by Hari Ziyad
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and the general intolerance of different lived experiences stem from the same terrible womb that birthed the Tea Party and Rush Limbaugh, or so many progressive-minded individuals are led to believe. Liberals, we are told, are on the side of the oppressed, marginalized and underrepresented. As someone who has spent most of his life surrounded by self-described liberals, I have found this to be a dangerously misleading conception.
When I was a student at NYU, it was rare to come across anyone who identified as conservative in any way. However, it was not rare to come across students who demonstrated a shocking lack of cultural sensitivity at best, or blatant racism, misogyny, and classism at worst. Once, a white student who called herself a liberal feminist explained to me how students at her high school would get into fist-fights all the time, and that this was “crazy because they weren’t even Black!” The misogyny that male film students, even queer ones, expressed when explaining that male cameramen were “just better at this job,” was so common, female DPs were relegated to working, almost exclusively, with female directors.
This small group of abnormally privileged young adults certainly does not represent the entire liberal population, but the fact that these beliefs were so prevalent in such a concentration of liberalism was astonishing.
BGD is a reader-funded, non-profit project. Please GIVE today and help amplify marginalized voices.
Even more startling, I have not seen these types of beliefs evolve as I grew older and began associating with more experienced liberals. They certainly did not evolve in the case of Bill Maher.
On October 3rd’s episode of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” the titular host got into a heated debate with actor Ben Affleck. Maher argued that it is a liberal imperative to criticize Islam for what he sees as its pervasive opposition to liberal causes like gay rights and Women’s rights. Maher defended his attacks on Islam by saying, “we’re liberals … we’re trying to stand up for the principles of liberalism!” As if attacking and generalizing an already marginalized religious minority (in this country, at least) was not only a liberal principle, but one of which to be proud.
Criticizing Islam is a pastime for the anti-religious Maher, but, recently, as noted theologian Reza Aslan pointed out in an interview with Salon, Maher has taken to singling out Islam, specifically, as the most horrible of religions in need of special condemnation.
Islam can and should be criticized, but when that criticism goes beyond what is afforded to other religions, especially the dominant religion in this country, it cannot be explained in any other way than as bigotry. Although Christianity was similarly bastardized by some of its followers to endorse slavery, racism, the crusades, genocidal terrorism against Indigenous people, and countless other acts of nonsensical violence, people like Bill Maher do not attack it with the same extent of vitriol, even though one could argue that an even larger majority of Christians were complicit in this bastardization.
While it’s fair to say that many liberals (Ben Affleck, for instance) disagree with Maher, his brand remains nearly synonymous with liberalism despite his extensive history of not only Islamophobia, but also racism and sexism. Over and over again, he proves his willingness to support oppressive systems, yet he is still embraced by a large amount of liberal “allies” because his bigotry springs from a space shared by a large proportion of their population.
Much of liberal activism is about silencing difference and promoting assimilation under the premise of equality. This is why the gay rights movement has been so focused on showing how gay families can be just like straight, nuclear ones, without questioning whether nuclear families are the ideal for everyone. It’s why so many white liberals claim colorblindness instead of acknowledging racial oppression and hierarchy (hence white privilege). It’s why Women are encouraged by some liberals to “lean in,” as if taking on an impossible level of responsibility is the only way for Women to achieve success, and the need for support at home (maternity leave and universal child care, for example) is swept under the rug.
It’s why anti-racism, feminism, support for gay rights, trans rights, and the rights of the disabled do not often enough go hand in hand. It’s why Islamic fundamentalism is perceived as so much worse than Christian fundamentalism. This is the problem with liberalism: it doesn’t require a person to unpack his entire history of socialization, prejudices, or subliminal endorsements of systems that have always benefited straight white males, he just has to pretend to appreciate diversity and to be against oppression.
In reality, marginalized folks need more than just an acknowledgment of our struggles. We need more than support of gay marriage with no emphasis on the LGBT homelessness crisis or the trans Woman murder rate. We need more than an endorsement of equal pay for Women without addressing the lack of support for caregivers and families. We need more than acknowledging that slavery was wrong and the lukewarm support of affirmative action without a full-fledged commitment to reparations for a community that has been ravaged by 400 years of forced labor, Jim Crow, and segregation. We need more than the idea of freedom from religion while singling out a religion not practiced by the majority of the 1% that pull the strings in this country. We need more than all of this, but so far liberalism has failed to give it.
This tepid support serves only to distract from the real issues by throwing bones to marginalized communities every once in a while and denying real change in favor of baby steps—and not even baby steps forward, but to the side. When a person does not identify with a group and they want to fight for the rights of that group, it requires a huge amount of work and it is supposed to be uncomfortable. Only people who are putting in that work are truly on the side of the marginalized, and everyone else, though they might help you when politically convenient, will surely throw you under the bus when their comfort is threatened. It’s time to let liberalism go and push for more radical, more meaningful change.
BGD accepts writing and video from queer and trans people of color! SUBMIT your work.
Do not republish anything from this site without express written permission from BGD. For more info, go here.
Hari Ziyad is a graduate of Tisch’s Film and Television program at NYU. He writes about queer, feminist, and POC issues for the social justice and public health blog DoingMoor.com and works for a talent management company in NYC.