I’d like to point out some of the potentially dangerous contradictions within our society’s ideological setting. Within the various operating dogmas, “left” or “right,” one “knows” what is right and wrong. Once you become stuck within a particular worldview, it becomes difficult to view things any other way. For example, on some issues, the perspective of many seems to be that underprivileged classes deserve to get back what the rich took from them. The biblical “The meek shall inherit the earth” evolves many ways. Its manifestations includes the Leninist “dictatorship of the proletariat,” to Satyagraha of Gandhi, to totalitarianism. All of these, regardless of their fundamental differences, aim to empower the unempowered, or at least rationalize themselves that way. Today’s manifestation of that ever-evolving, sometimes dangerously branching chain of thought can be found in identity politics. By falling into the societal discourse that separates people not only by economic class, but by skin color and religion, identity groups may serve to reinforce these divisions. By proclaiming an ethnicity, I am only affirming to the “others” what they “know” already – that I am not one of them, I am different, I even say so myself. While affirming my singularity, my uniqueness in relation to others, I am separating myself from others. To quote from history, “separate is not equal.” So what do we desire, separateness, or equality? The approach of many is equality through separateness. Somehow, by affirming my separateness, my individuality, my rights, I will be equal. What is a “right” if not a right for or from something in relation to others? This implies a relationship that is not equal. If everyone were equal, we would have no rights. This affirmation and drive for equality in Western rationalist tradition always runs up against its counterpart, the individual. After all, wouldn’t it be silly to have blonde identity politics?All of this raises another interesting contradiction, that of the basic moral foundations upon which these various ideologies are based, the idea of tolerance. One must tolerate others. Other cultures, institutions, religions and philosophies must all be respected as being of equal validity and importance to our own. Thus, separate is equal. However, this tolerance has limits. In form, everything is tolerated, in substance, nothing is. We respect African tribes and their traditions, yet this practice of “genital mutilation” goes too far for our sensibilities. They need our moral medicine – “Send out the missionaries,” they used to cry – nowadays it’s Amnesty International and UNICEF. We all love Islam – it’s a religion of peace and respect. The minute the veil goes on, though, all of that disappears. “What are you doing making those poor women cover themselves!” we shout indignantly. If a culture considers killing widows after the husband’s death an acceptable practice, where do we draw the line between “tolerating” their culture and stopping this “abominable” practice? We respect all cultures, of course, but are repulsed at what these cultures actually are. We decaffeinate their cultural coffee. Our good liberal tolerance simply becomes a masked vehicle for a patronizing intolerance. Perhaps again, this is a symptom of our drive to individualization, to separateness. Our public discourse routinely differentiates between an “us” and a “them.” This objectification of others is how we rationalize and give meaning to ourselves. However, at the same time, it “thingifies” and dehumanizes those who are not us. We can, thus, talk about the Republicans as “them,” the conservatives as “them,” the Iraqis, Taliban, Al-Qaeda and everyone who we don’t – or do – like, as “them.” We can “themify” every one without actually knowing who “they” are. This article is just as culpable, in that I am criticizing a set of ideological coordinates that I have defined as an “it.” Maybe I can’t escape that, maybe no one can. However, it seems to me that at the very least, we can perform “experiments in truth,” as Gandhi put it. We can try to view the world from multiple perspectives, perhaps never fully understanding, but at least becoming aware of the inadequacy of our many and varied explanatory philosophies, sciences and religions. Unfortunately, if some of these basic dilemmas are not resolved, or even identified as dilemmas in our public discourse, then we can only expect the symptoms of these problems, such as racism and bigotry, to persist. Instead of, or while, giving ourselves aspirin for our malaise with “affirmative action” programs and “diversity initiatives,” perhaps we should work towards solving the more fundamental and important problems that afflict us as a society.Powell can be reached at npowell@campustimes.org.

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