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The Unbundled Age

The term "unbundled" comes from contemporary Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose magnum opus, A Secular Age (2007), examines what happens to a society that transitions from widespread, default belief in God (the way we think of 1950s midwestern America) to one that considers faith just one possibility among many (depending on where you live, I think it's actually more likely to find widespread, default assumption of agnosticism).  I haven't read this entire book, but I did recently hear Charles Taylor give a talk about it at UCLA.  The book has been in print for a decade now, and his term "unbundled" has become common in some circles.  I'm thinking a lot about it in this charged political moment.

There were 750,000 participants in the LA Women's March in my neighborhood this weekend.  My friends and acquaintances are divided in their feelings about this event.  Some we elated; some felt it was healing after the election; some were inspired to dig in deeper in political activism; some felt excluded; some were disdainful; some were offended.  As various persons have expressed these reactions online, the responses have been impassioned.

It is apparent that, for some, being a woman is an identity marker that speaks to an essential nature.  Being a woman is a starting premise for the formation of political opinions, behaviors, and the way one should approach problems and challenges.  There is a sense of historical continuity afoot as well; there are heroic women from ages past who paved the way for us, and all women today should remember them, thank them, and honor their legacy by fighting for further equality.

Other voices on my screen find stronger identifying markers elsewhere, perhaps in a political party or a philosophical tradition or a religion.  These people are offended to find themselves at odds with other members of their gender.  I am thinking primarily of the pro-life women who felt unwelcome at the march, and I have also seen some friends cite racial reasons for choosing not to participate.  Other women simply voted for Trump, and, although they care deeply for women's causes, did not want to protest the official they helped to put in office.  Some opted out due to discomfort with the language used to describe female bodies, about which they prefer to be more discreet.

There's a mess of these reasons for opting in and opting out swirling around before my eyes.  So, let's think about Charles Taylor and "unbundling."  It's helpful here.  This idea refers to a cultural change where assumptions about people's beliefs that were once safe no longer are.  Perhaps there was a time when persons of a specific religion or race were likely to all vote the same way or care about the same issues.  Veterans would reliably show concern about a certain politician, stay at home moms all voted one way, Catholics always backed the pro-life candidate.  Likewise with the college educated, those living on coasts, those whose parents made a lot of money, etc.  Certain identity markers led to the reasonable expectation of other identity choices and beliefs.  Charles Taylor observes the recent destruction of these links, which were always arbitrary to begin with, and people are no longer packaged the way we'd expect them to be.  Someone can vote for a Republican and be passionately pro-choice.  Someone who always votes for Democrats could feel protective of their right to own a weapon.  We are much more likely now to isolate different compartments of our lives and parts of our identities - gender, race, sexual orientation, wealth, religion, education, ability, etc. - and form our beliefs on a case-by-case basis.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer."  I think society is generally more aware of the dangers of assuming things about people based on their identities, and yet we are as unwilling as ever to sit and listen to people who are different from us. It's easy to get upset when the stakes are high, but there is a special message for me in this notion of unbundling people when we see their photos online.

Many of the passions people express outwardly are, at the root, confessions of pain.  Our lives unfortunately bring about instances of injustice and trauma and abuse, and so many of us make our Facebook posts and write our protest signs in response to these often-hidden tragedies.  Unbundling our expectations of one another can be an act of real compassion.

Simone Weil wrote that "It is better to say, 'I am suffering,' than to say, 'This landscape is ugly.'"  And yet, this is how we express our suffering, isn't it?  Our world can be entirely washed in the colors of our internal suffering so we see our surroundings as manifestations of pain.  I like to keep this quotation in mind every time I drown in proclamations of the ugliness of our national landscape.  The whisper beneath it is always "I am suffering," and that is a place where we can all meet each other.


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