Wednesday, May 04, 2005
I think it's crucial to understand what differentiates liberalism from radicalism. I think we can avoid a lot of useless discussions and group traumas by understanding the underlying philosophical currents in various approaches to social change. One cardinal difference is idealism vs materialism. Liberalism is idealist; the crucible of social reality is placed in the realm of ideas, in concepts, language, attitudes. And liberalism is individualist. The basic social unit is the individual.
In contrast, radicalism is materialist. Radicals see society as composed of actual institutions--economic, political, cultural--which wield power, including the power to use violence. The basic social unit is a class or group, whether that's racial class, sex caste, economic class, or other grouping. Radicalism understands oppression as group-based harm.
So for liberals, defining people as members of a group is the harm. Whereas for radicals, identifying your interests with others who are dispossessed, developing loyalty to your people, is the first, crucial step in building a liberation movement. Liberals essentially think that oppression is a mistake, a misunderstanding, and changing people's minds is the way to change the world. That's where you get this tremendous emphasis on education as a political strategy. So for instance, instead of identifying the institutions that destroy communities of color and strategizing how to dismantle them, we're supposed to go to Unlearning Racism workshops and confess to being racists. Please don't misunderstand, this is not an excuse to avoid examining whatever privilege we have. And if we've behaved dishonorably, we need to make amends. My point is that however important personal accountability is, it's not political action.
Another example. One time at an activist conference I brought up some basic statistics on rape and male violence. And immediately another woman stood up and said--in that tone that's in the border area between earnest and self-righteous--"We need to educate."
I replied, "I don't want to educate men, I want to stop them." This was, of course, met with horrified silence--what exactly was I suggesting? But there is no therapy, no rehab program, that works to change perpetrators. By now, everything has been tried. Nothing works. They don't ever learn to see women as human beings. They don't ever stop feeling entitled to women's bodies. So not only was her suggestion liberal, it was useless.