The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
Baha’is work for far-reaching changes to society, and at the same time try to avoid involving themselves in partisan politics.
For many people, this appears to be a contradiction. And I’d be lying if I said I’d never felt that way before. But every once in a while, something comes along and, with crystal clarity, reminds me of the wisdom in staying away from the political fray. It happened again just recently.
In the past couple of years, there has been a growing debate about the portrayal of women in video games. At the heart of the controversy is the feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian, who has criticized what she sees as the fewness, shallowness, and sexual objectification of female characters in video games. She has long been a target for rape and death threats from anonymous strangers. Then on October 15 she cancelled a speech at Utah State University after someone threatened to kill her and a large number of attendees if it took place. After that, coverage of the controversy exploded in American political media.
The best piece of commentary I’ve read on the debate as it has unfolded since then came from Ezra Klein on November 1 at Vox.com. He made the case that it is the latest example of a wider phenomenon of American politics and culture he calls “the politicization of absolutely everything.” Reading Klein’s essay, I had that moment of crystal clarity I mentioned earlier. Klein noticed that media outlets that almost never talk about video games were all getting in on the action, and they were arranging themselves into the typical liberals vs. conservatives battle formation. Liberal sources lined up behind Sarkeesian and other feminist voices inside and outside the video game industry. Conservatives lined up in defense of the millions of male players who felt offended by being called sexist. Klein wrote:
What’s telling about the constellation of forces here is that none of them actually care much about video games… Rather, these are outlets and players that specialize in political conflict. And Gamergate has become a political conflict. Video games, at this point, are an excuse for that conflict.
The points he made that left the greatest impression on me were about the cultural backdrop of the whole controversy: the rise of political tribalism.
That has happened all over the world, but seems especially pronounced in the United States, which has always had a number of political divisions related to race, labor relations, the international role of the military, partisan loyalty—and even a Civil War–that separated the country into two opposing camps. In the past, each issue divided the American people differently. But now, we always see the exact same division, no matter the issue: conservative vs. liberal, red vs. blue, Republican vs. Democrat. As a result, the country has separated itself into two polarized political tribes, with fewer and fewer ideological commonalities, thereby insulating Americans from meaningful discussion across tribal boundaries.
One consequence of all this: any perceived slight against a portion of the tribe or any strong words from a known enemy of the tribe sets the whole infernal machine in motion. And so long as such variation exists between conservatives and liberals in the foods they eat, the parenting practices they follow, the TV shows they watch, the religions they practice, etc., political controversy can easily reach beyond government policy and extend into the culture and everyday life of political tribespeople.
So what does this have to do with Baha’is?
It has to do with the ways Baha’is get involved in their communities to put the teachings of their faith into practice: an end to war, religious tolerance, racial and gender equality, elimination of extremes in wealth and poverty. The challenge for Baha’is and for everyone who values and seeks unity, as I see it, involves staking out space for unified social action that remains autonomous from tribal struggle–but not indifferent to the vital issues at stake in their debates:
The unity which is productive of unlimited results is first a unity of mankind which recognizes that all are sheltered beneath the overshadowing glory of the All-Glorious; that all are servants of one God; for all breathe the same atmosphere, live upon the same earth, move beneath the same heavens, receive effulgence from the same sun and are under the protection of one God. This is the most great unity, and its results are lasting if humanity adheres to it; but mankind has hitherto violated it, adhering to sectarian or other limited unities such as racial, patriotic or unity of self-interests; therefore no great results have been forthcoming. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 257.
We all need to be pro-active in making the unity of the human race not just an objective, but also an operating principle. Unity, as the Baha’i writings repeatedly point out, isn’t just the end goal—it’s also the means we use to get there.