Anne (netmouse) wrote,

How Liberal is Defined These Days

About ten years ago I would have been fairly content to describe my political views as "liberal", but lately I have been using the term "progressive politics" more often. The following quote from a philosopher a friend introduced me to reminds me why:

“The liberal idea of tolerance is more and more a kind of intolerance. What it means is 'Leave me alone; don't harass me; I'm intolerant towards your over-proximity.”
― Slavoj Žižek

To me, this quote reflects the blending of perceptions of cultural attitudes and politics. The author is using what once was a political designation, "liberal" to identify a group of people who, according to him, display this cultural intolerance - these attitudes toward personal space and interpersonal interaction. What he describes elsewhere as the fear of harassment.

Is that politics? In a famous 1970 essay titled with the then-common statement "The Personal is Political, feminist author Carol Hanisch argued that "political" refers to any power relationships, not just those of government or elected officials.

So that clarifies it for me. Increasingly, "Liberal" is used to refer to people who espouse a progressive ideology but are frequently in denial about their own position in the socioeconomic and political landscape and how that puts them into unacknowledged power relationships with others. Since they are not acknowledging those power relationships, neither do they welcome examination or criticism of themselves on that basis, and they also don't necessarily take responsibility for the impact their choices and actions might be having on those with less power than them, as well as other things "liberals" frequently defend verbally, like the environment.

This sliding of definitions can be very difficult to deal with and acknowledge. Another one I've noticed, for instance, has been the definition of "Multiculturalism." I was raised in an alternative education program in a very liberal city in the 1970s and 80s. At the time, the way I was raised, "Multiculturalism" was the belief that we should acknowledge and learn about multiple cultures, and that it is inappropriate for a dominant culture to actively wipe out another culture --translated to an individual level, it is inappropriate for individuals to mock or look down on someone for being culturally different, and it is of value to learn about other cultures (building "cultural sensitivity") so you can recognize them, celebrate and appreciate them, and also avoid saying or doing things that are offensive in someone else's culture.

This has since become closely affiliated with the sort of "tolerance" Žižek criticizes above. He has also said,

"For the multiculturalist, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are prohibited, Italians and Irish get a little respect, blacks are good, native Americans are even better. The further away we go, the more they deserve respect. This is a kind of inverted, patronising respect that puts everyone at a distance.”
― Slavoj Žižek

I can understand his criticism, while also understanding that this is a criticism of multiculturalism in practice, not original philosophy. There is nothing in the philosophical origins I was taught that says one culture or ethnicity is "good" compared to the others -- that would actually have been antithetical to the whole point.

A few years ago, I commented on some of my own observations and criticisms of this sort of thing when revisiting the "multiculturalism" of my high school. On MLK day, and sometimes the day before Thanksgiving, which was a huge multicultural festival, my school would invite students from the other alternative high school, which was predominantly black, to come join our celebration. And it was very awkward because we did not know each other. In retrospect I am sad that the students of these two schools were held at arms length from one another the rest of the year, and thus not encouraged to know or understand each other as whole people. I also understand how "multiculturalism" practiced shallowly can support stereotypical attitudes, which assume that people of one culture, race, ethnicity, what-have-you, are all alike. If I had not read a lot of Chaim Potok, and had Jewish friends, for instance, I probably wouldn't have learned how many different schools of thought, belief, and practices there are within the Global Jewish Community.

It has only been through traveling and by taking my Master's in Canada that I experienced how shocking and disorienting it can be when outsiders view your culture (in this case, "American culture") as monolithic and homogeneous. Having traveled all over the United States with an interest in History, I am also more sensitive to how frustrating it is to the native tribes to have people speak of an "American Indian" culture. Liberals can debate "Native American" vs "American Indian" all they want, but that still obscures the reality that Choctaw, Sioux, Huron, Ojibwa, Oneida, Chippewa, Cherokee, (etc) cultures were and are not all the same.

We didn't treat them as the same when I was a kid. We made dioramas of the life, art and architecture of particular tribes, and were read speeches by particular native American individuals, identified by tribe. That was our multiculturalism, once upon a time. (At the same time, we also didn't learn anything about cultural evolution, nor study where the people from those tribes are now; what their beliefs and practices are in modern times. We treated them anthropologically in a way that definitely set them at a remove. I attended pow-wows as a kid, which helped but only a little.)

It is very interesting to observe my own personal reactions to this, and how it sometimes helps, but sometimes interferes with, my understanding of what someone has said or written.
Tags: politics

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