Saturday, October 14, 2006

Obfuscation in the Culture of Sensitivity

Living in the United States today means living in a culture of sensitivity. All things considered, I think that this is preferable to the culture of insensitivity that reigned for the first couple centuries of our nation's history.

That culture served to obfuscate. Now that the veil has been lifted, we can see in plain site the ugliness that people used to be blinded to. We live in a more "enlightened" time. I cringe to use such a word, since it seems so self-aggrandizing to refer to one's own time as more enlightened than a previous era, but I like the fact that it implies that our knowledge today is a result of a better perspective (or more light, metaphorically speaking) and not necessarily the result of greater intellect.

And yet, for all the advantages of living in a culture of sensitivity, we can not escape the fact that any prevailing paradigm will bring with it a concomitant power of obfuscation which will discursively manifest itself across a spectrum of attitudes and beliefs. One such nook or cranny which has been obfuscated is the prism through which we seek to understand the drunken ramblings of one Mel Gibson.

It has been absolutely fascinating to read the various opinions about the power of alcohol to elicit speech. The mainstream media has solicited an abundance of opinions from medical and psychological experts centered around the question: "Is alcohol truth serum?" One would think that given the prevalence of the practice of alcohol consumption in our society, it would have been of paramount importance long ago to discern the degree to which we can trust the veracity of drunken utterances. Yet heretofore a hermeneutics of the bottle have apparently been the province of each individual's intuition, and it took an anti-Semitic rant by a Hollywood star to encourage a widespread exploration of this issue.

I haven't seen a consensus regarding the answer to the question, but there seems to be a general willingness to assume that anti-Semitic speech indicates anti-Semitism. And this is where I think our culture is blinding. It goes against the grain of our culture to exonerate someone of racism if there is evidence of racist speech, yet I believe it is possible.

Although the concept of "Othering" has been a basic assumption of psychoanalytic philosophy for decades, a general awareness of this principle is astoundingly absent from the mainstream. Basically, the idea is that human beings define themselves, or constitute an identity, by defining what they are not. In order to do this of course, you need an "other."

I believe that in moment's of conflict with another person, any and all attributes that separate you from that other person will immediately come to the forefront of your consciousness. In states of sobriety, we know enough to discern which of these differences are acceptable to articulate and which are not.

A few years ago I worked at a radio station which sold a large block of its Saturday schedule to a Hispanic man with a Spanish-speaking program. This man was also rather large. One day, he greatly inconvenienced one of my co-workers by belatedly announcing that he needed extra personnel to help with his show. My (skinny white) co-worker vented to me, and referred to the man as a "Fat(expletive)." I would be willing to wager that my co-worker also thought about the man's Hispanic ethnicity, but he knew that any comment referencing the ethnicity would be out of bounds. Clearly, the man's corpulence was no more relevant to the situation than his ethnicity, yet that was something that my co-worker, in this context, could invoke with relative impunity.

Now, if my co-worker was inebriated, it seems quite likely to me that he would have referred to this man as a "Hispanic fat (expletive)." Such a statement would clearly be a racist statement, but would it imply that my co-worker was racist? Does my co-worker hate fat people? This is a complicated question, and on some level there is clearly a prejudice present. But is it a prejudice that he should be punished for, particularly if it is human nature to have an innate prejudice about anyone who is different in any way from oneself?

I'm not sure I can adequately answer these questions, since in many ways I am a product of my culture of sensitivity. As we move further and further from a culture of insensitivity, it is my hope that we can move toward enlightenment, and that we will be able to know where Othering ends and racism begins.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. cigelske is the man you class is awwesome i love it. Nice haircut.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Boo said...

Hey Azor;
Did you get a haircut? Does it still look like Superman's do? Anyway, loved this blog but had to point out something that I tell my kids. Sometimes, when a person doesn't know what to say or doesn't have much substance on the inside, they will lash out at people's attributes, or lack thereof. I can only assume that in a moment of anger, your co-worker was at a loss for intelligent words to defend his position. If you don't mind, I'll use your idea of the others in this one in class, it's a great thinking mechanism. Also, I'll have a 101 in spring semester that will be required to veiw and post comments to your blog, hope they give some interesting feedback. Becky

11:09 AM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

What grade do you teach?

5:23 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

I teach people your age Sandwhich. You should transfer to my school.

7:31 PM  

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