The Golden Rule and political discourse

I just signed on to the “Golden Rule 2020 Pledge”:

“We all have an important role to play to help heal our nation, increase understanding of each other, and bridge our divisions. I stand with other Americans by joining Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Dignity and Respect in Politics. I commit to treat others with respect and dignity as I engage in political discourse and behavior throughout the 2020 campaign season.”

I’m tired of hearing Americans badmouth each other, just because we have differing political beliefs. That kind of behavior is not good for our country. It trashes the commons of our public discourse. More than that, I’m tired of hearing myself badmouth others just because I don’t happen to share their political beliefs. I don’t want to be that kind of person. If others want to engage in trash-talking, that is their choice — I don’t have to make the same choice.

Yes, it’s a bunch of Christians who started the Golden Rule Pledge. But, according to the Internet Encylcopedia of Philosophy (a peer-reviewed Web site), the Golden Rule predates Christianity, and transcends the particularities of Christian doctrine:

“The golden rule is closely associated with Christian ethics though its origins go further back and graces Asian culture as well. Normally we interpret the golden rule as telling us how to act. But in practice its greater role may be psychological, alerting us to everyday self-absorption, and the failure to consider our impacts on others. The rule reminds us also that we are peers to others who deserve comparable consideration. It suggests a general orientation toward others, an outlook for seeing our relations with them….This is a strongly egalitarian message.”

Note that the Golden Rule does not require us to follow such Christian precepts as loving others as you love yourself, or turning the other cheek. All that is required is recalling how we would like to be treated, then trying to treat others that way. If even a few of us do that some of the time, public discourse will become more civil. Equally importantly, from my point of view, trying to follow the Golden Rule is a way to try to be more like the person I aspire to be. Check it out, and see if you want to sign on, too.

#GoldenRule2020

Religious freedom and colonialism

The latest Religious Studies Podcast is a very interesting interview with Tisa Wenger, author of a new book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.” (If you’re like me and prefer reading to listening, there’s also a full transcript to read.) In the interview, Wenger explains how Native American people redefined what they did as religion in order to use U.S. guarantees of religious freedom to protect indigenous traditions:

“[In the United States] you see U.S. government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimizing indigenous traditions by categorizing them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan. And indigenous people, who in their own languages and ways of structuring — they had their own ways of structuring their societies — but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they [Native Americans] start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorization of themselves as heathen, savage, pagan, etc. So this is why I title my first book ‘We Have a Religion’: this was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying, ‘We also have a religion … And you can’t ban it, because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.'”

Wenger also touches briefly on how something similar happened in British India, as Hinduism came to be defined as a religion:

“The construction of Hinduism as a ‘world religion’ is happening in conjunction with [British] colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British, for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.”

I’ve been thinking recently about the interaction between the concept of religious freedom on the one hand, and religion on the other hand. I’m one of those who doesn’t see religion as a thing that can be easily defined; instead, I’m one of those who sees religion as a social construction with definitions that vary over time. Wenger’s research helps me better understand how a colonial power like the United States used religion in varying ways to help dominate Native American peoples; and, conversely, how Native Americans in turn used religion to maintain their own cultural autonomy.

Clearly, Wenger’s work also looks at the interactions between race and religion. In a response to the interview with Wenger, “The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness,” Alexander Rocklin examines the way Afro-Caribbean religions have been stigmatized, and defined as not being religions so that religious freedom does not apply to them (in much the same way that certain Native American religions have been defined as not being religions so that they can be outlawed). Rocklin writes:

“The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion.”

The link between the category of religion and colonialism is well known, but what’s new here is the detail these two scholars offer about specific religious traditions and their battle for religious freedom with colonial powers. Fascinating reading.

…very careful in the words…

We live in times when it is worth looking at the way old white guys in power cloak themselves with words. They also surround themselves with expensive ties, expensive watches, expensive haircuts — but their words are the primary tools they use in wielding power.

Rev. Robert Jeffress, evangelical Christian and senior pastor of First Baptist Church, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas, told Fox News in a televised interview: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Donald Trump quoted Jeffress in a series of Twitter posts, which Jeffress then retweeted. What did Jefress mean by talking about a civil war? When interviewed by CBN News, he said, “Well I was very careful in the words that I chose, I was not predicting and I was certainly not advocating an actual civil war.” And, he went on, if anyone thought he was in fact advocating for a civil war, they must be “too stupid to understand what we [he and Trump] are saying.”

When you are an old white guy, it’s so easy to surround yourself with the sound of your own words, so you don’t have to hear anything beyond your own words.

Political correctness and moral dogmatism

A new podcast from the University of Macau, featuring philosophy professor Hand-Georg Moeller and doctoral candidate Dan Sarafinas, focuses on “virtue speech,” which is Moeller’s philosophical term for political correctness.

Moeller connects virtue speech to civil religion; in the United States, civil religion begins with the fundamental dogma contained in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to Moeller, this dogma is written so you can’t argue with it; all you can do is interpret it. (Although as Moeller points out, there are all kinds of ways you can argue with this statement; for example, Europeans like Moeller are not likely to believe in a Creator, let alone a Creator who endows human beings with unalienable rights.)

Virtue speech — politically correct speech — starts with this fundamental dogma and interprets it by applying it to specific situations, such as the MeToo movement, or Black Lives Matter. While Moeller says he’s generally supportive of the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, to someone who believes in the Enlightenment ideal of the use of reason, virtue speech is going to be just as much of a problem as fundamentalist Christianity: both are founded on dogmas that require you to accept them without reasoning. Moeller points how virtue speech subverts well-reasoned argument:

“Most of these people who are attacking virtue speech, who are attacking political correctness: in the beginning they’re just appalled by this virtue signaling. They’re appalled by this self-aggrandizing moralism or the moralists. But then they start thinking, ‘OK, I’ll prove that their morality is wrong.’ And then they get drawn into a moralistic, dogmatic discourse, because they start talking about the issue. They come up with very indefensible positions, even.”

Moeller’s title for the podcast is “The Issue Is Not the Issue.” He doesn’t want to get involved in moralistic, dogmatic discourse himself. Instead, he wants to point out the problems with dogmatism:

“The point is not to deny the values of liberty and equality, but to understand and critique dogmatic speech, no matter what the issues are. That doesn’t mean that these things are wrong. It’s just to point out the problems of engaging in dogmatic speech.”

While I highly recommend this podcast, I think it will be very challenging for many religions liberals. In their religious life, religious liberals studiously avoid dogmatism, but in their political life too many religious liberals engage in dogmatic speech with little consciousness of what they’re doing; indeed, many Unitarian Universalist congregations, while eschewing religious dogmatism, are hothouses of political dogmatism.

You can listen to the first episode of “The Issue Is Not the Issue” here.

Generational viewpoints

Zoe Samudzi, doctoral candidate in sociology at UCSF, on class and race:

“I think it’s really telling about the kind of limitedness with which we understand wealth redistribution because of the ways we refuse to understand white supremacy as a necessary part of capitalism and race as the kind of anchoring structure through which resources are inequitably redistributed.” (interview in Geez magazine, winter, 2018, p. 42)

Adolph Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a Marxist who specializes in race an American politics:

“Anti-racism — along with anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, etc., as well as diversity as the affirmative statement of them all — is a species of a genus of social and economic justice that is utterly compatible with neoliberalism: parity in the distribution of costs and benefits among groups defined by essentialized ascriptive identities.” (interview in Platypus Review #75, April, 2015)

I feel that Samudzi represents a younger generation of thinkers and activists who have abandoned traditional Marxist critiques of capitalism in favor of critiques based on identity politics; Reed represents an older generation of thinkers who continue to extend Marxist critiques of capitalism and who criticize identity politics as neoliberalism, which is to say, another form of capitalism. As someone who had training in the Frankfurt School as an undergrad (under a black Marxist professor, interestingly enough), I’m aligned with Reed’s generational cohort. But the zeitgeist is now blowing in the direction of Samudzi’s generation.

What does it mean to be cisgender?

In article on Feminist Current, a Canadian Web site, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the Univ. of Texas Austin, questions his assignment into the category of cisgender:

“…Sex is a question of biologically determined male and female, gender of socially determined masculinity and femininity. The dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture asserts that men are naturally competitive and aggressive, and that being a ‘real man’ means struggling for control, conquest, and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants, and takes it. This is sometimes labeled ‘toxic masculinity,’ which implies it is an aberration from some ‘normal’ masculinity. But this understanding of masculinity-as-seeking-dominance is the default setting for most males growing up in patriarchy, especially through the glorification of aggression in the military, sports, and business.

“All that definitional work [Jensen continues] is necessary to explain why I am not cisgender. As a male human, this patriarchal conception of masculinity is not my ‘chosen’ identity, nor do I believe it is my fate. As a short, skinny, effeminate child … I never felt very masculine. As an adult with feminist politics, I reject and struggle to overcome the masculinity norms in patriarchy. If we were someday to transcend patriarchy, would I feel more ‘like a man’? That would depend on how the term was defined, but in the world in which I live, I refuse to embrace the patriarchal gender identity handed to me….

“So [Jensen concludes], I’m not cisgender and I’m not transgender. I am not gender fluid, non-binary, or multi-gender. I self-identify as an adult biological XY male who rejects patriarchal gender norms and works from a radical feminist perspective to eliminate patriarchy….”

While it has some problematic moments, I think Jensen’s essay offers a small but useful addition to the ongoing debate about the term “cisgender.” If you haven’t been following that debate, some have argued that “cisgender” is analogous to the introduction of “heterosexual” as the opposite of “homosexual”; similarly, “cisgender” can help non-trans people realize the extent to which they have the privilege of not having to articulate their gender; therefore it is a necessary term. Arguments against the term include the possibility that setting up such a strong distinction between transgender and cisgender may actually work against a widespread acceptance of transgender as normal; others claim that transgender and cisgender are Western cultural concepts that don’t apply cross-culturally (e.g., Native Americans who reject the identification of the Two-Spirit tradition with transgender).

What Jensen offers to this debate is his personal experience of gender. He does not see himself as typically masculine; therefore, he does not see that his biological sex matches society’s expectations about the gender role he should take on. Yet he does not consider himself transgender, either. There’s an argument to be made that Jensen has cisgender privilege because he’s non-trans, and thus the term is useful; however, I’m not convinced that biological men and boys who are not masculine, but also non-trans, get the same level of privilege as a stereotypically masculine biological male since (depending on how effeminate you are) a straight non-trans non-masculine man will tend to experience some level of bullying and teasing.

The word “cisgender” is not going to go away, and I feel it remains useful in some settings. What Jensen makes me realize is that we should be careful in how we use the term: we shouldn’t use the term “cisgender” in such a way that it reinforces gender stereotypes. For example, we wouldn’t want to reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity by grouping Robert Jensen together with Donald Trump under the rubric “cisgender men”; Trump is constantly enacting stereotypes of a hyper-masculine gender role (marrying a woman much younger than he, asserting his virility in various ways, putting success above everything else, etc.); Jensen is taking on a significantly different gender role.

So I’ll continue to use “cisgender” as a term for larger groups of people. But I’m going to be disinclined to apply it to a individuals, aware of its cultural assumptions, and careful not to turn it into yet another binary division.

Two definitions of neoliberalism

As I look into the economic and political forces driving global environmental collapse, I’ve been researching neoliberalism, an economic doctrine that was first tried on a practical basis under Pinochet in Chile. Neoliberalism now has come to dominate much of the world, including the United States, where neoliberalism is now so entrenched that it represents an unquestioned economic consensus of both major political parties.

Here are two definitions of neoliberalism. The first comes from journalist George Monbiot, author of How Did We Get into This Mess?:

“Neoliberalism claims that we are best served by maximum market freedom and minimum intervention by the state. The role of government should be confined to creating and defending markets, protecting private property and defending the realm. All other functions are better discharged by private enterprise, which will be prompted by the profit motive to supply essential services. By this means, enterprise is liberated, rational decisions are made and citizens are freed from the dehumanising hand of the state….

“[T]he most powerful promoter of this programme was the media. Most of it is owned by multi-millionaires who use it to project the ideas that support their interests. Those which threaten their plans are either ignored or ridiculed. It is through the newspapers and television channels that the socially destructive ideas of a small group of extremists have come to look like common sense. The corporations’ tame thinkers sell the project by reframing our political language…. Nowadays I hear even my progressive friends using terms like wealth creators, tax relief, big government, consumer democracy, red tape, compensation culture, job seekers, and benefit cheats. These terms, all deliberately invented or promoted by neoliberals, have become so commonplace that they now seem almost neutral.

“Neoliberalism, if unchecked, will catalyse crisis after crisis, all of which can be solved only by the means it forbids: greater intervention on the part of the state.”

George Monbiot, from his 2008 article “How Did We Get into This Mess?” (written, you will notice, before the 2008 Depression hit).

 

The second definition of neoliberalism comes from leftist geographer David Harvey, quthor of A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

“There are two things to be said [about defining ‘neoliberalism’]. One is … the theory of neoliberalism and the other is its practice. And they are rather different from each other. But the theory takes the view that individual liberty and freedom are the high point of civilization and then goes on to argue that individual liberty and freedom can best be protected and achieved by an institutional structure, made up of strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade: a world in which individual initiative can flourish. The implication of that is that the state should not be involved in the economy too much, but it should use its power to preserve private property rights and the institutions of the market and promote those on the global stage if necessary….

“Liberal theory goes back a very long way … to the 18th century: John Locke, Adam Smith, and writers of that sort. Then economics changed quite a bit towards the end of the 19th century and neoliberalism is a really revival of the 18th century liberal doctrine about freedoms and individual liberties connected to a very specific view of the market. And the leading figures in that are Milton Friedman in this country and Friedrich Hayek in Austria. In 1947 they formed a society to promote neoliberal values called the Mont Pelerin Society. It was a minor society but it got a lot of support from wealthy contributors and corporations to polemicize on the ideas it held.”

From an interview with David Harvey, On Neoliberalism: An Interview with David Harvey, in MRonline.

Boomers and privilege

I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse; what can be a useful tool for analysis among like-minded persons does not always translate well to a wider context. For example, when white people of the professional and upper middle classes gain awareness of how they have personally benefited from structural racism, they may find it helpful when speaking with others who are challenging structural racism to use the phrase “white privilege”; in that context, “white privilege” becomes a useful shorthand way of referring to the specific benefits professional and upper middle class white people get from structural racism. However, when professional and upper middle class white people use the term “white privilege” in public discourse, working class whites can rightfully challenge them on at least two counts: first, the experience of white working class people in accessing the fruits of structural racism is different from that of white people of the professional and upper middle classes; second, white working class people have themselves been the targets of discrimination by white professional and upper middle class people (for one example, see Nancy Isenberg’s analysis of why upper middles class whites embraced eugenics, in her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America).

A big part of the problem here, I think, is that the nuances of intersectional analysis get lost in public discourse — “white privilege” is a short-hand phrase that sums up a good deal of thoughtful analysis, and short-hand phrases often do not translate well to the public arena. Obviously, the same applies to the phrase “male privilege,” another phrase that is sometimes used in public discourse. Nevertheless, just because I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse, I do find that talking about privilege is helpful when I’m trying to analyze structural inequalities; with the caveat that when you’re dealing with individual people, one individual can experience more than one kind of structural inequality. So it’s important not to reify specific kinds of privilege, e.g., “white privilege” is an abstraction, not an actual thing.

With all that in mind, I’d like to explore the notion that here in the U.S. Baby Boomers have some kind of privilege. “Boomer privilege,” if it exists, arose for a couple of demographic reasons. First, there are large numbers of Boomers, and so it is easy for them to find many others who share a set of life-shaping experiences; because of this, it’s easy for Boomers to assume that their experiences are normative, and then to extend what they perceive as normative to other generations who may have a quite different set of experiences. This perception of what is normative is similar to one of the generating causes of white privilege, dating from when whites comprised the vast majority of the U.S. population: “whiteness” came to be seen by many white people as normative. Continue reading “Boomers and privilege”