On Difference by Ivy Helman.


untitled.pngThere is no correlation between difference and danger.  Yet, differences are regularly considered threatening.  In fact, much of Western society’s patriarchal energy is spent categorizing, controlling, managing and fighting difference.  Difference is so ingrained within the psyche that most differences are understood to be antithetical, perhaps even unbridgeable, opposites.  Good/bad, black/white, rich/poor, women/men and human/animal are just a few examples.  To further amplify this distinction, patriarchy considers one aspect of the difference more valuable than the other.  

Feminism seeks to end this value-laden, polarization of difference.  In its earliest days, many feminists were convinced that advocating sameness was the best solution.  Abolition, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the right to vote were parts of this liberal agenda.  While sameness worked in some respects especially in terms of ending slavery and gaining the right to vote, the sameness platform also, albeit perhaps unknowingly and considerably to a lesser degree, bought into patriarchal views of the dangers of difference.  For example, ending slavery did not end racism nor did gaining the right to vote mean that women were equipped or allowed to think independently of their husbands.  Other first-wave feminists who advocated women as pure and moral persons and elevated motherhood fared little better playing into the patriarchal ideals of biological determinism and essentialism.      

Many second-wave feminists continued the trend and the movement became synonymous with abortion rights.  Many white, well-to-do (and perhaps well-meaning) women struggled to have the abortions they wanted or needed and presumed that their situation applied to all women.  They universalized their experience and soon abortion was the feminist issue of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  However, the fight for abortion rights ignored the many poor and minority women struggling for the right to have the children they wanted, to not be sterilized against their will, to not have birth control forced on them as a condition of avoiding jail time, to not have healthcare professionals assume that a lack of prenatal care signifies a disinterested, unloving, uncaring mother-to-be. etc.  (See the best book I have read on the subject to date: Dorothy E. Roberts’ Killing the Black Body.)  

By the 1980’s, most white, well-to-do feminists, thanks to the voices of feminists of color, realized that sameness as a solution wouldn’t work.  It is clear that unless difference is considered, solutions only work for a select few.  Audre Lorde said it beautifully. “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”  

If only this were as easy as it seems.  Recognizing difference requires conversation, a mutual give-and-take in light of inequality.  Then once we recognize our differences, we have work to do to disassociate these differences from concepts of overvaluing and danger.  Clearly, we need specific plans for each difference in order to move toward acceptance and celebration.

Differences of religion may be one of the hardest differences to “recognize, accept and celebrate,” given what is at stake.  Religions that actively proselytize aren’t keen on the recognition, acceptance or celebration of other religious traditions.  There is and probably will never be an idea like equality between religions for such traditions.

Putting them aside, how do we have a mutual conversation, a give-and-take, about religion so that we celebrate difference rather than consider differences dangerous?  Here, I’m not talking about the warm, fuzzy, easy-to-agree-on principles (which are still important), but differences that divide.  Whether this would be harder among members of different sects of the same religion or among people of very different religious backgrounds, I’m not sure.  Perhaps it would depend on the people who are present for the conversation.  Nonetheless, these conversations and the actions that spring from them are a step in the right direction.

In the midst of the conversation, I think it is essential to remember that sameness is by no means the goal.  Sameness erases difference and equality as sameness doesn’t really work, at least not in our current situation.  Rather, true equality requires an alternate perspective from the patriarchal mindset which considers difference threatening and divisive.  In fact, true equality calls us together in spite of our differences.  True equality not only understands and accepts our difference, it cherishes and honors them.  

As Lorde says, differences don’t divide, we do.  We have to learn a new way.  A conversation of mutual give-and-take can start the process.  Let’s talk.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.  She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department. 

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Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Interreligious dialogue, Justice, Patriarchy

Tags: , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. I’ve come to realize how dull and boring the world would be if we were all the same. And Divinity is much much too huge to be packaged into one religious belief and practice. Thank you for the reminder, Ivy.

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  2. Thanks Ivy. Love this insight where you say: “In fact, true equality calls us together in spite of our differences. True equality not only understands and accepts our difference, it cherishes and honors them.”

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  3. Great post, Ivy. Seems to me that when we live in society, we attempt to navigate that tension between conformity to the group and individuality–standing apart from the group. I think you are right on target when you state, “it is clear that unless difference is considered, solutions only work for a select few.”

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  4. Hi Iv;ey —

    I think this is great post. And I would suggest that you may also be buying into a dualistic perspective, one that I embraced for many years — namely that honoring difference is more valuable than recognizing our commonality. I think we need both/and. This will probably mean that sometimes we stress one side of this equation more than the other. I think given our political situation today, honoring our differences may be more significant than underlining our commonality. But eventually, the see-saw will probably need to be rebalanced. In any case, I think we need to keep both in mind, because we are all human, no matter what our differences. And that unites us in many ways. And unity is what we need.

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    • Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for your comment. I do think I suggested this importance when I said the following: ” Here, I’m not talking about the warm, fuzzy, easy-to-agree-on principles (which are still important), but differences that divide.”. Perhaps you read it differently?

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  5. Ivy, this is something my Sisterhood is beginning to explore more actively as we look at the differences between what we call “Safe Space” and a new concept that is emerging in many social justice circles around expanding “Safe Space” into “Brave Space.” One of my fellow matrons on the SOA’s Council of Nine brought this concept to my attention & I am very grateful for it.

    One of the critiques of Safe Space is that it has become a conceptual way to entrench privilege and avoid conflict for the sake of a perceived right to comfort. As a result of this exploration, one of the primary the features of Brave Space is the willingness to sit with difference, even when it may make us uncomfortable in the moment. Not “agreeing to disagree” in order to avoid further exploration of our differences, but really sitting with and courageously holding those differences together in the same space.

    Many discussions around this that I am participating in lately bring in the concept of liminal space, which is a space Pagan traditions often profess to engage as spaces of ritual & healing. In liminal space we are in the “in between” and this can be a very powerful space filled with profound lessons for ourselves & our communities. It can also be a very unclear, difficult to navigate, and often downright uncomfortable space. It challenges us in many, many ways to allow liminality in our lives. The overculture does not encourage us to spend time here. But by being willing and brave enough to sit in that space with others, especially with others who are different from us in some way, we can perhaps open ourselves up to a wider array of possibility in relationship & dialogue.

    I am hopeful that Brave Space and liminality may help us truly invoke the “power with” dynamic we’ve long been striving for as feminists. Exploring the concept of Brave Space and how it might manifest in my communities gives me hope that dialog might one day truly be salvageable and even meaningful again.

    It may be a concept others find interesting or helpful to engage.

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  6. As an African American woman, I know we view the world differently because of oir experiences, however it is important we join together, because we are stronger together than independently.

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  7. I also love what you say – “In fact, true equality calls us together in spite of our differences. True equality not only understands and accepts our difference, it cherishes and honors them.” We do live in a world of duality, which implies difference – but it is the balance that we seek. Great post!

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