Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No, Calvin, this is different!

In the film Blast from the Past, a somewhat paranoid genius, Calvin Webber (Christopher Walken), has built a sophisticated bomb shelter for himself and his pregnant wife, Helen (Sissy Spacek). When the Cuban missile crisis starts, he insists the two of them enter the shelter. Unbeknownst to him a plane overhead runs into trouble and crashes in his back yard. Taking this a proof that the “big one” has gone off, he seals the shelter for 35 years. The story is a comedy about what happens when 35 years later their son Adam (Brendan Fraser) returns to the surface, believing the world to have experienced a nuclear catastrophe. In addition Adam brings with him vales and attitudes that are decades out of date.

Calvin thinks of everything and even has an entire section of the shelter set up to completely mimic the home that they had been living in.  Just as they enter the shelter, Helen is rather dismayed at circumstances, especially when she learns that Calvin has just incarcerated them in this place for 35 years. She exits the faux house for the equally fake patio and rubbing her arms as if cold. Calvin tells her that isn’t possible since the place is kept at 73 degrees.

Helen: Maybe I’ve just got the creeps.
Calvin: How could you?! This is just like home!

As the camera reveals the nature of the shelter and just how unreal this “home" is,  Helen makes her views clear: “No. No! Calvin, this is different! Believe me!”

So what does this have to do with libertarianism?

In my article on “me-libertarianism,” I discussed the problems when libertarians attempt to judge all things by their own particular circumstances, without seeing the wider picture.  Today, I want to tackle a very similar problem—the error of assuming that all other people are exactly the same as we are and what doesn’t bother us, therefore shouldn’t bother them.

Consider the use of language for a moment. Let us take the incident with Kobe Bryant where he called someone a “faggot” during a basketball game and was fined by the NBA for doing so.  A libertarian might well denounce this as “censorship,” though it is entirely a private issue within the NBA about how it allows players to act in public, for the image of the game. He may reluctantly agree that the private nature of the game allows this but then mumble something about “political correctness” and condemning “those people” “for being so sensitive.” He may even note that if someone called him a “honky” or a “redneck” it wouldn’t bother him any. And if it doesn’t bother him why are “those people” bothered? After all,  aren't we all just the same?”

No, Calvin, this is different! Believe me!

Let me explain why. If libertarians get this, they would be better equipped to actually dialogue with groups that often don’t see them as friendly.

Our libertarian Calvin, we shall assume is your typical  white, middle-aged, straight man (WMASM). The reality is that because he is white he has probably never been openly victimized due to race. It is unlikely anyone ever called him racially charged names, meaning them as an insult.  He has never experienced the kind of pervasive prejudice that some minorities have experienced their entire lives. If Calvin were called such a name, it was probably a rare occurrence and most of the time he has enjoyed respect from others. Maybe not always, but it was fairly common.

Consider a black man in comparison. He knows he could be targeted by police for merely being black. He knows entire organizations exist for the sole purpose of denigrating him and those of his race. He knows walking down the street in a “white neighborhood” makes him a suspect. He may well have heard racial epithets used against him with at various points of his life, by people who mean them insultingly and not jokingly.  He goes into a store and realizes the shopkeepers are keeping a close eye on him because his race makes him suspicious. Our Calvin knows nothing of this, and is unlikely to know anything close to it.

Calvin doesn’t know anything about being gay. He just knows “those people” are overly sensitive and constantly demanding politically correct views from others. He doesn’t know what it is like for young kids, who know they are gay, to constantly hear their best friends use “faggot” as the worst kind of insult imaginable. Calvin doesn’t know what it is like to hear even your own parents discussing the evil queers and the threat they pose. Calvin may have had some experiences with bullies, but he is unlikely to have experienced the kind of unending bullying that many gay students experience. Calvin never ran into “straight bashing” and never feared walking the streets. He doesn’t know what it is like to be a gay man who may well be beaten to death for no other reason then that he is gay. Calvin never heard people actually debating whether he should have the same rights as others. He just assumed that is the way the world works.

Calvin has no idea what life has taught others and how their experiences shape the way they interpret events.

For a libertarian Calvin, it is pretty simple and easy. He sees a minority upset by the use of bigoted words and he laughs it off with remarks about “sticks and stones” and how they don’t break your bones. Gay kids across America were subjected to those words and killed themselves when they couldn’t take it anymore. Not Calvin; he was unlikely to be targeted merely because of who he was.

Calvin might point out that blacks call one another “nigger” and he’s heard gay people use the “f” word, so why can’t others use these words without fearing the “PC police?”  He ignores that words don’t just come with meanings. When people utter words, they come with intentions as well. A black man, hearing the word “nigger” spoken in a jovial way by a black friend, will interpret that utterance quite differently than when it is said by a white man sneering at him for entering the wrong neighborhood.

Calvin fails to realize that people are the same in some ways but very different in other ways. There are widely divergent life experiences that are often inflicted on people solely because they are members of a group that people are prejudiced against.

The reality is that Calvin will never understand what it means to be black, Mexican, gay, or female. Most Calvins don’t know what it is like to be a Jew dealing with anti-Semitism. Many of our libertarian Calvins were geeks, harassed for that, and they think it is the same thing. Generally speaking, that sort of harassment ended when they became adults, but the same can’t be said for blacks, gays or women. No, Calvin, it is different!

The problem for Calvin is that he has few comparable experiences and finds it hard to put himself in the shoes of the other person. He is, however, great at commiserating with other  white, middled-aged, straight men (WMASM ) when they complain about minorities and political correctness. So he is quite good at surrounding himself with people who are just like him. And, when he finds that so many minorities shun the ranks of the movement he promotes, he blames their reluctance entirely on them. He simply can’t see what he can’t see. 

What makes the situation worse for the libertarian Calvin, is there are conservative Calvins who sound just like him. The libertarian Calvin (LC) may not be bigoted against minorities, while the conservative Calvin (CC) may be. Unfortunately when they speak they speak the language of WMASM and they sound quite similar. So minorities listening to the LC can’t tell how he differs from the CC. Individuals victimized because of who they are, hear the same comments coming out of both groups. And thus the libertarian stereotype, that we are just conservatives, but “more so” lives on, perpetrated by our own actions.

I used to believe “we are all just alike.” But I’ve learned that we are not. We all have different life experiences. I have never experienced the problems of being a black man in a white society. I had no idea what it was like to stand out in a crowd due to my race, because the crowds were like me. When I lived in Africa, I was often a rare white face in a crowd of black faces. I stood out. I can’t say I liked it. It made me feel uncomfortable.

I never understood the life of an immigrant because I lived most my life in the United States. Even when I lived overseas, I was living in countries that predominantly spoke English. It was easy for me there. But when I lived in Germany it was whole new ball of wax. I didn’t speak German, only small bits to get by ordering food. But anything more complex than “pommes bitte” had me in the dark. What a nightmare!

One day, the U-Bahn isn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Announcements are being made, but in German. I’m lost. People are moving to other trains. I don’t know what to do. A train arrives at the scheduled time at the right platform, so I enter it. Someone sees me and comes in to warn me that the cars in question will be left in the station. Luckily they realized I didn’t understand the announcement. I suspect people made comments about my inability to speak German, perhaps rude comments. Thankfully, I knew so little German that I couldn’t realize the rudeness, if there.

And throughout these times I experienced nasty bureaucracies that governments erect to punish those not “lucky” enough to be born in the “right” country. I understand, to some degree, how immigrants in America feel.  You won’t catch me rudely demanding they speak English if they can’t.

The anecdote to this “we’re-all-the-same” problem is not difficult. It is simply being aware that our life experiences sometimes mean we don’t actually understand what the other person has gone through. Instead of demanding they be more like us, we can simply listen, ask questions, and try to comprehend what is must be to be like them. There is an old saying that knowing you have a problem is half the solution. In this case, it clearly true. 

Sadly, one response from LC is often to argue that "we are all individuals" and then to dismiss the experiences of the other person.

Yes, we are all individuals. But guess what! Fag bashers didn't bash people for being individuals, but because they are part of a collective. The Klan didn't go around flogging and lynching people because they were individuals. The Nazis didn't round up people for being individuals. Yes, many people have a group identity, not because they refuse to be individuals, but precisely because they were mistreated for being who they are.

As accurate a statement as it may be, "we are all individuals" sounds like a dismissal of everything they have experienced. It dismisses their pain and suffering. A free society allows people to embrace a collective identity as well as an individual one. Someone who knows what it is like to be a minority may also know what it is like to be them self, as an individual. Libertarianism doesn't demand that you ignore their life as part of a minority. And, if you ever want to reach these people with the concepts of a free society, then you shouldn't ignore the experiences they had as part of a collective either.

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  1. Another awesome blog! Thanks.

  2. very well written and thought out. i love your perspective. you've really put into words the uneasiness i sometimes feel when i hear certain libertarians, esp. "paleolibertarians", formulate their opinions. thanks for that.