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Monday, September 19, 2011

Remonstrance (7)—Unanimity and its Discontents

Click here for the introduction to Round and Square's series on remonstrance.
We continue our study of remonstrance with a series of posts that grew out of my participation in the Tenth East-West Philosophers Conference in Honolulu in May 2011. The theme was “Business Practice in a Global World,” and it was an exhilarating ten days of discussion and contention with philosophers, administrators, and entrepreneurs. My own work there centered on remonstrance, and my specific task was to convey the richness of the concept to philosophers, on the one had, and practicing business people, on the other. The next dozen or so posts under this “remonstrance” header will deal with that material.
[a] Discontents RF

Although it may seem to be an esoteric topic, it is very far from it. In East Asia and the West, it lies at the heart of administrative practice and a great deal of public life. It is a social dynamic with powerful implications for the political order, and it has figured, just in the past few years in events ranging from the world financial crisis to critiques of domestic policy across the globe. The spirit of remonstrance is social and public, and that is precisely why those who wish to admonish think twice or thrice…and those in power fear it.

              Remonstrance 1                Remonstrance 2                 Remonstrance 3
              Remonstrance 4                Remonstrance 5                 Remonstrance 6
              Remonstrance 7                Remonstrance 8                 Remonstrance 9

Remonstrance (7)—Unanimity and its Discontents
Take another look, if you get a chance, at the remonstrance post on King Lear. It prepares us well for our return to China and the work of Marcel Granet. Granet does not deal with the principle of remonstrance itself in much detail, but he sets the broader context for it beautifully. As we see in the King Lear episode, family and state are often intertwined in complex ways, and that was equally true in China. As we transition from family to state, we will look once more at Granet’s treatment of court life in the feudal group. It requires almost an obsession with the concept of remonstrance in order to ferret it out of his pages, but the pursuit will be worthwhile, for no one has set the table for a full treatment of remonstrance as well as Granet. The context here is the solidarity of the feudal group and the activities of the court.
The solidarity of the feudal group is established in court assemblies rather than at war. In meetings for counsel the vassals give themselves to the prince. They hold in possession from the prince whatever wisdom they have: they give back this wisdom in the form of advice. An overlordship is lost if the same virtue does not animate all the vassals and all the counselors. “To appear to be in agreement and to disparage each other—ah!—that is the greatest of evils.” “to fill with words the court of audience” is of no use if hearts are not unanimous: on the contrary, each must be able to accept the responsibility (kiu: the effect, whether harmful or glorious) of advice which he gave or that others have extolled, but which has been accepted by the overlord, in the name of all, when he said “yes.”[1]

[b] Ai-ronic RF
The principle of unanimity is a powerful one in Granet’s scheme, and it connects to Durkheimian ideas about the social whole. Even though there is a process behind decision-making (even Durkheim could not argue that actions emerge whole in the collective mind), the final imprint must reflect more than the sum of minds that discussed the various strategies in the first place. There must be unanimity. There must be social and political wholeness. The assembly, having come together in its own version of courtly “gathering” is the place for unanimous decisions that strengthen the corporate group—the feudal order—in the present and the future. This may seem to be an odd concept for readers used to thinking about (let us say) fifty-five percent and electoral politics. And, indeed, it is—even in East Asia today, although it is still much better understood in China, Japan, and Korea than it is in almost any part of the West.

Although the principle of unanimity lies at the heart of court assemblies and the decision-making process, it is possible to dispute it. Indeed, it is sometimes necessary to fight unanimity with remonstrance. For Granet, remonstrance is a kind of excommunication. It is a terrible final act that is meant, by sacrificing a single career (or even life), to restrain the overlord in times of error. There is nothing redeeming about it for Granet, and his extreme perspective helps us a great deal to understand the classical dimensions of the concept, in which unanimity was broken only at great risk to the body politic, and sacrifice of the remonstrator.
When advice is adopted all counselors are obliged to carry it out, unless they have been careful to free themselves from responsibility. But to repudiate a decision which in principle can only be unanimous is to cut oneself off from the feudal group, to put one under a ban, to curse oneself and run the risk of bringing a curse upon one’s fellow and upon the overlord.[2]

Granet is strict in his interpretation of remonstrance’s consequences. To go against the almost-unanimous group is to sacrifice oneself. And here he finally invokes the term. Recall Kent’s words from King Lear.

The reproof (jian)—contrary advice—is an act that is inconceivable in an overlordship that is possessed of happy fortune. It is a duty, a fatal duty, in the counsel of an overlordship that is declining. The vassal who pleads against the others condemns himself to expiate the harmful effect of the decisions that he repudiates. The similar advice of three counselors constitutes unanimity of counsel. A protest, three times repeated, attacks the decision with a sort of opposition in suspension: provisionally it loosens the bonds of fate, but it pledges the destiny of the protestor. It is his duty to retire, to lay down his office, to leave the country: he must expiate what he imputes to others as a fault. To give way would only be to “stay and hate” and to bring ill luck upon the act which has been determined.[3]

The decision has been made, and the remonstrance has failed. Just as in the domestic sphere, one must find a way to protect the corporate entity from further damage.

Excommunication (and often the discipline of a self-imposed one) is Granet’s answer to failed remonstrance.
[c] Concerted RF
The objector must, except in extreme cases, avoid cursing the others and excommunicate himself. When the vassal whose advice has been rejected quits the country, he breaks with his fatherland and his ancestors: he cannot carry away the utensils that were employed by him in his patrimonial acts of worship. He loses his gods. “When he has crossed a frontier, he levels a piece of ground and builds a mound of earth. He turns his face towards his country and utters lamentations. He clothes himself in a tunic, an undergarment, a white head covering without ornaments, and stripped of its colored borders (mourning attire). He wears shoes of undressed leather, the back of his carriage is covered with the skin of a white dog, the horses harnessed to it have not been cropped. He himself ceases to cut his nails, his beard and his hair. When he eats, he abstains from making any libation [he is debarred from any communion with the gods]. He refrains from saying that he is not guilty [he also refrains from saying that he is guilty: only a chief has enough spirit and authority to be able to make such a formal confession]. His wives (or, at the least, his chief wife) are no longer admitted to his presence [his sexual life and his relations with home are interrupted]. Not till three months are past does he resume his ordinary clothes.”[4]

These paraphrased and reinterpreted lines from the Book of Ritual make the point of excommunication very clear, indeed. One leaves one’s position and engages in a kind of mourning. A failed remonstrance requires the vassal to break all ties. It is not acceptable to maintain an air of “rightness” or superiority. The remonstrance failed; the counselor failed. Game over.

The expatriated vassal mourns his fatherland, but it is also his own mourning that he bears. He breaks off former attachments, and makes an end of the personality which has been his up till then. When, at the end of three months, he lays aside the signs of woe, he is no longer the man of such an overlord and such a country. In order to cease being an opponent, he ought to die for his fatherland. All the time that he is wearing mourning raiment and enduring abstinence, he olds over his lord the threat of an act of suicide. This threat has a horrible potency, and suffices, even when it is aimed at a stranger, to put constraint upon his will.[5]

For Granet—and in the Book of Ritual—remonstrance is a focused, last-ditch effort to correct the wrongs of a superior. Failure to do so results in an ending for the vassal, even as the overlord he has tried (and failed) to correct leads the family or state toward greater disaster. Remonstrance, for Granet, is an act that happens in states that have already begun a long slide toward failure.
***  ***
Marcel Granet’s rich discourse on the Book of Ritual is especially important if we are to break from the more-or-less “pragmatic” approaches to remonstrance that have been taken by many scholars, who tend to approach it as a vague and ultimately meaningless set of cultural symbols in the world of early Chinese realpolitik. Ironically enough, it is only by pushing further the idealistic components of the message that we can start to sort through its effect on political life and civic engagement in Chinese history. It is only through Granet’s pessimism that we can understand how to use the power of remonstrance in a truly positive fashion in our own lives.

[1] Marcel Granet, Chinese Civilization (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), xxx. 
[2] Ibid., xxx.
[3] Ibid., xxx.
[4] Ibid., xxx.
[5] Ibid., xxx.

Granet, Marcel. Chinese Civilization. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950.

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