Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cover Four Defense

Yale Law Professor Kenji Yoshino has published what looks to be a fascinating book, "Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Liberties". It also has its own website giving us the nickel explanation of the book's concepts.

Essentially, Professor Yoshino argues that many marginalized persons, be they racial minorities, women, homosexuals, religious persons, or the disabled, "cover" their identity in order to assimilate into contemporary society. "Covering" is a cousin to other ways that minorities try to minimize the stigma that comes with their disenfranchisement. Probably the most well studied way of doing this is by "passing," simply pretending to be a member of the dominant cultural group (for example, a light-skinned black who acts and expects to be treated white); another Professor Yoshino adds is "conversion" (being coerced into becoming part of the dominant group, as in homo- to heterosexual conversion therapy). "Covering" specifically does not consist of denying ones status as a person, but minimizing or "toning down" the more well-known aspects of it. A black woman not wearing cornrows, for example, or a Jew who foregoes his Kippah, for example, would both be "covering" their identity even if they don't explicitly hide it.

Yoshino says that covering can occur across four axes: Appearance, Affiliation, Activism, and Association.
Appearance concerns how an individual physically presents himself to the world. Affiliation concerns his cultural identifications. Activism concerns how much he politicizes his identity. Association concerns his choice of fellow travelers -- spouses, friends, colleagues.

Some people cover over only a few of these, others across all of them. However, all of us cover to some degree, as we all suppress certain aspects of our identity in order to fit into what mainstream society expects of us.

I first heard of the book through PrawfsBlawg, where Hillel Levin has written two posts discussing the book. He's sympathetic, but wary of the type of division that can occur when we put too much attention on what separates us rather than things that unite us:
At the same time, however, I strongly believe that there is a value in conformity. It seems to me that the melting pot ideal--with all of its limits--is still a worthy ideal; and surely the melting pot calls on us all to conform and cover. I fear that Yoshino's argument, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to a world in which we can all respect each other--a laudable goal--but in which we cannot talk to each other. After all, our communication and identification is based on our common and shared experiences.

I understand Levin's concerns, but I don't they necessarily flow from Yoshino's argument, even if taken to its "logical conclusion." Protection from covering does not eliminate the qualities that we share, it just moves them to a more abstract level. Christians and Jews don't share a common practice of wearing skull caps, but they do share a common value of religious autonomy. Yoshino, I believe, is cognizant of this, writing in his Q&A section that
courts can still protect individuals from covering demands, by relying on liberties that all Americans hold. For example, the Supreme Court struck down a statute in 2003 that criminalized same-sex sexual intimacy. But it didn't decide the case as a gay-rights case. Rather, it said that we all -- straight or gay -- have a right to control our intimate sexual lives. I love this approach because it protects our right to be different, but by focusing on what unites us as Americans rather than on what divides us.

I think that's really important analysis, because it cuts to the heart of why I can support new progressive civil rights projects such as this. If the end result was to divide us into non-communicative cultural fiefdoms, then I don't think whatever benefits we might be able to pull would be worthwhile; aside from the fact that I think inter-group dialogue benefits us all, my Jewish background makes it morally imperative that society has the capability to intervene in other cultures' "problems"--at least in certain limited situations. But I don't think that "equality of difference" paradigms will lead to that world. When we affirm the right of other cultures to have their own identity free from social stigma, we aren't crafting some bordered ethnic sovereignty model within which they can freely operate and from which we are irrelevant players. It isn't a conference of exclusivity. It's just a different type of shared value: the value of autonomy, the value of human dignity, and yes, as Levin says, the value of respect. I wish for my choices to be respected, and thus I respect the choices of others. This is not an uncrossable gap. Much the opposite, it creates a very strong and very deep bond between all of us as persons that, by protecting ethnic, religious, and social bonds, also transcends them.

Yoshino gives the example of parallels between homosexuals and religious persons (obviously different religious groups have different views on homosexuality, but let's focus on the conservatives). Anti-gay discrimination, in its current form, is primarily against "flaunting" homosexuality--you can be gay, but don't let me see it. And while I think that the cries of the religious right that they are persecuted against are wildly overblown, the one area I think they do have a just claim is that in many places, being "flamingly religious" comes with massive social stigma. At Carleton, I know a fair few religious persons--nearly all feel compelled to erect some defense around it. The liberals are quick to disassociate themselves from the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell wing of their faith, less they be tainted as bible-thumping Neanderthals. And the conservatives mostly just withdraw from political dialogue completely--they know a hostile environment when they see one.

In other words, at some level religious persons and homosexuals are in the some boat. Religious Christians feel compelled to cover their identity in order to receive mainstream legitimacy; homosexuals feel compelled to cover their identity in order to receive mainstream legitimacy. This similarity of status creates grounds for social change--the right of homosexuals to not be just heterosexuals with better hair can be analogized to the right of Christians to not be just atheists wearing crucifixs. This sort of comparison strikes me as fruitful grounds for social reform in areas where classical forms of communication have stagnated.

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