Ideology or Biology?

By Stephanie Herman
Rightgrrl Co-Founder
August 6, 1996

In his program which aired March 20th, 1995, Phil Donohue showcased two cultural spokespeople -- one black, one Jewish -- who were both demanding something they called "cultural purity." Sheharazad Ali, a frequent talkshow guest opposed to the tainting of African culture, loudly criticized Jews for their ancestral involvement in the slave trade and, for this reason, denounced African-Jewish cultural harmony. Two seats down from Ali, an outspoken rabbi was equally uninterested in living as one with his black neighbors; to do so would not be conducive to maintaining Jewish religious or cultural purity. Both seemed to despise one another, but agreed wholeheartedly -- almost warmly -- on the issue of separatism.

Indeed, rather than advocating unity, peace or forgiveness for sins of the past, on Donohue's stage that day it seemed more important to preserve, as separate, inborn cultures. But this notion begs the question -- is culture inborn? And if so, how do we preserve such a thing?

According to some of Donohue's panelists, cultural preservation is achieved by marrying only those born into your culture, avoiding corruption of the blood lines, and inciting harsh words and studio tension between your warring cultures on any daytime talk show that will have you.

To celebrate one's faith or heritage is admirable, but I wonder if Ali can also appreciate the Jews who founded the NAACP. I wonder if the rabbi would embrace converts to Judaism with the same enthusiasm as those born into the faith. Certainly, any rabbi desiring to maintain the purity of Judaism at the exclusion of other races is concerned less with religious belief than with heredity. The rabbi forgets that cultural or religious ideals are solely the matter of ideology; the Random House College Dictionary defines "orthodox" as "correct in opinion or doctrine," not correct in lineage or ethnicity.

The "us and them" mentality based on biological differences is, of course, nothing new. Primordial solidarities were based on family and tribal biology long before civilized man ever thought to conceive of an ideology. But our 20th century global population is still fairly unenlightened regarding the derision biological solidarities can cause. Should Hitler's name be broached in reference to this subject, a certain percentage of said population will salute, a certain percentage will cringe, and another percentage will doubt that any of his atrocities ever took place.

An illustration of our failure to learn from past mistakes in cultural purification can be found today in something called "cultural" feminism, which grounds its solidarity more on biological, i.e., "female," footings than ideological ones. In her 1991 book, Feminist Fatale, Paula Kamen describes cultural feminism as subsuming female approaches to music, medicine, art, religion, business, etc. Again, it may be admirable to celebrate gender, but it's reprehensible to value the female gender as superior to that of the male (just as reprehensible, in fact, as to value the male gender as superior to the female). As just one of a slew of divisive results, many cultural feminists chastise men for prying into "female affairs" when trying to genuinely and sympathetically participate in furthering the progress of gender equality.

Can gender -- or, for that matter, race or nationality -- be responsible for superior approaches to such things as art, medicine music, religion or business and as such, necessitate the need to remain separate? Isn't biological superiority a dangerously flawed notion of which we accused the SS and the KKK of embracing in fatal error?

A fine line separates brotherly love and solidarity from feelings of superiority. Consider the fairly innocent impetus behind teenage enlistment into such organizations as the KKK or street gangs. Most of these teens are simply looking for a structured environment and a source of love (in the form of solidarity) they haven't found at home. Once initiated, these kids enjoy a family bond between group members of their "own kind." But the flipside to all this love and solidarity is, of course, learning to hate those who are not of their "own kind." Civilized society maintains that it is possible to love what is "you" without hating that which is "not you." Yet, when biological solidarity and superiority have been established, it seems almost impossible to exhibit one without the other.

Apparently, inclusive attitudes are also impossible for the cultural leaders striving for "purity" within their ranks. Such leaders, so eager to balkanize the landscape, should stop trying to biologically separate their people from the world at large and should search, instead, for that ideological common ground our global community can unequivocally share.

This article copyright © 1996 by Stephanie Herman and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.