16 Jan 2006

Un-Covering, the New Civil Rights Agenda

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Kenji Yoshino, Deputy Dean for Intellectual Life (which very title provokes sarcasm) and Professor at Yale Law School, has made a staggering new breakthrough in the ever-burgeoning Academic industry of the study of victimization’s infinite forms. Writing in a New York Times Magazine feature article (promoting a new book on the same subject), Yoshino recalls his own unhappy experiences:

When I began teaching at Yale Law School in 1998, a friend spoke to me frankly. “You’ll have a better chance at tenure,” he said, “if you’re a homosexual professional than if you’re a professional homosexual.”

It wasn’t long before I found myself resisting the demand to conform. What bothered me was not that I had to engage in straight-acting behavior, much of which felt natural to me. What bothered me was the felt need to mute my passion for gay subjects, people, culture.

It may strike many readers as an enviable enough fate to be a tenured Professor at Yale Law School, not to mention, Deputy Dean for Intellectual Life, but what real satisfaction can a chap derive from such trifles, when the reactionary prejudices of a cruel society will not grant him the right to allow his inner screaming queen to emerge and swish proudly in public in full daylight?

Long after I came out, I still experienced the need to assimilate to straight norms. But I didn’t have a word for this demand to tone down my known gayness.

Then I found my word, in the sociologist Erving Goffman’s book “Stigma.” Written in 1963, the book describes how various groups – including the disabled, the elderly and the obese – manage their “spoiled” identities. After discussing passing, Goffman observes that “persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma. . .may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.” He calls this behavior covering. He distinguishes passing from covering by noting that passing pertains to the visibility of a characteristic, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness. He relates how F.D.R. stationed himself behind a desk before his advisers came in for meetings. Roosevelt was not passing, since everyone knew he used a wheelchair. He was covering, playing down his disability so people would focus on his more conventionally presidential qualities.

As is often the case when you learn a new idea, I began to perceive covering everywhere. Leafing through a magazine, I read that Helen Keller replaced her natural eyes (one of which protruded) with brilliant blue glass ones. On the radio, I heard that Margaret Thatcher went to a voice coach to lower the pitch of her voice. Friends began to send me e-mail. Did I know that Martin Sheen was Ramon Estevez on his birth certificate, that Ben Kingsley was Krishna Bhanji, that Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch Demsky and that Jon Stewart was Jonathan Leibowitz?…

The new civil rights begins with the observation that everyone covers.

One might expect serious resistance to a startlingly dramatic new notion of Civil Rights, to a new progressive demand for something far beyond mere tolerance of the forms of minority status which are innate or unchosen, which persons cannot ( or are believed, at least, to be unable to) do anything about, but Yoshino has considered this, and believes he has the answer.

When I lecture on covering, I often encounter what I think of as the “angry straight white man” reaction. A member of the audience, almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue. Why shouldn’t racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal protection against discrimination for things they cannot help. But why should they receive protection for behaviors within their control – wearing cornrows, acting “feminine” or flaunting their sexuality? After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depression, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. I, too, am one of the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation. Why should legally protected groups have a right to self-expression I do not? Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?

I surprise these individuals when I agree. Contemporary civil rights has erred in focusing solely on traditional civil rights groups – racial minorities, women, gays, religious minorities and people with disabilities. This assumes those in the so-called mainstream – those straight white men – do not also cover. They are understood only as obstacles, as people who prevent others from expressing themselves, rather than as individuals who are themselves struggling for self-definition. No wonder they often respond to civil rights advocates with hostility. They experience us as asking for an entitlement they themselves have been refused – an expression of their full humanity.

Civil rights must rise into a new, more inclusive register.

In the end, the School of Ressentiment proves universally inclusive. The answer to each and every individual id’s discontents with Civilization’s restraints is Universal Revolution. Everyone just needs to let his freak flag fly. For the Old Adam and the New Caliban alike, from the crudity of the lower classes to the depravity of the elite, all norms and standards must be swept aside, and any negative judgment of the self in any form or kind prohibited by the ideology of the new Enlightenment. A new liberated mankind will march forward into an idyllic future of self-realization and universal equality, just by each individual human being “being himself.” Koombayah!

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3 Feedbacks on "Un-Covering, the New Civil Rights Agenda"

Oyster

What is disconcerting is Mr. Kenji Yoshino’s use of the term “civil rights” which conjures up thoughts of marches, demands and subsequent legislation to aid that inexorable push toward a society without direction or a definable identity.

This is the second post I’ve read of yours and feel compelled to comment on. You’re on a roll here. And I will gleefully add you to my list of must reads.



JDZ

Thank you for the kind words.

JDZ



David

You’re absolutely right about the absurdity of this approach to civil rights. The book leads nowhere–just to one more high-minded call to conversation.

And the author somehow thinks that spells of worry and anxiety at Phillips Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, and Yale grant him the moral authority of “suffering” that make him a representative of all misunderstood outsiders.

This is just one more sad example of a New York publishing world so in thrall to a privileged elite that it genuinely believes this self-pitying dreck advances our understanding of discrimination.



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