Saturday, March 05, 2005

There's always a more radical liberalism

Another item brought to my attention by Jim Kalb's terrific website Turnabout is the following.

Harvard puts on a "diversity" show each year called Cultural Rhythms. On February 28th the Harvard newspaper published a celebratory account of this year's show, the highlight of which was a speech by actress Jada Pinkett Smith.

Upon receiving an award from Harvard, Pinkett Smith tearily gave thanks and then shared the following "life lesson" with the audience:

Don't let anybody define who you are. Don't let them put you in a box. Don't be afraid to break whatever ceiling anybody has put on you.

Women, you can have it all - a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career. They say you gotta choose. Nah, nah, nah. We are a new generation of women. We got to set a new standard of rules around here. You can do whatever it is you want.

Not surprinsingly, the Harvard representative at the show, Dr. S. Allen Counter, the director of the Harvard Foundation, was delighted by Pinkett Smith's comments. He said that Pinkett Smith was "the best we've had thus far".

And why wouldn't he. After all, Pinkett Smith's speech was a popular expression of the liberal philosophy which universities like Harvard live by.

The basic liberal idea is that we are made human by the fact that we can create ourselves through our own will and reason. This requires, exactly as Pinkett Smith claims, that we should define our own identity and that we should do whatever we have a will to do.

For a liberal, this is what our humanity rests on, it is how human freedom is understood, and it is the starting point for how equality and justice are understood.

But it's wrong. We don't get to entirely define for ourselves who we are. Much of our self-identity is inherited rather than freely chosen. For instance, our masculine identity as men is something we are born with. So too is our cultural identity something that is not pulled out of thin air, but is a product of the time and place and tradition we are born into.

The problem with asserting the liberal view is that it gives inherited forms of self-identity a negative connotation, as being impediments to individual will. In a liberal society, there will almost inevitably be an attempt to deny or overthrow unchosen forms of human identity.

This process occurs gradually, with each generation asserting a more radical position. And this is what has put Jada Pinkett Smith and Harvard in such a difficult situation.

In the following week's issue of the Harvard newspaper, the celebratory tone of reporting about Jada Pinkett Smith's comments gave way to an apologetic one. It seems that some homosexual students objected to Pinkett Smith's assumption that women wanted a career plus a man and husband rather than another woman.

This, asserted the offended students, was "extremely heteronormative". And they have a point. If the highest aim of life is to be self-defined in whatever way we choose, then it is a kind of faux pas to assume people to be heterosexual. This is society imposing an inherited expectation, rather than establishing an entirely blank canvas for people to choose for themselves.

Hence, the Harvard authorities have already stepped into action to rectify things. The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations has begun to work together with homosexual groups to "increase sensitivity toward issues of sexuality at Harvard" and the Foundation has also pledged to inform future speakers of the sexual diversity of their audience.

Jada Pinkett Smith was undoubtedly liberal in her views, but she didn't see the next, more radical version of liberalism lying in wait, the version of liberalism which won't even allow an assumption of heterosexuality to restrict the freely self-authoring liberal individual.

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