Principle Over Idealization

I wrote recently about the need to avoid the “twin temptations of idealization and fear—naïve idealization of groups with whom we readily sympathize (e.g., immigrants, ethnic/religious minorities, police) and a sensationalized fear of those with whom we don’t (e.g., immigrants, ethnic/religious minorities, police).”

Constance Grady penned a piece in Vox a few days ago highlighting an example of the idealization of women. In that piece, Grady criticizes remarks by comedian Louis C.K., which can be seen in the video below:

Louis C.K. is supporting Hillary Clinton in next week’s presidential election, and it’s not just because she’s a woman. It’s because she’s a mom.

“A mother’s just got it,” C.K. told Conan O’Brien on Conan Tuesday night. “She feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of shit.”

Mothers, C.K. says, make better presidents than fathers. We’ve had fathers as presidents for the past 240 years, but “a great father can give a kid 40 percent of his needs, tops. Tops out at 40 percent. Any mother, just a shitty mother, a not-even-trying mother? Two hundred percent.”

While Grady concedes that C.K. is well-intentioned, she finds his idealization of women ultimately misguided:

he’s playing into a very old and unpleasant narrative that’s become weirdly popular among liberal men this election cycle: the idea that we need women in government because they are intrinsically morally superior to men. Women should be represented in our government, this story goes, not because they are people, but because they are better than people: They are angelic; they are virtuous; they are pure.

Back in September, Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli interviewed Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek about his new book Refugees, Terror and other Troubles with the Neighbors. Merelli tells us that Žižek

looks at the current migrant and refugee crises in Europe, and identifies what he sees as its uncomfortable aspects: the contrasts between Western values and those of the thousands arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East; the threat of terrorism by migrants; and the inevitable tensions generated by the competition for jobs and resources.

“The left tries to ignore the problem—for example they try to underreport problems with immigrants,” Žižek told Quartz. “My book is simply a great, desperate call for not keeping silent about this.”

Sensationalized fear of immigrants or the recent flow of refugees is a real problem that must be confronted and corrected, but so too:

is a dangerous tendency to mythologize refugees as especially noble because of their suffering: “I don’t like this romantic false idea that suffering purifies you, that it makes you a noble person. It does not!” On the contrary, he says, “it makes you do anything to survive.”

This doesn’t mean Europe should be less committed to taking care of desperate people seeking shelter, he says—but Europeans should be more realistic about the kind of effort it takes to do so. “It’s easy to be humanitarian if your principle is that the others whom we are helping are good warm guys, friendly,” he says. “What if they are not? My point is that even in that case we should be helping them.”

How we advocate matters. As an African-American and a military veteran, I am often put off by attempts to advocate for African-Americans and military service members in ways that posit facile narratives about the superior virtue of these two groups. We are people. We deserve respect because we are people. We need not be especially great to be valued as people. Spinning grandiose narratives about people groups to elevate them is sloppy thinking, disingenuous as a form of public discourse, and patronizing to the group in question. We don’t need to idealize a disparaged or disadvantaged group in order to advocate for their equal treatment, political representation, or aid in a time of crisis.

It can also prove counterproductive. What happens when the narrative is belied by daily experience? When we find that African-Americans, military service members, women, immigrants, etc. are just as frail and error-prone as the rest of us? Specifically, in the case of refugees, what if we find that there are genuine differences, leading to social friction and discomfort? Do we then lose the conviction that they are to be valued as people? Do we turn our backs? The advocacy must be grounded in principle rather than unrealistic appraisals of the superior worth of the relevant group.

Likewise, C.K.’s advocacy on behalf of women in a culture where women have long been regarded as somehow less fit for leadership in general and public office in particular is laudable. However, the rights of women should be safeguarded because they are people. The contributions of women are valuable and speak for themselves. We need not substitute one narrow prejudice—that men are better—with its opposite. How hard is it to say women are equal–neither worse or better, but equal?

As Grady concluded: “We should not have a woman as president because women are pure and virtuous and angelic. We should have a woman as president because women are people who make up more than half of the US population, and because women deserve to see themselves represented in our representative government.” That is a compelling argument whether you like the particular woman on the ballot this year or not.

A.K.