Everyday Life

Cultural context is crucial in identity politics

More than ever, cultural context informs the political scene, from late-night comedy to a recent Supreme Court ruling.

US Supreme Court, Washington, DC, USA

Sometimes the solution to theoretical problems become apparent not through careful research or close reading of important texts, but in the course of thinking about everyday life, in the course of leading a reflective life.  You have an everyday encounter. You give it thought, and a major intellectual problem is solved.

I had such an experience and revelation at a lunch in Berlin in November of 1994.  I remember the discussion.  I remember the setting, an Italian restaurant in the leafy outskirts of the city.  But I have only a vague recollection of my lunch partner, a female German scholar.

I was in Berlin in 1994 on a leg of a United States Information Agency sponsored lecture tour in Europe.  The main event was in Poland, where I helped inaugurate a short lived American Cultural Center there.  Following my stop in Warsaw, I flew to Berlin to speak in the well established American Cultural Center there about my book The Cynical Society, but also gave a talk at the Free University about my other relatively recent books, Beyond Glasnost and After the Fall.  The first Berlin talk was about my work on American political culture, the second on my work in Central and Eastern Europe.  After the second talk, I had a lunch with my hostess.  We engaged in the normal small talk.  No doubt, we discussed the presentation I gave and the reaction of the audience.  The details escape me except for one exchange.  It went something like this:

Jeff – “I think that it is not at all clear that Hitler’s crimes were qualitatively different than those of Stalin.”

Hostess –  “No!  Hitler was unique.  The intentional project of modern industrial genocide was unprecedented, uniquely evil, something that must not be forgotten.”

We went on and discussed this, I, as an expert on the Soviet bloc and its democratic opposition, she as a German scholar.   The conversation was warm, not at all heated, though the subject matter was tough.  I emphasized the immensity of Stalin’s crimes, of the gulag, of the mass starvation in Ukraine, the brutal treatment of those who dissent and of inconvenient national minorities.  She countered with recollections of the Holocaust.

At some point, I don’t remember when, I realized a paradox.  The meaning of this exchange would be precisely reverse, if I argued the position she presented, and she argued the position that I presented.  The embodiment of the argument determined the meaning of the exchange.

If I, as an American Jewish scholar, argued the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and she, as a German scholar, argued that Nazism was no worse than Soviet Communism, we would have been emphasizing the differences between us, revealing suspiciousness of the other, moving in the direction of nationalism.  As it was, we recognized each other as open people, as colleagues.  The meeting that we had was one of mutual respect and understanding.  The meeting of the imagined encounter would have been antagonistic.  Discussion could continue in the actual encounter, it would end in the hypothetical one.  Learning would accrue in the real one, probably wouldn’t in the imagined one.

As the author of The Cynical Society, I am quite critical of reductive reasoning, reasoning that reduces the meaning of an utterance to the qualities of the speaker, particularly related to positions and motives of wealth and power.   I emphasize that text should not be reduced to context.  On the other hand, as a sociologist, I know that context matters.  At the Berlin lunch, I think I saw how the criticism of sociological reduction and the insight of sociological knowledge can both stand.  Text and context are related in important ways, but context doesn’t determine text.  It culturally informs it.

This has many practical applications.  The cultural context of American racism, thus, informs how blacks and whites can speak to each other effectively.  This is why being race blind is funny when Stephen Colbert asserts it. It is why when whites complain that there is a need to struggle for equal rights for whites; they actually intend the opposite of what their words on the surface apparently say.  Indeed it is why when the Supreme Court rules that the law must be color blind, it is on very dubious grounds.

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