Some Thoughts on Charlottesville:
A Teacher's Reflection
Like many thoughtful North Americans, I have spent a lot of time over the last several days considering recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia and their social and political fallout. And like any socially engaged person with a Facebook account, I've posted a fair number of memes, articles, and news clips on the subject. But one thing I haven't done yet is to address these events substantially in my own words, specifically as an educated white Canadian currently preparing to teach a new course in my university's Human Rights Program.
To start, I might refer to the claims, which I've encountered from numerous sources over the past week, that it is incumbent upon white people to denounce the actions and values of the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates both at the riot in Charlotteville and wherever else they manifest. These claims are reasonable. Their logic is the same as that invoked by many white public figures in response to acts of Islamic terrorism, namely that if I do not explicitly denounce these acts and arguments, committed by people who claim to represent me by virtue of a shared low count of melanin in our epidermises, I am implicitly condoning them. I would add that no white person who has publicly imposed this reasoning on the Muslim community in response to the actions of a violent minority of Muslims has any moral grounds for remaining silent now in the face of white terrorism.
The force of the demand, though, is not merely for denunciation: for any thoughtful person, it also extends into honest reflection. What set of historical, political, economic, and emotional circumstances has led to this sudden upsurge in angry white people, mostly men, openly brandishing symbols—the swastika and the Confederate battle flag—of two of the most dehumanizing ideologies ever to be excreted by the modern Western world? Regarding the appeal and effect of Donald Trump, many people with more knowledge than me have already identified the implicit permission for racial hatred and violence embodied in his campaign and presidency. Also well attested is the appeal of violent ideologies to people, particularly men, who feel disenfranchised by their own societies. And I use the word “feel” advisedly as there has been no real disenfranchisement but rather attempts by both activists and people of conscience over the last many decades to remove the systemic mechanisms that give one group of people privileged access to the social goods that are the right, equally, of every citizen where civil rights are concerned, and every person where human rights are concerned. One essential mistake common to neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates, I think, is that they have confused privileges with rights. And while there are legitimate moral grounds for outrage at the denial of a right, no such grounds exist with the removal of a privilege, no matter how one may feel about it.
As for the claims of the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates, they tend toward one or both of the following: that white people are genetically superior to other human beings, and that the culture of white people is superior to the cultures of other human beings. A recent documentary by Vice News shows examples of both these claims spoken by white supremacists in Charlottesville: http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/videos/a57009/charlottesville-vice-documentary/.
As for the genetic claim, it has been thoroughly debunked by modern science, so I need not go into it here. The cultural claim, though, is worth addressing as in this sense the white supremacists are actually extreme or radical proponents of a Western system of domination whose other symptoms include colonialism, neo-colonialism, both attempted and successful genocides, and both attempted and successful erasures of non-Western cultures and worldviews on multiple continents. As much of my own teaching involves bringing non-Western worldviews into contexts from which they might otherwise be absent—the new course referred to above is titled “Non-Western Approaches to Human Rights”—I am particularly attuned to the latter elements on this list.
There are many possible sources for this spurious claim of cultural superiority, which for the sake of space I address only briefly. Most obvious is the fact that many of the achievements of Western culture, rhetorically associated with whiteness in supremacist discourse, are genuinely impressive both technologically and politically. That is, there is much in the culture whom these terrorists claim to represent that is worthy of respect. Problem is, they themselves don't embody the good stuff, so their claims to cultural superiority are hollow the minute they make them. But even allowing, for a moment, the possibility that some of the swastika-wearing battle-flag-waving thugs who came out in force in Charlottesville actually understand Western culture as anything beyond militant posturing and jingoistic racial nationalism, a further problem arises, namely the ubiquity of subjective bias: just as we see our own achievements more clearly than we see the achievements of others, we rate the importance of our own achievements more highly than we rate the importance of the achievements of others. This is true both individually and culturally.
People raised solely within the Western tradition are taught from early childhood, and in some cases right up through grad school, that the tradition within which they live is the best tradition available. As the logic also holds with other traditions, I hope it is clear that I'm not singling out the West for special treatment in this regard. One of the problems in the current context, though, arises from the fact that in their conquest of much of the world, the Western powers historically did their best to erase other cultures and their achievements. Witness the residential school system in Canada, and the deliberate destruction of African culture and religion among imported slaves by organizing them into groups comprised of people with mutually incomprehensible languages. That is, historically in North America, people descending from non-white ancestors have been taught either that their historic culture was inferior or that they did not in fact have a historic culture. And many whites have been taught largely the same lessons about their non-Euro fellow citizens. The most egregious form of this bias was on display in Charlottesville last week. A more respectable form of it is the Western triumphalism that pervades much of our public and political discourse—the position that sees such terms as “developed” and “Westernized” as more or less synonymous.
Here is where my little personal reflection gets contentious. As a life-long student of worldviews other than my own, I've come to see people's interactions with other thought worlds, and other ways of being, as falling on a spectrum with a genuinely universal perspective at one end—someone who engages multiple cultures and worldviews on their own terms in a spirit of understanding—and a violent supremacist on the other. I would place the political, religious, or academic cultural triumphalist, Western or otherwise, in the middle of this spectrum, roughly equidistant between a figure such as my personal hero Joseph Campbell, who tried with absolute sincerity and some success to not only approach and understand multiple cultures on their own terms but also publicly cultivated that understanding in his society, and the Confederate yahoos who recently congregated in Charlottesville. And yes, to be clear, this does mean that the person who knows only their own worldview, and even embodies the best of it, is arguably equidistant between a Campbell and a neo-Nazi, as is the person who engages an “other” worldview merely for the sake of dismantling it even with the clearest of consciences, as for example the missionaries of any religion engage the religions they seek to displace.
What I am not saying here is that cultural triumphalists are the same as neo-Nazis. I am suggesting, rather, that the resurgence of white nationalism in a number of countries in the West is not the disease itself but rather a symptom of a broader ailment that has been incubating for a long time. Just as white heterosexual Americans, Brits, or Canadians, long accustomed to viewing ourselves as the standard by which others are to be measured, are confronting the realization that others want the rights and privileges we have long taken for granted, so the rising nations in the world, rooted in traditions largely other than our own, are forcing us to question the long held assumption of the superiority of our own traditions and ways of being. I mean, the Cold War was one thing, but the current geopolitical scenario is something entirely different: While the Russians were often portrayed as the great Eastern threat confronting the free West (just look at the hype around the big US-USSR or Canada-USSR hockey games from the period), the simple fact is that Moscow is a European capital, and the ideologies slugging it out between the late 1940s and the early 1990s were Western ideologies. And the guys running the Kremlin looked more or less like “us.”
With the currently rising powers of China and India, the situation is different. While China is a communist country that has recently opened itself up to capitalist enterprise—both Western modes of thought—its religious and philosophic roots are different from those of Russia: largely Confucian with a mix of Taoism and Buddhism as opposed to the Orthodox Christianity of the Russian Church. And while India has English as one of its official languages and models its government on British antecedents, the majority of Indians are Hindu, and Hindu thought occupies a vital role in Indian public discourse. Moreover, both of these countries have historically been dominated and humiliated by the West—China during the Opium wars of the 19th Century and India during centuries of colonial occupation. That these former objects of domination are now asserting themselves as viable rivals to a West in political decline might easily register as an affront to some nostalgic good-ole-days version of white pride. Oh, and the leaders of India and China look a lot less like “us” than did Comrades Stalin or Brezhnev. Add to these factors the political and cultural renaissance among many of the world's indigenous communities, and the demands that the economic, political, physical, and religious evils of colonialism be first acknowledged and then atoned for, and you have a situation where anyone with a vested interest in the greatness of “white” culture has a lot of bobbing and weaving to do.
So … Back to Charlottesville.
Most North Americans recognize the backwardness and moral vacuity of the human refuse who gathered there. But this recognition is not enough. White North Americans need to be able to look at those angry hate-filled people and recognize some reflection of themselves: we have all, at some point, evaluated another human being on some standard other than what Dr. King referred to as the “content of their character.” All of us. And if we turn from those white supremacists in moral revulsion, as we should, then we need to take the next step and ask not just “How did that happen” but “How can I make sure that doesn't happen again?” And we need to ask that question not just as lone individuals but as exemplars of whatever social roles we happen to fill—parent, partner, friend, business person, teacher, social or religious leader, elected official: in short, citizen. We need to recognize that the system that produced us—the system that has until recently denigrated and excluded all ways of being not arising from itself—is also the system that produced them. We need to learn to look outside of our biases and assumptions and upbringings, to set all triumphalism aside, and realize with a full robust humility that no one culture, no matter its achievements, is a suitable measure for the rest of the world. The result will be a perpetual state of uncertainty, an ever-extending mesh of negotiations and re-negotiations. But I think we can have some constructive conversations along the way. And everyone is invited.