Saturday, January 21, 2017

On "Solidarity in Marginality" Politics

Warning: The following post is not a sermon, but rather constitutes an exploratory foray into a contemporary political topic.
R.R. Reno and others have employed the phrase “solidarity in marginality” as a way to describe the style of identity politics presently rampant in the Democratic Party, and which has gained a significant level of support in American culture more broadly.

In this style of politics, a broad coalition is formed out of a number of historically socially 'marginal' groups, with membership in one or more of these groups seen as conferring moral authority on weighty issues of our time (with compounded moral authority in the occasion of 'intersectionality'); and to this coalition are added socially conscious 'allies.' Such marginal groups, within the 'progressive' coalition, include ethnic minorities (African-Americans, Arab-Americans, Hispanics), certain maligned religious groups (e.g., Muslims, atheists), women (not significantly in the minority, but deemed marginal relative to historic patriarchal trends), marginalized economic majorities (“the 99%”), and sexual and gender minorities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, among certain others) really, any (sufficiently acceptable, by current norms) groups that can be constructed in opposition to those presumably identifiable (in some way) with historic power-holders as they existed a century ago. And, as a political and cultural coalition, these groups (or their actual or self-appointed representatives) maintain 'solidarity' with other member-groups of the coalition.

There's something to be said somewhat in favor of “solidarity in marginality” as an ethical political-coalition strategy. Solidarity with the marginal (with certain caveats) is a key foundational piece of the biblical ethic. The whole sweep of scripture describes God as a defender of certain socially marginal groups of people – the 'poor,' the 'fatherless,' the 'widow,' the 'stranger'/'sojourner.'

So, for instance, God is described as a deity who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). Numerous legal instructions within the Torah recognize these as specially protected groups whose rights and interests must be continually recalled to the community's memory (e.g., Deuteronomy 14:29). The prophets likewise give strict admonishment to the social elite or the broader populace on behalf of these marginal groups (e.g., Isaiah 1:17 – “seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause”).

The New Testament continues these themes but raises them to new heights, wherein God, in the person of Jesus Christ, enters a lineage littered with marginal figures (cf. the Matthean genealogy), ministers compassionately to the socially marginal (even, after some testing, the Syro-Phoenician woman), lauds a prophetic history of service to foreigners (see Luke 4:25-27), offers socially marginal figures as role models (e.g., the Good Samaritan in the Luke 10 parable), models behavior usually associated with the socially marginal (e.g., table-fellowship with 'sinners,' or washing his disciples' feet), and ultimately assumes a marginal social position himself, i.e., “the form of a servant, … even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). 

Those previously marginal on account of ethnic/national factors have, within the context of the church community, been thus “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13), into a fellowship where “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11; cf. Galatians 3:28).

And throughout subsequent history, some of the greatest victories of the church have been in defense of the otherwise marginal (both inside and outside the church), reminding the powerful that members of these marginal groups are our neighbors, are made in the image of God, and have a potential or actual status as our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ and thus as the future rulers of a glory-filled new creation. To have solidarity with the Messiah requires solidarity with these sorts of marginal people – that is a central contribution of Christian ethics.

That said, there are several key problems with the “solidarity in marginality” political-coalition strategy as we see it enacted on what, for lack of a better name, we might term the American Left.

First, “solidarity in marginality” is distinct from “solidarity with the marginal.” A biblical Christian ethic supports the latter (again, with certain significant caveats), but does not suggest that marginal status as such is a positive moral quality. While certain theologies attempt to transform it into one (e.g., liberation theology's “preferential option for the poor”), the Torah contains cautionary phrases in this regard, such as, “nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:3; cf. Leviticus 19:15). Many prominent biblical figures enjoyed social power and prestige in their respective social contexts (e.g., Abraham, David, Solomon).

Second, biblical “solidarity with the marginal” was solidarity built on a recognition of common value, in terms of the imago dei and the duty of neighbor-love, along with other considerations. The root of solidarity was a recognition and defense of the dignity of the marginalized person, not insofar as he or she is defined by a 'marginal' category, but insofar as he or she is a person with God-given dignity and honor, belonging to the human community, subject to an invitation to the lofty God-given human destiny. But the “solidarity in marginality” strategy is frequently different, with solidarity built on a common experience of struggle against the powerful 'Other.' These are very distinct foundations for solidarity. Several historically admired marginal-solidarity movements, like that aspect of the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., or abolition advocacy by the likes of John Wesley and William Wilberforce, have their foundations (largely) in the former, not (primarily) the latter – and were all the healthier for it.

Third, “solidarity in marginality” is insufficient in offering guidance for navigating conflicts between the (real or perceived) interests of (recognized) marginal groups, whether different such groups or the same group. Thus, which is to be accorded higher value or precedence:
  • The interest of workers in selling their labor at a high price irrespective of its value to buyers, or the interest of the poor in have affordable access to useful or desirable commodities?
  • The interest of children in having familial environments designed for their success, or the interest of sexual minorities to enforce the equal validity of reconstructed family notions on all sectors of society (e.g., private adoption agencies)?
  • The interest of women in having the unique contributions of femininity affirmed, or the interest of women in deconstructing 'femininity' as such, or the interest of male-to-female transgender individuals in reappropriating femininity?
  • The interest of transgender individuals in having others affirm their assertions of gender identity, or the interest of sexual-assault survivors and children in having security and privacy in vulnerability-enhancing environments (e.g., public bathrooms)?
  • The interest of women in equal treatment in all situations, or the interest of transcultural immigrants and ethnic-minority or religious-minority populations in living unhindered according to distinctive codes of conduct, including gender roles?
  • The interest of ethnic-minority populations in expressing frustration against institutional abuses of power, or the interest of similar populations to receive protection by institutions of power?
  • The interest of low(er)-socioeconomic-class traditionalists to govern their own behavior, or the interest of high(er)-socioeconomic-class sexual minorities to employ coercion?
All of these disputes have played themselves out recently in American discourse, with majorities in the “solidarity-in-marginality” coalition favoring one set of interests, and others – equally perceiving themselves as defenders of the marginalized and (potentially or actually) victimized – favoring the other. But the anemic strategy of “solidarity in marginality,” as such, fails to offer guidance as to how solidarity is to be expressed toward all marginal parties simultaneously.

Fourth, “solidarity in marginality” as a strategy tends to presume that the identities of demographic blocs can be tied ineradicably to political preferences. Thus, it presumes that there is one valid set of views (political, ideological, cultural) 'natural' to an ethnic-minority group, or to women, or to some other member-group in the 'solidarity-in-marginality' list of approved marginal identities. But, while certain common interests are likely (e.g., African-Americans' rightful common interest in overturning Jim Crow laws during the era they were in force), this hard-and-fast expectation unduly reduces the individuality of real flesh-and-blood people, and does so inexcusably. The result has often been for 'dissenting' members of marginal groups to be unjustly targeted with harsh pejorative epithets (e.g., “Uncle Tom”).

Fifth, “solidarity in marginality” fails to recognize that 'marginality' and so-called 'privilege' vary with social context and other factors. What makes one 'marginal' in Mayberry may not make one 'marginal' in Los Angeles, and vice versa. What makes an individual 'marginal' in the subculture of a Southern Baptist church may not make one 'marginal' at an Ivy League school, and vice versa. And what made one 'marginal' (in the broad sense) in the 1950s may not make one 'marginal' in the present, or in the future. Before his conversion, Matthew gained exploitative economic power through his role as tax-collector – did that make him more privileged (in broader Roman society) or more marginal (in local Jewish society)? The answer is both. Marginality is a complex thing. And the forms of marginality selected for inclusion in the American Left's “solidarity-in-marginality” coalition are clumsily defined relative to a perceived historic power-center at a broad national level, with limited regard to historical shifts, local circumstances, and social context.

Sixth, “solidarity in marginality” frequently licenses the employment of thoroughly dehumanizing language and conduct against those perceived as the historic bearers of privilege (i.e., white, religious, conservative, rich, 'cisgender' men). Some participants in the “solidarity in marginality” coalition have engaged in such dehumanizing language repeatedly (e.g., “#@&$ White People!”), and even where examples are not so blatant, there is frequently a predominant oppositional-militant strain of rhetoric ('resistance,' 'rise up,' 'down with,' insults toward political opponents) that belies claims to embody virtues like love, diversity, respect, and inclusion and, what is more, effectively dehumanizes its targets. This inevitably fosters social division and inhibits the development of a more just and civil society. Moreover, the gospel reminds us that the historic bearers of privilege (even Pharisees like Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus) are every bit as inherently dignity-worthy and every bit as redeemable as marginal figures like Mary Magdalene or the Gerasene demoniac.

Seventh, “solidarity in marginality” as a political-coalition strategy is – as a function of the fifth and sixth points – unsuccessful in doing justice to unrecognized marginal groups (particularly those who are unrecognized by virtue of some similarity to, or continuity with, the aforementioned 'historic bearers of privilege'). The discourse of urban elites with broad social influence (as particularly exemplified by those dominating the power-wielding subcultures of the entertainment-media, the news-media, and academia), for example, frequently marginalizes (with considerable disdain) both religious traditionalists and white working-class Americans. The results of the 2016 United States election cycle pointed strongly to the frustration that both of these marginal groups felt from their interests being ignored or assailed, and their identities held in derision, by the “solidarity-in-marginality” coalition championed by the Democratic Party. Moreover, it must be added that other legitimate marginal groups – such as the pre-born – are excluded from “solidarity in marginality” thinking in the most radical way possible, i.e., being viewed as targets of justifiable lethal violence on a routine basis. All of these are significant failures of “solidarity in marginality.”

Eighth, biblical notions of 'marginality,' while applied to socially vulnerable categories (e.g., 'orphan', foreigners, the economically disadvantaged, etc.), are both broader and narrower than the forms of 'marginality' employed by modern “solidarity-in-marginality” thinkers. The biblical notion is broader in including the figure of the Levite alongside the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner (Deuteronomy 14:29). No parallel figures in American society are accorded comparable respect and prominence in current “solidarity-in-marginality” thought. Likewise, the biblical notion is narrower, and rightly so, in not endorsing the behaviorally marginal or equating this with other forms or expressions of marginality (though it does, of course, insist on the fundamental human dignity and potential redeemability of even the most behaviorally marginal persons).

Ninth, the “solidarity in marginality” coalition, while endorsing/including certain behaviorally marginal groups (e.g., the LGBT coalition), inconsistently (though thankfully) does not (currently) seek to endorse or include certain other behaviorally marginal groups (e.g., polyamory/complex-marriage advocates, or NAMBLA), to say nothing of a wide array of ideologically marginal groups (e.g., the so-called 'alt-right'). Yet the “solidarity-in-marginality” strategy, in and of itself, does not rest on a sufficient bed of deeper principles to assuage concerns that the coalition will eventually be expanded to include some of these other marginal groups in ways that would augment social harm.

And tenth, as Reno has accurately observed, a “solidarity-in-marginality” coalition will inevitably, and in fact does visibly, have an unending interest in manufacturing 'oppression narratives,' magnifying the faults of alleged oppressors, and seeking out new prospective member-groups, so as to maintain its gains in power and influence, rightful or wrongful. This is especially so in the case of elite 'allies' in the coalition who thus benefit from the continued Kulturkampf of the coalition, and so in the continued perceived victimhood of the marginal member-groups. And there is a corollary interest in concealing any complicating facts or sentiments that might erode the benefit thereby gained by these elite 'allies.'  This trend is (almost self-evidently!) socially corrosive, and may well lead to harms at least as severe as those attributed to total dominance by historic power-holders.

The “solidarity-in-marginality” political-coalition strategy is insufficient and fatally flawed as a mode for ethical political engagement in modern America, particularly for those sharing Christian convictions regarding the importance of human dignity, community, and potential.  There are better models available that transcend the weaknesses of 'solidarity-in-marginality,' but would require the latter's advocates to significantly broaden their vision of tolerance and engage in deeper reasoning about first principles.

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