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Universalism Matters March 27, 2009

Posted by dailyegg in essay.
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Multiculturalists assume that the outward physical and cultural differences between peoples amount to unbridgeable differences of bias and understanding rooted deep in ethnic origins and local culture and that the only way to exist in the world is to tolerate essential difference and appreciate that difference by way of mutual respect.

At the same time this ideal of respect is often undermined by a protectionist posture—you are X and I am Y and therefore you can never really understand me—which can harden into a position of perpetual offense that therefore undermines claims to mutual respect. That so many people today are offended on behalf of their identification with their root national/ethnic/gender group tends to undermine any sort of serious discussion about concerns that surround the legitimacy of our origin-of-selfhood classifications, as well as our policies toward each other economically, politically, militarily, etc., and they often do so before such a discussion can even get going. “Easy for you to say,” the offended chime. Or: “You wouldn’t say that if you weren’t privileged to say that.”

That it’s critically important when having any conversation about ethnic identity to be respectful of whatever distinctions are valued by the person identifying with the identity (so to speak) goes without saying. But it’s even more important not to get stuck inside the differences or not to construct an identity whose sense of authenticity is predicated upon perpetual organization around those differences. The over-usage of political identity as a fallback position for human identity—and the fact that too many people are encouraged to understand they are disadvantaged because of their political identity—speaks more to the perpetuation of this social divisiveness than it does to any real resolution in the matter.

Continually placing one group ahead of another group dissolves any effort of change into one of perpetual, static routines of in-fighting. You don’t solve the problem of marginalization and unfairness by revoking unfairness and marginalization one group at a time. Many proponents of multiculturalism seem not to care much about the principle of fairness for all groups because it approaches belonging as something that is organized around a principle of equalized exclusivity. By focusing intentions of identity on the perceived cultural status of their own group and by acting out of grievance and complaint they only ensure that at some point another group will act out of grievance and complaint towards them and they are ever prepared for such an assault. But even those in large nonmarginal groups can experience the drowning of freedoms and the curtailing of rights. 

The idea I hope to stress here is not that we blithely throw away all interest in ethnic heritage or forget about issues such a race/class/gender. But what we have to do is stop placing carefully controlled racial/class/gender distinctions at the foreground of identity. We are all human beings. We need to  understand our identity not as a function of a politics of division but as a politics of unity that understands that all people suffer, all people require fairness and that all people need to participate in a government that participates in them.

All too often a significant portion of the offended claim the status simply to destroy the debate, achieving in the process a semblance of victory, a momentary tactical advantage on a field of long-term strategic divisiveness.  

One person’s expressive idea is offensive to another’s;  one person’s assertion of self is offensive to still another;  one person’s representation of their rage, their hope, their joy is offensive to . . . etc.  There is no offence-free sanction inside the philosophy of multiculturalism, which tends instead to desire rights only for those who are pre-approved with the credit of marginalization, an empowerment offered as a kind of corrective to the perceived and/or actual mainstream dis-empowerment of their group, one that inevitably results in backlash from another edge of the polity that is offended, so a bickering ensues that only profits the instantiated forms of power-holders, who meanwhile don’t change anything except the posters in the store windows. That some groups actually are disempowered and exploited by other groups is a condition that exists beyond the powers of multiculturalism to heal—at least today’s current iteration of it is—unless it circles back and pick up some of what it rejected of universalism.

 Not that bickering isn’t sometime good and absolutely necessary as people will take advantage of other people who aren’t in their social and or economic class, and power is abused: we know this. We’ve known this for centuries. We’re ready for the next step. What needs to be asserted and understood is that virtue is not a question of political or cultural affiliation. 

Political and cultural affiliations are not in themselves the problem; the problem is when they are abused, and this posture of abuse begins with philosophy of self-interest iterated, in our country, by the primacy of the Consumerist Ethic. Under its mantle, our affiliation with consumption of both products and ideologies goes too far in attempting to signify a virtue which the ethic then immediately degrades as pure self-interest. The purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser and identity becomes more about your ability to telegraph what your affiliations are than it is about figuring out who you really are underneath the affiliations (and then in dealing with this question without fear). What we need to return to is something more like a citizen ethic, which recognizes both the individual and the community, and emphasizes how they are joined by an ineluctably cooperative bond. Where value is understood not in terms of market signifiers monitored by media outlets for the purpose of manipulating product buzz and purchase behavior, but in terms of more traditional humanist signifiers. Honesty. Integrity. A Democratic Spirit. You name it. Qualities that aren’t for sale

Political Correctness, Queer theory, Gender Studies—all were intent upon breaking down barriers and seeking more fairness for the outliers on the edges of society. Despite the individual ethical values of each they seem to have coalesced over the years  into a strangely clannish mindset, the liberated vs. the enslaved, the sensitive vs. the unknowing:  A rigid piety of fairness for a few seen as permanently abused has melded together, however, in a way that is stonewalling the mission to a more graceful inclusiveness.   

Even the liberators end up by running errands for their egos.

 None of these postures can accommodate a vision that accommodates everyone, and there is little interest it seems in developing modes of discourse that can speak to everyone at once, to the  mortal human being in us all. We seem to have forgotten that our identities are not as precious as our lives. We salute the Multicultural Tower of Babel because we recognize the brick  our particular  afflitiation has cemented inside its walls—inscribed by us, for others to appreciate, if they would like to enroll in a course in who we are. Despite all the cant about inclusiveness, our perceptual inclinations since the 1970s are in some ways more separatist than ever. Political Correctness and Multiculturalism are not inclusive ideologies because they partition the human experience into racial and ethnic and gender categories that foster ideations of unbridgeable separateness and essential difference that are based around differences in gender, race and national origin that no one chooses for him or herself. The separatism is now moving along lines of class and education, largely through the work of the Trickle Down Economy. Officially the elite are very concerned and interested in class and race and gender. But as the seductions of materialism became an ethos of self-reward that usurped the postures of the last grass-root collectivist movement, like the Beats, to name just one obvious progenitor—interesting to note that Jack Kerouac, or his image, was selling Gap chinos in the early 2000s—Multiculturalism and Political Correctness could be used to move product as well as conscience.  Into the self-aware student population, a demographic category that was perceived to be too savvy to the idea of just moving product, ideas of essential difference manifested themselves as a pretty straight-forward reversal of the value-hierarchy the WWII generation. White male Americans were  perceived as decidedly less hip and cool than their female and ethnic American counterparts. Hence, The United Colors of Benneton seemed like a good way to embrace both a colorful new T-shirt as well as a belief in worldwide fairness and equality. 

           But the pieties of inclusiveness have since created a narrative of identity too rigid to accommodate complex, shifting, nuanced human realities. Theories of fairness and inclusiveness, like any theory, can become ossified and used to bludgeon instead of unshackle. All the great work done to elucidate the perceptual crimes inherent in the patriarchal system, all the great energy that was liberated from within those restrictive covalent bonds of hegemony  were not unleashed upon society in the best of ways, it seems, ways that would translate into tranformative benefits for eveyone, including undereducated white men, the butt of everybody’s jokes. After a period of succes within the academy, these changes in the distrubution of cultural powers seemed to have made their way mainly into the marketplace, becoming the way marketers approach the job of selling product by writing versions of MCulturalism and PC into the televison shows that were designed as entertaining ways to keep the partitioned audience consuming their cultural-identity-specific goods. The keys of countercultural  liberation were taken up by the establishment to provide a window dressing of fainress that they could sell back to the population as a form of trinkety particpatory the liberation rainbow: biker gear and PTown for gays, Suburus for lesbians, FuBu for blacks, Manolo Blahniks for rich bitches, Hummers for Yuppies,  chinos for male nostalgia . . . you know what I mean. But beyond the story of how the modes of dissent became the modes of the salespitch there lies the story of systemic ideological collapse, and in this collapse the country’s philosophical identity crisis resides inside the reigning tone of irony, which  has now placed it departing pirouette upon the stage: the generation whose youth lauded peace and fairness engineered an era of unprecedented greed and financial destruction.

And here lies the great new hypocrisy: the Boomer vision of an inclusive society that grants access to the marginalized and underprivileged has grown to be more class-conscious—showily materialistic—and therefore snobbish in its upscale economic essentialism than the WWII generation it sought to supplant. This is the unofficial behavior of the Boomers I’m talking about, however. Officially, they’re more or less unimpeacheable on any front other than the way they spoil their children. But the snobbery, the classism, the desperate need to live through self-congratulatory signifiers, the reflexively self-promotional observations and declarations they revert to as commentators and observers are so deeply ingrained it is impossible for a Boomer, just like it was for the Fonz, to admit that he or she is wrong. They have a glib personal story or pseudo-objective explanation ready for every contingency. Great explainers, they are. They have always been precocious at explaining things they didn’t understand. But the Weathermen never really did know which way the wind blew.

The only corrective for quackery, whether scientific, financial or political is a grounding in what is increasingly undervalued in today’s America: the much maligned classical humanism. I say that cautiously. We may not be thinking of quite the same things. How do we know? Before you start yawning and thinking here comes another lecture on the value of a dying professorial claim to importance, let me point out that our civilization began with what I am calling for lack of a better name, classical humanism. My assertion is that a civilization that is founded on a certain mode of intellectual inquiry and practices cannot really afford to ignore the tradition that created it, and MCulturalism is one outgrowth of that cultural tree.

We forget that science in itself emerged from Ancient Greece. We tend to think Darwin did everything by himself. And that it was once a contemplative, not experimental, undertaking. Darwin never set foot in a laboratory. Not that science is a solution to what ails us. Because science is only a method, a mode of measuring and categorizing: We’ve heard before for a call for the unification or at least cross-talking between the arts and the sciences but it has always been unclear just what exactly this really means. I suppose to a large extent it means that humanists know too little about physics and bio-chemistry and physicists and bio-chemists know to little about literature and philosophy.  One distinction I like to make, in hope of meaningful clarification, is that the sciences are measurement arts and the humanities are interpretive arts. Seeing it this way underscores just why it is they need to talk to each other. Who interprets the measures? How they implemented?  How can knowing who were are affect the condition these metrics lead us to infer?      

The idea of looking past our own looking may strike some as an impossible task or naively amusing conjecture. But in regard to the question of identity, both social and private, both physical and conceptual, doesn’t it strike the reader as a mistake, essentially, to for us to continue to identify ourselves with the exterior qualities of race and gender over which we have no control whatsoever? Certainly we must understand our cultures and the origin and history of that culture politically and privately. The culture we spring from and who we are in that culture is vital to our understandings of who we are as individuals, but who we are as individuals is not limited to those understandings, unless we impose that limitation ourselves. Why should we be judged by things that we have no part in choosing? Doing so only creates a lot of trivial distinctions.

More important, what color or race or sex is the consciousness that perceives the world? If we feel that our interior “I” is inclined to take a class-based or race-based or gender-oriented perspective, can we separate out what extent that inclination is there because it has been learned or because it is organic and natural, so to speak, to the origins of the “I” itself?  And what part of the “I” then is doing this “separating”?  (Which begs the question: is the little genie of the “I” a part of the exterior physical world? Or is the exterior world only meaningful in the presence of this “I”?) 

 This is not to ignore the very real prejudices people undertake behaviorally toward the victim of their prejudice; indignities and cruelties are heaped up daily by individuals exercising their biases for reasons that are as old as history itself. But we should never forget that we already know the way to look beyond the barriers of race, gender etc. and that we have to remind ourselves that what is important is not the exterior genetic packaging of a person but the interior conscious character of the individual in question.

But is there such a difference? Are our interiors really such different places from our exteriors? Does a black person have a different interiority than a white one because of his race or because of his conditioning in that society or due to genetic phenotypical factors?

 Since we all only have one life and one race and one interiority  it is impossible for us to compare what our subjective experiences of the world are like to one another  directly. But in many ways, tone-and-inflection continuities signal community. We recognize what we know, and what we know, collectively, is known by metaphor and by shared emotion.

What I would like to say, or at least to begin imagining, is how we can look beyond these barriers and into the qualities that unify us (survival, for one, needs to be recast as a cooperative effort as opposed to a competitive one, for we are too wasteful now and the planet cannot carry our fantasies of unlimited growth that competition is based upon), for surely the politicians of the future will recognize that they themselves should not fear unity: they should use it for the purposes of rebuilding a world around a different set of missions. A set that would include the proper regulation of the wastes and toxicities that engulf  us at every level of our collective lives: industrial, nutritional and perhaps most important, informational. And where we can use terms like black, white, Hispanic, Asian or even gay, straight, bi, male, female as descriptively inclusive—that is to say, as terms that have no more hate or judgment embedded in them than if we were to say black sock, red shoe, purple hat or whatever. Obviously, this is not something that’s going to happen overnight, if ever. There is too much money involved in keeping us all believing we’re all so different from each other.

The great I within us all sounds like something out of Tolkien, perhaps, but it is that I that saves us from devolving into illiterate tribalism. The collective consciousness that looks over the shoulder of such clannish partitioning—the forgotten insights of universalism—is the kind of thing you learn to perceive by a serious immersion in literature and philosophy, the place where transcendent values were first conceptualized, and these distinctions are being lost in the scramble to rewire the mainframe of the social hierarchy around the ethic of purchasing power and the marketability of identity. We should be able to sense how shallow the pursuit of this ethic is, especially now.

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