by Jorn K. Bramann
[Preliminary draft of the Philosophical Forum presentation for October 26th]
"The fact that we are human beings is
infinitely more important than all the peculiarities
that distinguish human beings from one another."
--Simone de Beauvoir
"I do not like bigots. I never
someone is black or white, or of this or
that national origin. All I ever want to know
is whether someone is a human being, and
that is bad enough for me."
Multiculturalism and the constitution of people's identities have been matters of intensified political concern for a number of years, and the two subject areas have been seen as intimately connected with each other. The criticism of monocultural hegemony in our society, in other words, has frequently become linked with a "politics of identity." In what follows I will try to show that the idea of a multicultural society need not and should not be linked with the question of who we are, at least not in the way it is usually done. I will suggest that the very openness of a genuinely multicultural society precludes the establishment of such things as ethnic, racial, or cultural "identities."
In Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities the paradigmatic hero (or rather: anti-hero) of the name Ulrich faces the mundane, yet comically existential task of decorating the house into which he is moving. After many years abroad Ulrich has just returned to the country of his origin, and he hopes to settle down in that country to reconnect with what many people consider his roots. This is how Musil describes the situation:
When he built his house and had occupancy, as the Bible puts it, Ulrich had an experience for which, in a way, he had been waiting. He found himself in the enviable position of having to remodel his residence from scratch--in absolutely any way he saw fit. From a stylistically faithful restoration to total recklessness, all possibilities of architecture were at his disposal, and his mind was free to choose among every known style, from that of the ancient Assyrians to Cubism. So, what was he to choose?
Modern man is born in a clinic, and he dies in a clinic. Hence he ought to live in a clinic as well! This demand had recently been formulated by one of the leading architects, and a reformer of interior architecture had demanded movable walls for all apartments, on the ground that men had to learn how to trust each other by living closely together, rather than isolating themselves from each other. In those days a new time had begun (for that it does constantly), and a new time needs a new style. Luckily for Ulrich, the little palais, in the condition in which he found it, had already three styles built on top of each other, and it was impossible to do all the things which he was supposed to do. Still, the responsibility of having to decide on how to shape and furnish his house weighed heavily on him ....
Well, the Man Without Qualities, who had already taken the first step of returning to the country of his origin, also took the second step to insure that it would be external forces that shaped his life: He left the decoration of his residence to the inspiration of the appropriate decorator shops, convinced that they would take care of preserving all proper traditions, prejudices, and limitations. He himself redid only some of the old-fashioned items that were already in place--the antlers in the whitewashed hallway, or the reinforced ceiling of the drawing room. Apart from that he simply added whatever struck him as practical or convenient.
Ulrich's initial attempt to find the proper style for his residence is, of course, an allegory of his attempt to find an authentic identity--to define his true self. That is not an easy task under modern conditions. As an aware modern individual a naive identification with "his own" culture and its peculiar traditions is not an honest possibility anymore: it would be an act of deliberate narrow-mindedness. An educated person cannot help but question the premises of his or her culture of origin, and only ignorant or highly conceited person will assume that one's own culture of origin is always preferable to all others. Open-mindedness and awareness of cultural diversity are inescapable for a thoughtful citizen of the 20th century, and thus the necessity of making independent, individual choices is an inevitable part of living in the modern world.
The modern world, in other words, has turned into an inescapable condition a situation that the Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century had only envisioned: Cosmopolitanism and Individualism. No culture exists in isolation anymore, and no cultural tradition can shield its convictions and practices from the corroding influences of other traditions and alternative ways of life. To one degree or another all cultures and individuals have been drawn into the maelstrom that constitutes world civilization, a civilization shaped by the assimilating dynamics of capitalism and the global market. (Not all cultures and individuals may be similarly aware of the facts of this modern condition, to be sure, but mere blindness with respect to historical megatrends does not prove that older views of the world are just as valid as more up-dated accounts.)
The Enlightenment conception of Individualism is Moral Autonomy--the idea of informed self-determination. No adult person can honestly avoid making most of those choices himself or herself that in former ages were made by the cultural traditions and institutions within which an individual happened to live. We are "condemned to be free," as Sartre once put it--free of the automatic constraints of the cultural authorities that used to dominate human communities. (One does not have to buy into the metaphysics of Sartre's early Existentialism, by the way, in order to appreciate the above point.)
The diversity and liberty characteristic of the modern world are sometimes experienced and described as a curse (which is why Sartre refers to it as a "condemnation" to be free). Many people fear complex indeterminacy, and the related necessity of having to make nuanced decisions. Not infrequently they opt to take refuge in some ready-made cultural shell that provides them with convenient guidelines, "identities," and a feeling of security in a world that would otherwise appear to be a mass of "humming and buzzing confusion." Much of the current search for ethnic, racial, or other kinds of "identity" has its roots in this fear of the modern condition. Fascist and crypto-fascist ideologues have made ample use of this fear by promising security and order through the elimination of personal autonomy as well as democracy.
In ancient times it may have been natural for individuals to closely identify with their culture of origin--to accept the views and ways of their respective societies, and to spontaneously consider them as parts of their heritage. Egyptians used to look down on other cultures as alien and inferior; classical Greeks pitied or despised non-Greeks as culturally deprived "Barbarians." Nude sculptures and Dorian or Ionian columns could be seen as peculiarly his by a fifth century Athenian, and as unacceptably strange by a Persian of the same period. In the modern world such ethnocentric identification is anachronistic. Speaking a particular language is now not much more than an accident of birth, and living in a certain kind of house or in a city of a particular style has become a mere externality. Any education worthy of its name has of necessity a global and multicultural orientation. Deliberate or inadvertent confinement to a single culture is not salvation, but injurious provincialism. The proprietary discourse of "my" culture versus "yours" has in principle become obsolete.
Using a particular language is, of course, unavoidable, and making use of styles or specific elements of styles may be as well. As Ulrich's comical conundrum illustrates, people have to choose some sort of decoration, and they have to live in some sort of cultural environment. But it is not "theirs" anymore in the way a classical Greek's columns and nude sculptures could be said to be his, or a Zulu woman's dress style and house decoration hers. Global interdependence, and the ubiquitous presence of diversity has created a profoundly different situation. Using a particular style may be inevitable, but such use is also inherently tentative, playful, or tinged with a sense of self-irony--with the sense that any actual choice could just as well have been another one. Wearing traditional garb inevitably has an element of historical costume party about it. Regardless of what Heidegger suggested in the heydays of fascism, there is no authentic connection to Being anymore through the parochial submersion in one folk. The authentic self of modern individuals like Ulrich is to have no privileged external manifestation. They are and they are not what they choose to be in an external way. Modern identity is nonidentity. (Which is the reason why irony and self-irony have become such fundamental categories in modern art and modern thought.)
The radically unencumbered protagonist of Musil's novel is, of course, the ultimate product of the Enlightenment. Ulrich's sovereign attitude toward the spectrum of cultures reflects both the intended Cosmopolitanism and the Individualism of that movement. What counts in the vision of Enlightenment civilization is not the traditional authority of particular cultures, but individual liberty and a shared humanity based on the faculty of critical reason. The constitutional guarantee that basic human rights be enjoyed by everyone regardless of race, gender, creed, or national origin is one of the most indicative products of Enlightenment thinking. It implies that what is of importance is not differences, but what is common among the members of the human race.
During the last twenty years or so it has been very fashionable (once more) to bash the Enlightenment and its ideals. The Enlightenment has been badmouthed by those politicians and warlords who promote the "Balkanization" of much of the contemporary world, and it has been routinely put down by the ideologues of difference in academia. Specific criticisms of the Enlightenment as a movement are, to be sure, justified and important. Its often demonstrated hypocrisy is one of the things that mainstream academics are often still reluctant to acknowledge. The United States, being a trailblazing embodiment of Enlightenment ideas, announced in its Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, but then proceeded to legalize slavery. France, the very cradle of Enlightenment thinking, proudly published its list of universal human rights as part of the Revolution of 1789, but then saw nothing wrong with building up a harsh colonial empire with few human rights for subject populations. Great Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Kant were not beyond making appallingly racist remarks, remarks that can in no way be reconciled with their philosophical doctrines. To the extent that such practices and attitudes prevailed in Western countries the claims of the Enlightenment could not but be perceived by many as a mere sham.
The advocates of difference were and are not aiming at the failures of the Enlightenment, however, but at the basic ideals of the Enlightenment themselves. They do not deplore that the project of a cosmopolitan humanity with universal rights was not realized, but rather denied that there was or could be such a thing as a common humanity. Building on the thoughts of such traditional critics of the Enlightenment as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or even Sartre, they ridiculed the idea of a human nature that is supposedly present in a caveman as well as in a Canadian engineer, in a Chinese steel worker as well as in an Angolan nurse. There are only different groups, the critics say, and the future of the globe ought therefore to be envisioned as something like a racial and cultural salad bowl, and not as the proverbial melting pot envisaged by classical modernists: Vive la difference!
In the light of this conflict between the Enlightenment ideals and the glorification of difference one has to distinguish between two kinds of multiculturalism. The multiculturalism most closely affiliated with the Enlightenment is the idea that a society should not be dominated by just one culture or cultural tradition, but by an unlimited variety of them. In that sense the United States, e.g., should not be thought of as a Christian nation, inhabited predominantly by Caucasians of Western-European descent, and wedded exclusively to the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions, but rather as a home for all races, all creeds, and people of all national and cultural origins. A "WASP" should not be considered more typically American than an immigrant from Cambodia, and a Navajo not more than a grandson of Martin Luther King. A fully emancipated modern society would be one into which there is a free flow of contributions from all possible sources, and in which individuals are free to choose whatever they find personally meaningful for them. The future would not be one of assimilation to one existing and predominant monoculture, but a fluid mixture of cultural forms from which something new might emerge in the never ending flux of historical transformations.
The multiculturalism mostly favored by the critics of the Enlightenment is the idea that the threatening "monotony" of a universal and amorphous melting pot civilization be replaced by the multiplicity of coexisting subcultures, subcultures that reflect and continue the traditional diversity of races, traditions, and mutually exclusive creeds. Individuals would not be adrift in the cultural anarchy of modern mass societies, but rather located inside and shaped by communities that oblige them to live their lives in traditionally prescribed ways. It will be standard practice, for example, that parents and community leaders will lean on their offspring to make them marry "one of their own kind," lest their apart culture be watered down and eventually dissolved by the ubiquitous temptations of individual liberty and the relentless currents internationalist assimilation. Advocates of this kind of multiculturalism do not only want to stop the historical trend toward ever more inclusive assimilation, they also tend to overlook that the cultures they try to preserve are themselves products of past assimilations. Their necessarily puristic attachment to one preferred culture makes them blind, it seems, to the Heraclitean insight that ultimately no one can step into the same river twice.
It is in connection with the latter kind of multiculturalism that a "politics of identity" has developed. For one of the assumed advantages of maintaining unassimilated subcultures within a larger society is the possibility of providing "identities" for the members of such groups. Individuals are said to "know who they are" if they are part of a cultural (and sometimes racial) subgroup that develops and maintains a distinct community life apart from the rest of society. Individuals at large, by contrast, are often described not as unencumbered or autonomous persons happily in charge of their own destinies, but rather as uprooted and lost souls who have lost all guidelines and motivations in the vast anonymity of modern mass societies. Without the authorities and limiting structures of traditional communities most modern individuals simply do not know who they are, and what their lives may be about. While a few Existentialists like Sartre might have found it enticing to endure the angst and radical void of a modern existence, the vast majority of people would feel more at home in the womb of some nourishing community and tradition. Within such comforting communities the troubling question of who someone is would most likely not even arise.
The advocacy of cultural subgroups as an antidote to the anonymity of modern mass societies can, at first sight, be an appealing proposition. Individuals do need communities; individuals are not nearly as self-sufficient as certain philosophers have made them out to be. Nevertheless, the combating of Modernity by seeking refuge in traditional cultures is essentially reactionary--a vain attempt to solve problems by going historically backward. The idea of creating "identities" based on cultural subgroups is seriously out of joint with modern realities--and politically dangerous to boot. The following remarks will try to pinpoint some of these incompatibilities and dangers.
As far as dangers are concerned, it is evident that any emphasis on ethnic, racial, or cultural identity more often than not feeds the kind of chauvinism that has produced so much cruelty and bloodshed in the past. To this day large numbers of people are easily persuaded to kill, maim, or otherwise damage fellow-humans in the name of some subgroup identity or pride. Apologists of difference have pointed out, to be sure, that being different need not mean being hostile or contemptuous toward others. While that contention may in some ways be true, there is also room for significant doubt about genuinely pacific versions of ethnic or cultural apartheid. Whenever anyone asserts something like "I am proud to be an X," then there is at least a subliminal implication that being an X is in some way better than being a Y or a Z. What, after all does "pride" mean, unless it involves some sort of superiority? But however it ultimately may be with this sort of self-assertion, the historical record suggests that whenever some people begin to feel good about themselves in this peculiar way, neighbors and other people had better watch out. Like abused youngsters, formerly mistreated groups easily turn into aggressors themselves. (The development of German nationalism from a seemingly innocent pride in separate roots to brutal phantasies of superiority may be an instructive case for the study of these dynamics.)
As a rule the cultivation of racial, ethnic or sub-cultural identities also encourages a dubious use of the past. Instead of learning from past history by analyzing its numerous errors, superstitions, lies, injustices, and abuses of power, promoters of "identity" routinely focus on those positive (or "positive") aspects of a group's history that are likely to instill pride.(Slave-driving Pharaos are stylized into pillars of culture; Ginghis Khan is a national hero in Mongolia once more. One wonders whether revisionists may try to revaluate Hitler.) The study of history becomes a means for self-aggrandizement, and history lessons turn into officially sanctioned pep rallies. Critical self-examination generally is replaced by the grinding of axes. Group-centered triumphalism routinely makes the the glorified past the purpose of the present. In Malamud's striking formulation: "The living must die so that the dead can live."
One of the most serious objections to making too much of ethnic and other subgroup "identities" has to do with the fact that it does little or less than nothing to solve the pressing problems that all human beings, of whatever background, are facing today. Obsession with traditional identities seems quaint or frivolous in the context of events as the following. Under the cover of a near news blackout NASA has sent an exploratory rocket to Saturn, a rocket that is powered by a potentially lethal amount of Plutonium. After a seven-year journey the rocket is expected to return to earth to deliver its collected data. According to official government pronouncements, the chances of an accident are exceedingly slim. If an accident during reentry should happen, however, the used Plutonium fuel on board is sufficient to kill all life on earth.
This potential catastrophe is a possibility that all human beings face alike, regardless of race, creed, gender, or national origin, even though the rocket is the product of just one culture and one country. It is the sort of possibility that symbolizes all problems that are of a global nature, problems that testify to our by now unavoidable interdependency on this planet. The core of our survival and welfare is not rooted in the diversity of separate cultures anymore, but in our ability to manage our common fate as human beings. There are the ozone holes, the possible implications of global warming, the overfished oceans, the rapid and worldwide disappearance of crucial forest covers, radioactive garbage dumps, weapons of mass destruction, new kinds of epidemics, population explosions that test the carrying capacity of the planet, and a growing number of further problems none of which can be seen as regional matters anymore. Self-absorbed traditional cultures are no match for the powers and mega-trends that now dominate the earth; particularistic identities are at best a distraction from what we urgently have to become to be able to deal with the threats of the future.
There is something inevitably histrionic about the cultivation of traditionalistic subgroup identities. In our society there is not much of a functioning railroad system anymore, but wherever feasible old trains are running on historic lines--as toy trains for tourists. The big cities have no genuine gaslight districts anymore, but such districts are recreated in many places like stage sets for some sort of street theater in which tourists are both the extras and the paying patrons. Along the industrial boulevards of metropolitan areas one can find restaurants built in the styles of South Sea huts, Swiss chalets, French bistros, or Moroccan pleasure grounds--to cater to a vague hunger for the exotic that is not easily stilled in our uniform world of glass, steel, and used car lots. One of the most popular escape routes from our modern reality has become the false historicity of theme parks. Adding to this commercial television and other means of distraction, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that half of people's waking hours are spent in some sort of escapist make-believe world.
This lack of substance in the sensibility of popular culture extends to more serious aspects of life. Almost everywhere a great deal of politics consists of the manipulation of make-believe scenarios, scenarios that hide an underlying reality. Heads of state may don traditional tribal clothing, but to stay in power they prefer armies and police forces that are equipped with the latest in weaponry and communication gear. Politicians on campaign trails like to make a show of reverence toward folkways and older traditions, but in their homes and administrative offices they make sure that their computers and other kinds of equipment are state-of-the-art. Increasingly tradition is window-dressing, while real life has become modern in the extreme. Even the most traditionally religious and reactionary regimes will not forego the use satellite technology and microchip bugs for their well equipped secret police. Modernity is in control; traditionalism and its "identity" agenda is the discourse that prevents people from recognizing who they really are.
The discrepancy between traditionalist pretense and modern reality pertains not only to the histrionics of political side shows, but to self-deception in everyday life as well. Wherever possible, and regardless of cultural background, people buy and depend on such industrial consumer goods as radios, bicycles, refrigerators, cars, air conditioners, telephones, kerosene, flashlights, screw drivers, eyeglasses, aspirin, or any type of plastic ware--and usually also such favorites as Coca Cola, Big Macs, designer jeans, Hollywood films, T shirts with American football team logos, and dozens of other nontraditional consumer items. While the latter group of goods may one day be eliminated as unnecessary or detrimental from enlightened societies, such things as refrigerators or eyeglasses are probably destined to stay--for good reasons. No society will ever go back voluntarily to stages of technological development that would make their culture a seriously traditional one. In remote villages all over the world country folk often continue to wear traditional clothing, to be sure, but their physical survival has become inseparable from modern industrial production and productivity. They may often think of themselves as culturally conservative, but in important ways they are not. Their actual conduct gives the lie to their conservative rhetoric.
This does not mean, of course, that in many parts of the world people do not hang on to significant traditional practices, or that they do not reject many aspects of industrial production and consumption. Even in the most technology-dominated societies inventive minds often rediscover certain virtues of older ways of doing things. The rediscovery of organic farming in high-tech societies is an example, and the revitalization of the extended family in many places may be another. There are numerous practices that over-industrialized countries can and ought to learn from more traditional societies. But such discriminating selectivity with respect to traditional and modern ways is itself profoundly modern. Pragmatism of this sort is essentially progressive. It is an attitude that in principle is bound by nothing, and which looks out for whatever is practical for now and for the future. An individual with such an attitude is modern in the very best sense, whether he or she be dressed in traditional clothing or not.
Obviously, advocates who take the idea of ethnic etc. "identity" seriously cannot think about it in terms of folklorist features; something more substantial has to be considered. Instead of forms of clothing, cuisine, or ways of celebrating holidays, it must be things like political organization, conceptions of religion, or relations between parents and offspring that define someone's cultural identity in a meaningful way. But how can such an identity actually be brought about--by a person's faithful adherence to whatever is the norm in some subgroup? If such given norms pertain to significant aspects of people's lives, however, it seems rather problematic to advocate passive acceptance of whatever tradition, authority, or prevailing opinions demand. If certain traditions sanction discrimination against women, for example, or vivisection, capital punishment for exercising free speech, and the wholesale destruction of certain natural resources, are such traditions to be honored just because they are traditions? Is Pope John-Paul to be obeyed in his attempt "to put the paste back into the tube" (to use the formulation of a Catholic nun)? If, however, traditions are to be honored in their breach, then there clearly is an identity that transcends any tradition, an identity that is personal in an emphatic sense.
Kant's well-known definition of 1784 says: "Enlightenment is the release of human beings from their self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the inability to use one's own reason without direction from someone else. This tutelage is self-incurred when its cause does not lie in the lack of reason, but in the lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from someone else. Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason!--that is the motto of enlightenment." What sort of person, one might ask, would willingly accept the tutelage involved in passively following the dictates of a culture? A timid or a lazy person, Kant suggests in his essay. And a person, one might add, who really does not have an identity of his or her own, and who therefore has to borrow some sort of character role or character mask from some established tradition. The "identity" invoked so often by identity politicians may not be a real identity at all, but rather the lack of a developed, self-directed personality.
The impetus that finds expression in Kant's definition is, of course, much older than the 18th century Enlightenment. The very beginning of Western philosophy was defined by Socrates's rebellion against the idea that his or anyone else's identity be defined by a person's society and culture. The dominant concerns of Athenian culture were the making of money, the acquisition of personal and collective glory through military conquests, and sexual gratification in a variety of subtle or not so subtle ways. Socrates took vigorous exception to this culture, and he spent most of his time and energy on designing ways of living one's life without becoming too deformed by the behaviour and thinking patterns of the cultural mainstream. That Socrates was "a product of his culture," as the phrase has it, is not only a superficial platitude, but completely misconstrues what constitutes a person's identity in any significant sense. To say such things as "Socrates was white, male, and of Athenian origin" does not even come close to saying who the man was, nor does "white, female, Milesian" say much about Aspasia, the woman who in several ways was Socrates"s teacher. To get an adequate idea of a person's identity one has to go far beyond the superficial categories of such language.
The "politics of Identity" sometimes looks like the joint product of poorly understood social science and the bureaucratic mind. When bureaucrats can pin labels like "black, male, Catholic," and "from Haiti" on an individual, then they tend to assume rather rashly that they know something of importance about that person. But that is a serious mistake, unless bureaucratic classification is the objective. If the thoughts of Socrates, of Lao-tse, of Gautama Buddha, or any other sage that has helped people to become civilized, mean anything, then it should be clear that the attempt to capture a person's identity in sociological or bureaucratic terms is rather nugatory.
As a coda to the above considerations it may be worthwhile to point out how little it makes sense for anyone to talk about "his" or "her" culture under modern conditions. Americans who fall under the bureaucratic classification of "Caucasian" have no good reason for calling European culture "theirs," for example, and Americans that bureaucrats classify as "Afro-" have no reason for calling African culture "theirs." There is sometimes still a tendency to assume that individuals of African descend are somehow inherently closer to Yoruba masks or Benin sculptures than they are to Beethoven or Dostoievsty, or that individuals of European descend are somehow closer to Gregorian chant than to Jazz. But that is an illusion. There is no inherent connection between the genetic make-up of people and any form of cultural expression, and ancestry is irrelevant for the culture of any person. That is not only shown by the fact that among the greatest interpreters of European classical music are musicians of African and Asian descend, but also by the total lack of understanding of the same music by untold millions of native Europeans. Culture, and particularly serious or "high" culture, has simply outgrown the regional and ethnic boundaries within which it may have developed during earlier epochs. Culture as such is now universal, and thus human.
[I would like to thank Dr. Jacob Opper for his very helpful remarks.]
by Jorn Bramann (after listening with appreciation to the responses)
I did indeed not mean to suggest that we have actually realized the ideals of the Enlightenment. I think of those ideals as the inescapable standards for the future. I think of racial and cultural differences as essentially insignificant in an emancipated society. Race and color still play a role here and there, but that state of affairs should be on its way out. Cultural affiliation and ethnic identity are still played up in some quarters, but such preoccupations should soon be replaced by more substantial concerns. What I find problematic is the attempt to find deep meaning in our separate (and falsely glorified) pasts, while finding no time or energy to rectify the pressing problems of the present and the future. Too often fixations on the past become excuses for overlooking the blatant inadequacies of the present.
If "politics of identity" means what Professor McGovern describes above, I am by and large for it and with her. More often than not racial, ethnic, or other "identities" were imposed on people by more or less hostile groups from the outside: Black Africans were singled out as potential slaves; Jews were forced to wear the yellow star as a preparation for their extermination; American Indians were categorized as people whose land and water could be taken away with impunity; etc. Common victimization created common experiences and common bonds (although, unfortunately, not often enough). Such unity may and should persist as long as discrimination and external threats continue to exist. But these are not conditions of an emancipated society.
The Enlightenment goal is to do away with such "identities," and to make discrimination and hostile treatment impossible. Race is a "construct," thus it ought to be deconstructed as quickly as possible. Not only in theory, but also in practice. The features that were used as significant markers for special treatment must be made insignificant--by making sure that all human beings enjoy the same rights and opportunities. An identity should be something that each individual creates for himself or herself, and not something that is imposed on anyone from without. Not even in the form of an imposed ethnic or cultural "heritage." I am, after all, not my ancestors; I am myself--here and now. (Langston Hughes once wrote: "I was not only an American Negro--who had loved the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africa--but I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem ...")
As to dangers: Last time I was in Tucson, a big, and apparently vicious highschool brawl made the papers. In a situation where identity bureaucrats stress that the various ethnic groups emphatically "know who they are," the Chicanos became very jealous because Black students had a whole month in which to celebrate their heritage, while they themselves only had their traditional 5th of May. That started the fight. Considering that additional tensions exist because of local White and Indian identities, who all seem to make much of their separateness, one wonders whether it would not be easier and wiser to cultivate the notion of a common humanity. If learning is to be done, why not learn that? It is not really surprising that the rhetoric of pride channels people back into the emotional grooves of the sort of chauvinism that has troubled the peoples of the world for so long.
"I am proud to be an X"--that can be said by someone with a superiority complex, and by someone who defies the slurs of somebody with a superiority complex. Both types are like wheels out of whack: they are members of a society where people are deformed by an excessive emphasis on difference. An enlightened society is one where people are relaxed enough to say : "It doesn't matter whether I am an X or a Y. Let's talk about something important."
There should, perhaps, soon be another Forum debate on the question "Is Color Important?" We recently had a speaker on campus who seemed to argue that color not only is of great significance, but also should be. Whites in particular should get in the habit of thinking of themselves as whites!
It is, of course, possible to make sense of this sort of advice, but I think this kind of talk is fraught with dangers. Under the decisive moral influence of Martin Luther King white people everywhere in the Western world have--slowly--learned an important lesson: Color is ultimately not important; being human is important. It took many courageous acts, and many sacrifices, to drive home that lesson. Now, as the lesson is increasingly translated into non-racist attitudes and practices, white people are suddenly told that color is important, and that it should be. And they are told that not so much by white supremacists, but by people of color. That has had an enormously confusing effect, and one of the important side-effects has been that scores of white people have turned away from any progressive efforts in disgust. The feeling is that we are headed for a new kind of racism, and that is not a very pleasant prospect. The whole thing becomes too confusing; and the contentions that are creating the confusion are (as so much of the entire "postmodernist" discourse) profoundly confused. They need urgent clarification.
My own opinion is that color is important as long as it is used as a pretext for unequal opportunities, treatment, or institutional imbalances. Beyond that (or: in itself) it seems void of any significance whatsoever. (And that is what will have to be learned by most people, or there will be trouble.) It will lose all significance as soon as the inequalities, that are based on it, are abolished. Shades of skin color will play the same role as shades of hair color. Our guest speaker's suggestion that there is some deep and existential meaning attached to differences of color I find hard to understand, let alone accept. But perhaps there is something that I and others need to understand. Hence: Another Forum debate on the question: Is Color Important?
Back to top of the page
Go to Critical Response by Jean-Marie Makang
Go to Critical Response by Constance McGovern
Back to Calendar of Forum Events
Back to Papers, Commentaries, &c.
Back to Forum Main Page