Perspective

When I first started teaching critical thinking from Vincent Ryan Ruggiero’s book, Beyond Feelings, I was stunned by the chapters about what we think we know (but don’t). Basically, chapters about how incomplete information, partial truth, fake news and biases pollute knowledge. One point Ruggiero makes — and I think we need it now — is about slavery. He says something to the effect that there is nothing special about there having been slaves in the American colonies and, later, states. What is notable (he said) is that people STOPPED owning slaves because other people were willing to die for their freedom. His perspective looked back throughout human history and there was never a moment when someone wasn’t enslaving someone else.

We don’t think about the time before motors when people and animals did everything. Humans were most valuable for their labor.

Anyway, what I took away from this burst of insight is that we’ve got it all wrong. We should be happy that we were able to progress both mechanically and in the more important humane sense we were able regard owning other people as morally wrong. We should think, “Wow. At a certain point in time it became an almost universal idea that slavery is wrong. Humans did that. Awakened to that reality. We’re amazing.”

But that’s not how we work.

Last night I read a question posed on a site that exists to stimulate respectful debate. The question was whether or not the word “Nigger” should be expunged from Huckleberry Finn. The actual word itself was not used. The euphemism, “the ‘N’ word” was used instead. I don’t like euphemisms. The thing they represent is still there. Why pretend to hide it?

I read through the thread of responses to this question and was surprised at how many people did not understand the novel, how many people thought Huckleberry Finn is a book for children, how many people thought “the ‘N’ word” should be expunged, how many people faulted Twain for not “taking a stand against racism.”

I’m not even convinced that every use of “the ‘N’ word” in the 19th century was a racial slur. I’m relatively certain it was the word people used as we use African American or Black. I think WHO used it and HOW might be the problem. Still and all, it was the word in use at the time, whatever miserable connotations it has today.

I kept thinking of a passage from Fahrenheit 451 where Bradbury (in the voice of Beatty, the Captain) writes about how people had gone through all the literature of the past and expunged things that offended them.

“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog?lovers, the cat?lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second?generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic ?books survive. And the three dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

The result of this is depicted beautifully in the film of the novel staring Michael York. Passengers on a bus have nothing to do but feel their own faces and look into mirrors. Books are pictures, only, no words.

Anyhoo…

Anyone with half a brain reading Huckleberry Finn will get the satire, will see what’s going on, will understand that in their attempt to free the slave, Jim, Huck and Tom are on very different journeys. That the idea is to FREE Jim is, right there, pretty important.

Twain somehow saw his world from a rather high elevation and made fun of it in nearly everything he wrote. As someone who loves — and studies — history I value very highly an authentic voice from a past time. I don’t have the illusion (any more) that “now” has more right answers than did “back then.” We forget knowledge at least as fast as we create it, learn it.

I do not believe racism can be fought on a social level. It can be concealed. The rule of law is there to mandate justice and it’s a good thing it is. It’s all we have. But racism, at its core, must be confronted by individuals.

One of the saddest moments in my white, privileged (I don’t buy that, by the way) little life was when I met my next-door neighbor in Descanso, Andy. Andy is Mexican. I already knew the kids. His oldest daughter and I were pals. She was in 3rd grade, an outgoing little girl, who wanted to know me and the dogs. I knew his wife, who didn’t speak English. But I did not know Andy. When we met, Andy addressed me with the formality a Hispanic man uses to an older woman (which I expected) but also with a certain deference to my being a white lady who taught college. I saw in his approach to me a lot of what he’d experienced in his life and it made me really sad because I am not and never have been those women. Andy learned that over time and all was well.

I later learned, also, why Blanca didn’t try to speak English, even though she could, a little, at least as well as I spoke Spanish. She told me a story about meeting the wife of one of Andy’s bosses at a party and speaking English. She made a mistake; there are a lot of false cognates between English and Spanish and she got tangled up in one. The woman laughed at her and retold the story to everyone around.

To me, that’s racism, unless, of course, Blanca had been able to laugh, too, but that isn’t how she is made. She was also much younger and wanted very hard to impress her husband’s boss’ wife. The woman was uncaring and unimaginative — and she didn’t speak Spanish.

I don’t think censoring masterworks of literature written in the past is the answer to racism. I think each individual person (of all colors) learning humility and compassion is the answer to racism. I don’t think a person with a half-way decent mind and human feelings can maintain a blanket prejudice against a group of people because of something as superficial and stupid as skin color. It amazes me this lingers in our world. It’s a problem we could easily solve just by changing ourselves.

 

29 thoughts on “Perspective

  1. Every race, everywhere, suffers this at some place. If a stranger travels [to live] in a strange land, how are they treated? There are words created to ensure they know how different they are, how they don’t belong.
    It is the easiest thing we could change, but we still live with the mindset of the small clannish groups who need to repel strangers, newcomers, lest they use up all our resources.
    It is one part of our modern society that desperately needs some enlightening.

    • I agree completely. It’s some instinctive thing from deep in our past that, I think, is completely normal in its way. The choice is ours, though, to change within ourselves our “normalcy.”

      I experienced this in China in 1982/83. I didn’t even think it was strange that they stared at me, tried to rub the freckles off my arms (dirt, right?), many other things not as friendly — but most people were just curious (at worst) and open (at best). It helped that I could speak enough Chinese to be understood and to be polite, I think. It showed them I was willing to try. Many people also said I wasn’t like most foreigners. I wasn’t fancy (they said this often) and I liked being there.

  2. I tend to think along the same lines when it comes to literature as a reflection of history. If we remove all signs of our grave errors in history future generations may “forget” and repeat history. I, too, see that some of the attitudes from the past have carried forward and we have to confront this within ourselves. It does seem that chattel slavery has caused more lingering effects for our neighbors of color, but I have faith in our shared humanity to knock down the walls that threaten to divide us in our present day and future. It’s often an uncomfortable conversation, but I’m glad we’re open to it. Excellent post.

    • I have faith in our shared humanity, too. I think the average person has a lot fewer barriers in the day to day than two generations ago. That might be where we need to look. I was disturbed a lot at the end of my teaching career at how little my students knew about the history behind the world they lived in. Many knew only that MLK was a great man, not why, not what he did, not what his world was like at the time. Those kids will have a hard time saying, “We’ve come THIS FAR in 50 years. That’s not nothing.” I think that matters.

      • Maybe the worst parts that linger are in certain areas? In small towns where just a couple generations ago certain hateful groups were in their prime…and now those are the grandfathers, often beloved, by my neighbors and peers. Some of those attitudes linger in places like this. That isn’t to diminish the widespread progress we’ve made. I can recall riots in the early 70s in a city several miles away when I was young. By the 80s a lot of that was smoothed out and it seemed like people had progressed quite a bit. My kids could never imagine the things I saw growing up, so I think that speaks to the progress we’ve made in society.

      • I think Affirmative Action made a lot of white men resentful and maybe with reason, but I don’t know what else could be done. I think this is especially true in the Rust Belt and the Coal Belt and the Deep South where life has been hard, dependent on physical labor, and the prejudices run very deep.

      • Yes. That is what I see as well. “Perspective” is a superb title for this post. You seem to have insight and I am glad you are sharing it!

      • I don’t know if I have insight — it just bugged me a LOT that people would rewrite or expunge Huckleberry Finn from the canon of American literature because they view Twain as racially insensitive.

      • Tragically most of us do not know the answers to why, what, and how makes one ‘great’. It’s like learning a math problem’s body and not the theory, not the whys and hows. We learn 2+2 =4. Then when we are asked to solve 2+9 =? we don’t know what to do. This is the same reason we do not recognize human being as a human as soon we see who does not look like our mom or the figure looking at whom we learned about human!! Same reason we do not recognize art as a language. Same reason we fail to see we don’t speak all forms of language let alone in their correct forms! I even question this- what’s correct about a language? Why was language created at all.. The ones who would laugh at a otherwise pronounced word or sentence I ask , did ye understand what I said? If yes, then the purpose of language was served. No?

      • You’re right. Too often too many of us are trapped within the boundaries of what we know and we’re arrogant about it. I taught English as a Second Language and I had students who were afraid to speak because they might make a mistake. I taught a beautiful French man in his 70s who NEVER spoke a word the whole 4 months he was at school. He was too afraid he would look stupid. Of course, the French are language perfectionists and jump on anyone who pronounces French wrong or makes a mistake, and that was part of the reason, but still. His whole LIFE he dreamed of coming to the US and he couldn’t have his entire dream because of that one thing.

        All these boundaries and borders in our psyches are really sad. And people are unconscious. I taught a Korean girl who said that Korea was better than America because there was no racism. I said, “That’s amazing. How did you accomplish that?” She said, “We’re all one race.” She had no clue that she had just said one of the most racist things possible.

        I believe the purpose of language is to communicate feelings, ideas, information. I think it’s a good invention if it does that. 🙂

      • I 100% agree with those purposes of language 🙂
        We are all one race.. she might discover at some point of her life that she uttered true words with incomplete equation like H + = H2O. Sometimes i learn things the hard way and I am like- oh no! How did I not realize it before! Well, am thankful to have the chance to learn after all 🙂

  3. I don’t think everyone white is privileged, but I also don’t think white men are being oppressed by their black brethren. I am tired of people saying they are oppressed when what they are is mildly inconvenienced. Hell, even SERIOUSLY inconvenienced is not oppression. AND, oppression is not being told you need to have your Christmas tree at home or in the church yard instead of the middle of town — or having to listen (horrors!) to people say cruel things like “happy holiday” when ONLY merry Christmas agrees with your beliefs.

    As my not-white husband always points out, I can “pass.” He can’t. It’s pretty simple. Whatever else, if you have white skin, you are not instantly in the cross-hairs. Does that make you privileged? Define privilege. Maybe you are. Maybe not. I think that would depend on what’s going on in the world in which you live. There are times and places where being not-Jewish or not-black or brown IS a privilege, if staying alive matters.

    As for editing the “bad words and evil thoughts” out of books (or movies or anything, really), I’m agin it. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Or read it with an understanding of the context of the story. Or read it and write a paper about why you find it objectionable. If we start chopping up our literature, who defines the bad parts — and where does it stop? Does it stop?

    • I don’t think I’m writing about oppression… And people are not stigmatized only for being black or Jewish. I took shit throughout my career for being creative. People resist what they don’t know. As for skin color — that’s a relative problem. I had rocks thrown at me in China because I’m not Chinese. This is not a particularly American problem. I’m afraid it’s who we are as people until we choose to be otherwise.

      • Oh, I’m not saying only white people are bigoted. Not hardly. The Chinese and Japanese are quite specialized in it too. Humans are like that. But if you look different in a world where not looking different is important and possibly life-saving, it matters.

        We all catch shit for something, but no one has slammed doors in my face or arrested me because I’m the wrong color. Or shot me. They may dislike me because I am different in a personal sort of way, but it isn’t the same.

      • The net result can be the same in that opportunities may be closed off to you because of some aspect of who you are. It’s different in that it’s personal.

        And that’s kind of my point. It’s really stupid to dislike a group of people over something as superficial and irrelevant as skin color. It’s also one of the points Twain makes in Huck Finn, but the brains of some people are blinded by “the ‘N’ word.”

    • I totally agree with the idea that people are silly for being upset by “Happy Holidays” and all the other picayune stuff that ruffles their egoistic feathers. All of it is stupid. In a sense, it’s really as simple as being kind. My little town has an antediluvian holiday sign that goes over the street a block from my house, welcoming people coming in from the west It says, “Happy Holiday” because either that’s all they had room for or it’s THAT OLD (this is what I suspect) and there was only ONE winter holiday. I, personally, think it’s cool. I have a couple friends who think it needs to be replaced with a sign that has the “S”

      I think people need to know MORE history. I think they need to know how (sadly) REAL oppression has been a part of every culture in human history. I think then they need to think about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. That’s another reason I don’t think literature should be censored.

      One guy in the discussion said Huckleberry Finn has no place in any school room in America. I don’t want to live in his country. 😦

      • Samuel Clemens was one of the original anti-bigots. For that matter, so was Louisa May Alcott and that whole odd bunch of intellectuals into which she was born. People don’t get it because they don’t know any history. Without the history, there’s no context and without the context, most of the meaning is lost.

        “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ” ― Michael Crichton

        “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” ― Mark Twain “

  4. Many people with whom I am acquainted don’t know anything about THIS generation, much less a previous one. They know NOTHING ABOUT ANYTHING. How can we ever have a sensible dialogue about ANYTHING with people who know NOTHING? Never mind. This stuff really aggravates me.

    I read Al Franken’s “Giant of the Senate” and it was actually really good and considering everything, reasonably optimistic. You might like it.

    Now, I’m off to check out the history of a quote that has been reiterated by a lot of people and it always means the same thing: if you don’t know any history, you don’t know much of anything. Bada bing.

  5. Changing words in books like “Huckleberry Finn’ is like a red rag to this old cow. How DARE they! Maybe we should have fiddle with Shakespeare as well. And Dante. And Byron. Or better still, burn the lot. Teach the CONTEXT, for goodness sake. It’s the only way people will really understand the attitudes involved, and do something about changing them. We ignore history at our peril – never more true than now, when anyone who’d read Hitler’s speeches would realise where Trump got his inspiration (by chance, obviously. I doubt he reads anything but his own press).
    As for removing Christmas trees and saying ‘Happy Holiday’ – I don’t see it as oppression, but I do see it as a piece of PC nonsense too far. If you live in a country whose predominant culture differs from yours, is it reasonable to expect them to tone down their cultural celebrations to suit you? It may be being kind to you, but it’s unkind to those who thoroughly enjoy saying ‘merry Christmas’ and taking the kids to see the communal Christmas tree – Christmas being about loving, sharing and tolerance, after all. Why on earth can’t we encompass both? (Yeah well, don’t answer that.) And would you expect Muslims to tone down their cultural celebrations if you lived in a Muslim country?
    Dec. 25 is a holiday BECAUSE it’s Christmas. Should we do away with holiday?

    • I personally think people make a lot of noise about stuff they understand and a lot of this displays the limits of their understanding.

      The Earth has all of us. That’s the answer right there. We’re all here all of us at the same time. I taught hundreds of Muslim students and shared all their holidays. It was great. Great to be part of the WORLD. They shared mine, too. We were all celebrating the fact that we had something to celebrate that was meaningful to us. That’s a wonderful thing right there.

      Yeah, there are people who get upset if someone says ‘Merry Christmas’ to them. I don’t live in a place like that any more and was surprised when I moved here that people would say “Merry Christmas”. In China one of my sweetest memories was going to the post office to pick up a package. It was handed to me by a man I never saw before or after. He looked into my eyes — not a common Chinese custom with strangers — handed it to me and said, “Merry Christmas.” Of course it had been opened and checked carefully before it was rewrapped and handed to me. 🙂 His words meant almost as much to me as my Aunt’s gift at that moment when I felt so far from home.

  6. Interesting post and comments! One’s i find myself largely in agreement with.

    As to your last point though – changing ourselves being the easy solution; learning humility and compassion? Changing ourselves is the ONLY solution to any of society’s ‘problems’, but it is far from easy to do. Believing that it is we who need to be more humble and compassionate than we already feel ourselves to be and not the rest of society that needs to change?

    As i noted over on Marilyn’s blog we are pretty good at following a lead (either in a good or bad way) but not so good at instigating lasting change in ourself (as there is a continuous societal momentum that brings any deviance away from it back in line). When we have leaders like Trump elected it rather puts us back a few steps in our overall ‘progress’. 😦

    We need more Lincoln’s and less Booths.

    love

    • We have it in the power to change ourselves and that is not nothing.

      As for Trump, I believe the last election was hopeless. I believe it was a symptom of the disenfranchisement of many Americans — mostly, though, the 50% who did not vote. I believe that Trump’s winning was a freakish concatenation of events including people hating Hillary, believing she would win, and voting for him in spite. I think it was a freakish as he is.

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