Friday, November 30, 2012

liberal essentialism

As an internationalist, a socialist, and a pacifist, I'm used to a string of liberal argument that goes something like this. "You can reject the nation/capitalism/war because you're white and privileged! Black people/gay people/women don't hold those positions, it's all white men." Or, as someone put it in the comments here early this year, "I guess what I was getting at before is that the dream you're espousing here is itself a product of your tribal loyalties, or more succinctly, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people who share your dream are white Westerners, and there are cultural reasons for this."

This is of course liberal essentialism, reducing nonwhite and non-Western people to their presumed roles as liberal voting blocs. It's also not true. I've known dozens of socialists in my life who were black, or gay, or women, or transgendered, certainly in higher proportions than the regular population. That fact is irrelevant to the correctness of the ideas, but it speaks to the sense in which liberal belief in the superior diversity of their ideas has actually compelled them to imagine less diversity that there really is. That there is a tiny number of nonwhite socialists speaks to the fact that there is a tiny number of socialists, period. If not a single black person held a political position I believed to be correct, then I would simply have a bigger job to do in convincing them. That it isn't the case, but is casually believed by liberals, tells you more about the unfortunate space that minorities occupy in the liberal imagination than it does about radical politics.

The immediate aftermath of this last political election was gross for a lot of reasons, but none of them made me wince more than the strutting attitude towards race a lot of Democrats displayed. The self-congratulation itself was just gross. The broader problem is how deeply liberals believe that they own minority populations, and that this ownership not only grants them the electoral advantage of the votes, but the mantle of social liberal righteousness. This essentialism, like all essentialism, robs the people who are supposedly being honored of their agency and choice, and reduces all racial politics to the status of psychodrama.


Ferny Reyes said...

There's a difference between presuming that a nonwhite person should hold a particular argument and arguing that there are certain arguments that tend to be made by certain kinds of people.

As an example, in my experience, violent revolution tends to be advocated by either people who have never had physical violence done in their lives to them OR have only existed in the context of violence and thus violence isn't special.

It's not hard to admit that the former is mostly a white experience and the latter is mostly going to be a nonwhite experience.

Just a thought.

Ethan Gach said...

It is the classic Ad Hom: attacking where/why/how an idea originates rather than engaging the idea itself.

I think this is mostly the result of too much cultural theory. Political critiques which flow from deconstruction are necessarily (in so far as people use this method to make actual normative claims) ad hominem in nature.

The idea must be inherently flawed because the person/institution/power behind it has been show to be flawed.

individualfrog said...

When I read once on the Internet that only comfortable Western white men have ever speculated about metaphysics, I thought something had definitely gone wrong somewhere.

Mentioner said...

"If not a single black person held a political position I believed to be correct, then I would simply have a bigger job to do in convincing them. "
Isn't this the same argument being put out by Republicans concerning the lack of acceptance of the conservative agenda by minority groups? In other words, it isn't the idea that is wrong, it's the delivery?
At a certain point (and I believe this to be true about the conservative argument)is there a case to be made that it actually is the concept itself that needs refining, and not the delivery?

Brendan said...

I left that comment, but it was in a completely different context.

I agree with everything else you say here. I don't hold the views you ascribe to me at all.

edwin said...

thus violence isn't special.

Hmmm. Are you sure you want to say that?

Ferny Reyes said...

Edwin - Sure. I think there are people whose lives are so full of violence in that the use of more violence and the potential of complete and total disintegration of violence isn't that problematic a consideration.

@Individual Frog - Ya. That's problematic. That's just lazy.

@Ethan - Ideas can't exist without context. You shouldn't make ideas decontexualized, because ideas are always attached to other ideas or assumptions about the world. I would be very skeptical of a Republican plot to help inner city minorities, largely because they show no record of doing so. They might have a good idea, but the track suggests that the idea might be attached to other interests that aren't so positive.

Ethan Gach said...


True, but if you can't find anything wrong with the idea, continued resistance simply because of the messenger is ridiculous/unreasonable.