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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Is It Naive to Side With Democracy?

Dale Carrico

Amor Mundi

February 27, 2007

A friend worries that my support of the politics of consent over the politics of imposing general standards may make me hopelessly utopian. He analogizes my position to that of someone who might say, “I want to create a world where there is no homophobia so that we don’t have to ban biotechnologies that could be used in a homophobic manner.” To such a sentiment he proposes the intervention: “[S]ince it is impossible to create such a world, isn’t it more pragmatic to ban some potentially homophobic uses of technologies?”

Now, while I agree that it is naive to fantasize that one will altogether eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on, I do think it is far from utopian to prefer democratic to authoritarian responses to these pernicious attitudes. But given this, it seems rather foolish to me to attempt to ban technologies to circumvent anti-democratic uses. Rather, one charts anti-democratic attitudes as they articulate actually existing developmental trajectories, and then one struggles with one’s fellow citizens to resist anti-democratic outcomes while encouraging democratic ones.

To focus in on the specific example of homophobia my interlocutor mentions, it seems to me, frankly, that hostility to biotechnology often functions as a stealthy surrogate discourse for homophobia—note the hysterical worries about nontraditional reproduction, the highlighting of the threat to traditional roles, the endless citation of an imperiled “dignity” that amounts to incumbent privileges threatened by “difference,” all of which recur in bioconservative discourses in this vein (even sometimes superficially “progressive” bioconservatisms that have the nerve to pretend to champion the rights of nicely assimilationist gay people) and so on. In short, bioconservative discourse regularly seems to me to function unambiguously as anti-queer discourse (see my blog-posts “Chimera,” “Technology Is Making Queers of Us All,” “Bigotry’s New Frontier,” among others).

Personally, I am content to struggle to expose homophobia in developmental discourse where it occurs (as certainly it does), to document and resist specific homophobic developmental policy prescriptions as anti-democratic, to engage generally in a multicultural politics supporting diversity and insisting on the self-defeating irrationality of stigmatizing phobias, and otherwise working to ensure that those who remain phobic privatize their parochial attitudes and pay the price of constrained horizons for their intolerance. Beyond that, I fear, one risks an authoritarian policing of differences with which one disagrees, where what is wanted and all that is needed is democratic contestation and the ongoing nonviolent reconciliation of dissensus among peers.

Otherwise, it seems to me that the interests of marginal minorities whose vulnerability and the terms of whose exploitation is variously threatened and exacerbated by particular technodevelopmental outcomes are more to struggle to take up the new powers arriving on the scene and to turn them opportunistically to our own uses in the name of democracy, rather than to struggle quixotically to ban technologies that always inevitably have both good and bad applications, all from fear of the bad ones. Relinquishment seems to me to be a strategy of self-marginalization, a strategy that provokes the hostility of those who desire the actually empowering applications inhering in technodevelopments while simultaneously displacing development onto unscrupulous actors (in places that will ignore bans of popular and profitable developments come what may) likely to be all the more indifferent to the concerns of the Prohibitionists in the first place and hence likely to encourage worst case outcomes even from their own perspectives.

Look, I am the farthest thing in the world from a facile technophile expecting technology to “enlighten humanity” of its own accord or to facilitate emancipatory outcomes through the “natural” crystallization of some kind of “spontaneous order.” But there is no getting around it, I do side with democracy rather than aristocracy where these are the alternatives on hand. If the point of this objection is to accuse me of silly idealism for the choice of democratic over elitist politics, then I accept it happily and note that my critic has taken sides as well as an apologist for elitism. (Don’t worry, there is of course an ongoing amnesty for gadflies like my friend who take on positions of devil’s advocacy to usefully interrogate assumptions and clarify formulations!)

And, of course, once one has taken sides in this larger, older, deeper struggle of aristocracy against democracy, certainly it remains true that there are more and less realistic ways of going about struggling experimentally and responsibly to implement that ideal in the vicissitudes of history.

But I don’t think hysterical and futile calls for blanket bans of complex technoscientific developments—which are almost always, after all, susceptible of both emancipatory and exploitative applications—is a particularly practical or realistic strategy in general.

Given the breathtaking breadth and deranging depth of ongoing and palpably upcoming technodevelopmental churn confronting us all, it is easy to understand the allure of such Prohibitionist calls from time to time. But it simply seems to me that democracy must do better than that.

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.


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