Race, gender, citizenship

Etienne Balibar, in his insightful article ‘Uprisings in the Banlieues’ attempts at the very outset, to define the term so that one may be able to understand it better. According to Balibar, banlieue may be taken to be the equivalent of the typical American suburb, but taken in a sociological context, it may refer to ‘inner cities’ or suburbs as they are better known, in which there is a very real ‘proximity of extremes’, in which one banlieue may be completely antagonistic to the next one. While some may be poor, some may be rich; in fact, says Balibar, Nicholas Sarkozy, the French Interior minister, belongs to one such banlieue.

It is common knowledge that violence prevails in such surroundings, and Balibar feels that the government and especially dirty politics have a large role to play in the escalation of unwonted ‘self destructive’ violence in these areas. This could probably be the reason why youth from banlieues tend to have run-ins with the police constantly. Qualified as ‘guerilla warfare’, this is a polymorphous phenomenon found in banlieues in which young people are forced to live in fear of unemployment, a deterioration of public services and other similar circumstances.

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The police are of no help at all in these situations; for them it is a test of virility where they compete against each other to prove who is stronger than the next individual. Balibar quotes the incidents of violence that occurred in November 2005, in which three people died, and countless consumer items and also public property were destroyed. One must remember the fact that France as such is considered to be one of the rare places in the world where there is a proliferation of ‘universal values’, where discrimination is virtually unthinkable. According to Rada Ivekovic, this uprising could be termed a ‘return of the colonial boomerang’.

France, she states, is a country that has never made a concerted attempt to understand the roots of violence, unlike Germany that has tried to understand the deep rooted seeds of hatred that prevailed during the anti-Semitic Nazi period. France in general tends to speak a language of supposed universality, but which is in reality full of Eurocentric paternalism. The young people of banlieues often share a sort of violence with the police, often trying to dominate even the women of their own banlieues, so that they may retain their all powerful images.

As a matter of fact, France was recently in the news for having seen one of the most powerful feminist movements through history, when these hapless young women launched a counter attack against the deprivation of sexual freedom by these same young men. This reveals an interesting fact: in all post colonial cultures in general; there is a deep conflict between asserting the independence of individuals, especially immigrants against racism, and this sort of oppressive sexual repression and violence against women that is the norm in all banlieues. Take the same instance of violence in France for example.

There was tension, no doubt, but at the same time, the tension was exacerbated when a teargas bomb was launched at the entrance of a mosque, and the Islamic community protested at the rising Islamophobia in the world. One must beware of reductive interpretations of facts, especially concerning religion. In most instances, religious readings do tend to lay emphasis on the supposed global confrontation between Christianity and Islam, hinting at the fact that Islamic and Jewish tensions exist in banlieues, brought on by tensions in the Middle East.

However, is it possible to compare the French riots with the riots in Britain? Take for instance youth of North African origins, whose grandparents and parents before them would have been Algerian or Moroccan. For these people, any references to Islam would in all probability function as a sort of assertion of their collective identity, which connoted being discriminated against and also being stigmatized on the basis of their religious roots. In such a situation of blatant discrimination, any reference to religion may start to function as a real substitute for social recognition.

Racial conflict, therefore, does exist in all banlieues, although it may be true that it is kept hidden very well. Therefore, in a typical banlieue in France, there is double exclusion for its residents, both on the basis of class, and on the basis of religion, and it can be described as an essentially negative place, which houses displaced persons, those people who lack the right to fight for their rights. These people often are faced with a choice between unemployment, and insecure work, and are as a result, immature and completely insecure about everything that concerns them.

Let us now take Kant’s essay on ‘What is Enlightenment? ’ While Kant describes enlightenment as the final emergence of an individual from his self induced immaturity or insecurity, he describes immaturity as being that facet of an individual, by which he is unable to us his God given courage and motivation and determination to emerge out of his dire circumstances. Certain types of individuals prefer, feels Kant, to remain immature all their lives, preferring to let others make all the important decisions for them.

According to Kant, “It is so convenient to be immature! ” Guardians of these same immature and lazy people, on the other hand, have taken it upon themselves to provide guidance to these people, and would do so willingly for a payment. Apparently, these guardians would also make sure that the mass of immature people would not dare to take the required step beyond being so needy, and to take things into their own hands. It would therefore become a near impossibility for these people to get rid of his immaturity, which is almost second nature to him at this stage.

More importantly, even if someone did succeed in throwing away the shackles of immaturity that bound them tightly, they would find it impossible to grab this freedom. Kant states further that although freedom is free, one cannot really make use of this freedom in all spheres of life; for example, when the guard says, don’t argue, walk on, one does have to walk on, because one has to obey the rules that curtail freedom. However, does this prevent one from gaining enlightenment?

What sort of restriction does promote enlightenment and freedom, instead of hampering or hindering it? According to Kant, the public use of one’s basic freedom must always remain free, and this alone would be able to bring about enlightenment among man. In certain affairs of state, where officers and others of the government must perforce behave in a passive manner, so that they may be beneficial towards the attainment of a common goal of enlightenment, their obedience is considered to be imperative.

For instance, it would not do for a lower level officer to argue or quarrel with his superiors: although he must obey completely the orders that his superiors have given him, he will at the same time question the wisdom of such orders. This is something that cannot be banned, like for example when a citizen has to pay taxes, he will pay them, but at the same time, he cannot be denied of the right to question the wisdom of these taxes in his own mind, using his own education and intellect to do so.

Would it be possible for a bunch of clergymen to secure a constant guardianship over all its members, just because they have given their oath to adhere to a set of doctrines or rules? This would be a near impossibility, reiterates Kant, and the reason is that one age cannot dictate rules over another age, especially where the question of enlightenment is concerned, and it would amount to a veritable crime against human nature because their destiny as such lies in such progress.

If one desired to test any one particular measure and decide whether it would be accepted as law, one would only need to check to make sure whether the people concerned would agree to make it a law for themselves. If this was done, then, states Kant, people would feel free to give vent to their true feelings about the rule in question, but at the same time one must never forget that it is impossible for one single institution, including a religious one, to create an institution that no one would ever question, because this would mean that man would be deprived of the sacred rights of mankind.

This would also mean that mankind has been deprived of all his leanings towards progress, by effectively curtailing his right to enlightenment during his lifetime and for the next generations to come. Although it is not true, says Kant, that one lives today in an enlightened age, it is true that one is living in an age of enlightenment. The reason is that man is a long way away from gaining enlightenment, and from making all his own decisions with complete freedom, especially those decisions that are religious in nature.

However, if man is allowed to think freely within a self imposed shell or barrier, then there can be no doubt that he would gradually be able to progress to a level in which he would be able to think and to act freely and without restrictions. Even governments may find that this would be a better idea, because they would be capable of allowing mankind their freedom, while at the same time treating him more as a man than as a machine. This would bring us back to Balibar’s ‘Uprising in the Banlieues’. The revolt that occurred in the banlieues can be termed ‘radical’, if only for the power of refusal that it revealed.

This revolt was able to; quite literally, open up the youth of the inner cities to the turmoil in their lives. If the incident were to be isolated in broad constitutional terms, then it would bring about the necessity of transforming the power of the negative, and also the violence that has been brought about as a direct result of discrimination into a sort of dialectic of the resistance involved in the system, while at the same time generalizing the subjects of social competition to a organization of dismemberment or ‘ecartelement’ as it is known in France.

It would be important to ferret out and lay bare the contradictions within the people involved, contradictions like those between the young and old, nationals and foreigners, the insecure and the protected, so that one would be able to understand the issue better. Equally important would be the need to mobilize and articulate the mediations that are involved in typical civil society, so that these may be treated as questions and issues that could be solved by an external agency.

To conclude, it must be stated that both Kant and Balibar talk about individuals, and about the ways in which race, genders and citizenship rights have played dramatically important roles in individuals’ lives through the ages. Although several hundreds of years have passed since the time Kant wrote his article, the situation can be described as being similar to that which existed before, thereby prompting one to reminisce upon the timelessness of man and his continuing and ongoing struggles with life.