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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Kenji Yoshino's Response to My Posts

Kenji Yoshino was kind enough to respond by email to my posts on Covering, and he's given me permission to blog his email.  (I apologize for the weird formatting.)

To begin with your post on same-sex marriage, we are on the same page, namely page 91 of my book:

"Covering seems a more complex form of assimilation than conversion or
passing. At the most basic level, it raises thornier issues of
classification.  I'm sometimes asked, for instance, whether I consider same-sex
marriage to be an act of covering or flaunting.  I think it is both.  Along the
axis of affilation, marriage is an act of covering, as marriage has historically
been associated with straight culture.  This is why queers like Warner revile it
and normals like Sullivan endorse it as an act of assimilation.  Along the axes
of appearance, activism, or association, however, marriage is an act of
flaunting.  This is why right-wing moralists object to it as a sign that gays
are getting too strident in our claims for equality."

(As you've probably guessed, the book distinguishes among four different axes of
covering--appearance, affiliation, activism, and association.)  I couldn't get
this point about how the axes cut in different directions in the case of
marriage into the Times piece, so I found your analysis prescient.

With respect to your point about the importance of conformity, let me be clear
that I am not against all forms of assimilation or covering.  Page xi:

"I recognize the value of assimilation, which is often necessary to
fluid social interaction, to peaceful coexistence, and even to the dialogue
through which difference is valued.  For that reason, this is no simple screed
against conformity.  What I urge here is that we approach the renaissance of
assimilation in this country critically.  We must be willing to see the dark
side of assimiation, and specifically of covering, which is the most
widespread form of assimilation required of us today."

The tricky thing, of course, is to balance the interest we have in assimilation
with the interest we have in disestablishing discrimination.  For too long, I
think folks have papered over how those two interests are often in tension.
Assimilation has been viewed to be a simple escape from discrimination, when it
is often in fact precisely the effect of discrimination.  So when racial
minorities are instructed in grooming manuals to "act white," I think many
Americans would view that as a claim that white culture is still more valued
than other ethnic cultures.  To the extent that this is true, norms of
assimilation and norms of antidiscrimination will be in tension with each
other, and we will have to choose between them.  Reasonable people can disagree
in many contexts about which to choose, but my tendency is to choose the latter.

In terms of remedies, I'm with the person who responded to your post by
observing that a rights-based approach can protect difference by
finding common ground at a higher level of generality.  To take a simple
example, a right against discrimination on the basis of religion would protect
individuals of different religions.  I don't think this universal rights
approach is a panacea, but I do think it is an avenue our courts and
legislatures should explore further.  In fact, as our country gets more
diverse, I think we will be driven toward this universal liberty approach
because the group-based equality approach lends itself to the very
balkanization you describe.  Last quote:  "Ironicially, it may be the explosion
of diversity in this country that will finally make us realize what we have in
common.  Multiculturalism has forced us to vary and vary the human being in the
imagination until we discover what is invariable about her."  p. 192.

More or less we are on the same page, but I am less confident than he is that as we grow more different, our similarities will become more important.  My experience suggests otherwise, but I hope I am wrong.

Posted by Hillel Levin on January 25, 2006 at 09:47 AM in Hillel Levin | Permalink

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