Friday Miscellany (On Race, Identity, What We Can Say, and How We Can Say It)
A few days ago, I was meandering through a museum in a small BC town on a lazy summer afternoon. I was lingering over a historical image (the image to the left) of several Ktunaxa men and an inscription about how the gold rush had affected their people. The image itself was fairly nondescript. Six faces staring blankly back at the camera in front of what looks like a bush of some sort. I forget what the inscription beneath the photo precisely said, but I won’t soon forget a passing comment made by one of my fellow museum-goers as she passed in front of my view. “Look at the one in the top left, eh? Pretty good evidence that we come from apes! Hey, I just call it like I see it!” [knowing chuckle] She said it all so quickly. I wasn’t even sure if her comment was directed at me or to someone else within earshot. She was gone before my indignation had time to properly register. I simply stood there dumbly, staring at the picture, my temperature steadily rising.
I’ve revisited this experience several times over the last week or so. I’ve tried to honestly probe my reaction to it. Why did it make me angry? Was my anger justified? What, if anything, should I have said in response? What cultural factors are influencing (determining?) my reactions? My morning tour through a handful of major newspapers offered up a bit of food for thought for our cultural moment and provided something of a grid to run this experience and my reaction to it through.
The first piece, was a NYT article by philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah called “Go Ahead, Speak for Yourself.” It’s a reflection upon the ways in which we have come to preface all of our speech with the various identities we associate with. As a white, Christian man, I would say… Or, As a black, queer woman, I would say… Or, As an indigenous survivor of residential schools, I would say… This manner of speaking has become expected, even demanded in some contexts. While most of us would readily acknowledge that how we understand the world is informed and affected by our social location, race, sexuality, etc, we seem to have reached a point where we collectively assume that identity constrains, even determines speech. The right identity markers are granted authority; the wrong ones are deemed illegitimate. Appiah rightly wonders just how far this can go. Do all people who associate with this or that identity think the same way about every issue? Is every experience identical? Can the particularity of human experience be subsumed under the categories of identity that we seem so beholden to? Does this not obliterate individuality and, if taken far enough, even freedom itself?
Good questions. And to return to my experience in the museum, I found myself wondering if I was responding as an individual or as an identity warrior. My instinct, in hindsight, was to imagine myself saying, “You know, as the father of two indigenous teenagers who have to push against a mountain of stereotypes and societal obstacles and baggage, I am offended by your statement! How dare you imply that indigenous people are closer to apes than… well, than what? Than you, a middle aged white woman?! I suppose you represent the pinnacle of evolution?!”
But what would this have really accomplished? Would I have been responding as a token of identity (even if vicariously) or as a human being? Would it not have been better for my hypothetical conversation to start along the lines of, “Well, I see a human being there, just like you and me. I wonder how that man’s mother or father would feel to hear something like that?” Or, better yet, maybe I could have just asked some questions. “Why do you say that? What about his appearance stands out to you? If you think the man in the photo looks strange, do you think that there might be a reason that he looks kind of shell-shocked?”
The second article from the NYT dealt with policing hate speech. “If We Silence Hate Speech, Will We Silence Resistance?” by Erik Nielson talks about the fine line that we might be walking if we insist upon combating ideas we find distasteful by labeling them as “hate speech.” Citing the examples of Louis Farakkhan, Malcolm X, and the BDS movement that seeks to put economic pressure on the state of Israel in light of their treatment of Palestinians, Nielson points out that speech that seeks to resist forms of institutional oppression and injustice has often historically been labeled as “hate speech.” If “hate” is the tool that we wish to bludgeon our ideological opponents with (as opposed to categories like truth/falsity or appeal to some kind of higher moral imperative), we might profitably ask ourselves if we are prepared for it to be turned back on positions that we view more favourably.
I could, I suppose, have chased down the woman in the museum and accused her of “hate speech.” I don’t actually know if she hates indigenous people, but based on her comment, I’m reasonably certain that she doesn’t think too highly of them. And whether true or not, publicly accusing her of hateful speech would have been very effective. She would have been appropriately shamed and I would have been appropriately (gloriously, heroically!) celebrated. If I could have worked in my own (vicarious) belonging into the aforementioned identity marker, it would have been an unparalleled triumph. She would have been tarred and feathered and sent scurrying out into the friendless wasteland. But, again, would this have accomplished anything meaningful? Would it have led to anything like understanding (on her part or mine)? And leaving pragmatism aside, speaking as a Christian, would anything remotely good or redemptive have even been possible in such an encounter?
Which brings me to the last article, a Globe and Mail piece ostensibly on forgiveness. Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s “As social media skeletons are dragged into the light, we have to learn when to forgive” talks about a spate of recent high-profile firings and public shamings that have come about when past social media transgressions have seen the light of day. Who among us can bear this kind of scrutiny, the author wonders? Who among us can stand when every word we have publicly uttered over the course of years and decades is digitally stored and is instantly retrievable for anyone with nefarious or even mischievous intentions? Do we honestly imagine that our views (not to mention our discretion) at eighteen are the same as they would be at thirty-eight or fifty-eight or eighty-eight? Are we not allowed to change over time? Can we not forgive one another?
Interestingly enough, even though the piece has the word “forgive” in the title, it has very little to do with actual forgiveness. Real forgiveness involves naming wrong-doing as such and refusing to hold it against the one who has done wrong. It involves honesty, the laying aside of rights (of retribution, vengeance, public recognition), and, ideally, a willingness to walk forward in a better way. It’s a robust and difficult thing, far more than just a recognition that we “evolve” over time (which is true, technically speaking, but it is by no means self-evident that this evolution always takes place in the right direction).
Perhaps, to return one more time to my experience in the museum, forgiveness is even the kind of thing that can, on some occasions, be preemptively offered. That last sentence comes along with no small amount of trepidation. I know how it could be misunderstood, and I do not offer it as anything resembling a blanket statement for all situations. But still, I wonder what would happen if instead of marinating in anger over this woman’s racism (real or imagined) or cultural insensitivity or ignorance or even just plain old bad manners, I’d decided to simply forgive her. Or acknowledge that she might have had a dumb or awkward moment (I have some of those too, occasionally… you can ask my wife, if you require verification). Or remember that she might not say things the same way in a month or a year or five. Or, to remind myself that even if she really was all of the things that I was pleased to imagine in my anger, she’s still a sinner loved by God. Just like me.
This doesn’t make what she said right or permissible or anything like that. But it at very least keeps first things first. Human beings say and do stupid and immoral and embarrassing things all the time. But they do so as human beings—not generic tokens of identity, not as foils for our own virtue, not as categories to be summarily written off—but as people who can and hopefully do change over time, with grace, patience, love, humility and, yes, perhaps most vitally of all, with forgiveness.
For those wondering what my kids made of my experience in the museum, they didn’t seem overly concerned when I told them about it later. This is probably because, a) they’ve grown bored of their dad becoming righteously offended on their behalf; or, b) they’re much better at forgiving than their father. Or, more likely, both.