Radical Pathology: Symbolism

(Read my previous posts about trivialization and personal purity if you haven’t)

Left-wing and right-wing radicals have a similar commitment to symbolism and symbolic acts, usually to the point of neglecting issues they should care about a lot more. When I say “symbolism,” I don’t mean mere defiance, like refusing to sign a pledge of loyalty; that is ubiquitous among political activists. Nor do I merely mean spending political capital on things that matter to nobody outside the tightly knit radical group, which is another pathology altogether.

Rather, I mean that radicals of both kinds have an obsession with symbolic recognition of their beliefs. For right-wing Christians, it manifests itself in a zeal for public symbols of Christianity in the public square: nativity plays, the Ten Commandments, references to God in legislation. Although atheists are understandably offended at displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, there’s no real reason for Christians to promote them, except to spite atheists and to show that they’re more Christian than other people (which, again, is another pathology, the zeal to be the most extreme person).

If I were a member of the Christian Coalition, I’d probably push first of all for more anti-gay laws. For a start, they’re successful, they’d be very close to my heart, and they enable radical Christianity to lead winning battles. In addition, gay rights are an important issue: if I were a conservative Christian, I’d consider discriminating against GLBT people second in importance only to outlawing abortion.

But that’s just because I’m concerned with things like political effectiveness over symbolism. The actual members of organizations like the Christian Coalition instead prefer to wage a quixotic war to defend Christmas; while that sort of symbolism might be marginally understandable, taking offense at “Happy holidays” isn’t. I used to think irrational folk interpretations of such expressions were limited to radical feminism until the War on Christmas meme started to float.

Left-wing radicals are of course no better; in fact, they have a tradition of stupidities of this kind going as far back as the 1960s. This is most often manifested in antiracism, the type of left-wing movement that is most prone to radicalization. In 1968, radicals rioted at Columbia largely because it wanted to open a gym in Morningside Park; their problem was that since the Morningside Heights side of the park is higher than the Harlem side, the Harlem entrance would necessarily lead to a lower floor than the Morningside entrance, which was seen as segregationist.

Similar focuses on symbolism over real issues is what led most radical feminists to oppose pornography. Pornography depicts the sort of sex they hate: passionate, brutal, and often very patriarchal. So they immediately assumed it was intimately related to real sexism, no pun intended, and started agitating against it; without that hook, they’d never have even looked at the shoddy studies conservatives pushed that tried linking porn to rape.

As a general rule, the more radical a group is, the likelier it is to push for symbolic changes with no real significance. On Democratic Underground, one poster seriously proposed replacing past Presidents’ faces with civil rights activists’ on the currency. At Yale, a few students have started a website attacking the university for having named colleges after slaveowners in the 1930s. This is over and above the standard symbolic gestures of naming streets after Martin Luther King.

On the right, proclamations that the US is a Christian nation or that Europe must pay heed to its Christian heritage are standard; the more extreme people then push for public recognition of Jesus in every possible circumstance, no matter how tacky or inappropriate.

At the same time, there’s a small minority of radicals who snub that. This is also true in a way of another pathology I’m going to talk about later, totalization. But in both cases, the radicals who don’t display the pathology make up for it by being especially extreme and displaying all other pathologies even more prominently. Radical feminists who consider gender-neutral pronouns to be window dressing also tend to be especially irrational when it comes to any linguistic issue.

9 Responses to Radical Pathology: Symbolism

  1. Roy says:

    Re: “In addition, gay rights are an important issue: if I were a conservative Christian, I’d consider discriminating against GLBT people second in importance only to outlawing abortion.”

    Okay, I can understand the importance of outlawing abortion from the Christian perspective. If you consider that the view there is that abortion is murder- that it’s an “innocent baby” that is being “murdered”- then I think it makes sense why it’s such an important issue to many Christians. I can [i]understand[/i] how they reach that conclusion, even if I think that there are problems there.
    I can also understand how you can get to anti-gay-marriage legislation. If you’re of the opinion that the United States is a Christian Nation, then the idea of a secular legal marriage probably doesn’t really make sense. Marriage is marriage, and even if you’re not religious, you’re still involved in a religious institution at that point- it’s like Christmas. So, I guess I get the objection to gay marriage (again, even if I don’t agree).
    I’m wondering, though, about the intense objection to all things homosexual, though. That is, what is it about homosexuality that made it such a hot-button issue for conservative Christians over any other issue?

    Shameless flattery: If I haven’t mentioned it before, let me point out now how much I’ve been enjoying your writing. You seem almost ridiculously, frustratingly reasonable about things. The thread about rape as a hate crime really reinforced this- you presented a well reasoned view backed up with evidence that challanged the popular view (and, more importantly from my own perspective, caused me to challange my own view on it). For some reason, the internet seems to breed the echo-chamber effect (even though, I think, most of us are aware of the problem), but you seem to be doing a good job of avoiding it.
    In other words: Excellent blogging!
    /flattery

  2. Axel says:

    Well done! I’m always questioning myself if voters really are interested in such symbolic issues. In my impression, mainly journalists pick up such subjects and set them on the media agenda for a few weeks. Ultimately, it’s nothing more than some kind of political entertainment and “cheap talk” for politicians who take every opportunity for being in the news – something to talk about at the working place or in your circle of friends.

    The idea that Europe must pay heed to its Christian heritage is a good example for this. Because the planned and actually stopped European constitution doesn’t contain a religious reference, some conservative politicians opened a debate about European core values, Christian roots, God and other irrelevances. Obviously, their strategy was to instrumentalize anti-Islamic feelings, especially in relation to a membership of Turkey. But this strategy was, in my impression, ineffective. For mainstream Europeans, it was completely irrelevant if a god is mentioned in a constitution or not, they didn’t like the whole idea of a constitution with incalculable +practical* economical and political effects at all…

    And for the “War on Christmas” meme (Actually, I heard something about a Chistmas tree in an airport): Last weekend, I was in Hamburg where they opened an XXX-Mas market this year. Hamburg’s mile of sin, the Reeperbahn in Sankt Pauli, is well-known and the “Santa Pauli” market is really fantastic (www.santa-pauli.de/ see “Impressionen” for pictures). The SPIEGEL wrote: “Hamburg XXX-Mas Market Jingles Your Bells”. Water pipes, tangas, glass dildos, massage oils, vibrating cock rings and blow-up dolls are all on offer and the world’s first high-resolution, XXX, 3-D porn flick premiered. But they also have a gospel chorus and scantily-clad angels, complete with wings… By the way, the most common criticism from the public has been that there isn’t enough sex at the market.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Roy: I don’t want to speculate on motives too much, but the straightforward motive for Christian homophobia is that the Bible forbids homosexuality; although the Bible also forbids many other things, like eating pork, early Christians jettisoned the restrictions on habits common among gentile residents of the Roman Empire in order to attract more converts.

    The less straightforward one is something that’s been going around the feminist blogosphere in various incarnations for a long time.

    Actually, when I pitched this to Lindsay, she made a good argument that if she were a conservative Christian, she’d focus on faith-based charity. That’s a very concrete issue that a lot of less radical fundamentalists, like Obama, support, and that very clearly increases the power of religion in society.

    Also, thanks for the compliments… I always appreciate them.

    Axel, the part about the EU Constitution is of course a prime example of this behavior in action. A religiously motivated European who just wants more power to religion in Europe would concentrate on something like increasing the power of religious schools if he were rational; an anti-Muslim would concentrate on deporting or otherwise denying rights to Muslim minorities. Of course, a lot of them do, but it seems that the more radical ones are those who insist on writing Christianity into laws.

  4. Roy says:

    That’s what troubles me, though. Christian homophobia has seen a pretty significant increase in the last few decades. Obviously, part of this might be in response to homosexuals increased willingness to come out of the closet and move towards the mainstream, but I’ve never completely understood why homosexuality was picked over something like divorce, or, as you (and Lindsay) mention, charity.
    Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like the attacks on homosexuality are doing much to win converts anymore.

    And, see, the thing is, you’re absolutely right, focusing on things like faith-based charity and abortion seem like they should be no-brainers for the conservative Christian. To that, I’d add marriage as an issue. If I were a conservative Christian with a family values bent (and family values seem to come up a lot), I’d be focusing on fixing marriage. With the general perception being that divorce rates are getting ridiculous, and that’s a problem, it seems like that could be an easy issue to gain some strength in, and could also be used to reinforce marriage as a largely religious institution.

    On the other hand, I guess I’m not paritcularly disappointed that conservative Christians aren’t gaining more converts. =P

  5. Alon Levy says:

    The attacks on homosexuality used to win some converts. Then they stopped winning converts, but solidified the base, winning converts away from (non-radical) conservatism. Lately they don’t do even that, which is responsible to a lot of the recent anguish on the Christian right. But because of another radical pathology, extremism, its members conclude that it’s just because the Republican Party was too moderate, so they busily agitate for even greater extremism.

  6. […] Progressive movements tend to go through an extended liberal stage before radicalizing. Atheist activism skipped that stage. On the one hand, national symbols and established albeit powerless churches remain the last form of legal discrimination against atheists in most of the West. But on the other, these symbols make so little difference that fighting them is a radical pathology. […]

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