Awe About Shock
It seems that an external review into complaints from former and current employees at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has uncovered “pervasive and systemic racism” and a “toxic culture.” A rather awkward finding for an institution devoted to, well, human rights. One might expect that if any workplace was to be characterized by equality, compassion, dignity, fairness, etc., it would be the CMHR. One’s expectations would, it seems, be rather too optimistic.
The CMHR is, of course already in full-blown damage control mode. On their website, there is a solemn vow to take “immediate action to build an anti-racist and anti-discriminatory workplace.” Diversity and inclusion committees have been struck. Anti-racism, anti-oppression, unconscious bias and cultural competency training will be rolled out (one puzzles over how such training wouldn’t be embedded in an organization like the CMHR’s DNA). Recommendations regarding screening and accountability will be implemented and minority groups will be consulted. To borrow from Christian vocabulary, repentance has been proffered and penance will now be served.
This is a familiar narrative by now, even if the source may seem somewhat surprising. But my attention was drawn to the last section of CBC’s report on this story. Both Pauline Rafferty (the CMHR’s board chair) and Julie Jai (the chair of the inclusion committee) expressed their “shock” at the surfacing of these stories. There’s no doubt a bit of self-interest behind these expressions of “shock” (professed ignorance and outrage are the surest ways to establish moral distance from sinners) but let’s take them at face value. Those in leadership are “shocked” that members of their organization display precisely the behaviours their organization exists to combat. Should they be?
Well, I suppose it would depend on who you asked. If you are persuaded that human nature is steadily progressing in a laudable moral direction, that evolution and education are conspiring to produce ever less self-protective creatures that are increasingly eager to embrace difference, that human beings are basically good and just need a bit of encouragement to be better, that people who say all the right things about inclusivity and tolerance would obviously live up to these words, then, well, yes, you will be shocked. If you think that human nature has a few more stable components to it, a bit more instinctive and intractable selfishness, a few more unsavoury tendencies and proclivities, a capacity for both incredible good and deplorable evil? If you think that there is often a yawning chasm between moral rhetoric and reality? In this case, no, you would not be shocked to discover that the workplace even of the CMHR has some toxicity to it. It is, after all, staffed by human beings.
Long-time readers of this blog no doubt tire of hearing me say that our cultural moment is in desperate need of a more realistic and coherent anthropology. But I think it bears repeating as long as we are furnished with evidence of its absence. We simply are the sorts of creatures who consistently fall short of our professed ideals, whether due to ignorance or weakness or deliberate and culpable transgression (or, more likely, all of the above). What is true of the pedophile priest, is true of the Hollywood mogul exploiting women, is true of the CEO of the global brand using sweatshop labour, is true of the evangelical mega-pastor dipping into the piggybank, is true of… Well, the list could go on and on and depressingly on.
And it should be obvious given the article under discussion, but probably requires stating, that this isn’t a “conservative” or “liberal” thing but a human thing. Just last week I saw a story out of Madison, WI where two women protesting police violence in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder employed, well, violence in beating the hell out of one Tim Carpenter (a state senator who happens to be gay, a Democrat, and a Black Lives Matter supporter) for recording video of them on his phone. The propensity to act in ways that are inconsistent with one’s stated ideals transcends colour, creed, politics, and ideology. This capacity is lodged deep within each one of us.
One of the deep ironies of our post-Christian cultural moment is that we are as morally zealous as we have ever been, yet we have the fewest conceptual resources to explain either our moral fervour or our inability to live up to it. Christianity has always taught that human beings are both saint and sinner at the same time. We bear the image of God and carry the legacy of Cain. We soar to heights of love and beauty while we betray a lust for violence and depravity. We’re a conflicted mess. At its best, this theology of human nature ought to make us a bit more humble and less willing to throw stones because we see ourselves in the failings of others.
But that’s just a bunch of useless dusty old theology, right? Little more than a ideological relic or a tool of oppression and manipulation. And yet, without an anthropology like this, it increasingly seems we can explain neither our most exalted heights nor the most depressing depths to which we descend. We become mysteries to ourselves. We have little to offer but “shock” when we fall short, even if we shouldn’t be shocked at all.
In the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul penned perhaps one of the most trenchant analyses and descriptions of human moral psychology that the world has ever seen:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Who will rescue me? Who will rescue us from the cavernous gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance? Well, with all due respect, it’s probably not more inclusivity and unconscious bias training. We are in need of stronger stuff than that.