What is the end game of civil rights? In a perfect world, civil rights would mean that the ways in which we define ourselves, through gender, sexuality, religious beliefs or lack thereof, or any other labels we choose or are chosen for us, would not matter. They would not matter when it comes to employment, where we choose to live, which organizations to join, running for office, or purchasing goods and services. The ideal endgame for civil rights would be the labels themselves becoming meaningless, unnecessary to apply because how a person identifies is no more significant than the color of their eyes. But, identity politics has instead made the labels more significant. People are required to identify, to belong to one group or another, and this ideological segregation has been an unfortunate side effect of the struggles for civil rights. The otherness of people has been reinforced alongside the strengthening of civil rights, turning the idea of equality into something like a finite resource, to be cut and divided among the differing groups. In acknowledging the differences between us, those differences become more stark than ever.
I am a straight, Caucasian male. I have a middle class income, am unmarried with no children, and I am a member of no church or religious organization. In fact, I am an atheist. Every single thing I described about myself in the previous sentences can be used to place me into a more well-defined demographic group. I could make the list longer, but I think this is a fair representation of my top-level feature set, as it were. Some of the labels are the results of my choices and my work, while some were imposed on me by birth. I am perfectly comfortable with all the labels above, but I hate the fact that any of them matter. Unfortunately, the reason they matter at all is because some people use labels such as these to exclude, and those with them are forced to become vocal about their identities in the struggle for fairness under the law.
These struggles by vocal minorities are essential to a moral and free society, but I feel we are growing ever more distant from the ideal of meaningless labels that I described above. Rather, it feels as if the labels are entrenching all of us. Instead of the Supreme Court affirming the idea of marriage, they affirmed the idea of gay marriage. The difference is subtle, but it does exist.
Another example regards the Boy Scouts of America, who decided to allow gay scout leaders, instead of just simply allowing anyone qualified to be a scout leader.
It’s one thing to knock down walls, but those walls are being replaced with dividing lines. While we are free to cross these dividing lines, the fact that they still exist has to have some meaning, some consequences of which we are still largely unaware. Could it be that in reinforcing our identities we are making it harder to abolish bigotry? I don’t know the answer to that question, nor do I know how to solve that problem if it indeed exists. It does seem to me, however, that once society settles upon a label, there is no shortage of people willing to deny equal rights to those possessing that label. Maybe the true struggle of civil rights is deemphasizing these labels, no matter how precious to our sense of self they may be.
In the case of my atheism, that part of myself is a profound statement of my sense of reason and skepticism, two qualities I could not live without. But while my atheism is an outgrowth of these qualities, I hate that it places me in yet another political/social camp with its own aims and political strategies, even though I know this is due to bigotry expressed by some religious believers, and not due to any baseless agitations on the part of atheists as a whole (If there is such a thing as an atheist ‘whole.’ Lack of belief as an organizing philosophy holds its own set of contradictions I won’t address here.).
Also, it is important to note that although my atheism comes from my sense of reason and skepticism, that does not mean I believe anyone who does not share my atheism is devoid of these qualities. Yet, I have to keep reminding myself of that fact. I am no more immune to placing those with different labels into an ‘other’ camp than anyone else. This is an individual problem, but one in which we all share. I think it is past time we recognize that labels, while useful in identifying where inequality exists and where the fight needs to be waged, carry their own burdens that we would do well to shed, otherwise the factions will never stop warring. Then again, what does a straight white guy in America know about inequality, right?