Tolerance

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.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

 

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Perspectives

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

I never considered myself a racist. Despite the many shortcomings of my catholic education, one of the most fundamental teachings in my childhood has been to “see beyond the colour of the skin”. Of course, I knew what racism was and I could hear it in the words and perceive it in the behavior of many people around me. Those people made me feel uncomfortable and that, I thought, was the proof of my anti-racism.

Given these premises, I had still to take into account a dilemma: Asians were all looking alike to me. I never said it openly, but look: they all have dark, straight hair and their eyes are dark and have a peculiar “Asian” shape. Was that racism?

I had once a conversation on the topic with a Korean friend of ours. I call her Sunny for the present purposes.

We were crossing Marienplatz in Munich and I straightforwardly asked her about the widely shared idea, at least among Europeans, that Asians look all the same. She stared back at me in puzzlement. “I actually thought Europeans looked indistinguishable! Asians are very different from one another!”

I didn’t want to offend her. At the same time, I thought there was something amiss in her recognition of the relevant evidence. I told her “Look! There are blond Europeans, dark-haired and red-haired! We have a shade of eye-colour for almost each individual! How can’t you distinguish among Europeans?”

Sunny frowned. “How can you? I mean, how can you tell that someone comes from Spain, Great Britain, Poland or Greece? You all have different hair colours, but you really can’t pick casually one European and tell at first sight where she is from! With Asians, that’s different. I could for most of the cases tell If a guy is Korean, Chinese or Japanese without having to look at his passport or speak to him!”

Yes, that was striking. I’ve always been thinking in the individualistic way belonging to many Europeans, that of differentiating people independently of their context, but only with respect to individual qualities. For Sunny, on the contrary, what was relevant for the categorization was the possibility of ascribing people to a certain nationality. And  yes, in that sense, “Westerns” are more hardly distinguishable.

So, who is (racially) the most uniform population? That depends on the perspective, and this perspective is a racialized one, if it is to take the question seriously. Race, therefore, is not on the skin, nor on the facial traits or in the culture. It is in our eyes, and it is so strong that it creates a universe of “factual evidence” very hard to deconstruct.

So, am I a racist after all? If I were to answer “no”, that would be problematic, for how can I tell to what extent my whole perception of reality is racialized? I think the best way to answer is that I try to fight racism, even the one still lying in me.

There is hardly a colour-blind person, and hardly a person who is not racist at all. On an average, if you aren’t anti-racist, you let racism define you.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha