Tuesday, August 01, 2006

speak for yourself

i have followed the discussions on 'the church of liberalism' on nrvtoday.com with great interest. after reading a lot of hyperbole and assumptions and circular arguments, i have to point out that there is no way that anyone can possibly speak for all liberals (or all christians or all conservatives or all scientists). there is simply too much diversity of opinion within these categories.

these labels are useful in comparing different social types; but they are fluid macrocosmic ideas that cannot possibly account for individual choices and preferences. in some ways, they only serve to divide us. whenever we talk about 'some other group of people' in a generalized way, we run the risk of alienating them and creating animosity. it hurts dialogue to make things personal and negative; we need constructive criticism.

no one can say what "all liberals believe" because they disagree on a great many things. by definition, they all value liberty in a generalized sense (for the individual that is. limitations on the power of government and religion are typically a big part of liberalism); but there is a wide spectrum of issues and positions that can be labelled "liberal" while at the same time differing from other, mutually exclusive, "liberal" views. for example, someone can be liberal in regards to economics (favoring freedom from government involvement and free markets, also called neoliberalism) while at the same time being socially conservative. in my experience, even within social liberalism individuals often differ over their particular 'pet issues'; such as animal rights, fair trade, environmentalism, decentralization of power, social justice, non-violence, sustainability, and gender equality. the face of liberalism is a fractured one with people focused on one particular issue to the exclusion of the others. to say that someone is not "really" a liberal (or a radical) if they don't hold to a certain standard of belief (although this is very commonly stated) is only a matter of opinion.

similarly, within the framework of christianity there are dozens of denominations that look down upon one another on the basis of some technicality of dogma. more concerned with their own interpretation of scripture and their need to be right, differing christian faiths have formed over the past two thousand years, fractioning the faithful and pitting believer against believer. in my pentecostal upbringing, other 'factions' and their beliefs (for example, the catholic trinity) were condemned to hell for not subscribing to the "oneness" doctrine. pentecostals considered themselves "the true church" and anyone who didn't acknowledge that Jesus was the physical embodiment of God was doomed. even peter and paul differed on how the message should be spread; so how can we expect individual christians within their own churches to agree on everything?

conservatism is a slippery term as well. it means different things to different people. generally, it values law and tradition over change; yet there are religious, economic, and social forms of conservativism that differ greatly. i myself value conservation in respect to the environment and fiscal spending; but that seems incompatible with current trends in our 'conservative' governmental structure. when public lands are being sold off at bargain rates for logging, mining, and oil interests and our deficit is ballooning out of control, it seems like some principles of conservatism (like conservation) are less important than others (like tradition).

even science has diverse perspectives. even with scientific method there are lots of ways to interpret data. a hypothesis can be biased and so can an analysis. some research is done with specific results in mind. margins of error can be overlooked or explained away; and often are to serve political agendas. scientists are people with their own prejudices and preconceptions; and the way a person looks at the world will color everything they see.

my point is, that in the parlance of our times, these terms (liberal, christian, conservative, scientist) are losing their meaning. we throw the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' around like they mean something, when in fact it is more accurate to use the terms "us" and "them". 'left' and 'right' will change depending on which way you're facing.

there is a website (http://politicalcompass.org/) which describes how incomplete these terms are, and suggests a means to make them more understandable. essentially, it describes the traditional left-right (as adopted from the french national assembly in 1789) cagegories as simply economic and adds another axis of the social which runs from libertarian to authoritarian. this brings another dimension to the discussion; and there are many more categories (like christian and scientist) that could further clarify the differences between individuals in the political spectrum.

describing liberalism as a religion is just as reasonable as describing patriotism or nihilism as such; and there is some value in looking at them that way. this does not make it a fact, however. and the american civil liberties union does not speak for everyone who considers themself a liberal any more than jerry fallwell speaks for all conservatives.

there is a tendency to try and remove any reference to the doctrines or beliefs of an established church (like, say, the ten commandments) within the public forum. on the one hand, i think that this is to try to be fair to other faiths that are woefully under-represented. there are muslims, hindus, pagans, buddhists, confucianists, jainists, shintos, sikhs, taoists, baha'i, and even followers of voodoo. shouldn't they all get equal representation? you might say that the majority of americans are from a judeo-christian tradition and that the majority should dictate what we see. i believe there are valuable spiritual truths that are common to all religious practices; and that it would only improve the richness of our culture to embrace (or at least consider) these various ideas.

that brings me to the other hand. the idea of a separation of church and state was written into our constitution to prevent the type of ruthlessness ("no one expects the spanish inquisition!")that deviant groups were subjected to by 'the church' in europe; and which we continue to see in theocracies around the world. this was to be fair to the people who (for their own reasons, some of which undoubtedly include the motives described by coulter and sheckler) don't want to be associated with any religion or subjected to religious persecution. these people are the ones who react so strongly to be being described in religious terms. they don't want anything to do with religion and don't want to even hear about it.

i understand the impulse. i've been there. the harshness of my christian upbringing turned me off of the whole idea of religion for a long time. i don't know if i would call myself a christian simply because of what has been done in the name of Jesus by christians. for a long time i equated the bible with mythology out of a reactionary rebelliousness. i've swung both ways and now i can see both sides. at this point i would certainly recommend all of the red words in your standard bible; and regard them as some of the most profound and inspiring words around.

we can get so entrenched in our own ideas about the nature of man, where life begins, the intersection of law and ethics, or even right and wrong; that we lose sight of the fact that we all have to co-exist.

yet, where can there be common ground between people who differ over issues like abortion? the simple fact is that we cannot make other people's choices for them. each of us has to learn for ourselves the lessons of life. all over the world there are women who are forced to have children they don't want. throughout history women have died in childbirth; and despite medical advances, this continues to happen. the most miraculous gift of life is tied up with pain and suffering and risk; and i believe that every woman should be able to choose whether or not she will undertake that pain for herself. people have been willing to fight and kill for freedom; and (though it may seem to go against nature or the will of God) these woman must believe that they're bodies are such a battleground. what is more important: the right of an unborn child to live or the right of a woman to be free (and perhaps even live)?

certainly, there is a tendency in our society to avoid discomfort that gets taken to extremes. patrick henry's "give me liberty or give me death" becomes twisted into jello biafra's "give me convenience or give me death" as our freedoms can be measured in crass commercialism of instant gratification. perhaps it is too easy to get an abortion; but how can you regulate capriciousness? sex without love has a consequence, as does every kind of carelessness. those who do not believe this have a hard lesson to learn.

personal responsibility is another confusing idea with our individual perspectives of vague social forces playing a major part in how we understand our obligations. often we do not comprehend the various factors that influence our decisions. like my reactionary rebelliousness, we sometimes make choices unconsciously or at least without thinking through all of the ramifications. sometimes we shut out the very thing that we need to hear.

a principle that informs a lot of my personal growth is simply this: you spot it you got it. it means that the things that infuriate and challenge me are the very things that i need to work on in myself. when i get angry at the actions or words of another person, it invariably means that there is something very similar in myself that i do not want to look at or admit. we often project our shameful traits onto those around us as if to distract ourselves from taking a hard look at ourselves. it takes a good deal of humility to turn the accusatory finger back at oneself and see one's own shortcomings; but i believe that it is necessary if we are to find common ground. when we ignore the beam in our own eye and try to help our brother with the speck in his, we are bordering on hypocracy. we all need to do some soul searching. and sharing.