Cannabis and the Project of Enlightenment: Can We Make It Work?

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Cannabis and the Project of Enlightenment: Can We Make It Work? avatar	 by Judith Stamps


FACT: inequality in wealth and power is increasing in our world.  The richest one percent of adults own over 40% of the world’s wealth (land, buildings, food, resources, machinery, weapons, technology, and cash), a figure that, according to Credit Swisse, will rise to over 50% by 2016.  RULE ONE: In relations where one group dominates another, there is a negative correlation between the level of authority the dominant group wields and how much it feels compelled to explain its actions.  Masters feel the need explain almost nothing to their slaves.  RULE TWO: Where one group dominates another, it is the subordinate group that takes on the job of learning about and understanding how the relationship works.  The dominant group doesn’t stoop to such things.  DEFINITION: Alienation is the condition of living in a chronically lopsided power relationship.


ONE: what drives this world is the power to attack and destroy.  That’s the militaristic view, and what we identify as the right wing outlook.  TWO: violence is undoubtedly real, but what really drives the world is imagination and creativity.  That’s the view we recognize as predominantly pacifist and left wing.  As the right tends to dominate, it has fallen to the left to try to understand the roots of racism, violence, and domination in general.  To this end, it has engaged in acts of civil disobedience, and social movement politics for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and the rights of cannabis practitioners.

There is an idea that stems from the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment that goes: if there is a spiritual or cosmic purpose for human beings, it is to gain enlightened self-awareness.  From this viewpoint, it is self-awareness, or at least the potential for self-awareness, that distinguishes humans from other creatures.  One of the earliest and most influential exponents of this outlook was the 18th century German philosopher, GWF Hegel, famous for his analysis of master-slave relationships.  Hegel noted that in the acts of growing, preparing and making things, slaves gain a level of self-awareness unavailable to masters who are merely use these things.  Moreover, it is the slaves who begin the process of social awareness, as it is they who feel the need to understand both the master and the relationship.

From this analysis later thinkers have gleaned two important points.  First, we gain self-awareness in two main ways: through creating things, and seeing ourselves reflected in our creations; and through relationships—by seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of others.  Second, when it comes to social relations, there is no neutral standpoint.  No party is neutral, no matter how much violence, political authority and scientific language it is able to muster.  Every kind of activity, and every social position garners its own standpoint, and its own kind of understanding.  Dominant groups rule in the sense they have acquired a monopoly on the legal means to violence, but not in the sense that they understand the world in any superior manner.  At some level, we all understand this dynamic.  A meme common in popular comedies is the family servant, who always turns out to be the only one who knows what’s going on.

North American feminists of the 1970s, sometimes called ‘second wave feminists,’ made good use of these ideas by developing something they called ‘standpoint theory.’  The standpoint in this theory comes not simply from being a woman.  Rather, it is something gained through shared political action.  The women who lobbied for natural childbirth, who trained as midwives, who rejected the male-dominated notion of birth as a surgical event, and who ultimately changed the rules, created a standpoint for themselves.  Like Hegel’s slave, they were motivated to try their best to get inside the heads of the male doctors.  They analyzed their own needs, and came to see better what they shared with other women.  In doing so they expanded the self-awareness project by developing a woman’s standpoint on women’s health.  Due to their hard work, we have all come to understand women better.  Have they achieved equality?  No, not yet.  But they have a pretty good handle on the process.

One can multiply these examples.  It has surely been the task of First Nations in North America to analyze their relationships with dominant whites, and to lobby for change.  And it has been the task of cannabis activists to try to figure out who’s been beating up on them and why.  To that end, they have written histories, built on line libraries, engaged in peaceful civil disobedience, built long lasting organizations, studied and written on cannabis science, and created both medicines and a medical literature.  They have analyzed their nations’ constitutions and legal systems, they have analyzed the concept of prohibition, and they have changed some laws.  They have developed a cannabis standpoint.

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