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I Am A Man: Authoring History in Memphis
Unformatted Document Text:  I Am a Man certain social conditions must be in place that facilitate democratic life. 25 Those conditions include freedom of access, equal rights to participate, truthfulness on the part of participants, absence of coercion in taking positions, and so forth. 26 These were some of the basic conditions for which the Memphis sanitation workers were fighting. For them, freedom of access meant the right to an equitable position in negotiating labor conditions. Equal rights to participate meant both the right to union representation and the same facilities, benefits, and seniority system that their white supervisors had. Absence of coercion in taking positions meant the right to a fair hearing of grievances and an end to racist and economic threats and retaliation. Every one of their demands was a premise towards the mutual, intersubjective understanding necessary for a realization of discourse ethics, and insofar as their strike was a nonviolent protest against the absence of those conditions, they avoided objectifying their supervisors in the municipal government as means towards their ends. Unfortunately, their attempts at reconciliation were mostly ignored. According to Leslie Howe s reading of Habermas, when there is not effective communication between subjects, there are basically three alternatives: strategic action, cutting off communication, or argumentative discourse intended to find out where the problem is. 27 Strategic action occurs when one side acts to secure its own interests without regard to the other side s position. Mayor Loeb, while trying to maintain a façade of direct communication with the strikers, engaged in strategic actions to break the strike. Not the least of his means were legal measures to prohibit marches, police brutality, and his masterful cooperation with the conservative Memphis newspaper and TV stations to discredit the workers and appeal to white 25 Bob Cannon, Rethinking the Normative Content of Critical Theory (New York: Palgrave, 2001). 26 Jurgen Habermas, Justification and Application (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), p. 56. 27 Leslie Howe, On Habermas (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2000), p. 28. 15

Authors: Peters, Benjamin.
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I Am a Man
certain social conditions must be in place that facilitate democratic life.
Those conditions
include freedom of access, equal rights to participate, truthfulness on the part of participants,
absence of coercion in taking positions, and so forth.
These were some of the basic conditions
for which the Memphis sanitation workers were fighting. For them, freedom of access meant the
right to an equitable position in negotiating labor conditions. Equal rights to participate meant
both the right to union representation and the same facilities, benefits, and seniority system that
their white supervisors had. Absence of coercion in taking positions meant the right to a fair
hearing of grievances and an end to racist and economic threats and retaliation. Every one of
their demands was a premise towards the mutual, intersubjective understanding necessary for a
realization of discourse ethics, and insofar as their strike was a nonviolent protest against the
absence of those conditions, they avoided objectifying their supervisors in the municipal
government as means towards their ends. Unfortunately, their attempts at reconciliation were
mostly ignored.
According to Leslie Howe s reading of Habermas, when there is not effective
communication between subjects, there are basically three alternatives: strategic action, cutting
off communication, or argumentative discourse intended to find out where the problem is.
Strategic action occurs when one side acts to secure its own interests without regard to the other
side s position. Mayor Loeb, while trying to maintain a façade of direct communication with the
strikers, engaged in strategic actions to break the strike. Not the least of his means were legal
measures to prohibit marches, police brutality, and his masterful cooperation with the
conservative Memphis newspaper and TV stations to discredit the workers and appeal to white
25
Bob Cannon, Rethinking the Normative Content of Critical Theory (New York: Palgrave,
2001).
26
Jurgen Habermas, Justification and Application (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), p. 56.
27
Leslie Howe, On Habermas (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2000), p. 28.
15


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