Abigail Thernstrom from CNN posted an article today on the nature of identity politics and specifically about the state of race politics within the US. Now I love poking fun at stereotypes mostly because of the absurdness of many of the values that people hold or think that they don’t hold when pressed and made to feel uncomfortable on the subject. Mrs. Thernstrom’s comments however got me thinking a bit more about the idea of bigotry in social cultures and it occurred to me that we may have this all backwards.
As social creatures cultures and communities have a natural tendency to define themselves in terms of “us” vs “them”. We are good, They are bad. We are the same, They are different. We have ownership over our community, they have no stake in the welfare of our society. It is an inherent quality of survival that we naturally form these bonds and justify our exclusiveness so as to ensure the health of both our genes and social way of life.
“All men are created equal”. You go anywhere in the world and those words are synonymous with freedom from bigotry, racism, and religious persecution. However those words don’t recognize that all societies are not created equal. Access to freedoms, resources, capital, labour, educational opportunities and the promotion of entrepreneurial spirit are not in equal measure in all societies or communities.
When we talk about identity politics in that each person should be fairly represented it is almost impossible to ensure that is the case without the social and community structures which form the basis of their individual experiences also being equal. What Thernstrom is failing to recognize is that Sotomayor, in her comments, is accounting for the role of community as part of the lived experience – something which you cannot discount. My perception of Sotomayor’s comments is not that she is referring to all Latina women would make better choices but that what represents the best decision is very often the product of both social and contextual circumstances.
Let’s put this in perspective: while men can empathize with the pain of childbirth – let’s face it – we don’t have that individual life experience of what it actually means to give birth that is uniquely and wholly owned by women.
The issue is not really one of race or colour or creed or gender but rather one of getting over our natural impulses to separate social communities into us verses them.
Case in point: how many times have you heard the expression “I’m not a racist but …” or “present company excluded” when in the same room as a woman, or person of colour, or disabled, or …
Once we accept someone into our social culture the concept of race, creed, colour, and gender tend to diminish and/or disappear altogether. It is not a question of forcing individuals to fight against their natural instincts to be exclusive of other communities but rather establishing a societal bill of rights that provide equal opportunities at a community level and then to promote a social understanding that as the size of our communities grow, so to does our understanding of the breadth of what we need to perceive as being ‘our community’. In so doing, breaking down the walls of that group perception of who represents us and who represents them.
This is not to say that any such program of social evolutionary thinking is necessarily going to work. There may be an upper limit to which the human mind can necessarily understand the concept of “community”. But at least in attempting to make all social communities equal, the opportunities for the individuals within those communities should naturally develop as a consequence of leveling the playing field rather than in spite of it.