Sunday, January 30, 2011

Who Should Fight for What

Rick Santorum recently expressed the somewhat outrageous view that Obama should stand in solidarity with the antiabortion position because he is black.
"The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no," Santorum says in the interview, which was first picked up by CBN's David Brody. "Well if that person, human life is not a person, then, I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"
Ta-Nehisi Coates points to Santorum's Italian ancestry and make this point:
I think it would be deeply wrong of me to say, "As a member of ethnic group that's suffered bigotry, Rick Santorum should be for gay marriage." The wrong would not simply extend to Santorum, it would extend to other Italian-Americans--gay or straight. I regret that I missed that. Whatever the flaws of the actual analogy, it's always wrong to treat individuals as a "collection of others." Full stop. 
Isn’t the question really about one’s personal sacrifice for a cause? What makes one person stand up and fight for something, and another sit quietly – even if they both feel the same? My guess is that they don’t actually feel the same. True solidarity requires the imagination of compassion. If any of us were more mindful of the suffering in the world, and the direct impact we can have on that suffering, we would no doubt feel more solidarity and take more action.

It seems the basic claim is that the traditionally oppressed have more capacity for empathy with the currently oppressed, as the “schema” already exist in them for the mental projection. And thus any inaction on their part must be explained as a sort of psychological disorder, or character flaw. For instance, one can be generally excused for not taking action against suffering in a foreign land, as the suffering is reasonably removed from schematic association. Yet, if one just returned from a trip to that land, and witnessed the suffering first-hand, a lack of action might need to be explained in terms of personal deficit.

Yet simply being black is not the same as returning from a village in Darfur. And what is more, being black (as opposed to white) would, on average, imply a disadvantage in social and/or human capital, in the sense that a legacy of discrimination has created a racial disparity in the area of socio-cultural engagement in American civic life. It would be reasonable that the extent that each of us be held morally accountable for responding to oppression anywhere be tied directly to the proportion of social and human capital we have been privileged to receive. Thus, he who has received very little in life ought not be as accountable for active social remediation as he who has received a great deal; agency ought to be matched with agency.

Yet a paradox develops in which the disadvantaged have the greatest facility for compassionate imagination – as they bore personal witness, while those most privileged have the least capacity, sheltered as they likely were from the manifestations of oppression. I think this is a serious structural problem in society that we must deal with. As one increases in privilege, the further one is removed from the consciousness of that privilege. Here I always think of that final scenes in the film Schindler’s List in which Schindler realizes that, with just a ring on his finger, he could have saved one more – so powerfully was he exposed to the realities of suffering. Yet the crux of the story is how someone in his position should not have had the ability to express such sympathy, and yet in the course of the story he grew this capacity, and thus grew in moral character.

As a liberal Democrat, this has been one of my greatest critiques of conservative Republicans: their worldview seems largely an expression of a privileged class, without the requisite schematics to properly empathize and express solidarity with the oppressed underclass. So when crucial yet abstract social service funding is cut, instead of marginally raising taxes, the suffering will likely happen beyond the purview of the voter and it will be up to the media to bring that reality to their attention. As someone who has worked in social services most of my life, I’m reminded of the saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes”. Well, there are few conservatives at mental health facilities, teen pregnancy centers, poor schools, rehab clinics, etc.

In the end, teasing out just who should and should not be able to express the proper quantity of solidarity is impossible. It seems reasonable that the case be simply made that the oppression must stop, and that all parties involved ought do their part. And to the extent that there are those who lack the schematics, the capacity for empathetic response, we do our part to share with them our moral imagination.

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