Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Tools, Not Religions
A Friend of mine's pet theory is the notion that we as a society get into trouble when we treat broad concepts like Capitalism, Socialism, Secularism, Liberalism, Conservatism, and the like as religions rather than change agents. We take our viewpoints very seriously and frequently see those who criticize them as heretical muckrakers rather than honest petitioners. On some issues like capital punishment and abortion rights, there will always be sharply drawn lines in the sand and one would have to be a fool to believe otherwise. But in less emotionally charged matters where compromise could be an option, we don't bother to even entertain the prospect of common purpose, seeing only adversaries where we could see friends.
Occasionally I encounter a sardonically titled book, written by some right-wing talking head that proceeds to rake liberals over the coals for daring to slight the traditional role religion has played for centuries--instead, as the argument inevitably goes, liberals superimpose their own brand of bigoted secular humanism in place of devout religious conviction. The comparison is not entirely without merit on its face, pejoratives aside, but what it fails to take into account is that the right frequently acts in a similarly restrictive and intolerant fashion when it proposes and asserts its own agenda. In short, everyone wants to be supremely right and few want anyone telling us otherwise. We also have a disconcerting habit of wanting to go for the jugular, as though opposing points of view were neurological toxins. It's pure propaganda to insist that liberals are amoral people because they don't hold religious beliefs just as it is to assume that all conservative Christians are hypocritical and stubbornly inflexible. Once again, we are assuming the worst instead of allowing for the possibility of common purpose.
Both of us like to trot out extreme cases in an attempt to make our case, which to me has always been like equating a man who kills someone in a bar fight to a serial killer. Rarely are we ever defined by our radical or reactionary fringes. Yet, if one listened to the multitude of cautionary tales spread through e-mail, watched alarmist documentaries, or read written expose accounts in magazines, one might assume that every liberal was a militant anarchist bound on destroying the framework of society or that every conservative had a hood, sheet, and swastika prominently displayed in his or her closet. The problem with us is that we tend to think tribally rather than communally and in a nation built on immigration and uncomfortable coexistence, it might be wishful thinking to assume we would believe otherwise.
The Culture Wars are merely a convenient label for the trials and tribulations of a deeply heterogeneous society that is becoming more this way, not less so. As the punk group Sleater-Kinney so aptly noted, We are all equal in the face of what we're most afraid of.