The OF Blog: So Joyce Carol Oates' latest comments on religion (Islam in particular) sparked a Twitter firestorm

Saturday, July 06, 2013

So Joyce Carol Oates' latest comments on religion (Islam in particular) sparked a Twitter firestorm

Soon after she joined Twitter several months ago, I began following author Joyce Carol Oates' Twitter feed.  It is frequently a wry, occasionally sardonic affair, replete with comments on societal treatment of women and observations on religion in general.  I don't often agree with her opinions, but at least I tolerated them as being representative of a certain subset of American (and Western and to an extent global) attitudes regarding certain cultural institutions such as religious faith and practice.

So it was with little surprise that I saw that on July 5 that she had written a series of tweets that were critical of religious practice, specifically that of Islam.  (For the entire set and a sampling of other authors reacting to them, click on this link to the Galleycat roundup).  Just before heading into work, I had a brief Twitter exchange (see here) on the issue, but I thought I would elaborate here (Twitter being notoriously inefficient for communicating subtle, nuanced thoughts) on some of my thoughts related to Oates' comments.

First, as I said in my initial Twitter response, I am not surprised by her comments.  I understand that her Friday comments fit within a larger skepticism of "religion" in general, but considering the words used both then and earlier by her, it is difficult not to come (as so many others who responded did) to the conclusion that Islam in particular bears the brunt of her criticism.  Yes, I saw the comment regarding "militant"="religions," but the specific comments (excluding the one made in response to a query) were directed toward that particular faith.  Viewed within the context of the past 12 years (or maybe 34, if one wants to go back to the Iranian Revolution), however, there has been quite the conflation between a particular political strand that utilizes Islam as a unifying symbol to justify an aggressive, violent post-colonist resistance to the spread of "Western" (the term itself is relative, yet implying a hegemonic value system related to relative geography) cultural values and the religion itself.  Yet I would argue that there is something even deeper transpiring here, one that more readily explains why so many that are not Muslims reacted so strongly to Oates' comments.

The last half-century or so has seen a precipitous decline in the quality of cultural debates.  Loathe as many on almost all points of the various political spectra are to admit it, there has been a flattening out of rhetorical terms.  Fading fast are those who view a debate as a point of synthesis, where competing viewpoints might find, if not common ground, at least points around which an evolution of thought might occur.  In its place has come the benighted notion that one has to "win" or else risk "losing" the debate.  There can be no give or take, no reaching out in a quest to understanding other viewpoints.  Instead, one has to "fight" what is perceived to be pernicious falsehood or insidious evil, to use terms from a particular past that fit a congruent mindset.   People or opinions that do not fit readily into a quotable, digestible segment are dismissed or shoehorned into categories that ill-suit their nuanced natures.  Oates in her comments certainly is guilty of this when she writes:

Yes. There is a Christian Crusade culture. All religions are "militant." Secular law needed to restrain them.

Pardon me while I guffaw discreetly.  OK, done.  I am going to give Oates a slight benefit of the doubt and presume that in a face-to-face discussion that she would not make such sweeping generalizations without at least admitting to copious exceptions.  "Religion" is perhaps a less sordid "obscenity":  one cannot define it precisely, but one is convinced that he or she will know it when s/he sees it.  There is such a wide variety of individual religious practices within even the smallest of the major religions (leaving aside for now the thousands of religions that are not as prominent) that tossing about labels such as "religious" people or claiming blithely that all religions are "militant" (in which ways?  Proselyting?  Using faith as a cover for political/economic avarice?  The production of Toby Keith or Lee Greenwood music videos?) does little to advance any opinion other than that of someone who is convinced of the superiority of his/her viewpoint.

But it isn't "easy" or "sexy" to acknowledge that "religion" cannot be a catch-all term when it comes to discussing terrible events such as sexual harassment or rape.  I will grant that Oates does have a point in noting that one cannot exculpate religious faith/practices when it comes to the justifications given for the unequal treatment of women, non-dominant ethnic groups, those of different sexual orientations, etc.  Yet equally so one should not use "religion" as a blanket word to cover all sorts of social maladies.  Just as those of various religious practices have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to utilizing their beliefs (religious and secular alike) to effect positive personal/social/cultural change (I'm guessing the more "positive" social movements influenced by certain individuals' beliefs might be overlooked in the name of focusing on the deleterious actions undertaken by others in the name of their own beliefs/non-beliefs), so too do those who have a profound skepticism regarding the validity of particular beliefs (this applies equally to theists, agnostics, and atheists) have an obligation to be wary of their own opinions becoming not just a contravention of others' beliefs but their own sort of opinion structure that stifles the understanding of others.

The problem I suspect that many had with Oates is not that she criticized the use of a particular faith's tenets to justify violence toward Egyptian women but that she went further and created a sort of "us vs. them" mentality in which those who are adherents to any religious faith/practice are not as decent/enlightened/insert descriptor of your choice as those who are skeptical of any and all faiths.  It is a world-view that too readily opens the way to a vast cultural myopia in which understanding of others (the fount from which the crimes of abuse and oppression of all stripes can be redressed) cannot be perceived due to the inability on the part of the individuals possessing this attitude that there is no ground upon which to evolve their own stances.  It is a shame to see that Oates seems to have succumbed to this rigidity in opinion and that it has infected her world-view in regards to quite a number of issues.  But this regret on my part is not borne from a belief that my views on life, spirituality, faith, practice, etc. are superior, but rather from a sense of regret that too frequently there is such a deep distrust of opinions regarding other cultures and religious practices that people would rather be silent or condemn without consideration views that differ from their own.

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