Living As If
I have just returned from a two week trip abroad with my husband Keith. We travelled by air from Chicago to London to Milan to Messina, Sicily. Then we travelled by car to the port of Milazzo where we boarded a ferry boat for a two hour ride to Salina, a small Aeolian island in the Tyrrhenian sea. All this to attend the 2011 Colloquium on Violence and Religion, the international academic group devoted to exploring René Girard’s mimetic theory. Salina is a beautiful place more suited to leisurely afternoons on the beach and late night suppers with plenty of wine than a conference, but we mostly resisted temptation.
One thing I love about my involvement with mimetic theory is the chance to travel and meet people from around the world, who become, after years of conferences, your friends. Attendees came from Austria, Holland, France, England, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Japan, the U.S. and Italy, of course. You can imagine the cacophony of languages and accents, but thankfully the language of the conference is English. The biggest hurdle this year was that Italian time is a lot like Italian driving: schedules and rules are more of suggestions than anything binding. It was particularly fun to watch the Dutch rolling their eyes or overhear the Austrians tsk-tsking as sessions started late and ran long. Thankfully, there were no international incidents but all those border crossing, languages and cultural concepts of time got me thinking about differences. Especially since we came home on Friday, June 24, the day Governor Cuomo signed the gay marriage law in New York.
What is the difference between nationalities? Do folks really fall into the easy stereotypes I observed in Salina? And what is the difference between opposite or same-sex marriage? Are they different, or the same, only as the law says so? Human rights discussions always revolve around what stance to take toward difference. Do we tolerate differences, the live and let live approach, or do we try to evaluate differences so we can support the good ones and eradicate the bad ones? Maybe there are different differences, some we can live with and some we need to stamp out. My attitude toward differences comes from my engagement with mimetic theory – no surprise there. Mimetic theory focuses our attention on the way in which all of us use difference to know we are good. It’s an odd reality of identity formation, one that is almost completely unacknowledged, that we use others as foils in our sense of self-worth. It was easy to see in Salina: the on-time Dutch knew they were good because they weren’t the late Italians. As annoyed as they were about the lack of any real schedule, they were no doubt feeling a tiny bit self-satisfied by how much better they are at sticking to agendas than Italians. Luckily the consequences of an on-time identity are not all that extreme, but the difference issue in gay marriage has more serious consequences.
When we need someone to occupy a category of badness to know we are good, we all get locked into false identities. The so-called bad people, in this case the GLBT community, don’t have much choice but to hide or pretend they aren’t different at all if they want to avoid discrimination and hate. They can flamboyantly display their difference in an attempt to live outside of the majority’s disdain for them, but that is as false as hiding. And the only way for the good people to hold on to their goodness is by righteously denouncing everything gay. The insistence on difference between heterosexual and gay, leaves us with rigid and artificial categories: a (falsely) good majority, a silent and suffering underground, and a minority exaggerating the difference to prove a point. No room for change, no room for honest identities or true goodness to emerge.
What does true goodness do with difference? Often we labor under the false idea that if everyone were truly good all differences would vanish and we’d have this homogenized world with one language, one nationality, one way of dealing with time, one kind of sexuality. The irony is that exactly the opposite would occur. True goodness would support an explosion of difference. We can see how it works with gay marriage. Forcing gays underground creates an illusion of homogeneity. When true goodness takes hold, the diversity emerges in all its glory – gay, lesbian, bi, trans, whatever it is doesn’t matter at all anymore and so it can come out of the darkness into the light. The diversity will not be seen as a threat to anyone’s identity because goodness takes borderlines and incorporates them into itself. When differences lose their fascination, they take with them all our excuses to exclude, to hate, to destroy. What emerges is a world of difference and the possibility for peace.
These changes take place slowly but when the tipping point is reached, the change whisks through our lives with a speed that belies the preceding struggle. What can we do to help the change along? At the COV&R conference we were welcomed by Domenica Mazzu, Director of Centro Europeo di Studi su Mito E Simbolo. I don’t remember the details of her talk but I wrote next to her name in the program: “Live as if – as if what is right is also what is real.” It might seem naïve, but I think living as if peace is possible now is what will make it happen. If we can live as if we don’t need someone to be wrong to know we are right, as if we don’t need someone to be bad to know we are good, then we are paving the way for peace. I think of it like rehearsing for a play – you sweat to memorize the lines and to deliver them at the right time from the right place on the stage and at first it’s stiff and labored. But the more you rehearse the more natural the words feel coming out of your mouth until you say them as if they are your own. That’s what living as if could make possible. We might begin to realize that difference isn’t something we need at all, but something that just is. Peace will arrive when we can say our lines from the heart: on time or late, gay or straight, it’s all good.