Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Is Separatism Necessary Anymore?

With the slow demise of old media has also come the demise of niche media like websites which cater specifically to women's studies and women's interests. Prompted by the demise of Double X, an offshoot of Slate, itself an off-shoot of the financial troubled Washington Post, one can tell how both female-centric media and academic fields are usually the first to go in times of economic crisis, budget cutbacks, or higher education famine. While part of me laments that such sites end up being placed first on the chopping board when revenues plummet, another part of me wonders if we are finally ready to rid ourselves of the need for specific media designed for identity group solidarity. In another time where persecution was harsh and undeniably swift to those outside of the mainstream who dared tread into uncharted territory, I think we may be ready to draw up tentative plans for full unity.

Last week I visited Philadelphia and the historic Arch Street Meeting House, a Quaker house of worship that prides itself as being the largest gathering in the world and the oldest still in use in the United States. The main part of the building was separated into a larger worship space and a smaller one directly adjacent to it. A faith committed resolutely to equality among all its members deliberately made accommodations to female attenders by giving them the option of using a women-only space during worship services. There, ladies who would have otherwise felt constrained to speak from within their hearts and their convictions because of the close proximity of their husbands or out of fear of broaching social protocol could have a safe space of their own. Within it they were allowed to verbalize that which they had every right to be express but too often kept inside themselves. It need be noted, of course, that this arrangement no longer exists and that now the voices of women have been welcomed into larger fellowship. I rejoice that progress has been made and hope it continues.

I have always been reluctant to adopt the doctrine of separate, but equal, in its non-loaded, non-hypocritical interpretation. Establishing places and spaces where historically oppressed groups can meet together for the sake of having honest dialogue makes a good bit of sense, except that much of that honesty never makes its way out into the greater world. It is my opinion that to solve the problems that face us, those that have their onus in artificially derived distinctions which quite effectively keep us apart, we must speak with candor to everyone we encounter. If we were seeking a means of addressing inequality and the ignorance that leads to malice, one could not find a better antidote. Women-centered websites with their relative anonymity have made me a better male ally and a more informed man when it comes down to really understanding the true complexity of female concerns, issues, and opinions. However, I lament that it takes a medium where we can more or less conceal or protect our identity in order to reveal that rich palette. Indeed, it is deeply unfortunate, though I suppose I ought to concede that at least such places exists, else I and others be the worse for it.

We as a society have yet to really come to terms with separatist desires and movements. Malcolm X, in his original role as mouthpiece for the Black Muslims advanced a strictly separatist agenda. He is famously quoted as saying that the only thing he liked integrated was his coffee. In contrast, separatist feminism was a radical offshoot of a much larger movement. It advanced the conviction that even men with good intentions would unintentionally promote a kind of Patriarchal bias by their very presence, rendering their service detrimental and poisonous. Though Malcolm X's stance towards white allies softened a bit with time, he was always reluctant to allow them into the inner sanctum. Even after leaving the Nation of Islam, he refused to let whites join, though he did accept their help. It does need to be mentioned that after his eye-opening trip to Mecca to observe the Hajj, he was beginning to open up to the possibility employing of greater participation in the movement beyond that of exclusively African-American devotees. One can only wonder where the movement would have gone had he not been felled by assassin's bullets. Separatist feminism has a few true believers these days, though fortunately most contemporary Feminists understand the importance of male membership and participation.

Returning to Philadelphia, Then-Candidate Obama spoke specifically about this impulse to isolate that stifles true dialogue. In the uproar over Reverend Jeremiah Wright's incendiary remarks on race, Obama said,

Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

On the other side of the existential divide, all one needs do today is look at the Tea Party attenders, 9/12 devotees, Glenn Beck fans, and the reactionary fringes on the Right to see greater evidence of separatism. It is hardly a left-wing construct. The impulse can be found within every political persuasion or ideological identification. One could make a compelling case that we come by it quite naturally, since our original founders were English separatists named Pilgrims. Their parents and grandparents were fervent supporters of Oliver Cromwell, who did away with the monarchy altogether and established a government never before attempted. They also notably sought to remove themselves from the Church of England altogether and in so doing formed smaller, more regional independent churches. Those who have never read the writings of the Puritans beyond the Salem Witch Trial would find much precedent to explain our current state of affairs as mirrored in their actions and rationales. A persecution complex, climate of fear, and culture of barely restrained violence hearkens back to those who came ashore nearly four centuries ago and, as Brother Malcolm would put it, landed on all of us.

In drawing a parallel, Obama pointed out that

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Separatism is a natural impulse within humanity. It's hardly an American affliction but I believe that it runs contrary to the goals and stated objectives of liberation and enlightenment. With common understanding comes a sense of shared purpose and shared goals. We really are not all that different from each other. No, really. I mean it. Through the power of the internet, I have had the blessing to be privy to the innermost thoughts, fears, and triumphs of many who have been historically marginalized and summarily ignored. They have posted thoughts and reflections which I have read and contemplated, many of which I know that they might never have the courage to reveal while in my company. The experience has revealed to me both where we are different and where we are alike. Again, I reiterate that I find overwhelmingly that we are much more similar than we are dissimilar; as for the points at which our paths converge, I find the subtle nuances frequently fascinating and always informative. Separate rarely means equal, and in this context, our very separation perpetuates the inequalities which have long existed. Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and recently LGBT rights have proven that if we are unwilling to brave the discomfort that is an inevitable by-product of peaceful co-existence, we can always just move away and live, work, and associate only with those who we deem "just like us". Indeed, we've been doing it for the whole of human existence. Why should we stop now?

I liken the experience to the act of initiating negotiation between two parties. Each is seated at a massive table like the kind found in a corporate boardroom. The table is wide and also extremely lengthy, so it contains many chairs. Once contentious topics arise, as they are apt to do, each side begins moving slowly, but deliberately one seat farther away from the other to avoid direct confrontation. After a time, neither party can even hear or easily see one another because they are now seated so far away that they have to shout to be heard. It doesn't matter how many safe spaces we create and how many platforms we give to the oppressed. It is beneficial for every minority group to find commonality and build strength within itself, but unless they are willing to share with us and we are willing to listen without running away, a divide which exists largely due to ignorance will continue to persist. Progress is not made on half-measures and passive-aggression.

The most segregated medium in American life these days might as well be the increasingly cash-strapped Mainstream Media. Advertising revenue is sacrosanct, of course, but if it were truly willing to talk to the American people like adults, rather than children, it might very well have explored the fullest interpretation of Obama's Speech on Race. Instead it sang superficial praises and merely scratched the surface, focusing instead on how the speech saved Obama's campaign as well as how wonderful it was, rather than seriously opening a channel of discussion on how our perceived differences oppress each of us, regardless of skin color. Truly edgy programming, to say nothing of conversation involves discussion that breaks new ground, which should never be confused as the latest sexual titillation, uncensored profanity, or simulated violent act. Wounded though it is, the Media has a golden opportunity to broaden appeal in ways that are not offensively puerile since it no longer has the economic means to niche market the way it once could. Seeking commonalities among demographics rather than squabbling over highly specific differences that can be exploited for maximum gain might be a way to increase its profitability and in so doing pull us closer together. Moreover, this strategy need not be relegated purely to those who disseminate the news, but to each of us individually. We know full well what keeps us apart. It is time to discover that which connects us to our fellow person.


PENolan said...

Your mouth to G*d's ears, Comrade.

PENolan said...

Beautifully expressed, btw