Monday, July 18, 2011

A Few Short Words on an Important Topic

I have held back on writing this post for a while now, largely because many thinkers (including Yasmin Nair, Jillian Weiss, Patrick Califia, and Peter Tatchell among others) have done such a fabulous job with the very topic I am going to cover here. Nonetheless, I have realized that even if I only retread much of the ground thinkers such as these have covered I am doing my part by registering my dissent against a worrying trend. As dissent on this topic grows increasingly taboo both inside and outside the LGBT community, I plan to register my concern in as clear of terms as possible before all voices speaking against the current prevailing sentiment are drowned out completely.

I hate the notion of biological determinism as it applies to sexual orientation. I find the spectacle of sexual minorities carrying on piteously about how they would never choose to be this way embarrassing. The "science" behind these ideas is terrible and it tends to perpetuate notions that feminists have traditionally and rightly found repugnant. It tends to be unreflective of women's experiences who often experience greater sexual fluidity in their lives than many men do. It is ahistorical and ignores the social construction of human sexuality in different societies. It makes bisexual people largely invisible. It erases many fascinating and important traditions in LGBT history (such as lesbian separatism). These arguments are made in spite of the fact that women, racial minorities, youth, the elderly, and even disabled people have spent years trying to deconstruct the idea that they are inherently biologically different because that idea has never been good in the long term for any marginalized group ever. Perhaps worst of all, it perpetuates the notion that there is something wrong with being LGBT because no one would choose it.

If anyone would like to learn in more depth about these ideas, I would refer you to the works of the authors listed above, all of whom have written at length about this topic. I feel that I have very little to contribute to this topic in addition to their words of wisdom. I am just going to end this piece by saying that the sooner the "born this way" meme dies the happier I will be. And trust me, it will come back to hurt us big time if it doesn't.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hick Like Me: On Southern Identity and the Politics of Erasure

     Among white people with Southern accents that have attended college outside of the deep South there seems to be one narrative that is almost universal to all of us (it may be nearly universal as well or completely different for people of color but I cannot comment on that as it is not something I have any personal knowledge about). It appears to happen whether we are male or female, LGBT or heterosexual, cissexual people, liberal or conservative, fat or thin, able bodied or disabled, religious or atheistic. This is what occurs: We are having a conversation with someone or with a group of people. We are often trying to make a serious point about politics, economics, society, or our personal lives. In the midst of our soliloquy on neoliberalism's effect on the poor, our views about Obamacare, poverty in Africa, gender roles in society, the prevalence or lack thereof of racism at our university, or how we are going to handle challenges in our personal relationships we are interrupted with comments about our accent. It soon becomes immediately obvious that no matter the wisdom or unwisdom of what we were saying about the war on drugs, social hostility towards interracial and interfaith couples, or the legalization of same sex marriage we might as well not have said it because no one was listening to the content of our speech. It is frustrating at best and infuriating at worst.  

   I have loved every Southern professor I have ever had regardless of what I thought of their teaching abilities, politics, or grading policies. While some of them have been upstanding instructors others have not. What I have loved without reservation about all of them, however, was the fact that they spoke with a voice of authority that sounded like mine to a class of people who by and large did not. When I first ran across the concept of "stereotype threat" and read that women and people of color are more likely to identify with instructors that look and sound like them, thereby deflecting the risk of stereotype threat, it made intuitive sense to me that for many people this would be the case. After all, what better way to defuse the stereotype that women, blacks, Latinos, or rural people are stupid than by positioning a member of one of these groups as an epistemic authority?

   Like bisexuals, trans people, disabled people, and people of size, rural Southern people are almost never depicted in the media except as a punch line or a curiosity. What is reflected of us in the media is the notion that we possess sub par intelligence, revel in religious extremism, and are to a person racist, sexist, homophobic antisemitic raving lunatics. Like any other stereotype, it is damaging, often inaccurate, and morally wrong.

   What is frustrating about these prejudices is that it causes people to misread one another. A rural Southern person's political, social, economic, and religious views are almost always read in the context of their Southern identity. I by no means intend to imply that all people are not shaped in significant ways by the cultural contexts of their environments. But it is a factor, not necessarily the factor. And interpreting every belief a person holds in the light of one superficial identity marker is bound to make those who do so oblivious to what they are actually seeing and hearing from Southern people. Frustrated by these attitudes, some of us even decide that if we're going to be credited with embodying the worst of Southern stereotypes (even when we do not) we might as well embrace our inner racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic raving lunatic. Like all people, we often internalize the images that others have of us, thereby perpetuating these stereotypes even further.

   By way of example, I have been frequently critical of the state of Israel. My reasons for this are similar to those of many liberals. I think it is ludicrous to pretend that a society that drafts its young people into near constant warfare, that does not allow interfaith marriages to be performed on its own soil, that allows for the existence of an apartheid regime, and that is run by clerical fanatics is a free society by any reasonable definition. Were Israel in Europe and not the Middle East the savagery of all this would become immediately apparent, but because Israel is located in one of the most dysfunctional regions of the world it looks fairly good by comparison since it doesn't stone people for witchcraft or hang people for homosexuality. I would like to think that these views are understood as the informed perspective of someone who studied religion and Middle Eastern politics a great deal in college but alas they are all too often interpreted as a product of the secret antisemitism I must harbor as a Southern American. It is rank prejudice and it is completely infuriating. This is but one example and I could write about many others from my personal experience as well as that of others.

   Like almost all Southern people I know, I have a curious relationship with this aspect of my identity. Sometimes I appreciate the attention that comes my way as a result of being a Southern person and it is an aspect of my identity I have unapologetically leveraged when I have believed it has been advantageous for me to do so. Other times I wish that it was something that could recede into the background when it becomes too much of a distraction. And from what I have heard, most members of marginalized groups tend to feel the same way.

   Rural Southern people face many of the same obstacles as members of other marginalized groups: poverty, less educational opportunity, lack of positive and realistic media portrayals, and negative stereotyping by the dominant society. But for various reasons we don't talk about these issues. There are cultural, socioeconomic, and other reasons for this phenomenon which deserve a blog post in their own right. But I want to end this post by saying that is important we start talking about rural Southern erasure in our media, politics, and elsewhere. It has been a major phenomenon in many of our lives and it is time we give it the sustained analysis we have given to so many issues regarding marginalized groups in American society.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Necessity of Building Bisexual Community

   Over the past year I have spent an extraordinary amount of time thinking, reading, and talking about bisexuality. I have read books on the topic, watched documentaries exploring bisexuality, and even given a presentation at my university about bisexual issues. When I came out, I never considered identifying as a lesbian and have always acknowledged my attraction to men as well. Nonetheless, when I came out I came out into the gay community because there was no bisexual community to come out into. At first, this struck me as more or less unproblematic. I had spent much of my adolescence and young adulthood exploring and acknowledging my heterosexuality and so embracing my homosexuality and seeking out women to date became my first priority upon opening the closet doors. I was aware that on some level I was different in important ways from gays and lesbians but I also knew I shared important similarities with them, too. I wanted to be accepted as bisexual, but in the context of the gay and lesbian community.
   As John Lennon famously said "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." Although I casually dated a few women during this period of my life, nothing with these women really clicked. I was very much sexually attracted to some of them but for whatever reason these people were not the sort of individuals I was able to evolve a real relationship with. This had nothing to do with their sex or sexual orientation, at least as far as I can tell. It was probably due to a number of factors which were slightly different in the case of each of these women. However, I did recently meet someone I was interested in having a relationship with and who was equally interested in having a relationship with me. This person was a man. Although this person's sex did not give me any sort of pause about pursuing the relationship, it did cause me to reexamine some of the ways I had previously thought about my place in the LGBT community and the wider society as a bisexual person.
   Suddenly I realized that the shopworn critique of bisexual involvement in the larger queer community - that because many bisexual people will have heterosexual partnerships their interests are not identical to gays and lesbians - had some resonance. Unlike Dan Savage and his ilk, I do not see this as a good reason for those in the LGBT community to exclude bisexual people. However, I do believe that it means that there may be times that for bisexual people themselves, the gay and lesbian community may not be able to fulfill all of their needs. The project of promoting bisexual acceptance within the LGBT community is an important one, but it has caused bisexual people to neglect the difficult truth that we have needs and desires the gay and lesbian community will likely be unable or unwilling to meet. It is not realistic to think that bisexuals, who often spend much of their lives dating or pursuing members of the opposite sex, will always feel most at home in the gay and lesbian community. It is also unrealistic to believe that bisexuals are always going to be understood and accepted in mainstream heterosexual circles. What we need is a bisexual community that transcends sex and is willing to include our heterosexual as well as our homosexual partners.
   Organizing bisexuals politically and socially can be a challenge. Bisexuals' relationship status and lifestyle choices differ, as does their degree of identification with the LGBT community or mainstream heterosexual society. As it stands now, the most politically and socially active bisexuals qua bisexuals tend to be the most homosexual-identified ones. Many of them got their start in activism in the LGBT community. Most of their friends come from that community. They conceive of their political concerns largely in the language pioneered by gay rights. What's more, what exists of a bisexual community has expended a great amount of time and effort attempting to win the approval of gays and lesbians, seeking to prove that they're gay enough to join the club. This has created a generation of young bisexuals who are afraid to identify with other bisexuals and afraid to acknowledge the extent to which they are heterosexual in the company of queers. To some degree this makes sense because our heterosexual relationships receive a certain degree of legitimacy from society that our homosexual relationships do not. Nonetheless, this makes it difficult for bisexual people to be their whole selves in the gay and lesbian community. Similar pressures exist in the heterosexual mainstream, but because these pressures are quite similar to those experienced by gays and lesbians they are already remarked on a great deal. For bisexuals, acknowledging one's heterosexual attractions often involves the tragic negation of homosexual attractions and vice versa.
   There are several other practical reasons I can think of as to why building bisexual community is so important:
1.) Building bisexual community would allow bisexuals to know that they are always accepted somewhere regardless of the sex(es) of their current partner(s).
2.) Building bisexual community would allow bisexuals to know that, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, their current partners would be accepted within the bi community.
3.) Building bisexual community would allow bisexuals access to holistic services regarding sexual health, legal rights, psychological help, financial planning, and family issues that might change dramatically for a given individual depending on the sex(es) of his or her partner(s).
The increase in pride and self-respect as bisexuals came to see themselves as more than just second rate homosexuals would be an important reason to pursue bisexual community in its own right as well.
   Despite its challenges, building bisexual community is an important step we must take if we are to thrive collectively and individually. Strong bisexuals are unlikely to exist in a vacuum; they must be supported by an infrastructure that recognizes the importance of their identity, even in the context of long term monogamous relationships. We must begin to build a community of strong, proud bisexual-identified bisexuals who see themselves as a part of this community regardless of the sex(es) of their current partner(s).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sexuality, Desire, and Desirability in American Culture

   In contemporary American society, heterosexuality is privileged over homosexuality and bisexuality - legally, politically, socially, culturally, economically, and religiously. This is true for LGB women as well as LGB men. One can be familiar with these dynamics, even intimately and personally so, and still feel that it is vital to comment on another interesting and not unrelated dynamic in our culture. While male desire (whether towards women or to a lesser extent other men) is widely regarded as an accepted part of male identity, female desire (whether it is channeled towards men or women) is often taken to be aberrant, and in other words, queer. Men are expected to be active participants in pursuing sexual gratification while women are expected to be active participants in perfecting their status as sex objects. For women being desirable is supposed to be a substitute for desiring. For men desiring is supposed to be a substitute for being desirable. In a truly healthy relationship everyone involved is going to want to desire as well as to be desirable. However, American culture has socialized men and women into dualistic ideas regarding sexuality. This creates dysfunction in both same-sex and different-sex relationships.

   It is depressing for me to hear women that like men describe themselves as "gay men trapped in women's bodies." Why do heterosexual and bisexual women feel that the best way to describe their attraction to men is to appropriate the experiences of homosexual men? It is depressing for me to hear the idea espoused over and over again that for men sex is an end in itself whereas for women sex is a means to an end (financial security, love, commitment, feeling attractive, social status). No one is as one dimensional as these caricatures suggest - all people have various motivations for almost anything they do. And because of biological susceptibilities to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases that men do not have, women are likely to be more careful about heterosexual intercourse than men simply because they are rational creatures. But this does not tell us as much about women's sexuality as it does about the human capacity for rational decision-making. It also perhaps tells us something about socialization in a society where women are disproportionately held responsible for the negative consequences of sexuality.

   These attitudes towards sexuality are damaging for our society. It perpetuates what many feminists refer to as a "rape culture" in which it is assumed that women will never be willing to have sex with men outside of bribery, coercion, or trickery, thus legitimating the use of these tactics for men to have sex with women. It is bad for gay and bisexual women who lack an understanding of how to initiate intimacy in relationships with each other. It is bad for gay and bisexual men who feel that the most appropriate way of expressing attraction to one another is through risky, casual, and often unprotected sex. It is bad for men and women in relationships with each other who lack a common frame of reference by which to interpret one another's actions and expectations.

   This is not an argument about whether our society needs to become more or less sexually permissive. It is an argument about how we view double standards and their negative impact on our entire culture as well as individual lives. Recognizing that all persons have complex motivations for sexual activity and that all persons need to find others attractive and be found attractive by others in relationships is still a revolutionary idea and about half a century after the "sexual revolution" it shouldn't be.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Your Holiday Giving and Navigating the Nonprofit Sector

Since moving to Washington D.C. and deciding to pursue a Master of Public Administration degree with a focus on nonprofit management, I have been to a lot of job and internship interviews at nonprofit organizations. As is the case with any job or internship search, some of these interviews have proven more fruitful than others. But what I have found to be the case (although this was not really something I thought about much going into the process) was what an eye-opener this process has been. As the holiday season approaches and many people prepare to give their annual donation to whatever organization or cause they feel is important, I invite you to ask yourself a few questions before you write that check this year.

1.) Is the organization an advocacy group or a direct service provider?
Chances are, if you're giving to an organization, you know what they stand for. They stand for "saving the environment" or "women's rights" or "LGBT equality" or "eliminating global poverty." And you, being a good person, stand for those things, too. That's great but it doesn't answer the question of what the organization does. What is their strategy for accomplishing this goal?

For example, some organization engage in direct service provision. Community health clinics, domestic violence shelters, libraries, and food banks are all classic examples of this type of nonprofit. They provide some kind of direct service to individuals. Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health services (birth control, physical examinations, STD testing, pregnancy testing, the HPV vaccine, and in some cases abortion). The Ronald McDonald House houses the families of sick children while they receive medical care. Your local homeless shelter or domestic violence shelter provides homeless people or victims of abuse with somewhere to go during difficult times. To find out how well organizations like this are fulfilling their mission and what quality of services they are providing, you can ask those they serve. You can even offer to volunteer at some of these organizations to see how well you think they're serving the individuals they claim to serve. If the group helps those far away, see if you can find independent online testimonials about how good (or not so good) the group is at fulfilling its mission to them. In any event, it is oftentimes not too difficult to get a picture of the end product of these organizations' work because they interact directly with those they are helping.

However, some organizations do not engage very often in direct service provision. They serve as advocates for causes they think are important. When these organizations do intervene directly for individuals, it is in the hopes that their work will have a wider impact. Examples of organizations like this include the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Human Rights Campaign. It can sometimes be difficult to tell how effective these organization are in achieving their mission. When organizations like this are effective, they can create massive amounts of change. When they are ineffective, they can hold back social movements and causes, diverting money, talent, and energy away from more effective means of advocacy. It can be hard to know who to ask about these organizations as well. The average LGBT person probably cannot tell you how well or how poorly the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force represents them. Only the most political and informed gun owners may have a sense for how well the NRA is representing their interests and this sense may not be entirely well-informed. Thankfully, there are ways to measure impact that will be discussed in greater depth later.

2.) What exactly does the organization do and how effective are they at doing it?

First of all, I would look on an organization's website to get a sense of how they impact their cause of choice. Are they a direct service provider? Are they an advocacy group? Do they do both? If they are a legal group, do they do their best to help all individuals needing a certain kind of legal assistance (battered women, indigent populations, etc.) or do they focus more on impact litigation (like the ACLU)?

For direct service providers you will want to ascertain exactly what programs the organization has and how easy they are to access. A good question to ask yourself in these cases is "If I was in the population this organization serves, what services could they offer me, how important to me would they be, and how easy would they be to access?"

Figuring out what an advocacy group does can be a little trickier. A poke around their website can be helpful, but there are better ways of measuring a group's impact when they are of this type. I would argue that media coverage can be significant. When an issue is discussed on the news, in newspapers, or in magazines, how often do certain organizations receive a mention? If they are mentioned frequently, they are probably recognized as providing a definitive voice on a certain topic.

Secondly, I would do some research into how the organization effects policy change. If they go through the courts, do their legal challenges tend to be significant and successful? If they lobby legislators, how successful have they been in this endeavor? How much access do they really have to leaders with the power to effect change? For example, the effectiveness of some lobbying groups is legendary. (For example, AIPAC, the Israel lobby, is well known for being extremely effective.) The most effective lobbyists not only convince leaders, they are involved with writing the legislation they want. Some organizations (I am sad to say that all of the national non-legal LGBT groups fall into this category) are much less effective. They never really gain much access to the halls of power. And while money can sometimes buy more effective lobbyists or strategists, oftentimes it simply allows for the continuation of ineffective tactics and non-responsive leadership within nonprofits. If an organization's list of accomplishments is much smaller than their operating budget should indicate, then perhaps it is wise to find an organization with a stronger track record. Here it is instructive to think of Christ and his parable of the talents. If someone can do a decent amount with what little they have, they can be trusted with more. If they are given a lot and do little with it, then it is unlikely that continuing to give to them will be very fruitful.

Thirdly, I would look at some hard numbers. What percentage of a group's budget goes toward their staff's salaries? I certainly think that it is important to pay those working in the nonprofit sector well and oftentimes with advocacy groups, the staff include lobbyists or litigators who are responsible for the success of the cause itself. But if more money seems to go towards paying staff than anything else and the group doesn't seem to be very effective, then I would give elsewhere.

3.) What is the relationship of an organization's activities to the end goal?

Some organizations seem to do a poor job of connecting their current activities to a clearly defined end goal. Sometimes the end goal (eliminating global poverty, ending all racism) is so broad and unattainable as to be laughable. Other times the goal is more reasonable (providing shelter for all of our city's homeless who wish to utilize it during the coldest months of the year, achieving racial parity on a certain standardized test in a given number of years) but the means of achieving it seem to bear little relation to the end result.

For instance, let's say that an organization wants to help lessen the prevalence of STDs in a community. Providing a free or low cost health clinic in the community that everyone knows about is a good start. So is providing free classes on STD prevention and treatment. Handing out cheap condoms that will probably break to people on the street is silly. It is a one time, ineffective solution to the problem.

This is my problem with Teach for America. We can disagree about how best to improve the education of our nation's youth. However, I am fairly certain that sending small numbers of inexperienced teachers into  communities they know nothing about for short amounts of time is not a practical or sustainable solution to the problem. While it may make the volunteers feel good about themselves, it is not going to make a big dent in our nation's education-oriented problems.

I want to end this piece by saying that giving is important, especially if you know of an organization that does good work, that has helped you or someone you know, and whose work seems to be effective. I encourage all of you to give, if you can, to nonprofits this holiday season. But be wise about where you put your money and be mindful of what strategies you may be supporting with your cash. Happy Holidays!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cultural Relativism: The Stupidest Thing That Smart People Believe

Throughout history, otherwise intelligent people have held incredibly stupid ideas. In America, the worst of these ideas - like the validity of racism, sexism, and homophobia - are for the most part dying out among the aforementioned intelligent and educated people. While they may continue to exist more or less unchecked among the more ignorant vestiges of our society, someone espousing the idea that women should submit to their husbands, that blacks are genetically inferior to whites, that race mixing is a crime against nature, and increasingly, that two people of the same sex should not be allowed to marry one another would be shouted down in most graduate school classrooms. This is good, wholesome, and as it should be.

However there is one self-evidently stupid idea that many otherwise bright people seem to hold. I noticed it among professors and students at Florida State University and I notice it now as a graduate student at American University. This is approval of the dangerous nonsense that is cultural relativism.

Now many people use the terms "cultural relativism" and "multiculturalism" interchangeably. I do not believe that they are the same thing and I will not use them here as such. Many people claim to be opposed to "multiculturalism" and I do not necessarily share their views. There are certainly problematic aspects of multiculturalism (which I may explore in a later blog post) but right now I want to distinguish myself from many thinkers, especially philosophers on the right, who are opposed to multiculturalism.

First of all, there is no inherent value in assimilation for its own sake. I am a bisexual woman and am intensely involved in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. While I feel that it is important for LGBT individuals who choose to do so to be accepted into mainstream society, there are unique aspects of LGBT identity that I think have value and ought to be preserved despite not being acknowledged to the same extent by mainstream heterosexual American culture. This includes healthier attitudes towards sexuality, a sense of significance attached to the concept of a chosen family (as opposed to a strictly biological family), and a comfort with subverting traditional gender roles. However, these things are not valuable because they are shared by a minority community. They are valuable because they lead to positive outcomes and perhaps ought be adopted by society as a whole. And there are other aspects of LGBT culture such as rampant promiscuity among many gay and bisexual men (more common historically than today) that are not positive and lead to negative outcomes for all involved. Again, this is not because we are a minority community but because these things tend to be bad ideas no matter who puts them into practice.

However, despite my lack of support for assimilation for assimilation's sake, I am not a cultural relativist. The fact is that some societies are much better than others at maximizing the welfare of those in that society. Some cultures engage more often in more practices that are objectively bad than other cultures do. These practices include:
-killing people for supposedly dishonoring you,
-forcing or coercing people into marriage against their will,
-aborting children on the basis of sex,
-child genital mutilation,
-locking people up in prison for exercising free speech rights,
-forcing individuals to have abortions against their will,
-devaluation of the rights of persons with disabilities,
-killing people because they engage in relationships with members of the same sex,
-teaching hatred based on caste, class, or ethnic differences,
-severely physically punishing people based on their defiance of traditional gender roles, and
-killing people based upon religious beliefs or identification.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but it should give you an idea of what I am talking about. While these things are not unheard of in any society, they are more common in some than in others. And no amount of wishing that we were all equal in terms of our adherence to values based on human rights, reason, science, and the worth of all persons makes it so. These values - the values of violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and denial of agency - are more common in India than in the United States, in Somalia than in France, in China than in the Netherlands, and in Yemen than in Sweden. And if you are not a racist and at your core acknowledge that human beings are essentially similar in what they find intolerable out of life, you must reject cultural relativism wholeheartedly.

Now, any actual education concerning non-Western cultures tends to make one less of a relativist and not more unless a.) one has not thought deeply about the issue, b.) one is largely unintelligent, c.) one is reconciling cognitive dissonance in nonsensical ways, or d.) one is intellectually dishonest. Because many people I have heard defend cultural relativism are relatively intelligent people who I do not think are fundamentally dishonest I prefer to think that they are either not thinking deeply enough about the issue (which we all do sometimes with some issues) or that they are reconciling cognitive dissonance in nonsensical ways (another practice we all engage in at times). This may mean they're not bad or stupid but it does not make them correct.

Interestingly, the thinkers that cultural relativists seem to dislike the most in my experience are Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji. I am more familiar with Ali's writings than those of Manji but I am somewhat familiar with the ideas of both. I will state that both women sometimes espouse ideas that I disagree with. (For instance, I think what Ali tends to characterize as a Muslim problem is a more general non-Western problem.) That said, for the longest time I did not understand why these two women drummed up such rage in those opposing cultural relativism, especially when Euro-American thinkers espousing similar ideas did not seem to outrage them to the same degree. However, I realized that these two women put the lie to the relativists' worldview in a way that equally eloquent thinkers like Sam Harris, Michelle Goldberg, or Martha Nussbaum never could. Here are two women - one of them gay - from non-Western backgrounds that did not like all of the aspects of their cultures that non-Western people are supposed to cherish the most according to the relativists. At least some individuals in these other societies find the same things intolerable that most of us would find intolerable were they foisted upon us. This infuriates relativists in the same way that perhaps slave owners in the antebellum South were angry when their slaves refused to know their place. And while this is an interesting observation it does not explain why any otherwise bright and good people hold this belief system.

I think that part of it lies in a fallacy termed polylogism which asserts that logical rules apply differently for different groups of people. Since these differences are not biological givens but instead are social constructions this is a patently false idea. It could also be due to the fallacy that since all human ethnic groups are more or less equal in human capacity, then all human groups are more or less equal in terms of the current state of their cultural development. This is a tragic misreading of the situation, no more so than for individuals in underdeveloped cultures themselves.

So what does my understanding of the situation prescribe for public policy in the United States? First of all, the viewpoint I have outlined here is often co-opted by those seeking to turn, for example, American Muslims into straw men. By and large, American Muslims are a relatively well integrated group of individuals. Our nation is in no current danger of being forced into practicing sharia law. Honor killing is not rampant in America. However I do think that in Europe, societies that have wholeheartedly embraced multiculturalism, are more secular than America is, where Muslims are less well integrated, and where larger numbers of immigrants have poured in may face some serious problems. Furthermore, the problems outlined above are not unique to Muslims and are more unique to contemporary non-Western cultures in general.

For the average American, the evil of cultural relativism is not its threat to us but its threat to others. It is not evil for what it encourages us to do but for what it encourages us not to do. It prevents us from standing in solidarity with and from providing material and moral support to human rights defenders, feminists, LGBT persons, children, and political dissidents in societies that need our support the most. It encourages us to turn a blind eye and even support situations for others which we would find intolerable for ourselves. My favorite example of this is the time I listened to an American lesbian defend the practice of arranged marriages (in practice as often coerced or forced as merely arranged) in India. When I later explained this amusing (if sad) anecdote to a young Indian-American lesbian she could not grasp the logic involved in this statement. It only makes sense if you realize that for whatever reason, this individual has so thoroughly "othered" Indians that she could not understand them being unenthusiastic about a practice she would no doubt have not want tried on her.

We need to stand up to the evil that is cultural relativism not for the selfish and sometimes quite silly reasons we are often given (impending jihad now!) but for the less selfish and not at all silly reasons that are often ignored - we care about the welfare of individuals fundamentally similar to ourselves who deserve the same opportunities in life to exercise their human capabilities that we all do.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Who's Afraid of Liberty?: The American Left and Its Fear of Talking About Freedom

It seems that the Democratic Party and the American left in general has a problem with talking about "liberty" and "freedom." Sometimes words like "choice" and "rights" are applied euphemistically to this end, but framing issues from the perspective of individuals struggling for self-determination in their lives has been a theme entirely given over to the right for quite a while now. Issues from reproductive rights to LGBT issues to immigration reform are framed almost solely in terms of "justice" or "equality" when they should all be at least partially framed in terms of "freedom." Meanwhile, those who are unafraid to talk about "liberty" (such as libertarians and a number of conservatives) win the hearts and minds of Americans who value personal freedom, even if the right wing conception of liberty is superficial at best. In order to win over those voters who value the rights of individuals to live their lives as they see fit, the left is going to have to start talking about liberty once again.

   The reasons for the left's liberty deficit seems to be two fold. First of all, the concept of personal freedom is often used as a way for those with power and money to feel little or no guilt about riding roughshod over those without it. Business owners may feel that they are at liberty to treat their employees however they choose and that those employees are then at liberty to work elsewhere if they do not like it. Parents may feel that they are at liberty to raise their children as they see fit even if said children are denied opportunities to grow and learn that would allow them to live normal lives and to benefit as individuals. Someone may feel that he or she has the liberty to cease paying taxes even though by doing so, they would be denying all members of their society the ability to use services that are vital to their well-being. And so on and so forth. The reason that people on the left rightly find these hypothetical claims so unconvincing is that the liberty given up by the business owner, parent, and taxpayer in these scenarios is much less than the liberty gained by the worker, child, and ideally the consumer of government services. A good non-hypothetical example of this is the American with Disabilities Act. While this forces individual business owners to give up a little bit of liberty by requiring them to make their places of business more accessible for the handicapped, the liberty that disabled individuals acquire by being able to travel more freely in a world accessible to them outweighs any collective inconveniences to America's business owners. Sure, all of these issues are issues of "equality" and "justice" but they are also issues about "liberty," just a more complicated sort of liberty than that promoted by those on the right.

   LGBT rights seems to me to be a particularly strange issue to frame in terms of "justice" and "equality" as opposed to "liberty," seeing as for the most part the demands of LGBT people infringe very little, if any, on the rights of others. Perhaps this is just part of a pattern on the left of framing issues in terms of the former and not the latter and it is being repeated even in those cases where it make comparably little sense. Instead of riling up Americans against the savage injustice of putting individual rights to a popular vote and putting the government in charge of who can and cannot make what commitments to one another, the left has meekly spewed mealy mouthed platitudes about "equality."

   However, there is more at work in the left's (and especially the Democratic Party's) fear of talking about freedom than just how the term is often inappropriately used by those on the right as an excuse to ignore social justice and personal liberty for some of those most marginalized by society. It also has to do with the establishment left's own role in perpetuating gross violations of individual rights. The war on drugs, while not a wholly left wing enterprise, has been and continues to be at least a partial one. And the American left has never been completely comfortable with the notion of Americans owning firearms for self-defense. Many violations of individual rights and ultimately of people's freedom have their roots on the left. By embracing terms like "liberty" the American left will have to come to terms with its own continuing betrayal of this ideal.

However, in the final estimation of things the American left and the Democratic Party are going to have to learn how to talk about freedom. From the Declaration of Independence to the "Don't Tread on Me" flag to rock and roll to jazz, America's best traditions have had at their heart an appeal to the American love of freedom. Americans are used to framing issues in terms of freedom and will respond to whatever political party or movement is best able to appeal to this basic human and very American desire. As long as American liberals have trouble articulating what freedom means to them they can expect to lose elections and ultimately to lose ground in the court of public opinion.