Justice, Voice, and Silence: thinking through the Texas Filibuster

The events surrounding Texas’ “Senate Bill 5” and Sen. Davis’ filibuster raise incredibly complex questions concerning the interrelationship between politics and the voice–viz. the question of the silencing of the voice.

In many respects, the entire narrative of the night’s events pivoted around this notion of silencing. From a broader political standpoint, the very nature of “Senate Bill 5” seems to emerge from a conflict of the voice, the silencing of the politically dis-empowered (women) by the politically empowered (men). Comprising a mere 21% of the Texas senate, those whose bodies were directly targeted by the bill remain essentially voiceless in response to its powers. In resistance to this inequity of power, Sen. Davis brought to bear the subversive power of the filibuster, precisely the power of the voice. Having been politically dis-empowered, Sen. Davis’ filibuster reasserted the lost voice, called out from the silence. Yet, the resistance to the voice emerged once again, redoubled through the rigorous application of the parliamentary rules (the letter over the spirit), and eventually, as desperation set in, through the bending of these rules (the abandonment of the letter and the spirit). The final postponement of the vote succeeded only when, following the final silencing of Davis’ voice, the law itself was subverted by the emergence of a new voice, the rising of a no-longer-silent minority, who overtook the chamber, drowning out the voices of the powerful.

The structure of this event clarifies an essential relationship between politics and the voice. Simply, political power is none other than the power of the voice. To be politically powerful is to be one who can drown out the voice of opposition–political power is the power to silence. Through numbers, intimidation, social engineering, financing: the essential danger of democracy is neither the power of the majority over the minority (e.g. as race theory or feminism might suggest), nor the minority over the majority (e.g. as many critics of the politics of capitalism suggest), but more fundamentally, the domination of the voiceless by the voiced. The principal tools of socio-political change, from civil rights marches to union strikes, from grassroots petitions to the filibuster, are essentially structured around the voice, they are structures which allow an unheard voice to re-emerge into public discourse.

The question then becomes, what voice is to be heard? At what point does the repression of the voice legitimate the overturning of the political? For, the events of “Senate bill 5” are not without their own ambiguities. Certainly, the GOP used parliamentary legalism to disrupt Davis’ filibuster (first two “strikes”), but the Dems similarly used this legalism to overturn the 12:01 vote. Yes, the GOP “bent” the law in their third “strike,” and again in their push for a late vote, but did the erupting balcony not similarly subvert the law? Neither side stood simply with or against the law, both used the law as a tool when expedient, and sacrificed it when necessary.

Yet, this ambiguity vis-à-vis the law does not mandate an ethical relativism, a basic valuation might still be permitted. Against the overly simplistic readings of the night by many liberal commentators, the beauty and character of the night is not found in the “overturning of GOP trickery” as some have suggested, or the “correct application of the law” as others have implied, but in the true arrival of the ethical. The lesson of June 25th is not that true justice finally emerged from politics, but the recognition that politics are secondary to the ethical, that sometimes the political, the law, must be suspended to make room for the inbreaking of justice–as Derrida writes, “Law (Droit) is not justice. Law is the element of calculation, and it is just that there be law, but justice is incalculable, it requires us to calculate the incalculable; and aporetic experiences are the experiences, as improbable as they are necessary, of justice, that is to say of moments in which the decision between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.” And what is the phenomenological form of the inbreaking of justice? Perhaps nothing other than the inbreaking of the repressed voice. Levinas’ Totality and Infinity, it should be remembered, reminds of us this intimate link between the voice and justice: “Language,” it states “institutes a relation irreducible to the subject-object relation: the revelation of the other. … Their commerce [i.e. discourse], as we shall show shortly, is ethical.” What we learn from the Texas senate is that politics and the law are a mere means toward the essentially foreign end of justice, an end which can only be glimpsed, ever so slightly, in the voice of the oppressed, the voice of the needy, the voice of the minority.

Yet, there is something explicitly anti-democratic in this emergence of the oppressed voice of the minority. If the Texas vote was easily to be passed (as both sides admit), and backed by a majority of Texans, shouldn’t the “democratic approach” be the institution of the law, not the subversion of the vote? When is it permitted for the minority to overcome the majority? The very structure of the protest movement, regardless of its democrat and “power to the people” rhetoric, appears to be an essentially anti-democratic structure, the supplanting of the majority by the minority. We see an analogous structure developing in the recent turmoil in Egypt. The ostensibly democratically elected president Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been forcibly ousted by the Egyptian military in conjunction with a massive protest movement of an unprecedented scale (the BBC estimates 33,000,000, the largest recorded protest in history). Is this protest, as well as that in Texas, an injustice?

Perhaps. Or maybe it is time to recognize that democracy is not an end unto itself. Perhaps it is simply another reiteration of politics, law, droit. Could democracy be thought as an abstraction, always secondary to the concrete oppressed other? Could we not affirm that democracy, properly thought, is always in service to something greater, something positively undeconstructible, justice-itself–and the visible image of this invisible justice, the voice of the oppressed?


About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on July 7, 2013, in News, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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