Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Integrity of Thought

A critique one occasionally hears from the right is that the left is hypocritical when it stands behind the banner of "tolerance", yet seems awfully intolerant of right-wing attitudes or opinions.

It's an interesting straw man, similar to reverse racism or moral relativism. The meaning of tolerance, racism and moral relativism is intentionally misunderstood (or at least, intentionally not endeavored to be understood), thus able to be shot down and dismissed.

Interestingly, by never taking the time to understand the original critique embedded in these concepts (or the complexity of critique they have come to signify), one remains blind both to their objective debate, as well as the possibility that one might be engaging in behavior or thought that is wrong.

For instance, the concept of tolerance means (from UNESCO):
"Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference."
The concept has been embraced by liberals largely in response to the historical wrongs committed due to assumptions of superiority by white, male, Christians, etc. It emphasizes a power dynamic in which other groups have historically been disempowered, and assumed inferior, or at least less important. It is fundamentally democratic, in that by rejecting majoritarian dominance, it seeks to place every citizen on equal footing, equal enfranchisement, regardless of race, gender, class, disability, etc.

To ignore this critique, or to fail to understand it in all its complexity, is to leave oneself open to fulfilling its prophecy - assuming it has merit. Yet in order to determine whether merit exists, one must first fully understand its logic.

Quite relatedly, racism and moral relativism deal in similar historical critiques. Racism is not merely a belief in the superiority, or a preference for, one skin color over another. Because what does that mean? Why is that wrong? A comprehensive understanding of racism sees a much larger historical narrative of cultural and racial dominance and oppression that relies on the prejudice of cognitive bias to enforce group dominance. This pattern of enforcement, of real and brutal oppression is what makes racism so ugly. Saying you like white people better than blacks is, by itself, not so terrible. But place it in historical socio-political context and it becomes downright evil.

A decontextualized view of racism not only ignores likely motivations, but it prepares a path towards the repetition of history. By denuding racism of proper context, it diminishes its import. The concept of "reverse racism" (or reverse sexism, etc.) does exactly this. It defines racism so narrowly as to suck much of its meaning away. A black man who hates white people, or a woman who hates men, simply do not have the centuries of oppression behind their thoughts and actions that we have come to despise and that the concepts racism and sexism embody. They do not represent exponentially larger movements of ingrained social prejudice and cognitive bias that have infested our patterns of thought for generations.

Of course there are many critiques of these narratives of race and tolerance. There certainly are among those who accept their basic accuracy as descriptors of historical reality. Yet to ignore the deeper premises upon which they are based, and to redefine them into meaninglessness is at best sloppy thinking, and at worst outright dishonesty. It is an easy task to attack an opponent's argument after having mischaracterized it. It is much more difficult - yet mandatory - to attack it head on.

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