Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Liberalism and Racial/Religious Expression

Since beginning this course and grappling with plotting and conceptualizing both local and global systems of racial classification and how those classifications manifest themselves in reality, I have been forced to reflect on my own beliefs regarding race and religion. I came into the course a proud, outspoken liberal. I had been through several diversity programs which focused primarily on deconstructing divisions between racial and religious groups, seeking ultimately to demonstrate the basic underlying humanity of all participants, regardless of racial/religious affiliation. I also attended middle school and high school at schools where I was very much in the racial minority, and I felt that this qualified me to speak accurately on common humanity, affording me the ability to disregard the very real social and cultural differences between myself and many of my classmates. Per Bridge builders and Facing History and Ourselves, everyone was one day destined to melt into one single, indiscernible cultural identity. Why, according to these organizations, is this the only answer to racial and religious stereotyping? The answer is because the organizations are fundamentally liberal and thus take it for granted that the ideological reality they hold for the future is ideal for everyone. But is this sort of reality ideal for everyone, or are liberals fooling themselves to hold the belief that a world without expressionary markers or signs is ideal for everyone involved?
To the liberal, anything that stands to affirm difference between two people is counterproductive. It is not necessarily the existence of groups, but their assertion of difference which poses a problem. To the liberal this will often seem like masochism (see, for example the Negritude movement which essentially affirmed many stereotypes directed at blacks). A liberal could point to numerous examples of discrimination and persecution which could have been avoided if racial and religious groups simply masked their beliefs (as we will see later, a recipe for the slow decay of racial/religious communal vitality). Everything is explicable in word form and by historic retrospection. It is not simply the racist’s fault for finding a problem with the difference between his/her group and the other, but in the other’s assertion of this difference through cultural expression. The liberal, unlike the member of a visibly discernable racial or religious group, is not invested in the real world (he/she is invested in no particular group’s continued existence and loses nothing in stripping a group of its unique identity), but is invested almost exclusively in achieving a far off, unrealizable, idealized world where there is nothing to differentiate groups and thus nothing on which to base any group’s superiority.
To the willing participants in racial and religious affirmation of identity nothing could be more devastating than being stripped expression. To this person, difference is not something that stands in the way of an ideal world, but something which binds one closely to other likeminded members of this community. A main focus of a “Methods and Theories of Religious Studies” class I took last semester was on religion’s potential to unify its participants and perpetuate itself through communal expression by elevating participants to states of ecstasy. In the above paragraph when I was describing the liberal, I stated that liberal’s position is explicable in “word form” and demonstratable by “historic retrospection.” This gives the liberal a certain advantage when it comes to political and legislative dialogue. For the religious or raced person forced to play in a court dictated by a hegemonistic liberal worldview, this is very difficult to argue with, for to the liberal person the religious or raced person is not arguing on the behalf of logic, but on the behalf of something that shouldn’t exist in the first place. This person’s stance is not communicable to the liberal by logical discourse because to the liberal the religious or racial assertionist’s (made that word up) stance is socially debilitating to themselves. It is something the liberal doesn’t understand. “Why would they want to set separate themselves and basically identify themselves as easy targets?” he might ask. Their stance is not as easily communicable in logical terms because what they are experiencing by their participation in activities which serve to unify their members is something based not on intellect, but on experience and feeling. Mass communal religious expression (something at which the liberal cringes or chuckles to observe) is an extremely powerful thing to members of religious groups. This is something that some of you have probably experienced. It is a sense of awe at its very least and can go so far as to literally elevate one mentally to a state of ecstasy. This is a main motivating factor in bringing people back to places of worship time and time again. It is what hooks people. It is a main, if not the main, factor in the perpetuation of cultural expression (and not just religious). It is this very real, visceral feeling evoked by mass, public expression (note, mass, public expression of anything other than common humanity is what the liberal wishes to minimize) that the liberal can’t understand. Because of the fact that the assertion of beliefs (and inevitably differences) stems primarily from a feeling evoked by communal expression of those beliefs, it is more difficult for the non-liberal to put his/her reasons for perpetuating differences in a word form logical enough for the liberal to understand and accept. It is something that the liberal would have to experience, but to which he/she is opposed and thus something he/she will never truly be able to experience. Because of this and the inability to signal with words this reason for expression in terms logical to the liberal, the liberal will never understand why unique groups wish to preserve religious and cultural expression.
When first faced with this proposition my initial reaction as a liberal person was to say “I don’t want to remove the existence of unique groups, but to help them to understand that they can be happier and less discriminated against if they don’t make themselves targets by conforming to that group’s identity, often manifested publicly through stereotypes.” I now realize, however, that in the end the liberal could never truly preserve the existence of unique groups while simultaneously limiting their public expression of difference, as this expression of difference is what polarizes and perpetuates the groups in the first place. By limiting or removing the desire to express themselves, the liberal would guarantee the group’s future extinction, and I don’t think any liberal person would agree to that position.

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