The Trouble with Diversity (Review) 11 November 2006Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity, Religion, Reviews.
[This post has been getting a lot of traffic this week, so I’ve bumped it back to the top of the blog for people looking for it.]
A young Mexican-American couple live on the ground floor of my building with their baby boy, in a studio apartment. Neither speak English well enough to have a conversation with, although I try to be friendly and helpful when I can (last week I helped them move a couch out of their apartment, which was lots of fun accompanied by the broad grins and hand gestures of people working together who do not share a language). But ultimately, how much does it help this struggling couple for me to be friendly to them, to “respect” their differences as immigrants from Mexico? When I go into my apartment, they are still poor and struggling, whether I was ethnocentric or kind. What is the real disparity between me and them? What is the real inequality? And how exactly do we deal with it? Is multiculturalism enough?
When I started teaching a required undergraduate course on inequality in the United States, I came up against some kinds of resistance I hadn’t expected, not in my students, but in myself. I’d been educated in race and ethnic relationships, in cultural diversity and multiculturalism even as an undergraduate. In fact, these are pretty much the dominant culture of America today. But I kept feeling like something was missing or had gone terribly awry in the way we do multiculturalism. I have spoken at length about this here on my blog already, so I won’t go into details again.
Briefly, I find the multicultural obsession with difference to lead to some odd results: We tend to think of ethnic identities as being cohesive, consistent things that are easily identifiable and knowable; and we tend to create out of that notions of authenticity, that is, that there is such a thing as a real latino or a real black person. I object to this on two levels. First, it’s not empirically true. Ethnicities are social constructs that are inherently fluid and contradictory and change over time and from person to person. They are observable effects of social interaction, but they aren’t material or genetic or even heritable in any easy way. In short, there can be no ‘authentic’ qualities or aspects of an ethnicity, empirically; so to treat ethnicities as if they were real in that way is to enter into a world of make believe. Second, as a cultural sociologist, I’m inclined to want to describe who people actually live, what they actually do, and what they actually believe. Real people mix and match cultures (at least they do in pluralist societies) and move freely around and among them, and end up fully hybrid peoples. At the same time, they tend to, in our current way of doing multiculturalism, see themselves as being or having an ethnicity. Indeed, it’s more than a question of perception: it’s a deeply felt and experienced thing, down in the bones. Tell an individual who thinks of himself as “irish” that empirically, he lives like every other American middle class person, and you’ll have an empassioned battle on your hands.
Surely, in a democracy people must have the right to create the kinds of identities they want to; and in an immigrant nation, our culture is always-already hybrid and blended, and new generations of immigrants will have new relations to the cultures of their parents’ sending nations. Surely, in a democracy, we must tolerate those kinds of differences.
One of the fundamental tenets of multiculturalism is the inherent equality among cultures, that is, that no culture is better or worse than another. This kind of equality seems like a no brainer to me, ethically, in terms of creating a democratic society where people of multiple cultural origins and blended cultural configurations can blend and work together and participate in the society. Benn Michaels sees the problem (and I agree) here: that if all cultures are equal in value, then none should be privileged over the other.
For me, the logical conclusion of a multicultural ethical structure is that there is then nothing wrong with people abandoning their culture or creating new cultures to fit their experiences or of blending, mixing and matching as they see fit. But problems arise when the diversity becomes an end in itself; or to say it another way, if maintaining the diversity becomes the purpose of the democracy, then you may have a problem. First, you have to decide what counts as the ‘culture’ you are trying to protect, and then you have to have rules about which people, practices, objects, and beliefs count. And then you end up drawing lines around cultures, which empirically cannot work. Human beings’ cultural interactions are far more complex than that. And so your left with the question of what the relationship to a democracy should be to the culturally plural lives of its citizens.
So I agree with Benn Michaels that seeing diversity as an end in itself creates major problems for the democracy, but I would criticize him for giving such short shrift to the ethical purposes of multiculturalism in the first place, which is as a mechanism for teaching tolerance. Where he and I agree, however, is that tolerance and respect do not mean the same thing in a democracy, and shouldn’t. Indeed, all cultures aren’t equal, and there are cultural beliefs and practices that are repugnant in a democracy working toward freedom and equality.
But Benn Michaels goes further than I have in my critiques of multiculturalism. Whereas I have seen the empirical contradictions of multiculturalism and the problematics within a democratic pluralism, Benn Michaels sees the effects of multiculturalism systematically as being the cultural mechanism whereby we let ourselves off the hook for the suffering around us.
In a nutshell, Benn Michaels argues that multiculturalism has done two problematic things: 1) it has located and reduced all social problems to questions of respect, so that 2) we think all that is necessary to fix social problems is to learn to respect people who are different from us. The problem here is that the real suffering in American culture today arises out of economic inequality, out of that great hiss and byword of American culture, class, not in our racial and ethnic difference. (I would say that Benn Michaels needed to more carefully connect the racism of the past with his argument, because race and class have been so intricately linked in American history and because there still are inequalities based on racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc.).
In America, he argues, we pretend like there are no real differences between being rich and being poor; we excuse ourselves from seeing the real differences by thinking of them as cultural differences that we must respect. In one of the most mordant passages in the book, Benn Michaels asks how exactly it helps a poor person to respect their culture, as if poverty were just another among many equal cultures. Says he, “I love what you’ve done with your shack!” In reality, our focus and obsession with diversity and difference has benefited the right wing (we no longer talk about economic inequality) and the left (who are off the hook for fixing it). In other words, multiculturalism in its effect serves to allow the right wing to ignore real inequality and suffering by covering themselves with their ‘inclusiveness’ or their ‘respect for diversity.’ (Think of all the companies who have diversity programs, for example.) And it serves to salve the conscience of a nation living with 45 million poor people, the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world (not to mention poverty, access to health care, homelessness, etc.).
Finally, Benn Michaels makes a vitally necessary plea to resist the urge to think of religions as analagous to ethnicities. He argues that religions are beliefs, not cultures, and that religions by their very nature are making truth claims. Truth claims by their very nature, in a democratic society, are to be debated and vetted publicly. So Benn Michaels argues not that we should exclude or preclude religious discourse from public dialogue, but rather that it must be stricken from our notions of ‘respect’ and that it must be engaged as any other faulty truth claim in debate in the public sphere.
If it’s not obvious by now, Benn Michaels was preaching to the choir in me as a reader. But with his wry humor and good logic, he got me over my objections (mainly, I wanted a lot more substantive evidence for his positions, but that’s just me being a sociologist) to go along with his general thesis, which frankly, is so obvious I don’t know why i hadn’t seen it before, especially someone like me who is still a subconscious marxist. I will probably adopt this book next semester in my inequalities class and see how my very diverse bunch of Bay Area students will react to his arguments.
Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Review) 6 November 2006Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Law/Courts, Queer Theory, Reviews.
[Note: This is actually less a review than me trying to get Yoshino’s arguments straight as I think about their implications.]
As the United States becomes more and more diverse culturally, the questions raised by multiculturalism in the past 50 years become all the more pressing, as we try to rethink what a pluralistic democracy could and should mean for a population of people so widely different from each other. Europe is facing similar dynamics, but their history of immigration and cohesion is so much longer and so much more recent that their experiences are and will continue to be different. But on both sides of the pond, we’re trying to grapple with protecting people’s rights to “be” their cultural identity, while at the same time balancing that with the rights of others. As a gay man, I’m often confronted with these kinds of dilemmas, as I feel the erosion of gay cultural spaces and practices by the encroachment of the dominant culture into gay neighborhoods (for example). For all minorities, the tensions between assimilating (in it’s most basic sense of becoming more like the majority, or mainstream, culture) and remaining or reaffirming one’s difference can be vexing, to say the least.
Kenji Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, locates the problem in a new kind of cultural pressure, where individuals are protecting in being different, but not in acting different. Borrowing the term from the important American social-psychologist Irving Goffman, Yoshino argues that minorities are required to cover their cultural differences in order to maintain their position in the public sphere, keep their jobs, avoid violence, gain social acceptance, or avoid conflict in day-to-day activities. Yoshino uses the gay experience in the 20th century of working toward civil rights as a kind of prototype of the experience of other kinds of minorities who move through the kinds of assimilation required in different phases of acceptance: conversion, passing, and finally covering. Here, the history of gay rights reflects the individual’s process of moving from trying to be something he is not (conversion), to trying to pass (knowing he is gay, but trying to avoid acting in anyway that would give away his hidden status), to covering (being openly gay, but trying to act in ways required by the dominant culture to avoid offending).
Yoshino deftly interweaves history with personal experience with legal decisions and analysis to demonstrate what is problematic in the dominant culture’s attempts to force minorities to assimilate, to become like the “mainstream.” On a personal note, I have to say that Yoshino’s experiences of his sexuality were so parallel to mine as to literally in some places take my breath away. Conversion is basically the idea that heterosexuality is normal and natural, and that gay individuals should (must) convert into heterosexuals (Yoshino rehearses the long and vexing debates in American psychiatry and psychology in this regard; and then completely botches a critique of the biological/medical evidence of homosexuality’s origins). In contemporary America, Yoshino sees the vestiges of conversion in the “no-promo-homo” laws around the country, where you are allowed to be gay in public, but you are not allowed to act gay (whatever that may mean). This distinction has been continually held up by the courts for the past 30 years or so, especially in the work place. Yoshino argues that the revolution of the Gay LIbbers in the early 1970s was to argue that “gay is good,” to argue for the validity of homosexuality per se, rather than to argue for the immutability (the naturalness) of homosexuality, which is where the law resides. Yoshino is basically wrong in the history (ONE magazine was arguing that gay is good in the mid-1950s, and the San Francisco gay community was making similar public arguments 8 years before Stone wall), but that doesn’t detract from the salience of the argument. Regardless, the problem is the continued efforts in the public sphere to force gay men and women to change their behavior to conform to social ‘norms.’
Passing is much more common than conversion now, as we’ve left behind increasingly the notions that an individual can and should try to change into a heterosexual. Passing is like wearing the ‘albatross’ of truth around our gay necks, Yoshino says, a weight that presses against you as you try to move through your life without revealing your secret. Again making basic historical mistakes, but nonetheless making a valid point about passing, Yoshino argues that the internalization of the imperative to be straight causes gay people to despise what they see in the mirror and to try to appear “normal” at all costs. One of my pet peeves about gay history, especially in the popular imagination, is the reliance on Stonewall as a marker. But Yoshino explains, interestingly, that Stonewall is our communal coming out story, the marker of our refusal to convert.
It’s really in Chapter Three that Yoshino hits his stride. Here we see a gay community divided by the issue of covering, where status within the community and vis-a-vis the dominant culture are measured in the ability or desire to cover one’s sexuality. The “normals” (e.g., Andrew Sullivan) are the ‘pro-covering’ crowd, those who want to downplay or eliminate gay cultural difference; and the “queers” (e.g., Michael Warner), those who want to emphasize their differences. Both sides are openly gay, but have a different orientation to assimilation. I appreciated Yoshino’s openness to both arguments as valid decisions within American culture (a stance I myself take in analyzing 1960s gay male culture in my upcoming book on that topic); Yoshino argues ultimately that what matters isn’t an individual gay person’s personal choice regarding covering, but rather the context of their making that decision. Covering becomes bad when it is coerced and not chosen, when it is imposed rather than a personal decision of preference for cultural style.
The problem comes from the structural coercion toward covering. Moving to race and gender covering, Yoshino points to a series of court cases wherein cultural differences are seen as something you “do” and not something you “are”, and because the civil rights tradition in the U.S. has focused on protecting what is immutable in the individual, the courts rule almost always against what you “do”. So a woman who wears cornrows to work (race), or another woman who has a baby (sex), can legally be discriminated against because these are “choices” not immutable qualities of the individual. Yoshino criticizes these court decisions, arguing that the standard is actually wrong: the employer (or state) should have to demonstrate a reasonable explanation of why the individual should cover. In other words, the question isn’t whether or not a person can cover, but whether or not a person should cover in a given context. Again demonstrating his flexibility, Yoshino argues that there may indeed be compelling reasons to require covering (one example he gives is of a muslim woman being required to unveil for government identification photographs), but that often the cases that actually go to court don’t amount to compelling reasons for covering (e.g., why *should* an African American woman be required to take her hair out of cornrows for work? why should a female bartender be required to wear makeup?). With sexual covering, Yoshino also demonstrates an interesting contradiction: Women are required to ‘reverse-cover’, as they are often required to act out the feminine role rather than cover it up; indeed, women in the workplace are often required both to cover their femininity and to enact femininity at the same time, creating a kind of cultural double-bind they cannot escape.
In both the race and the gender chapters, I couldn’t help but recall the arguments I’d recently read by Michael Benn Walters about race and gender inequality. And I also couldn’t help but be horrified by Yoshino’s facile use of ‘race’ as a gloss for something that is unitary and consistent, especially with things like cornrows: He treats such cultural practices as immutable, even as he criticizes the court for requiring immutability for protection. Ultimately, he pulls himself out of those problems by making his argument: That the burden should be on the state to demonstrate a compelling reason to foreclose a cultural practice, rather than on the individual to demonstrate that their practice is immutably part of their identity.
In the last section of the book, Yoshino’s argument becomes the most compelling, as he moves from a problematic analysis of religious freedom (again, I couldn’t help but scream to myself, “But religions are truth claims that must be debated in the public sphere!”) to an analysis of how we might go about protecting against covering demands. In a nutshell, Yoshino argues that we move from a Civil Rights model (which focuses on protection of groups) to a Human Rights model, which universalizes our needs and desires as people living together in American democracy. Interestingly, Yoshino suggests that the more diverse we become in America, the more exhausted we grow of multiculturalism and the more evident our shared humanity. The recent Lawrence v. Texas decision overturning sodomy laws is a prime example: The rationale for the court decision was not that gay men should be protected in their practices as a group, but rather that all individual adults in America should have an expectation of privacy regarding their consensual intimate sexual acts and choices. He also sites Tennessee v. Lane, wherein a wheelchair-bound woman sued the state of Tennessee because she couldn’t get into court buildings and perform her job. The court ruled that all americans have a reasonable expectation of the ability to enter into public buildings, especially courts, and ruled in her favor. This is a universalization of the rights argument, where when an issue of covering or passing comes before the court, the court rules based on human rights of the individual rather than on protected group status.
Most disappointing in Yoshino’s book was the lack of historical depth or accuracy (but to be fair, he’s functioning off of dominant narratives) and too often sliding into a kind of racial and ethnic essentialism that makes me extremely uncomfortable. What I find most hopeful about Yoshino’s formulation is that it allows for the diversity of actual practice, for individuals to chose the cultural afflilations and practices that work for them, allowing for example, both the normals and the queers to exist in the U.S. without either being privileged in the public sphere.
PBS’s new series How Art Made the World has really captivated me over the past couple weeks. The first two episodes combine art history with cognitive science and neurobiology, archaelogy, human evolution, and anthropology—interdisciplinary inquiry at its best. Dr. Michael Spivey (Art Historian, Cambridge University) narrates, easily moving back and forth between between various disciplines to explain the human need for and ability to create representation in two-dimensional images and three-dimensional sculpture. The questions asked move beyond art criticism to explore why humans create certain kinds of images and why certain kinds of representations seem to produce heightened pleasure in our consumption of art. My inner Deweyan loves the way Spivey’s explanations seamlessly blend scientific knowledge with interpretive discussions of art’s meaning. My only quibble, especially in the 2nd episode, was that the narrative is a kind of triumphal progression: each episode begins with a mystery and ends with The Answer. Although it makes for great educational television, the social scientist in me would blanched at Dr. Spivey’s certainty about his answers; I would have prefered a more open ended, provisional answer (especially where archaelogical speculation is concerned!).
Episode One, “More Human than Human” begins with the Venus of Willendorf and asks why human artists seem to have an inexplicable tendency, cross culturally, to create images of the human body that are exagerated in proportions. Spivey gives examples from ancient Egypt and Greece and from around the world to illustrate. Interestingly, Greek sculpture went through a brief period where it created realistic images of young men (kore), standing statically upright, and accurately proportionate. But it wasn’t long before the sculptors began to produce what we now think of as “classical” greek bodies were born. What is so fascinating about the statues is that they aren’t proportioned naturally; rather, they are exaggerated proportionally (i.e., real human beings don’t look like that!). Anyway, in comes neurologist V.S. Ramachadran to explain how our brains respond to certain stimuli with pleasure. Spivey illustrates with a species of seagull from the west coast of Spain, whose chicks respond to a red stripe on their mother’s bill during feeding. The chicks respond more vigorously if presented with a dummy-head with three red stripes! In other words, it seems that our brains respond to certain aspects of our bodies, and they REALLY respond to those same aspects when exaggerated. And so around the world, human beings produce art that is “more human than human.” Cool.
Episode Two: “The Day Pictures Were Born”: There are two big questions in the second episode. One is why homo sapiens, who have been around for over 150,000 years, only began creating representational art about 35,000 years ago. The debates among biologists, evolutionary linguists, paleo-anthropologists, etc., wage on about what has been called “The Great Leap Forward,” or in Dr. Spivey’s words, “The Creative Explosion”, which includes the development of language (around 50,000 years ago). That question is left a mystery, and the second big question is, what do these 35,000 year old paintings mean and why did humans start making them? The episode leads us through the discovery of Altamira and Lascaux and then through several theories regarding the origins of cave painting. The most famous of these proposed that they were hunting rituals preceding the hunt; problematically, people around the world seemed to eat different animals than they painted.
Then there’s the problem that cave art is not only of animals, but of humans, human body parts, humans morphed with animals, geometric patterns, spots, webs, and even abstract images (who knew?). Using anthropology from South Africa and the San people, Spivey and a couple experts theorize, rather plausibly given their evidence, that these early cave paintings were part of solitary shamanistic rituals, and very likely were produced after trance states. A neurologist at London’s Institute of Psychiatry demonstrates a really cool machine that produces trance-like responses in the brain through the visual cortex, and show that our brains are hardwired to receive certain kinds of geometric patterns and that trance states actually turn those into hyper drive. Finally, as trance states get deeper and deeper, the entranced begins to see images of things that are emotionally resonant with the individual. Spivey hypothesizes that for this reason, different cultures around the world had trance-visions of different objects and animals. As I mentioned, it is here that I had reservations with the surety with which Spivey declared that the mystery is solved.
Regardless, in both the representation of human bodies and in the cave paintings, I find it fascinating that our brains respond with such intense pleasure to representations of the world wrought by our own hands. And I find it interesting as well that some representations are pleasurable and others aren’t — and that which images produce pleasure is a complex interaction of the biological wiring of our brains and the cultural contexts within which we have developed our aesthetic values and sensibilities.
I have Episode Three, “The Art of Persuasion”, about political art and propaganda recorded on TiVo, but haven’t watched it yet. I’ll return and report after I watch it.
The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green (Review), Gay Cinema (Choke), and What’s Film Criticism For (Anyway)? 8 July 2006Posted by Todd in Cinema, Culture, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Pop Culture, Reviews.
Ugh. After reading a couple positive reviews in the gay press, followed by the interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle, I was all ready for a light, funny, gay romantic comedy. Instead I got “The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green.” (By the way, this is the second horrible film I’ve seen from Here! productions in the past month; the first was the painful lesbian dramedy April’s Shower, which was so bad I couldn’t bear to review it.)
I know, I know. It’s based on a comic strip (a rather funny one, at that) by Eric Orner, which incidentally is a key piece of gay history since he first began drawing it in 1989. The San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum included Orner’s strip in its 2006 special show on gay and lesbian cartoons. I’m not saying a comic strip can’t be translated into film, or that this couldn’t have been done well; but it did feel like the gags just didn’t translate somehow. When you see Ethan Green in a comic strip, his flaws and stupidity seem funny. But when you watch a warm-blooded human being making the same bad choices it is god-damned painful.
Basically, Ethan is highly judgmental of every man he dates and ends up breaking up with every one because they aren’t good enough–a relatively common and relatively serious problem among humans in general in our consumer-cum-dating culture. This is mixed with a series of stereotypical gay inside jokes. Again, these play funny in print, but come off as ham-handed on screen. From recently out athletes, to log cabin republicans, to middle-aged gay aunties, to teenaged oversexed newbies, this is a veritable dramatis personae of gay male stereotypes. Comedies made from within minority communities can make great use of such images, both as gentle prodding to get us to see what’s there inside of our own lives and communities and as ways to simply see ourselves represented and laugh. So although I laugh when I read Ethan Green in comic strip form, I cringed and felt self-hating when watching the film.
Top this all off with bad pacing (sometimes it drags in the middle of hijinx…hello, editing? direction?) and bad acting (watching a straight guy act gay, like, look at me ma, I’m acting!), and you have an evening of disappointment. No matter how cute the lead is or how hot the sex scenes.
We use the arts (from high-brow to low), as people, to express our ideas of ourselves and to explore our experiences in the lives that we lead. Cinema (and television) probably have more power to accomplish this end than other forms of art, because we can see real human beings moving, acting and reacting within situations we may find ourselves in; cinema allows identification in a way that is fundamentally different from other art forms. And for that reason, its power to represent and produce meaning, I believe, outstrips other forms. For subordinated communities, where the meaning of their lives is always in opposition to (or in competition with) the meanings ascribed to them by the dominant culture, the representations in film and television can be devastating. Whole shelves in libraries are devoted to the research done on representations of subordinate peoples and the effects these representations have on bolstering systems of oppression and producing dominated personalities in the minorities. For gay men and women, the production of representations by, for, and of ourselves has been key to our ability to emerge from the homophobic and heterosexist norms of American society and create full lives for ourselves despite the dominant culture.
This is difficult to talk about, because I hate the whole dynamic where minority artists have to “represent” their people (as if that were possible); yet, the continued production of meaningful art that you can at least sit through without throwing empty popcorn buckets at the screen is of utmost importance at this turning point in gay history. We are on the verge of having de facto ‘acceptance’ into America. But that will not eliminate our need as a group to continue to have discussions about what our lives and loves and communities should mean. And we will need to do better than this film.
Having said that, I’m not a film snob by any stretch (really, I’m not!). In fact, I’m a bit of a social outcast in San Francisco, where cultural posing is de rigeur, from local hip-hop among the kids, to only the right electronia among the clubbers, to only the right restaurant for the bourgeois; and everyone in the city seems to be a movie snob. Now I like movies ranging from blockbuster action, to teen dramas, to historical epics, to impressionist films from Siberia. I like film for the masses and cinema for the elite. In short, I like film. I’ve never studied film history or film making, so mostly my reviews are just my viceral response to them (although sometimes my cultural-sociologist brain will kick in and I’ll have a fit analyzing the cultural production and circulation of meanings in particular contexts. See above.).
After talking extensively with my good friend Matt about movies, I finally admitted to him that I actually like Roger Ebert. Most people know him only from the television review program, which is of a necessity abbreviated and simplistic (thumbs up or down? please). But when you read his published film criticism, you get to understand not only how much he loves cinema, but how much he gets it. Often, the role of critics is poo-poo’ed in our anti-intellectual American culture, our own backwards form of cultural populism. But critics can serve a vital role of interpreting works of art and engaging us in the meaningful conversations that they evoke. Camille Paglia’s recent collection of poetry explication/criticism, Break, Blow, Burn, demonstrates the role of critic beautifully, showing us that criticism at its best makes us stop and reconsider, moves forward our understanding, contextualizes pieces, and finally may actually inspire us. I have discovered the Ebert is one of those cultural critics.
In the introduction to his 2002 collection of essays about 100 of his favorite movies, The Greatest Movies, Ebert says this of film:
Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people. Noot many of them are very good, however. Yes, there are the passable Friday night specials, measured by critics including myself in terms of their value in entertaining us for two hours. We buy our tickets and hope for a diversion, and usually we get it, but we so rarely get anything more.
I suppose that I just want something more from Gay Cinema.
Whereas when I watched Part 1, I found myself wishing Dawkins could be more social-scientific in his analysis of religion, watching the second installment I just found myself wishing he would slap some of these people, which is evidence of my own growing impatience with the power of religion in American society and of Dawkins’ equanimity (at least on film). Overall, I would say that Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, and would highly recommend it, even for showing to religious believers. My online acquaintance Bob McCue (who has posted thoughtful and detailed responses on this blog on the evolution of religion, here and here), has argued recently that the problem with the documentary as a whole is that it is basically preaching to the choir, that believers would not be swayed or moved to consider critically their beliefs by watching the film, and in fact might probably be turned away from the film by Dawkins’ apparent strident atheism. I find that to be especially true of Part 1, but perhaps less so of Part 2 for a couple of reasons.
First, Dawkins addresses directly the thinking and arguments of religion, especially of conservative brands of Judaism and Christianity. The Christians he engaged were difficult to listen to as they defended both their moral positions and their immoral actions. But what is worthwhile about Dawkins’ response is that he remains relatively calm and with more patience than I could muster, responds and engages their arguments with basic reasoned responses. Although I do still think that such engagement is, at the end of the day, probably a waste of time, simply because religious adherents don’t share the basic assumptions of scientific method or rational inquiry, I think that some people might be given pause by Dawkins’ simple insistence that they give reasons for their beliefs and actions. [Incidentally,I found it a stark lack that there were no imams interviewed for the program; and I also wondered how he would have addressed Buddhism and Hinduism (both of which, incidentally, have fundamentalist forms).]
Secondly, I found the actual science, albeit watered down, to be strong. Two main points from evolutionary and cognitive sciences are given: a) that children are genetically set up to absorb information from their surroundings and will accept information given to them by authority figures; and b) that we are genetically selected for altruism, the biological source of our basic morality. On both points, Dawkins raises the scientific evidence as reasons for his positions, namely that children should not be subjected to harmful ideas that create faulty and dangerous morality and that moral behavior is not based on a divine lawgiver.
I also found Dawkins to be magnanimous in his dealings with the likes of Michael Bray, who was arguing for why murdering OB-Gyns who perform abortions is morally justified. Dawkins notes that he could tell Bray was sincere and at base a good man, but that because of his religious views, he couldn’t see the moral complexity of the issues and the immorality of his own position, which he simply passed off to God. Equally frustrating to me was Dawkins’ conversation with the pastor running a Hell House in Colorado. For those not in the know, about 15 years ago, an Assemblies of God congregation staged an “alternative” haunted house for Halloween, wherein people would see, in stead of monsters, the fate of torture and damnation awaiting sinners in the next life. Rather than engaging Dawkins’ arguments, Keenan Roberts simply resorted to “witnessing,” that it is God’s law and he must scare children so that they’ll not burn in hell. [I highly recommend the documentary film Hell House as a bird’s eye view into the social construction of hell and sin and the inner workings of a conservative evangelical school, congregation, and family.]
Dawkins quoting Steven Weinberg (1979 Nobel Laureat in Physics):
Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you’d have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.
As a normative, I would argue that moral positions must be supported and held provisionally as we would any proposition about the world. That means that moral positions must be accompanied by reasoned arguments and evidence, just as we would expect of any other kind of position, political, economic, etc. The primary disconnect between people of faith and people of reason is precisely there: for a person of faith, the morality is a given, an end-in-itself, beyond critique and examination. This faithful position is held without realizing that their own moralities are historical and culturally specific, even though they experience them as transcendental and divine. Either that gap must be bridged or we must find a way within democracies to rein in the power of this kind of thinking.
[My review of Part 2—The Virus of Faith can be found here.]
There has been much ado about Richard Dawkins’ Channel 4 two-part documentary, The Root of All Evil?, mainly because of Dawkins’ almost strident atheism and because of the relatively inflamatory title. [The video is not yet available in North America, but both parts are currently downloadable from Google Video, Part 1 here and Part 2 here.] Having been raised in a pretty orthodox Mormon household and having family on both sides who are quite religious now, I tend to be less afraid of religiosity in general than Dawkins seems to be. And I do sympathize with the religious impulse, the desire to beleive in something greater, for an explanation of both the uncertainty and fickleness of life as well as the disappointment with the realities of our existence.
When I realized I no longer believed in God, I found myself with twin wounds, one left by the loss of community, the other by the loss of submission to something greater. Dawkins seems to miss these dynamics completely, the importance of communal bonds and identity formation in people’s desire for and attachment to their religious beliefs. On Bill Moyers’ new series, On Faith & Reason, Collin McGinn said that when he left faith behind he found the world without God to be so much more vibrant and rich than it ever was with God. Although I did also eventually arrive at that conclusion, the years it took me to separate myself from religion were painful and transformed my most basic world view. The difficulty in replacing one’s world view and/or accepting the full implications of rationality and science can be quite overwhelming, but the documentary presents Reason as an easy englightenment, to which folks should easily convert.
So the main problem I had with the documentary emerges from my personal experience combined with my training as a sociologist: Dawkins doesn’t seem to fully understand how and why religion has the power it does on people, the role that it actually plays in people’s lives to give them meaning. All he seems to be able to see is its irrationality and anti-scientific mindset, along with the horrifying moral consequences of such belief. I had no qualms or disagreement with Dawkins on these points, but the documentary seemed to set up two categories of religion and science without addressing the complexities of why people believe in the first place and why it can be so hard for an individual, emotionally, socially and psychologically, to leave a faith-community. An exploration of these dynamics can help us understand more deeply why people refuse the evidences of science and rational argument; and more importantly it could help us understand to have more productive dialogues with the faithful, something of utmost importance if we are going to save our democracies around the world from collapsing into theocracies.
Another quibble I had was that the documentary painted religion with such a big brush that suicide bombers and rabid fundamentalists are lumped in with the millions of religious who fight injustice, hunger, and violence world wide. Human religions are vastly diverse and have multiple and contradictory consequences in the real world. It is problematic to ignore these deeply moral aspects to many of the world’s religious. I don’t point this out as an apology for religion, but rather to insist on seeing religion as a form of culture in all its complexity. Dawkins’ points about rationality and science stand even in the face of the morally positive aspects of religion.
[Dawkins has responded to many aspects of these and other criticisms in The New Statesman and in a great interview with the Infidel Guy.]
In all other aspects, I found the documentary to be a solid explanation of why scientific thinking and rational thought should prevail over religious belief, especially in the public sphere. Dawkins’ discussions with the likes of Ted Haggard illustrate clearly the problems of having rational discourse with some kinds of faithful. Haggard refuses the most basic premises of rational thinking and evidentiation of argument and insists, in an odd religious postmodern twist, that all ideas are of equal value and should be given equal time. He even goes so far as to accuse Dawkins of arrogance for making scientific assertions. In another interview on Point of Inquiry, Dawkins points out the arrogance is actually making assertions for which you have no evidence whatsoever and expecting that no one will criticize your position.
As I’ve been musing lately about the merits of rationality and especially about my own work in social theory and method, I find myself frustrated by the simple fact that many people simply, willfully refuse to accept the basic mode of rational thinking. McGinn pointed out that both the academic left and the religious right have been assailing rational thought in an odd sort of allegiance for the past 30 years, where on one hand postmodern philosophy and on the other fundamentalism make similar claims that require belief without evidence and refuse the most basic of rules of logic and empirical reasoning. It may simply be that it is impossible to have that discussion where those premises are not shared. For the academic left, perhaps more empirically and rationally minded researchers can work harder to actively engage in advocating the methods of rational inquiry; and perhaps for the religious right, the best we can do is continue unceasingly to fight for the fundamental principles of democracy that would allow them their religiosity without infringing on social progress. One debate, on the left, is ongoing and will probably work itself as postmodernism continues to lose its caché outside of the humanities; but with Dawkins, I do fear the power of the fundamentalist mind whose morality is clear and justifies violence and coercion to remake society in his or her image.