“Unity through understanding” could perhaps be used as a slogan for the American liberal project over the last several decades. One of the primary rhetorical devices that has been used to promote this agenda is the idea that people – Americans in particular – are more alike than they are different. This has been a campaign largely directed at the dominant culture in an attempt to make it more “aware” of minority cultures, yet ironically can result in less awareness as minorities come to be seen as nothing more than variations on the dominant culture.
From a purely strategic perspective, where the goal is to obtain as many immediate benefits from intercommunity harmony in the shortest amount of time possible, this approach certainly has its merits: it serves to quell the fears of the majority that minority groups may have alien agendas that seek to undermine their way of life. Moreover, it serves to validate the majority’s culture even further, since stating that there are no meaningful differences between the majority and the minorities suggest that minorities are, fundamentally, just like the majority, and should behave as such if they wish to receive recognition. In this view, there is no separate or unique African American culture, and any aspects that do seem different (e.g. “Ebonics”) can be dismissed as culturally inferior products of segregation that will eventually die out over time.
The genuinely frustrating problem is that such a situation is hardly the conscious intent of most well meaning liberals, multicultural activists, and the like. At the core of the mission statements of most such groups is the idea of fostering understanding between communities, and it is doubtful that the progress that has been made could have occurred due to purely cynical motivations. Yet in order to move closer to truly recognizing the goal of understanding, it is necessary to recognize the antipathy and disconnection that continues to exist – despite all the best efforts and intentions. Genuine empathy is a project of connection, but connection can only be obtained until the full extent of disconnection is taken into an account. Moreover, if no disconnection is acknowledged, then the very need for empathy cannot be seen, and the project is viewed as pointless and unnecessary.
The quest for empathy and understanding at a societal level must acknowledge not only that antipathy and misunderstanding exist; it must also be understood that they are a vital part of the human condition, and therefore necessary – if often unpleasant – tools in the search for empathy.
This violates our traditional sense of duality, as antipathy is traditionally understood as the polar opposite of empathy. Antipathy reflects not only a lack of understanding towards a subject – it also reflects a lack of desire to achieve understanding. Moreover, it often comes as a direct rebuttal to attempts at empathy, often in the form of identity groups dismissing liberal sympathizers as being “a part of the problem.”
Not surprisingly, such statements tend to come as a rude shock to progressive-minded liberals looking to “do the right thing.” Through empathy, the liberal project seeks to gain unity between factions of the oppressed in the hopes of gaining solid political gains, as well as easing the hardships the various groups face.
The problem for many who express antipathy for the liberal project is that the “empathy” being used is based on hasty assumptions and incomplete correlations. The groundwork of empathy is the assumption that one has insight into the feelings of the other, usually based on one’s own experiences where they appear similar to the other. This can often occur during particularly profound moments where a person is confronted with an aspect of the other that he or she did not expect to find – such experiences are often the hallmark of the sort of “liberal awakening” that many white multiculturalists describe. Yet even the most profound experiences of this type all too often lead to further generalizations, shoehorning the intricate experiences and suffering of the others into single, isolated moments.
The liberal project frequently defines the other under a fairly narrow rubric, depending on the inclinations of the individual. Conservative commentators in particular have been quick to point out that the liberal project can be quite exclusive when it comes to those who disagree with it, a hypocrisy that is too often dismissed due to the source of the criticism. Instead, if the liberal project genuinely wishes to achieve full empathy between disparate groups, it must be willing to acknowledge and engage those very groups and individuals who are most hostile towards it.
Part II: The Limits of Reasonable Discourse
General Disclaimer: Yeah, I know the style is WAY overdone, pompous, pseudointellectual smart-speak...and yes, there's a reason it's that way.