When a writer sits down to tell a story, he or she must first identify the perspective from which the story will be told. Perspective is a tricky synthesis of elements that inform a person's thoughts, actions and convictions that either parallel or oppose his circumstance. Many sources of conflict and complexity are found during this investigation. Each particularity of human experience requires careful consideration, research and conscious integration into the narrative itself. Except, when entertaining a perspective that deviates from my own, I am troubled by the issue of authority. By what authority do we profess anything beyond the scope of our own subjectivity?
I want to discuss the issue of authority in two areas: politics and art.
How much experience or education can or should I claim to really possess "authority" on a perspective? And, by the same token, how does "authority" limit our ability to participate in global perspective?
The problem of authority is a modern one. It is frequently posed in leftist and even moderate liberal rhetoric. I omit the far-right entirely from this conversation because authority and its complications have arisen from a collective sense of guilt that is only shared by sincere, but silly apologists. The general modus operandi of young liberals is to defend the "authenticity" of other races, sexualities, creeds and cultures against all comers. This is not a bad thing. Of course it is vitally important to support and celebrate otherness. However, defending otherness against any and all criticism is explicitly damaging. This becomes the liberal tap dance around charges of bigotry, prejudice, and worst among all, political incorrectness. We have become so fearful of offense that we cease to engage in any meaningful debate about society.
Let's call on a couple voices more qualified than I to explain this phenomenon. Recently, I read a seminal dialogue called, Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015, Harvard University Press). It is a transcribed, though deliberate, conversation between atheist and critic, Sam Harris, and Muslim reformist, Maajid Nawaz. Part of the dialogue deals deftly with the problem of the "fellow-traveler" or "regressive left" in regard to reform within the Islamic community:
[...] the "fellow-travelers" then promote "real" voices as legitimate interlocutors, because they seek "purity" and "authenticity" in their orientalist desire to maintain group identity. [...] Such an approach inevitably ends up empowering fundamentalists as the most authentic. This is how "fellow travelers" disempower liberals and reformers. Without realizing it, they also adopt the role of thought police by asserting that liberalism isn't authentic to Muslims
Though fundamentally opposed in many ways, Nawaz and Harris both champion the power of honest criticism and its ability to incite concrete and systematic change. In this case, if outside parties do not hold the Islamic community responsible for the extremist groups within their fold, then moderate groups will not be empowered to incite change. A lack of honest criticism communicates a lack of respect. It is in effect saying that the brown man does not need to be held to the same standards as the white man. If jihadists are murdering children and raping women, it is not 'their culture' or 'the way things are', it is wrong. Drop the seven veils, drop the pretense, and nakedly promote true liberal ideals.
But, what does all this have to do with authority? My point is that we, as liberal humanists, need to eschew the notion that we need an "authentic perspective" to rightly criticize. Let go of this misguided obsession with authority. Do not slave for political correctness. Who cares if Ben Affleck calls you a bigot. Engage in thoughtful, critical debate instead.
The surest path to global perspective is to identify as a fellow human. That way we can all stop drawing attention to that which separates us and start concentrating on that which binds us. That way we can all make some goddamn progress.
Stay tuned for On Authority: Part 2, Why Autobiography Isn't the Only Medium
"It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on."