Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Language of the Left: Strategic Essentialism, Stereotypes, and Why I Won't Stop Ragging on Conservatism

Headlining the Huffington Post Religion page right now is an article from John Bockman entitled "Beyond Stereotypes of 'Conservative' and 'Liberal' Christianity," in which Bockman advocates that  the stereotyping categories of "conservative" and "liberal" Christians be abandoned. Bockman argues that these categories too often preclude conversation, let alone understanding, between Christians with dissimilar beliefs, and that when we look closely these categories are not particularly accurate anyway. As a website that actively relies on the strategic use of these very identity categories, a response to Bockman's article seems like a good time to revisit our commitment to strategic essentialism and the continued use of the categories against which Bockman is advocating.

From my very first article on this website, I have defended the strategic use of concepts like "liberal/progressive" and "conservative," and despite the helpful points raised by Bockman, I don't intend to stop using them now. In the article "The Language of the Left: Why Religious and Why the Left?" I attempt to answer what I consider to be the two greatest challenges to the deployment of these sorts of politically charged categories: the postmodern critique and the conciliatory critique. 

In the context of the discussion at hand, postmodern theory suggests that descriptors such as gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, disability, age, economic circumstances, religion, political affiliation, occupation, and other such designations are themselves not defined concepts, but arguments: social constructs whose meanings and connotations are themselves entirely contingent on the discourse about and around them. So to put it bluntly, for all intents and purposes these concepts mean whatever enough people say and consent to acknowledge that they mean. Bockman never raises this challenge explicitly, but under the heading "Not everyone in a given category believes the same thing" he hints at the blurring of identity categories that hallmarks many postmodern critiques of identity politics. 

Rather than the postmoden argument, Bockman focuses primarily on the conciliatory argument, the idea that our reliance on polarizing identity categories results in more actual polarization between individuals and groups of people. Bockman suggests that the use of these divisive categories results in a "vicious cycle" of self-reinforcing negative opinions toward those with whom we disagree: 
The longer we avoid "them," the more space we create for caricatures and stereotypes to arise. Seeing our adversaries through the filter of those stereotypes -- which usually include the qualities we loathe about them -- just increases our anger, and so we avoid them even more.
Bockman is right to suggest that vague stereotyping and alienating "othering" are neither constructive as means nor ends when it comes to engaging with folks at the other end of the political and theological spectrum. However, in our frequent use of categories like "progressive/liberal" and "conservative," our means and ends are actually something else entirely. In deploying these categorical identities, we do not seek to use vague, broadly construed stereotypes to label those with whom we disagree. We seek instead to impose a highly precise oppositional definition between ourselves as progressives/liberals and those conservative systems of practice and belief against which we labor. From "Why Religion and Why the Left":
Our discussions aim to promote an understanding of progressivism, and progressive politics and religion in particular, synonymous with opposition to practices that deny basic rights and dignities to others, with tearing down social structures that relegate whole demographics of our populace to the status of second-class citizens, and with speaking truth to those who wield power to promote hatred, fear, and divisiveness. And by defining ourselves in part by our opposition to conservative elements, in the process of defining our own values and the significance of our efforts we simultaneously impact the meaning of theirs. In such a way, we not only contribute to the discussion about the role of religion in society, we define the terms of the debate.
So rather than rely on uninformed stereotypes when we push back against conservative beliefs and practices, we seek (in our finer moments) to construct and reinforce an understanding of conservatism that intentionally makes it as morally and theologically uncomfortable as possible to claim that mantle. In a sense, this project of projecting "the qualities we loathe" onto conservatism is exactly what Bockman is concerned with. But whereas Bockman is concerned with projecting oppositional qualities onto those with whom we disagree out of ignorance or fear of the "other," we do it out of strategy.

It boils down to a question of means and ends. At it's core, Bockman's article functions on the understanding that if we disagreeing parties could just get to know one another, we would be able to begin talking past many of our differences, and that this understanding is itself a worthwhile and desirable end. As Bockman explains in his examination of "stereotype-defying" groups that he's met:
Many conservatives are good, gentle people. Without question, fundamentalism and zealotry have spawned violence, prejudice and hatred over the course of human history. This does not make all fundamentalists violent, prejudiced and hateful. Many of my conservative friends will tell you, for instance, that they are not homophobic -- in the sense of "afraid of gay and lesbian people" -- even as they uphold their stand that homosexuality is sin. Many of them strive to practice the virtues their scriptures require of them: gentleness, generosity, love. They give of themselves in the pursuit of good works. They get involved with the disenfranchised.
I do not doubt that Bockman has met many good and gentle conservatives; I have met plenty in my own life, and have indeed counted some among my family and close friends. I have no doubt that people with radically different religious and political views than myself might have many things to teach me, both about the ways in which they view the world and ways in which I wasn't aware that I viewed the world as well. And I will be the first to admit that I could stand to cultivate some of the compassion Bockman cites as lacking for those with whom we disagree. 

But here is the rub. While we are trying to cultivate compassion and better understand one another, there are whole groups of our society being denied basic rights and freedoms based on arguments rooted in intolerant conservative theologies. Past a certain point it does not matter how people who uphold the beliefs that justify these practices choose to label themselves, and frankly I laughed out loud reading about Bockman's non-homophobes who still consider homosexuality to be a sin. Can you imagine somebody claiming that they weren't a racist, but they just feel that miscegenation is sinful? Whether they think they are homophobes or not, some conservative theological beliefs to which these people ascribe are being used to enforce systems of incredible injustice, and nothing short of disavowing those beliefs will be able to alter the complicity of these in those systems.

We can absolutely work toward mutual understanding, but past a certain point we cannot accede to any sort of relativistic acceptance of beliefs that claim God loves any of God's children less because they are how God made them. The tired (and decidedly non-Scriptural) "love the sinner, hate the sin" argument just does not hold water. However much "gentleness, generosity, and love" conservative Christians might display on an individual basis, the collective hatred of the "sin," in this case the expression of love between people of the same sex, is responsible for the marginalization of too many in our churches and in our society as a whole.

So where do we go from here? Is there room for fostering understanding while still pushing back against the harmful conservative beliefs and practices that limit the rights and freedoms of others?

Reflecting on the death of Osama bin Laden, a Friend and mentor of mine recently paraphrased Ephesians thusly, “Our battle is against powers and principalities, systems of injustice, and not flesh and blood.” I think this might also speak with some poignancy to the discussion at hand. It is easy to slip from the categorical into the personal, and I am as guilty of conflating the two as anyone. I still don't agree that we should do away with these categories entirely, as they still hold strategic political capital, despite their many and obvious flaws. But (and before I write the next sentence I just want to get one more of these out of my system: Rick Santorum, you're still a shameless bigot), it might behoove us all try to speak less of conservative (used of course in the most pejorative sense) individuals, and focus instead on conservative ideas, beliefs, and practices. We can all work to leave room for respecting those with whom we disagree, even as we labor against the harmful consequences of their beliefs and practices. 

At the end of the day, “our battle is against powers and principalities, systems of injustice, and not flesh and blood.” We would all do well to remember that.

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