Vinoth Ramachandra

Respecting Difference?

Posted on: September 28, 2020

The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once quipped that, in some strands of postmodernist rhetoric, Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) has been replaced by its neo-tribal version “I shout, therefore I am.” The one who shouts loudest, whether on social media or in the university, becomes the new moral leader.

So we need to take care that the self-righteousness of the “radical left” that has come to the fore in recent outbursts over colonialism, racism and transgenderism does not kill tolerance in the name of promoting tolerance, suppress intellectual diversity in the name of protecting diversity.

I read recently of a school in England that rescinded its decision to name one of its houses after novelist J K Rowling simply because the latter had tweeted: “I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.” (6 June 2020)

We cannot afford to play this game. Isn’t it better to meet lies with facts, poor arguments with better arguments, insults with civility, and false narratives with counter-narratives?

I have written before on this Blog about the insidious threats posed by ideological versions of “political correctness.” They stifle argument and forestall legitimate criticism simply by attaching the suffix “phobic” to any contrary viewpoint. Hence the widespread use in Western media and even academic circles of neologisms such as “homophobia” and “transphobia”- simply mirror-images of the “Islamophobia” that is deployed by some Muslim writers and organizations to deflect any criticism of Islamic theology and practices. It is why I welcome the letter written in July by 150 writers, academics and activistsby decrying the way freedom of thought and expression about racial and sexual politics is being threatened by the “left” as well as the “right”.

This is one reason I have avoided open discussion of sexuality and transgenderism on this Blog. What I would want to say is heavily dependent on the context into which I am speaking; and what I would want to say to a fundamentalist Christian audience that believes that “the Bible has settled these issues once-and-for-all” is very different to what I would want to say to the left-liberal fundamentalist lobby that subsumes everything under “identity politics”. Both sides, in my experience, distort and demonize views with they disagree.

There is, undoubtedly, a biological phenomenon of “intersex” and persons in this category need social and legal protection from stigmatization, abuse and physical violence. (Didn’t Jesus refer to those who were “born eunuchs and those who were made eunuchs by the acts of men”?) But whether this implies the obliteration of sex difference as if the latter were a social construction like gender, or whether it justifies resorting to reconstructive surgery to “choose” the sexual body we want, are matters for legitimate philosophical, moral and political debate. Outlawing difference of views in the name of respecting difference is hypocrisy.

So, what is ironic in all these postmodern postures is that rejection of “essentialism” and “binary thinking” perpetuates new essentialisms (e.g. “colonialism”, “hetero/homo/bisexual”) and binary thinking (e.g. inclusivist/exclusivist, tolerance/judgmentalism, victim/victimizer).

Moreover, satire is a powerful weapon when wielded against those who enjoy positions of political and economic power. But when used against defenceless and insecure people, it becomes simply another weapon of the powerful. An interesting question to raise: Does Charlie Hebdo publish satirical cartoons of sexual minorities (even though some of the latter are in powerful political and economic positions) or only against religious minorities?

The Black Lives Matter movement has belatedly claimed global attention following the George Floyd and Breona Taylor murders in the US. Through its non-violent direct action to protest police brutality and the systematic violence done to black people in the US (and elsewhere) it has won the sympathy of many whites who are not fascists but have hitherto tacitly supported racist practices through widespread ignorance. However, if BLM is not to alienate itself from conservative, white majorities in the US and Europe, it needs to eschew in its campaigns blanket assaults on capitalism and the nuclear family, romantic notions of pan-Africanism and blaming European colonialism entirely for the refugee crisis today.

In my last Blog post, on slavery and colonialism, I noted the importance of nuance and a certain measure of relativity when it comes to historical understanding and judgments. Simplified narratives are what demagogues of the political right and the left thrive on. And when academics and journalists do the same, they betray their calling to honest intellectual labour. It is the difference between the “party intellectual” and the genuine prophet.

Thus Hindu and Buddhist nationalisms in South Asia, like Islamist versions elsewhere, are not atavistic retrievals but modernist reactions to European colonialism. They borrowed heavily from modern European discourses on race, religion and nationhood. The irony is that they are wielded as ideological weapons against secularism and Christianity, forgetting their indebtedness to both, and blaming the colonial era for all the national evils that are rampant several decades after the end of colonialism.

I myself am grateful to British colonialism for the English language, without which my “take” on the world would be extremely parochial. I am grateful, too, for liberal political institutions the British left behind (however hypocritically they were administered in practice by colonial governors and judiciaries) and which have been steadily dismantled in my own country as well as in many other former colonies by racist and self-serving local elites. And one mustn’t forget cricket and rugby, which stir the passions of the most ardent anti-colonial nationalist!

7 Responses to "Respecting Difference?"

Thank you!

Vinoth, thank you. You have put your finger on the heart of the issue. Not discerning this dynamic is making everything obscure and making most of society silent, when huge injustices (including labeling and silencing), that we should be denouncing, are carried out.

Very encouraging Vinoth! I face this in my school but have the freedom now to overcome by speaking truth ANYWHERE! I am free!

Thanks Vinoth. Yes, there is a new censorship arising on both the left and the right. At the school where I taught in Lebanon (where we actively sought pathways to Christian witness to Muslims) the term “Islamophobic” was discouraged as unhelpful. I personally have been branded “neo-Marxist” for challenging the hegemony of white western men in the theological academy. Too many labels being thrown around. We need more voices like yours! 🙂

I am sorry to hear of this labeling/branding, from which I too have suffered. And the problem lies not only with the white western men you mention but with the reversed power-dynamic that censors language and histories other than one’s own. Those of us who have engaged for many years, sympathetically yet critically, with various narratives of liberation, feminism, postcolonialism, etc are familiar with this. It can also be very childish, as well as harmful. An article of mine was recently rejected by an American organization simply because I quoted the eminent historian Andrew Walls’ famous “indigenizing” and “pilgrim” principles of Christian mission. Apparently, a First Nations reader on the editorial Board had objected to the word “indigenization” as being “colonial” langauge! If only he had bothered to think about Wall’s principle, he would have understood that it was actually profoundly anti-colonial! When will this nonsense end?

A theocentric worldview that appreciates the image of God in humanity as well as recognizes agonizingly the effects of the fall of humankind (sin and its consequences) in oneself, the society and culture can celebrate and critique/transform the world. Ignoring the biblical worldview as primitive and archaic or distorting it to suit their cultural and political idolatry would lead both liberals and conservatives to futility and hypocrisy.

Thanks uncle V for another great conversation starter.

As always, there is much here with which I would agree.

‘…Both sides, in my experience, distort and demonize views with they disagree….’

Indeed, and we are all guilty of such depending on the context.

Like you, I believe the suffix ‘phobia’ has been abused and misused. Even some on the radical left (no need for air quotes as it’s not a dirty word), would admit a tendency to shut down debate. I sympathise with why you’ve hitherto avoided addressing gender identity on these pages. It’s a minefield. You do a good job explaining we need to have a mature conversation about the issue.

Many well-meaning people are exasperated by how self-appointed gatekeepers squeeze out any nuanced views. It’s sad, as there are otherwise respectable activists who are guilty of this. Although I have no problem with criticisms of essentialism, I agree that in the effort to dismantle them, ironically other new labels/essentialisms have been created.

However, I would advise caution and encourage the parsing of these issues. It’s not just to conflate the legitimate criticisms of anti-colonialism with the often shrill nature of the transgender debate. Neither is there anything wrong with BLM making ‘blanket’ criticisms of capitalism. We shouldn’t alienate for its own sake. Nevertheless, it’s a reality that you will alienate those who benefit most from inequality. That alienation is necessary. The same way the civil rights movement had to discomfort those who benefitted from Jim Crow. The fight contines.

Capitalism is the common denominator for many of the oppressive systems we see in operation today. RH Tawney’s Acquistive Society in action. Modern imperialism/colonialism and capitalism are inextricably linked. I personally haven’t come across any ‘romantic notions of pan-Africanism’ in the current iteration of the discourse. I don’t think the concept of pan-Africanism should be wholly dismissed as romanticised either; even if there are elements of that in say, Garveyism.

Indeed, we should not deny agency to those in the Global South -especially their leaders- by blaming everything on colonialism (https://tolitasmusings.blogspot.com/2020/10/bfi-festival-special-african-apocalypse.html). That doesn’t detract from the fact that it is directly or indirectly responsible for most of the ills experienced by so-called developing countries today, including climate change. Colonialism/imperialism never went away. It just takes on new forms under which millions and billions still suffer. Third World debt under the aegis of the International Financial Institutions such as the IMF is a continuation of colonial extractivism. Even so-called Development, for all its good intentions, has a major colonial component; tying aid with conditions set by richer countries based on their own social mores.

As you’re aware, much of the wealth enjoyed by the Global North is a result of colonial exploits. Even tax haven systems have roots in capital flight as a result of independence movements in former colonies (https://academic.oup.com/past/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/pastj/gtaa001/5896119?redirectedFrom=fulltext).

It’s also worth mentioning, as you have pointed out, that many of the post-independence despotic leaders took their cues from their colonial masters. You can draw a direct link from Belgium’s sociopathic King Leopold’s exploits in the Congo to Zaire’s Mobotu.

I am in no way inclined to romanticise colonialism, even if yes, I now speak one or two of a handful of now ‘global’ languages imposed on indigenous peoples. Any manner of useful by-products can come from harmful practices. There were benefits to the infrastructure left behind by the Roman empire. The spread of the Gospel is said to have been helped by the sophisticated road system. This does not justify or mitigate the evil done. It just demonstrates once again God’s redemptive power. It’s not as if the ubiquity of the English language is a wholesale good, especially when so many indigenous languages are endangered and their importance diminished because of their perceived lack of economic, social and/or cultural capital. The necessity of English now owes much to another empire ; the US and perhaps more specifically in our day the rise of Silicon Valley.

You cannot separate any supposed benefit from the means in which they were achieved. Football, rugby and cricket would never be adequate compensation.

I can understand Walls’ principles about mission and still sympathise with why a native American faculty member would take issue with the language of ‘indigenising’. The same way I don’t like the use of the word ‘vernacular’ albeit I appreciate why the German Basel missionaries in W.Africa promoted the translation of scripture into the ‘vernacular’, compared to their Anglophone or Francophone counterparts.

I’m also sceptical of the use of the term ‘political correctness’. It’s usually employed by the Right and others when they don’t want to be held to account for some of their inflammatory, dog whistle views. PC is of nebulous definition and changes according to by whom it is employed. Those who are often accused of political correctness eschew the word themselves. It’s origins are in fact satirical; an in joke in certain academic circles.

Apologies for the length of the comment. I have over-indulged. I just think we need to be wary that we don’t fall into the trap of polarising arguments even as we critique others for doing the same. It’s easily done. I am as culpable as anyone. We are but human. We just need to try and be self-aware about it, with God’s help.

Peace and Blessings.

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