Once again, why are we so polarized?
My friend shared this podcast with me last week from Eckhart Tolle (she advised listening to minute 37 and beyond). The question at hand is about how to have conversations when it seems that our differences are intractable, especially on topics like “health care, guns, same-sex marriage, immigration policy, homelessness, and politics.” Tolle’s questioner asks a question we all seem to be wondering about in this so-called polarized age, how do so many abstract or political topics become matters of our identity and bodies. Tolle’s argument is that we unconsciously connect our thoughts with our identities. He argues that online interaction makes this worse. And so disagreement with our ideas and perspectives becomes an assault on our bodies. In many ways, it is a profound thought (and ironically, it is just a thought). We often take things personally when, if we give ourselves enough time to realize that our thoughts aren’t our bodies, we can let things go.
In some ways, this is not unlike the differentiation we do from our families when we realize where our parents end and where we begin. Having healthy relationships is dependent upon such differentiation. And to have a healthy relationship with our intellect, as well, means realizing that it is not part of our identities. So your opinion about, let’s say, a topic like health care, whether you support a single-payer option or want to socialize medicine altogether, those political differences are not matters of our identity. The same is true whether you support a gradual amnesty program to exonerate undocumented immigrants or you are simply ready to open the border. These matters can be intense and generate intense debate, but with a basic agreement about human dignity –an essential component of anyone on the acceptable political spectrum – I think we can have good-faith conversations that aren’t escalated to the levels of anger and violence. When the discussions move from options for health care to opposition to health care; from how to include migrants to excluding them from our lives; the dialogue changes. All of a sudden we aren’t talking about thoughts. We’re talking about people.
What polarizes us more than anything is the acceptance of the idea that some of us are less dignified than others, and maintaining the hierarchy that oppresses others, is merely a political opinion or thought. Tolle’s idea can be abused here, so that is one place to be mindful of.
Social constructions are still real constructions
The problem here is that often times we think our thoughts are very important to who we are. I think we see this in religious circles all the time. Our beliefs are so often tied up to our being. And in faith, it is harder to make this separation. In fact, when we try to do this, we often minimize the cosmic and mystical experience that our faith can bring to us. We lose the embodiment of our faith. But if we take it too far, we lose tolerance for people with different theologies and different faith. At best, we become sectarian, or prejudicial, but this line of thinking can also lead to hate speech and hate crimes, even.
Using Tolle’s philosophy we can sometimes disembody thoughts that are perhaps more intimately connected to our experience. When I was an undergrad, I was required to take sociology classes on race at Temple University. It is a wonderful and progressive requirement. One of the things Mary Stricker taught me at Temple University was that race was a social construct. She taught me that our skin color did nothing to actually change our bodies in any meaningful way. This postracial philosophy was set to counter the scientific racism of the 20th Century that argued that members of certain races were superior or inferior to one another. The idea of race as a social construction lends itself to the differentiation that I mentioned above, that we are not our skin colors.
But despite my skin color not having any physical or biological impact on who I am, it has a sociological and anthropological impact on who I am. Yes, it is a social construction, but it is as real as my home is, which is not natural, but still very real. And though God did not assign my skin color meaning, it has meaning nevertheless. And my lived experience as a brown man, informs me socially, theologically, and politically. We cannot help but see our lived experience as such. The key here is awareness that that’s the reason we take, let’s say, political disputes personally is because our politics is informed by our bodies. Consciousness about that helps us listen to others, but it doesn’t remove how they are connected to our bodies.
Of course, our goal as Christians may be to fully find our identities in Christ as we strive toward a postracial society, but we cannot operate as if we live in a post-racial society, especially when we are commanded to do so by white people who have not developed the consciousness about how their bodies are formed by their race as well.
Whiteness threatens the humanity of white people
White fragility and in turn white supremacy are hard to identify because they are an expression of thoughts becoming a part of our identity. Because whiteness creates a hierarchy where white people are dominant and powerful, that further obscures its effect because there is no resulting pain or oppression from having white skin (that is not to say white people can’t experience systemic pain, but not via their skin color). White skin doesn’t contain any intrinsic value, but in our racialized society, it orders our racial hierarchy. And so the same force that creates white supremacy is the same one that creates the oppressed lived experience for Black and Brown minorities.
Tolle’s point is well received when considered race, especially for the dominators. They receive critiques of their organizations or disagreements with their philosophies as threatening to their very livelihood. Of course, it is not, but sometimes antiracism can feel like a threat to our very identity. Sometimes churches can feel like it’ll be the end of them. But a critique of whiteness isn’t a critique of white people or a white church. When we feel like it is, developing consciousness that we aren’t our race is essential. That allows us to listen to the experiences of those we’ve harmed without being defensive.
So to make the best of what Tolle said, our thoughts, political or otherwise, aren’t our identities. Sometimes, when matters of our dignity and livelihood are on the line, our thoughts end up attacking people’s bodies. Our race is not an intrinsic part of who we are, but rather a result of our racialized order. Whiteness orders us, but whiteness hides in its power. The expression of race’s social construction is most clearly seen in racial minorities, whose lived experience informs their politics and their thoughts. Before we can ask them to separate the two, it is whiteness, above all, that needs to be defeated. But because whiteness ties itself to the bodies of white people, unless they can separate their identities from their bodies, it will feel like a personal attack. That is where Tolle’s words are best applied.