We Can Do Better Than “Not All Men”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 5:30 pm

We Can Do Better Than “Not All Men”

There are lots of men watching in baffled fascination as the list of male celebrities who have been exposed for their vile history of sexual harassment grows. Quite a few of them are responding with “Not all celebrities are like that.” Not good enough.

There are lots of men reading the accounts of women bringing forth the painful experiences of ongoing sexual harassment in the #MeToo narrative and responding with “Well, I am not like that,” or the set-your-timer-and-wait-for-it “Not all men…” Not good enough.

There are lots of Europeans watching 60,000 people (including Neo-Nazis and white nationalists) march in Poland, chanting anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim slogans. They are watching as Neo-Nazi/anti-immigrant political parties garner significant percentages in election after election in Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Hungary, and elsewhere. Their response is “Not all Europeans…” Not good enough.

There are lots of Muslims watching as Muslim preachers and intellectuals are exposed for sexual harassment, and they respond with “Not all imams…” Not good enough.

There are lots of Buddhists watching the horrors that have been unleashed upon the Rohingya Muslims, and their response is “Not all Buddhists….” Not good enough.

There are lots of Jews and Christians watching the ongoing brutality of a 50-year Israeli occupation in Palestine, and their response is “Not all Jews…” Not good enough.

There are lots of Christians watching other Christians defend the sexual assault of minors as Biblical practice, and their response is “Not all Christians.” Not good enough.

There are lots of white folks watching the almost daily assault on black lives, the widening wealth gap between black folks and white folks in this country, and their response is “Not all white people…” Not good enough.

There are lots of sports fans watching teams sign mediocre quarterback after quarterback, as Colin Kaepernick is blacklisted from the NFL. They respond with “Not all team owners are racist.” Not good enough.

Let’s be clear. This both is and is not about what is in our hearts. Yes, it all starts with the heart. Racism, sexism, anti-Muslim bigotry, homophobia, classism, colonialism, anti-Semitism: These are spiritual ailments. These ailments do have a basis in our inability to see the full humanity of fellow human beings.

Our task should never be to humanize one another. We can’t humanize what is already fully human. The better question is: What’s keeping us from seeing and acknowledging the full humanity of one another? This is about removing the plank out of our own eyes and each other’s eyes, rather than “elevating” a human being to a status they already hold: the status of being human.

So yes, there is a part of addressing racism, sexism, and more that is at the level of the heart, the level of spiritual realization. This is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called (using the gendered language of his generation) an “eye disease”:

“From one single man all men are descended. To think of man in terms of white, black, or yellow is more than an error. It is an eye disease, a cancer of the soul. The redeeming quality of man lies in his ability to sense his kinship with all men.”

Here is the key realization. Racism is not merely about prejudice. In the classic definition, racism is prejudice plus social/institutional power. Racism is not merely an “eye disease,” a “heart disease,” a prejudice against another block of humanity. It is also about power. It’s about laws, systems, structures, and institutions. As Ibram Kendi explains in a profile by The Undefeated:

“‘We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies,’ Kendi said. ‘If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But of course [Stamped from the Beginning] shows that the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.’ Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.”

Racist policies reinforce colonial, economic, or ethnic exploitation, and in turn codify racism.

Sexism is not merely about what individual men do or do not do. That’s why “not all men” can never be the final answer. It’s about a system of privilege that positions all men above all women, regardless of what individual men do or how many individual women have resisted that system and risen above it.

Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, emphasized that same point in a recent social media post:

“Racism is not a feeling. Racism is not dislike. Racism is not merely “something they said.” Racism is the exertion of power to, based on race, devalue, dehumanize & dictate the course of a human life or a group of human lives through systemic, social & situational manipulation.”

One of the great insights of Dr. King is that we have to link together love and power. Something catastrophic happens when love and power are divorced from each other: Love without power is anemic and sentimental; power without love is reckless and abusive. To deal with the very serious challenges of racism, sexism, anti-Muslim bigotry, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and more, is a matter of hearts. This is about more than our hearts; this must extend to the transformation and redemption of our institutions and structures.

Only then can we link together love and power, bringing love into the public places until it is called justice. Only then can we move towards building the Beloved Community.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • Gabby

    Thank you for this, Omid. It is a column to be read multiple times.
    Perhaps a valuable exercise many could add to each day is to ask, “How am I honestly doing the self-serving and selfish thing for myself and my family as I make this choice rather than the choice I would say from my armchair that I stand for? What opportunity did I not take but left to others? What rationale am I using this time to justify doing the selfish thing- again?
    I reviewed some literature maybe five years ago for a local housing authority about the effects on the residents of diverse multi-income housing situations.
    What came through strongly in the research literature was that the more affluent residents would tend to be very willing to do all the casual courteous things like waving and saying hello and watching their kids in common recreations on the swings, but when it came to the big things, like sending kids to the same schools as their less affluent, less socially privileged peers, that it where they drew the line. And that is what would have had lasting impact for all the children. Children do not miss the message either.

  • jcarpenter

    Change the “not all . . . ” statements into “too many . . .” statements.