One of the great things about the Christmas season is how we use these days to visit with old friends. I mentioned yesterday how I had spent an hour Facetiming with a friend in Holland. Today I had the chance to get caught up with a friend who is a native of rural Louisiana. Thanks to his Christian faith, “Bob,” my friend, works in a ministry of racial reconciliation (he is white). He is what you would consider a liberal on racial issues. We talked briefly about the Phil Robertson controversy. Robertson is of the same generation as Bob; Bob grew up in similar circumstances. Bob told me that strange as it seems, if you asked him what his memories of that historical period were, he would probably say the same thing as Phil Robertson.
Let’s be clear: Bob wasn’t saying that Phil accurately described what conditions were like for black Southerners then. Bob was saying, rather, that he lived through that same period as a young white man in the rural South, and that’s how he experienced that time and place. Bob’s was a remark about how memory works — and fails to work.
In his great 1995 book The Lost City, about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, Alan Ehrenhalt observes that our official memories of an era often come down to us from the dissenters — those who pointed out hypocrisies and failings of a place and culture during that time. (Read the last two paragraphs of this essay for the entirety of his remarks.) What we don’t encounter are those memories of those whose experiences were different in ways that contradict the historical narrative that triumphed. When many people today hear an older white man like Phil Robertson say that he remembers a more peaceable time, before the civil rights era, they hear the voice of an unreconstructed racist trying to justify his racism. But what would they make of someone like Bob, a white Southerner who has done and is doing a lot of practical things to heal the chasm between the races? He doesn’t fit into their neat ideological categories. (Neither, I suspect, does Phil Robertson, but I don’t know that for a fact.)
The interesting question in the Robertson case is not what his racial views are, but why it is that a white man who lived through that time would genuinely have memories that erased black suffering. Why would a white man not see what is right in front of him? One reason I keep coming back to this story on this blog is because of my own experiences in the past decade with the unreliability of human perception and judgment, in light of our all-too-human tendency toward epistemic closure. A white Southern man growing up in the South of the 1950s and 1960s would not have seen these things because he was culturally and psychologically conditioned not to see them. As Andrew Sullivan likes to say, quoting Orwell, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Most people don’t have it in them to struggle in that way, consistently. I know I don’t. You don’t either, and if you think you do, you are almost certainly lying to yourself.
There is something happening right now in your city, in your state, in your community, and maybe even in your family. There is some terrible injustice, or crime, or manifestation of inhumanity, and it is happening right in front of your nose. You don’t see it, because you are emotionally and psychologically unable to see it. To see it would require acting on that information, and it’s not something you are prepared to do. Your mind shields its eye.
Years from now, they will reproach you for this. How could you have let that happen? they will say. Why didn’t you do anything? Why did you keep your mouth shut? What will you say then? How will you justify yourself? The truth is, you didn’t know. You should have known, but you did not perceive the truth of things at the time. Are you guilty of moral failure? Maybe. Probably. But you are telling the truth when you say that you don’t remember things the way they say they happened.
I have this friend I’ll call Geraldine. She was raised in an abusive home, by a father who was a child-beating ragemonkey. Her much younger relative, whom I’ll call Kim, was raised in the same home, by the same man. She was never beaten by him, and in fact remembers the old man as a source of stability and support. Whose memories are correct? I’ve heard their stories, and believe they are both telling the truth, as they experienced it. The emotional politics of the story, however, are potentially combustible, if Geraldine and Kim wanted to fight about it. To Geraldine, Kim’s narrative could be interpreted as diminishing or denying the pain she (Geraldine) suffered at her father’s hands. To Kim, Geraldine’s narrative could be interpreted as denying the goodness of this man, who helped her in a time when she had no one else to give her a sense of stability, and who did not mistreat her.
Fortunately, they aren’t fighting about it, but it’s easy to see how they could, if they chose to. Because I first heard this story from Geraldine, I was highly sympathetic to her account, which I believe. Later, after I got to know Kim and heard her story, I believed it too. I struggled with it, because I was so naturally sympathetic to Geraldine, and because I am emotionally predisposed to side with abused children in any situation. Yet I had to admit that Kim’s story was true too, and that the man here was complicated, as are most people. Plus, Geraldine and Kim needed very different things from their father and guardian, and presented different challenges to him. I say this not, of course, to diminish the evil the old man (now dead) worked in the life of Geraldine, but rather to point out that these things are rarely black and white. Had I not met Kim and spent time with her getting her perspective, the narrative that I would have accepted as the whole truth was actually a partial truth (which is not the same thing as a lie).
In the Phil Robertson case, I think it is far more interesting to think about why a man like him (and like Bob) would have been blind to things happening around them. This is one reason I get so sore about official “diversity” initiatives in the workplace. In my experience, they are not at all about diversity, but about imposing a certain narrative. In one newsroom I worked in, there was a huge diversity push, but there was no interest in class diversity or religious diversity, even though those were both important components of our readership. As far as I could tell, aside from myself, about the only religiously engaged people in that newsroom were the black women who were secretaries. Nobody saw them as religious believers; they only saw them as black. The narrative that the newsroom managers chose to impose devalued one aspect of their identity and experience, and valorized another.
This happens all the time. We choose the narrative that suits our needs — emotional, political, cultural — and stigmatize narratives that challenge it. You can tell a lot about who has the power in a particular culture by what you are not allowed to talk about without drawing harsh censure. And in turn, the thoughts you are not allowed to have become internalized, such that you train yourself not to see things that violate those taboos. In the 1950s rural South, a white man was not allowed to speak out against the injustices inflicted on blacks; is it any wonder that he wouldn’t “see” them? There are people in our country today on whose behalf one is not allowed to speak without risking condemnation; is it any wonder that young people being raised in this culture are learning not to “see” those Others, much less consider whether or not they are being fairly and humanely treated?
Again: 50 years from now, the world will look a lot different. Evils that surround us today, but are hiding in plain sight, will be obvious. You and I will be judged. Be merciful today.