Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sensitivity and Mascots

Rudy Giuliani has now "said in an NBC 'Today' show interview that the question was not whether the development should go ahead but rather one of 'sensitivity and people's feelings.' "

He acknowledged the legal and constitutional rights of the Muslims to build the mosque, but argued that "This project is creating tremendous pain for people who've already made the ultimate sacrifice. All you're doing is creating more division, more anger, more hatred."

It's funny, this conservative double standard. I'm reminded by this issue of the Native American mascot controversy that has affected sports teams and schools including, recently, my own alma mater.

In that particular debate, it was the "liberals" (and me) arguing against such mascots on the grounds of sensitivity. The conservatives threw out arguments about "tradition" or "school spirit" or "honor," but ultimately, I concluded...that means this is entirely a question of emotions. Neither side in the mascot debate has any purely "rational" arguments; it is ultimately a question of competing feelings.

And so the relative costs of each had to be weighed. And it was obvious to me: the "pain" caused to the conservative side due to offending some silly notion of school honor (if you really want to defend that, stop cheating academically and binge drinking!) or threatening their attachment to a "tradition" that is largely a marketing device...simply pales in comparison to the pain and sorrow of digging up memories of genocide, cultural alienation, colonial subjugation, etc.

If the battle is one of identity politics (and in that case, it clearly was) then you have to ask: whose identity is more threatened by the proposed alternatives? The beer guzzling white kids who knee-jerk react against the idea of people telling them what to do regarding the silly symbols of their market-constructed "school spirit" (itself a weak athletic proxy for actual war as an outlet for masculine aggression)? Or the long-suffering peoples who have had to face centuries of oppression, land-stealing, forced cultural alienation, and a Trail of Tears (however well some of them may be doing today)? To me, it's a no brainer.

And yet, the conservatives rejected such an argument in that case. "Oh, it can't be about feelings. That's political correctness. We have a right to keep such a mascot! We'll keep propagating and celebrating the symbol anyway, unofficially. They can't stop us, it's our free speech!" Except, no one has any right to keep any mascot; that's for the institution's administrators to decide. They can't (and haven't) stopped people from continuing the mascot unofficially, but it's their call to get rid of it to be sensitive to the pain of a historically oppressed minority.

In the mascot question, there wasn't even any question of rights, only feelings. So the more valid and important feelings should triumph; suffering should be minimized. Arguments like, "Well, the Irish don't complain about Notre Dame's Fighting Irish, therefore, the same standard should apply here" and calling that "logic"...are just idiotic. The situations are totally different and non-analogous; there is no valid syllogism there.

Well, now, the tables are turned. This time the conservatives are the ones trying to make an argument based on "sensitivity" to people's feelings. Except, this time, the opponents have not merely opposing feelings to be weighed...but actual constitutional rights! This time it is actually a question involving foundational civil rights in our nation. And that trumps any argument from sensitivity, especially when it is so irrational and illogical to be offended in this case, bigoted even, painting Islam with such a broad and undiscriminating (and therefore, ironically, discriminatory) brush.

But even if we were to purely compare the feelings (given that everyone seems to still admit their theoretical "right" to build it, thank God)...are those irrational and frankly bigoted feelings by some knee-jerk reacting survivors and their xenophobic conservative allies really so obviously "worth more" than the feelings of Muslims all over the country, whom this debate in itself (let alone if the Right actually wins) makes to feel suspected, unwelcome, associated with terrorists, like their religious freedom is being threatened, stigmatized, etc? I don't think that's obvious at all.

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