biology, offered as a “thought experiment” in 1969, remains a challenge for how to think about the implicitly gendered and potentially problematic nature of what is being promoted by Western nations and their foundations as the open society today. The fact that so many controversies arising from immigration and refugee resettlement seem to centre on gender relations reminds us of how important it is for any theorizations of open society to address these deeply ingrained biases. Readers of Le Guin’s text are allowed internal access to what it feels like to live such an alternatively gendered life and to the revulsion and fascination felt by the envoy, at first to the manifestations of such a different way of being in the world, and then later, to his alienated disgust at seeing his own people, and feeling his own embodiment, as if through the eyes of another.  Such an experience allows readers to open their imaginations to alternative possibilities, stretching our abilities to question even the most deeply ingrained prejudices and assumptions that currently govern our thinking.

My second set of interconnected stories comes from philosopher Carlos Fraenkel’s book, Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy for a Divided World. He explains that the impetus for his project, documented in this book, derives from the fact that values embedded in a culture that shape our identity and norms may remain “hidden and inarticulate” under normal circumstances. This is what Le Guin’s envoy learns at the deeply intimate level of bodily experience and close interactions with others. Given that situation, Fraenkel argues that we “should welcome the disruptions that compel us to confront them.” This may be a painful process but he believes we can emerge stronger as a community by engaging in what he calls “the open-ended culture of debate.”  What he means by this label is “the dialectical skill of engaging in a joint search for the truth.” His advocacy of this position comes from his personal experience as a child of Jewish Brazilian immigrants who fled the dictatorship to live for a while in Germany, and then returned to Brazil when he was a young boy. He now teaches philosophy at McGill University in Canada. What I find most valuable about this book is the individual case studies he narrates of his extended personal and professional encounters with different communities around the world to engage in this kind of debate around the issues most immediate to their situations. Through the stories he tells of the workshops he ran, he hopes to “show by example and argument that making philosophy part of our personal and public lives is something worthwhile.”

He makes some bold claims: “Can philosophy save the Middle East? It can.” Through a seminar he co-teaches at Al-Quds University, the Palestinian university in Jerusalem, he hopes to raise questions about philosophy, politics and religion that might open “a new perspective on the Middle East.” He expects the texts to resonate differently there than with his students in Montreal, and they do. With two professors in the classroom, in this case with different religious identities and backgrounds, it becomes easier to dramatize the value and procedures of open-ended debate. He speculates that the “permanent state of collision” that characterizes this environment might stimulate closer attention to the urgency of inquiring into questions of “justice, rights, and power” than does the situation in the West, where there is more complacency about these concepts. His method is to help his students “rediscover the wide variety of positions that were defended in the history of Islamic thought,” thereby opening discussion beyond what Vandana Shiva calls, in a different context, a “monocentrism of the mind.” For Shiva, this phrase describes the authoritarian blindness that drove the Green Revolution and its destruction of seed biodiversity and local seed sovereignty in favour of bioengineered and expensive seeds owned by a corporate monopoly. Gayatri Spivak adapts the phrase—monoculture of the mind– to describe the denial of difference within social, economic, and political spheres. It has become one of my favourite metaphors for the closed society.

With each community in which he holds his seminars, Fraenkel builds on an aspect of his experience that most closely connects with theirs and through their interactions the discussions take forms best suited to their own immediate preoccupations. From the Middle East, he goes to Indonesia, then a Hasidic Jewish community in New York, a public high school in Salvador, Brazil, and finally Akwesasne, one of the largest Mohawk reserves in North America, just outside Montreal. These latter two raise the citizenship questions that most interest me. In each, he takes his workshops beyond a university setting into versions of the public sphere.  “Citizen Philosophers in Brazil” raises questions about how to achieve equality in one of the world’s most unequal societies and “Word-Warriors: Philosophy in Mohawk Land” considers the challenges of designing self-governance for a community of roughly twelve thousand Mohawks whose territory is “crisscrossed by five national and provincial borders: Canada, the United States, Quebec, Ontario, and New York.” In addition to these jurisdictions, there are two officially recognized governing bodies and two traditional Mohawk governing bodies that carry authority with the people but not with the Canadian or American governments. Given the community’s long history of colonization, Fraenkel explains: “some of the most fundamental questions require new answers: how to reconcile modernity and tradition, what it means to live well, who should rule, and who counts as a Mohawk.”  In both places, the value of what he is trying to do is questioned, especially by those whose authority would be undermined by an open culture of debate. In Brazil, he is challenged by both elitist academic philosophers and by pragmatic teachers who teach to the tests that govern students’ life chances in a system where access to good higher education is limited and mostly denied to the racialized poor. In Akwesasne, his motives for approaching their community are challenged as is the value of the discussions he can offer. But in both cases, interesting discussions are recorded although no conclusions are reached. Fraenkel concedes that philosophical discussions “are often inconclusive.” What he offers are some of the tools for arriving at decisions and for revising them as times and needs change. Those tools are what we in the university community can offer to the shaping and conduct of our respective national debates.

The strength of Fraenkel’s book lies in its individual case studies of debates he guided with a range of communities, each grappling with issues most central to their own sense of identity and communal needs. Most of the societies he engages might be described as among those least open to the rest of the world yet his stories of their discussions show the value of open debate in those contexts. He concludes people today are lucky that globalizing processes are making it impossible for people “to avoid exposure to beliefs and values different from our own” because this situation puts us all “under pressure to justify what we think and do.” He admits that “diversity and disagreement on their own” are insufficient. His argument is for fostering “a culture of debate—an institutional framework in which diversity and disagreement can be transformed into a joint search for the truth.” For Fraenkel, philosophy can provide the models, the metaphors, and the vocabulary for engaging in such discussions but the groundwork for developing such a culture would need to be developed in the last years of high school. What he wants to see is training in “techniques of debate,” how to clarify one’s views and meet possible objections, and training in the “virtues of debate,” that is, “valuing the truth more than winning an argument.” I would argue that most disciplines have developed their own ways of teaching these principles.

Fraenkel’s stories are good to think with. It may be that the kind of discussions he documents work best within small group contexts or within societies where these techniques and virtues of debate have been widely inculcated. Could they be adapted to calm fears and encourage resiliency on the larger scale of nation-wide discussions?  He believes that “If we can transform disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.” This may be too optimistic in all circumstances but such a culture could surely contribute to that end.

For example, despite a lot of ugliness, anger, and uninformed commentary during Canada’s recent federal election, when Prime Minister Harper sought to make the niqab an election issue and promised to set up a hotline on barbaric cultural practices, there were also many principled interventions from a variety of perspectives that enriched understanding and ultimately, I think, contributed to strengthening our varied modes of expressing our equally strong convictions about the equality of women as understood in the distinct, yet overlapping societies of Canada and Quebec. News from Sweden about the refusal of a politician to shake hands with a woman carries the potential to start a discussion in Sweden about the values and necessary limits around what we in Canada call “reasonable accommodation” of practices that fall outside established hegemonic societal norms. The politician in question suggested another substitute gesture that did not carry the same implications of intimacy for him. In response, we heard another politician insist that Swedes shake hands. What is at stake in this exchange, reported in a piecemeal fashion in the global media? To an outsider without all the facts, it seems that shaking hands in this instance stands in for much more than a mere gesture of politeness. It is being asked to carry a burden of cultural beliefs about gender equality that might benefit from further articulation.

Fraenkel’s ideal of an “open-ended culture of debate” allows people to change their minds if they find it desirable after careful examination of the issues, and it also allows for the possibility of achieving greater clarity about why certain values matter and what is at stake in defending them. Before it was defunded in 2006, the Law Commission of Canada performed a similar function, consulting widely on emergent issues of concern and making recommendations on necessary updating of the law to take account of changing circumstances, needs, knowledges, and social norms. After consultation, it recommended legalizing same sex marriage and the government of the day then followed through on that recommendation. If the rule of law is to maintain its legitimacy and hold respect, it needs to work to bring itself closer to ideals of justice. It is in this sense that Fraenkel too believes that through informed discussion, people can progress.

Fraenkel offers a spirited defence of why his views are not blindly ethnocentric but rather represent a “critical ethnocentrism” that refuses the two extremes of either coercion or relativism. Freedom of expression is essential to his project but as long as a society ensures that freedom, he thinks the culture of debate could flourish in many different kinds of society and not just a liberal democracy. In this talk, I have found myself engaging in my own debate with his ideas as I try to imagine what an open society might look like.

If you search for the open society on the net, chances are that Karl Popper’s book, The Open Society and its Enemies, will pop up first. I find this wording counter-productive. Fortunately, we have the freedom to determine our own way of framing the issues. In Western democracies, we are conditioned to value openness. But given that bias, it is harder to see the limits to our own openness, the places where less visible blockages continue to exist, and the places where despite ourselves we may find unexpected closures occurring. With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify some of the ways in which self-identified open societies in the past were far from completely open. Through comparing one society to another, we can see the varieties of openness within each as well as the many different ways in which openness is understood in practice and mobilized for causes both good and ill.

For example, 17th century philosopher John Locke defined North American indigenous nations as static closed societies. He came to these conclusions without ever visiting the continent or studying their thinking and their practices. A whole system of colonial governance was built on Locke’s false premises that we are only beginning to dismantle today. From studying history and listening to indigenous peoples themselves, we now know that they were much more open societies than that of the British who colonized them. They had protocols for defining belonging and enabling adoption and they initially welcomed the settler/invaders to share the land with them according to the laws associated with the fundamental openness built into their societies. Their original openness is now being advocated by Canadian intellectuals such as John Ralston Saul as a model on which the Canadian nation can build a better version of its own claim to openness. Such examples from the past advise caution when making assumptions about what is open and what is closed today.

It is possible that given its history of blatant misuse, before and especially after the events of 9/11, the open society as a concept may inspire more cynicism than idealism. Words get damaged when misused and sometimes we need to renew them. I was part of an inspiring project called Building Global Democracy that sought to bring together academics, activists and policymakers from around the world to advance knowledge and practice for greater public participation and control in the governance of global affairs. I believe in this ideal, and the word democracy, in some contexts, can still inspire fear in dictatorial regimes. At the same time, the history of so-called democracy promotion, has also inspired cynicism, perhaps especially among formerly colonized nations where many see it as an alibi for continued colonialism or Christian conversion. Partly in response to such considerations, I prefer to talk about self-determination and autonomy, the rights of a people to govern themselves—not as a unit cut off from the world but as a community that recognizes both how it is connected to a larger world and the ways in which it is distinct. Naming matters. A recent Canadian book, by indigenous scholar Lisa Monchalin, renames what used to be called “the Indian problem,” by labelling it instead, The Colonial Problem: an Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada. That kind of shift in perspective can jolt readers into alternative ways of framing discussion.

Many formerly colonized countries, once labelled Third World, then underdeveloped, and now the Global South, reject the stories that development studies tells: stories that the West holds the only keys to modernization and has charted the only route forward for any society seeking to improve itself. Without necessarily opening themselves entirely to Western ideas, they also refuse Western beliefs that they are closed societies and that the only way to become an open society is to emulate the West.  Such challenges to Western definitions of the open society can help us, in Sweden and Canada, to redefine what an open society is and what it could be. Development still locates its centres of value within the global North, which it presumes both defines and leads modernity. Yet the darker, colonial side of that modernity needs to be addressed, and development discourses and their associated practices need to be decolonized. To what extent, as some theorists argue, has Western development actually itself developed the underdevelopment that justifies its continued interventions? And to what extent does the current refugee crisis owe its impetus to that history? We can all see that globalizing processes, mostly economic, are opening borders to goods and ideas while closing them to the movements of people.

It was once predicted that globalization would hollow out the nation-state. That has not happened. Instead, nation-states are changing their functions, slowly losing control over their decision-making capacity in areas governed by so called “free trade” deals, but maintaining the right to control immigration and confer citizenship. These free trade deals advocate a dangerous version of openness that will in fact close down a democratic society’s right to determine its own directions. The problem comes through the trade deal advocacy of ISDS, an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism inserted in deals such as NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and substantially strengthened in the proposed TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) and CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) between Canada and the European Union. These agreements would allow corporations to sue governments for damages when laws or regulations were enacted that they believed could damage their profitability. With this example, we can see the kind of Orwellian double speak that disguises itself as openness while strengthening closure. Part of the problem with these deals is that they were negotiated in secrecy, thereby pre-emptively silencing the kind of open debate that I am suggesting is necessary here. The insights offered by the two texts I have discussed today suggest that it is premature to believe that the stark choices insisted upon by promoters of these trade deals, between open and closed, are the only options before us. What feminist economists such as J.K. Gibson-Graham suggest is that there are alternative theorizations and practices of economic engagement that have yet to be fully explored.

And so to my conclusion, which invites future engagement. In this talk I have suggested that to be met effectively, the challenges I have outlined here require, first of all, a decolonizing perspective that defines openness as the fostering of “multiepistemic literacy” capable of learning and unlearning to dialogue effectively “between epistemic worlds” (Kuokkanen cited in Sundberg); and secondly, a commitment, in Juanita Sundberg’s words, to taking “responsibility for the epistemological and ontological worlds we enact through the paths we walk and talk” (40). I see an interesting link between Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of community as something that transcends the place-, identity-, and interest-based assumptions of the past by stressing instead a “being-with” and the Zapatista’s “respect for the [reciprocal] multiplicity of lifeworlds” that they define as “walking with” and “asking as we walk” (Sundberg 40; 39), a process that moves away from the universality implied by the open society toward the pluriversality of many worlds, at once singular and overlapping in their relations. Mario Blaser defines the pluriverse as “an experiment in bringing itself into being” (55).  “Pluriverse,” being with” and “walking with” are emergent philosophical constructions that fit well with the idea of concurrences as developed by the Concurrences Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies here at Linnaeus University, with which I am privileged to work. These concepts enable different disciplines to open to one another to share their archives and open conversations across their research worlds without collapsing them into a monocentrism of the mind. I look forward to many more years of fruitful walking and questioning together.

Works Cited

Blaser, Mario. “Ontology and indigeneity: on the political ontology of heterogeneous assemblages.” Cultural Geographies (2014). Vol. 2 (1): 49-58.

Fraenkel, Carlos. Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy for a Divided World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Gibson-Graham, J.K.. The End of CAPITALISM (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. With a New Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007.

Kymlicka, W. Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: ACE Penguin, 1969; “Introduction” 1976.

Monchalin, Lisa. The Colonial Problem: An Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Popper, Karl. R The Open Society and Its Enemies. New One-Volume Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Saul, John Ralston. “Canada’s multiculturalism: a circle, ever edging outwards.” The Globe and Mail. Friday April 2w2, 2016.

Shiva, Vandana. “Monocultures of the Mind.” The Vandana Shiva Reader. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,

Sundberg, Juanita. “Decolonizing posthumaist geographies.” Cultural Geographies (2014. Vol. 2 (1): 33-47.

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