Thursday, August 12, 2010

Opposition That Defines Us

"Defining yourself in opposition to something is still being anaclitic on that thing, isn't it?" - David Foster Wallace

Recently I was skimming through highlighted passages of my copy of Infinite Jest and I came across this gem. At first blush--or at least once you've looked up the definition of 'anaclitic'--this seems to make a lot of sense intuitively. We can all instantly think of examples of particular types of people who do this. Reflecting on the concept a little more though, it's surprising just how pervasive a phenomena that this turns out to be. There seems to be a strong, though unhealthy, tendency in all of us to do this, at least on some level.

Some, of course, have a stronger inclination than others, and it's only in these extreme manifestations that the truth of Wallace's statement becomes most glaring. One of the best examples that leapt nimbly to mind was that of so-called 'Black leaders'. They primarily position themselves as vehemently opposed to all forms of racism and 'social injustice'. Certainly such a motivation is quite noble, and should be commended. Undoubtedly many such leaders are quite sincere in their desire to help victims of racism when they first begin their careers. But ultimately what seems to happen is that, in positioning themselves as against something rather than for something, their existence becomes defined and justified through the very racism that they decry. Indeed, their entire careers become dependent on the continued existence of that which they are supposedly fighting against.

In his biting satirical novel Black No More George Schuyler writes scathingly about 'black leaders' and 'race activists'.

While the large staff of officials was eager to end all oppression and persecution of the Negro, they were never so happy and excited as when a Negro was barred from a theater or fried to a crisp. Then they would leap for telephones, grab telegraph pads and yell for stenographers; smiling through their simulated indignation at the spectacle of another reason for their continued existence and appeals for funds.

While reading this I instantly thought of the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Tim Wise and various other race-baiters of contemporary American culture, but this is certainly not a new phenomenon. Black No More was written in 1931.

In his essay titled Five Gospels But No Gospel N.T. Wright takes on the Jesus Seminar, questioning their historical methodology and presuppositions. He sees evidence in their work, specifically in their book titled The Five Gospels, that they presuppose a picture of Jesus, a picture that is fundamentally un-fundamentalist, and then attempt to fit historical interpretations of the words and life of Jesus into that picture. In setting themselves as diametrically opposed to Christian fundamentalism, the Seminar ends up guilty of its own brand of fundamentalism. Wright writes:

Frankly, both the desire to "prove" orthodoxy and the desire to "disprove" it ought to be anathema to the serious historian. The first of these is, of course, the way to what is normally called fundamentalism; the second, taken by at least some (and they are clearly influential) in the Jesus Seminar, is no less closed-minded, and in fact fundamentalist, in practice. Hatred of orthodoxy is just as unhistorical a starting point as love of it.

Of course one can think of many other examples of people defining themselves in opposition to something, and therefore becoming themselves depedent on that very thing. There are people who make a career of being an atheist, writing polemical anti-God articles, essays and books. The irony being that, if they were ever to succeed in convincing all people to renounce belief in God, they would in turn eliminate the need for their writings. The disillusioned, aging, hippy Vietnam War protestor with nothing left to rally against. The political hack who never fails to define his own position on an issue as the inverse of the opposing party's position, without any intellectually principled foundation. The serial protestor who will leap to the picket lines on behalf of anyone or anything without hesitation or reflection. The examples are endless, and even if not manifested in such extremes, we likely can recognize some tendencies of our own to define ourselves via the negation of something else.

The reason we do this also seems to be fairly obvious, and it's found in Newtonian physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Which is to say if racism is a strong force in your environment, then your opposition will need to be equally strong, and, even when that opposition is appropriate, it can engulf you in an unhealthy way. If fundamentalism was pushed on you with forcefulness, then your negative reaction to it will be equally strong, and in that push you are in danger of pushing right past objectivity. Also it's just much easier to point out the flaws of a another person or position than to advance a positive case for something that we believe in.

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