Friday, May 05, 2006

The Elusive Search For Universal Inclusivity

There's a post up at Feministe regarding representation and homogeneity, spurred by an observation that the contributors to Arianna Huffington's blog are a bunch of Whitey McWhitersons. This is true, but I'm not sure I buy the allegation that this is inherently racist, nor do I believe Eteraz's assertion, quoted in the post above, that the appearance of homogeneity is a problem in and of itself. I think piny's example with the Democratic party is telling. Suppose we start with the Democratic party, but we realize that its not sufficiently inclusive of homosexuals. So, as piny says, we "appoint scads of cisgendered and cissexual gays and lesbians to incredibly prestigious positions". But, as it is pointed out, this leadership is still not representative of transgendered persons. That's not a problem, we'll approach this issue in the same way that we approached the homosexual issue, by appointing scads of transgendered and transsexual individuals to incredibly prestigeous positions. Holy pigeon hole principle, Batman! I've only got so many prestigious positions to go around. Either I'm going to have to create more prestigious positions (thereby diluting the prestige of all), or I'm going to have to kick some of the homosexuals out to make room for the trans representatives. What's worse, I've got all these feminists waiting in the hall... And so on, and so on, and so on. Using this method you could eventually come up with a collection of individuals who are widely representative of the world at large. But, even in a body as large as the Democratic party, somebody is going to get left out. Let's run the checklist:
  • Women? Check
  • Men? Check
  • Trans? Check
  • Cis? Check
  • Abled? Check
  • Disabled? Check
  • ....
Somewhere you are going to have to make a cutoff, and then you're going to get screwed. Did you get a survivor of genocide? How about a displaced person? A practitioner of a non-traditional religion? All of these people have legitimate causes and legitimate concerns, but I guarantee that, at the end of the process, one or more will still be a "them", left out in the cold with no one to speak for them. Here's where I think that Eteraz is wrong, and that any attempt to make appearance a proxy for substance is ultimately going to fail. This hypothetical group which we've assembled looks, to the casual (and even not so casual) observer to be full to the brim with representative goodness. But this body, because it does not include representatives for every worthy cause, is still capable of "-ism". Granted, its less likely to do so than the folks that hang out with Arianna, but the problem is still there. And it gets worse. Again, even an institution as big as the Democratic party has finite resources, so a necessary prioritization of efforts is required. The problem is that, in doing so, it leaves itself open to accusations of marginalization and '-ism' from those people who find themselves at the bottom of the list. They could always skip the prioritization, but that leads to an organization with no goals and no directions, which is basically useless. Which brings me to the central critique of piny's post, which boils down to the following statement: "The appearance of '-ism' cannot be used to prove the existence of '-ism'". It's a good indicator, "where there's smoke there's fire" and all that jazz, but is not sufficient proof. Here's why: Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Arianna and her gang aren't racists. We live in a de facto segregated society, and Arianna only knows white people, so that's who she invites to blog with her. This is the result of racism, but institutional and structural racism rather than racism on the part of Arianna and her friends. I would think its clear, in this case, that the label "racist" should not be applied to Arianna and co. Let us further suppose that we're operating under the assumption that the appearance of '-ism' is indicative of actual '-ism'. Poor Arianna isn't a racist, but how is she going to prove that? She can point to the 2 out of 55 bloggers (which is 3.6%, btw, not 0.3%; watch that decimal place) who aren't white, but we'd all agree that this doesn't really mean anything, it's just a variant of the "but I have black friends" defense. She might be able to point to explicitly anti-racist postings, but it's easy to argue that such postings are an institutional smokescreen to cover the racism that's obviously lurking behind the curtains. Its incredibly difficult to prove that you're not racist. I'd argue, however, that its a lot easier to prove that someone is racist. If you catch them at an Aryan Nation's rally or voting to put up a fence between the US and Mexico then that's solid proof that they're a racist. Which is why I believe that a more appropriate rule is as follows: "The appearance of '-ism' is insufficient to indicate the existence of '-ism'; it must be accompanied by positive acts indicative of '-sim' before such a charge is reasonable". Which is why I don't agree that Arianna and her people are racist, or that a charge of racism should be leveled against them in some fashion.

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