Monday, January 26, 2009

Religion, Education, and the Desire for Superiority

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about superiority and how many of our social problems and political paralysis stem from a seemingly universal need to feel superior.

James Baldwin* wrote that when he heard people talk about equality he always wondered, equal to what. People don't want to be equal. They want to be superior. And we humans have invented all sorts of way to feel superior.

Throughout the colonized world, we inherited European ideas of the superiority of one race over another. In the Republic of Congo, it is height that makes Bantu feel superior. Superiority of gender is ubiquitous. And lets not forget classism. The U.S. may like to pretend that we are a classless society, but in a classless society one would not be judged on the car they drive, how big their McMansion is, or which designer's name is written on their ass

The current financial crisis may cure us of some of our obsession with labels, bling, and the "real housewives" of the obnoxiously rich. And discrimination based on some accidents of birth is slowly becoming less socially acceptable, but other illusions of superiority stubbornly persist.

The antagonism between the "liberal elite" and the religious right is all about feelings of superiority on both sides. And the defensiveness of our discourse has everything to do with the implicit claims that, whichever side you are on, the other side considers you inferior in fundamental ways.

"Liberal elites" think they are better educated, more worldly, less racist, and more humane. After all, we have diversity. We have degrees. We speak other languages. Some don't even eat meat. We are tolerant (of homosexuals, freaks, and premarital sex...evangelicals and conservatives, not so much).

"Heartland" people believe they are more hardworking, down to earth, family-oriented, self-sacrificing, god-fearing, and humane. After all, they join the military and lay their lives on the line for their country. They give their time and money to their church. They don't go to the government for handouts. They take care of themselves, their families, and each other.

Our views of each other are the exact converse of all the things we think make us special. If we "elitists" think we are superior for our degrees and our diversity and our worldliness, we look down on those people in the "fly over states" as being backwards, uneducated, and ignorant.

Case in point, while I was at the University of California Santa Cruz, one of my teachers referred to conservatives in the middle of the country as people with the "bubba syndrome." Mind you, this was a Latin American Latino Studies program. If anyone had suggested that any homophobic, anti-abortion, Latin Americans were "bubbas" (or the Spanish equivalent) a shitstorm would surely have ensued.

Meanwhile, what Sarah Palin refers to as the "real America" looks down on us coastal people as being pretentious, lazy, criminal, immoral, and selfish. Most of all, they point out, we look down on them. In fact, Republican House candidate Robin Hayes said that "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God."

Steve J. Sterns wrote a book called Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru. The book is about Sendero Luminoso (the Maoist guerrilla group that terrorized Peru for years and is now, reportedly, in the midst of a resurgence). In the book, he describes the rift in Peruvian society, saying:

They also believed that ‘superior’ persons were marked by their benevolence toward inferior classes (a benevolence that liberals attributed to education and conservatives to religion).
Isn't that a perfect description of the rift in our society as well? Conservatives believe that their religion makes them morally superior, while liberals believe it is their education that makes them morally superior. Conservatives give money to their church. Liberals give money to Amnesty International. Each thinks their choices are superior.

I'm not naive enough to believe that people will ever be rid of their desire to feel superior, but it would be nice if we challenged people more. The next time that some twenty-five year old snot implies that their degree confers wisdom, remind them that George Bush has an ivy league degree and it didn't do him much good. And the next time someone implies that religion is the only source of morality, remind them that some of our greatest moral philosophers - from John Stuart Mill to Albert Camus - were atheists.

And lets not forget that the more strongly we feel superior to another group of people, the more we need them in order to define who we are. An educated person can only feel superior when there are other, less educated, people. A churchgoer can only feel superior when there are non-churchgoers to compare themselves to.

And now, for your amusement, is a concise description of our differences from Dave Barry.


* I can't for the life of me remember which essay this was in, so if anyone could help me out with that I would be eternally grateful.

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1 comment:

Daemon said...

Thanks to your post, I started reading/re-reading James Baldwin and found it to be really enlightening and pertinent.

The below excerpt is from here:

"Social utility tends to replace the utility of instinct. We enter here upon a world of mental and moral motives and ends, which are not exhausted in those of the biological order. The social person acts from motives of display, advancement, prestige, reputation, gain, happiness, honor, all terms which represent a sort of end that cannot be identified with mere continuance or propagation of physical life. Even the most egoistic conduct is partly motived by social considerations. The merchant seeks wealth, not for mere food or mere life, but for family prestige and for the larger social amenities. The banker gives a fine dinner, not to gratify his appetite or that of his guests, but 'to show forth his own glory.'

This appears, also, when we consider the environment in which personal and social rivalry is fought out. It is not a contest to show physical fitness. . . it is rather aimed to meet the conditions of social and moral utility. Society itself is the environment — not the earth and its physical forces —in which the successful rival must show his relative fitness. He must convince men, persuade women, forecast demand, provide supply, anticipate economic and industrial movements, discount beliefs, and weigh customs. This is the arena of social rivalries and advancements. The contest turns upon the individual's adjustment to social situations, upon his attitude toward social institutions, and his will to acknowledge them; not upon his place or function in the scale of physical life. "

The entire work seems to be pretty relevant and interesting, especially given this post, and several of your more recent posts that explore related lines of thought. Good stuff!