from File 770
Bruce Baugh on June 26, 2015 at 12:41 am said:
There’s an aspect of worldview which is sort of prior to specific politics, religion or philosophy, and so on, that needs some explicit attention.
Some people believe that it’s possible (in the sense of “feasible for some significant number of people”, not the abstract possible under conditions no one ever actually attains) to be a basically good person. You will go through your life and seldom if ever do any genuine harm except if you go at it with deliberate malicious intent. Any unintentional harm you do will necessarily be small and contained, and almost certainly easily remedied. You are fully capable of overcoming inherited prejudices floating around in your society, and of seeing the world clearly and largely correctly.
Such people tend to be relatively advantaged – “unmarked”, in a very useful phrase from social studies. You don’t need or expect to have to use a lot of adjectives to describe yourself: you’re American (or whatever your nationality is); if you’re married, you just say “I’m married” and the sex of your spouse is assumed; if you’re a professional in almost any field, you can just say “I’m an X”; and so on. And such people tend to take the charge that they’ve said or done something prejudicial really seriously. After all, if you can expect to be a good person except if you choose otherwise, and you’ve done something clearly un-good, that means the accuser is saying you did deliberately, with malice, choose to be hurtful. That would make you a bad person, and since you’re not, they’re out of line.
Other people believe that we never altogether escape our legacies, and that they include a bunch of ugly screwed-up stuff as well as good things. We can – and should – aim to do better, but perfection isn’t attainable, and we are likely to do small harms (and sometimes larger ones) all the time. Sometimes it’s through ignorance, sometimes it’s through laziness and unwillingness to change the habits that give hurt, usually it’s a fair dose of both. In this view, dishing out harm is a routine though unwelcome part of life, and it’s no great achievement – but also no great burden, really – to respond by acknowledging it, apologizing, seeing what you can do to repair things, and then working to not do that particular one again.
As Huey Lewis put it once, “All I want from tomorrow / is to get it better than today.”
This view is more common among people who are “marked”: those who are hyphenated Americans, who will have to say something to avoid incorrect assumptions about the sex or gender of their loved ones, who can expect to be called a “lady X” instead of just “an X”, and so on. They have more experience of being on the receiving end of a lot of unintended but nonetheless genuinely hurtful junk, and of seeing other deny responsibility for the hurt they’ve given. They see too how even when dealing with their own friends, family, and peers, disparaging attitudes about their kind can slip in and color what they do. (This is what “internalized” bigotry means: believing crap about yourself and people like you, and treating yourself or others like you the way people with social advantages over you are prone to.)
In my view, the second approach is vastly more realistic. We do all screw up a bunch all the time. Nobody can go through life constantly apologizing…but we can go through life recognizing that we do things worth apologizing for all the time, and try to do better. We can be humble about our limitations.
It’s in this context that telling someone “hey, that was kind of racist” or “that’s just flat-out sexist, unless I’m missing something” or “are you sure you want to be passing on that kind of rank homophobia?” is…not trivial, but not a big deal, and not an overall judgment of any sort on your character. If you slam a door on my fingers, I’ll probably yell and want you to open the door right away rather than stand around arguing that it’s no big deal and why am I making you feel bad. But if you do open the door right away and help me get some ice, I’m going to think that it wasn’t anything you intended and not think any the worse of you as a person. Same deal. Furthermore, I won’t claim to be sure that I have never done that to anyone else, nor that I am sure I wouldn’t, couldn’t, do it myself in the future sometime, because I know that accidents happen. I also know that acting on prejudicial scripts inherited from the many dimensions of culture that surround us all happens.
What I may do is think less of you based on your response. If I see you dodge responsibility time after time, I’ll think less of you. If I see you insist that nobody should feel hurt by the thing you did time after time, ditto. I expect adults to be willing to acknowledge the potential for error in themselves and to be willing to work on fixing it and improving things without making a big deal, just as I wouldn’t feel it appropriate to celebrate someone merely for not slamming people’s fingers in doors, not crapping in other people’s drinking water, and almost never setting any occupied homes on fire.
The problem is how to communicate any of that who have a conviction of their own basic perfectibility and who’ve never thought about it.