As I mentioned briefly yesterday in a post, I was recently a respondent on a panel at our field’s main annual conference; the panel was devoted to whether there could be a consolidation of different trends in inter-religious/interfaith dialogue. Now, this is not what I work on and, as I made plain in my response, my own work would take those who aim toward identifying so-called mutual understanding across religions as being themselves an object of study, inasmuch as it represents but one position along a complex continuum — after all, not every so-called religious person wants to talk to others; for some want to convert them while others may either ignore those who strike them as different or, yes, do something rather worse.
So I see no reason to champion but one of these many positions when I could, instead, study each of them as differing responses to, well…, difference.
Read the response here (PDF), if interested.
But what struck me as particularly interesting was when, during the Q&A that followed, an audience member who was seated almost right in front of me, in the second row from the front, raised his hand and addressed the chair of the panel, making reference to one of the group’s earlier sessions that day — a session when, I gathered from his comment, they had discussed the possible need to widen the group(s) with which they discussed these topics of inter-religious dialogue, among which were so-called secular people, I guess. Gesturing to me, but still not talking to me (or even at me), he noted how this very panel was “theatrically” acting out that earlier discussion, what with a public university Religious Studies professor on the panel — “the secular Other,” as he called me (still, not addressing me).
“I’m up here,” I felt like saying.
Now, I’ve been called worse, of course, but it was a fascinating moment during which what I would characterize as the “wafer thin mint” veneer of liberal tolerance was made all too apparent, for the supposed aim of inclusion was, shall we say, somewhat undermined by assuming things about me, talking about me, but without including me, when I was a mere 10 feet away. For in that moment I was hardly the authentic other whom such scholars seem to think they’re addressing and interacting with sincerely; instead, I had become a prop for a host of issues with which they were apparently concerned, all of which were placed onto me, and of which I was more than likely not all that interested, to be honest.
Thinking back on that moment, I now recall how my mother would react when, as an adolescent, and right in front of her, I would sometimes talk to my father and say something like, “Well, she said, …” — to which “she” would angrily interrupt and reply, “I’m not ‘she’; I’m your mother!”
We all represent who knows how many different things to each other, of course, making evident that it is all about the reception of the reader or the listener and not necessarily the intentions of the author or the speaker. But with a group of people seemingly devoted to listening, learning from, and achieving a so-called deep understanding of their authentic dialogue partner, this brief moment when I became an objectified, essential Other, a stand-in for who knows what dangers, threats, or challenges of importance to them (but not to me — after all, I wasn’t there to reach any sort of agreement or to caucus but to respond as to whether they had accomplished what the session set out to do),… well, it was a curious moment when the façade dropped and it was all too apparent that, despite appearances, we’re all playing the same game: reproducing local identities, of varying shapes and sizes, and doing so at the expense of those not allowed in or those designated as honorary members but who must always wear the visitor’s name badges they’re given.
(The above picture from the session is borrowed