Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
You have probably heard of last week-end’s white supremacists rally in Charlottesville (Virginia). When it comes to such shameful events, especially regarding the US, I’m known to always condemn liberal individualism as one of the main sources of such modern evils. I am like that conceited aunt everyone is annoyed of, the one you guard yourself from inviting at your party because she will always start a never-ending monologue about the disgrace of her century and make all other guests flee as soon as possible with the excuse that their cat suffers from short-term nostalgia.
This time, I’ll try to suppress the inner aunt I usually carry within myself by avoiding my focus on individualism. Instead, I would like to talk about a very common reaction of the “good, liberal world” to happenings like those of Charlottesville, which are way broader and concern indeed most liberal and democratic countries on this planet, politics, as well as religion and many aspects of social life.
“Let’s be honest, they need to leave America, because they are not Americans” was the comment of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (CNN). What does it mean that white supremacists are not Americans? What does it mean that “Italians are not racists”, when other Italians are found guilty of refusing to employ people, explicitly depending on the color of their skin? What does nobel price winner Malala Yousafzai mean, when she said few months earlier, in front of the Canadian Parliament, “I am a Muslim and I believe that when you pick up a gun in the name of Islam and kill innocent people, you are not a Muslim anymore”?
We are trying to defend our communities. We say that evil doesn’t belong to our family. We say that cruelty, hate and violence are not part of what we consider our culture. Don’t we feel any dissonance between these words and what we observe? Don’t we find disappointingly unsatisfactory that many atheists blame religion for most evils in this world, as if without religion the world could suddenly turn into a better place? Aren’t these answers all easy, comfortable forms of escapism?
Isn’t it more terribly true that white supremacists ALSO belong to the US? Isn’t it more uncomfortably true that racism is ALSO part of the Italian culture? Isn’t it more provocantly true that violence ALSO belongs to certain (truly) religious people? Isn’t it more sadly true that bigotry, ignorance and blind faith can be ALSO found among the most strenuous atheists?
Yes, yes, yes, yes. I find no other way to answer to these questions.
The first step to challenge nazism, racism, fundamentalism and bigotry is to aknowledge that they are part of our own communities. We can’t misrecognize a rotten part of society as belonging to our social group or the socio-cultural phenomenon we participate to, just because we loathe what those people believe and do. It is an unforgivable mistake to say “they don’t belong to us”, because they actually respond to the criteria of being Americans, Italians, Muslims and atheists.
As I have been stressing elsewhere, all these large social groups can’t grant morality per se. In order to be moral, a person MUST be moral. It is not enough to say that one belongs to a certain social group.
Even if I would be in the need of summoning my inner aunt to say a little more on what I think is the cause of such liberal responses to nowaday’s evil, I can at least attempt to indicate the direction of a way out of the “tolerance paradox”, namely that a tolerant society can’t tolerate intollerance. As far as I can see, if we take tolerance to be based on relativism, i.e. every opinion has value only relatively to a certain context, we will fall eventually in the paradox and we will be left with the even more paradoxical solution that “they don’t belong to us”.
On the other hand, if our tolerance is based on social principles of morality, freedom and democracy, which are kept as general as possible by constant intercultural dialogue, we obtain criteria to fight every single white supremacists rally, racism, fundamentalism and bigotry. Those criteria justify opposition to anti-demoratic and anti-libertarian opinions, even if they come from within our own communities. Even if they come from within ourselves.