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The Bgotry of the 'Progessives'

  • REX MURPHY

It is difficult to conceive a more retrograde idea than to maintain that the experience of one person cannot be shared, understood, or evaluated by another person. 


racism Even more retrograde is the more specific assertion that a person's colour determines his outlook, and is an impassable barrier to the appreciation or understanding of any other person of a different skin colour.

The same points may be made for what has come to be called gender differences — that communications across the gender boundary are always defective, that a woman's experience "privileges" her account of certain subjects.  Or sexual orientation — that one must be of such-and-such an orientation to "really" understand what that orientation entails, and that, therefore, only those in a given camp can "speak" or have a "voice" in discussions on such matters.

But, retrograde or not, we see and hear these claims every day, and ironically (but less and less surprisingly), from the most progressive people.

Let us bear in mind one of the greatest sentences ever written, by the Latin author Terence many centuries ago.  Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto or "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."

What a very strange and limited understanding of the human mind, this notion that we are locked inside our own experiences, our own skin colour, our own ethnicity and our own culture.  Carried to a logical extreme it would make "society" an impossible concept.  We would be living in a world of isolates — everyone an island of one, with only the most blurry and unreliable notion of others beyond the tiny sandbar of self.

I thought that the great struggles of the past century, particularly the struggle over civil rights, worked towards an utterly opposite understanding.  That education, in particular, would unlock the silos of self, and lead us to the understanding that we can learn of the world and the people in it, regardless of all our great and manifold differences.

We have the legacy of the world's literature teaching the same principle, demonstrating that the "creative imagination" (Northrop Frye) can bridge the gaps and chasms of difference.  Does a person need to be an ancient Greek to understand, to "get" the Iliad?  Does one have to be blind and Argentinian to savour the brilliance and insight of the great Jorge Luis Borges?  Is Romeo and Juliet a late-16th-century white male's English love story?  Can Jane Austen ever really be understood by a man?  May only Cossacks and commissars read Russian literature?

These propositions are self-defeating.  Their truth would nullify the purpose of all education.  If the individual is all he can know, what then is left to learn?

The entire purpose of education and all the arts — not just literature — is to build a house for us all, to take the mind via the imagination to places and people we have not directly encountered, and to extend the range of our understanding beyond self.

The entire purpose of education and all the arts — not just literature — is to build a house for us all, to take the mind via the imagination to places and people we have not directly encountered, and to extend the range of our understanding beyond self.

So it is with more grief than anger that I caught the story of an Ottawa "vigil" this week, held after a Missouri grand jury said it would not charge police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown.  Organizers of the rally asked "white/nonblack allies" to "refrain from taking up space" and "never be the centre of anything." Apparently only black people can "understand" Ferguson, and whites in particular are utterly outside the circle of comprehension.  (That these words, warning "whites" and "non-blacks" off the range, were written by white students does not give them quite the lift, quite the take-off speed, their authors purblindly fancied they did.  Quite the opposite in fact.)

That last phase "never be at the centre of anything" is particularly troubling.  It is so defiantly categorical and universally — "anything" — dismissive.

The phrase and the other gibberish attending it should serve as a motto for every meeting and seminar dedicated to diversity as the governing motto for how not to engage with social issues, how not to bridge the real differences that can exist between people.  It is the perfect capsule illustration that those who get carried away with their own righteousness, their always publicized wish to aid the "other," end up biting their own less than enlightened tails.  As one commentator in a CBC story on this strange vigil put it — "Is this an anti-racist rally or a pro-segregation one?"

Somewhat surprisingly, and even more sadly, the statement came from the Canadian Federation of Students.  Surprisingly, because the very least one would expect from a university student is an openness to all experiences, an understanding that one of the underlying purposes of higher education is to expand the mind, not contract it; by study and guidance from professors to be able — sympathetically and empathetically — to reach beyond what is given by the facts of origin and experience to the whole wide world beyond.

Being "white" is not a category of cognition.  It is not an exclusionary boundary — any more than being of any other skin colour is.

We seem to have wandered from the genuine universalism of the past, from the glories of Terence's great open mind, to a new place, when special "voices" and backgrounds alone authenticate ideas, where the truth is a handmaiden of skin colour, where every local "identity" of gender or ethnicity has a "privileged" perspective which is impervious and utterly alien to all who are not of that identity.

We are all "involved in mankind" as Donne, updating Terence from so long ago, famously reminded us.  One was a Roman, the other an Englishmen, and they were 16 centuries apart.  Funny how well they understood each other.  

dividertop

Acknowledgement

murphy Rex Murphy, "The bigotry of the 'progessives'." National Post (November 29, 2014).

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.  

The Author

Murphysmmurphy Rex Murphy was host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup, a nation wide call-in show, for 21 years before stepping down in September 2015. Murphy is a frequent presence on the various branches of the CBC. He has regular commentary segments entitled "Point of View" on The National, the CBC's flagship nightly news program.  See Rex's TV commentaries. In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column for the National Post. He is the author of Canada and Other Matters of Opinion and Points of View.

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