Racists and supremacists are regularly characterized as fringe elements of our society. This is not correct. And getting things correct may be necessary before we can make things right.
Historically speaking, bigotry has not lurked at the fringes of our society. It has inhabited the center. Prejudices may be expressed more selectively or subtly than this week’s rampaging protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, but much of the ensuing dissent may have more to do with style than substance. Supremacist beliefs are widely held.
Tribalism takes many forms. Most of us fall into its thrall at least occasionally. Racism, classism, ageism, nationalism — we define ourselves in contrast to others. If you ever think less of anyone for any reason, you are not separate from this problem at hand.
Rage against the mayhem in Charlottesville. Mourn the tragic death of a young woman, plowed down by a young Nazi sympathizer. But also stop and ask yourself, “Who do I see as lesser?” Is it meat-eaters? Bumper sticker scolds? Anyone who loses their temper in the grocery story? How about those with dreadlocks or tattoos? Anyone wearing a suit or makeup?
Those who slavishly add the Oxford comma really get to me. We all have our weak spots, where we believe we know better than others. In this country, our presidents have often played a special role in these us-versus-them conversations. There must be a special vantage given when millions or billions of people consider you first among equals.
Bill Clinton, near the end of his presidency, tried to start a national conversation by pointing out that every human shares DNA characteristics that are 99.95% identical. Jimmy Carter confessed to Playboy Magazine that he had lusted after other women in his heart. His point was the same as Clinton’s. We’re all more alike than different.
Unfortunately, no evolutionary advantage was given to those who identified commonalities. Rather, we’ve trained ourselves for thousands of generations to notice differences, however slight. Any perceived clues of potential danger helped us survive. We’ve been bred to see what’s different around and between us.
But different is not the same as better. The trick is to notice differences without feeling disgust, anger, fear or shame — for them or for ourselves. I find belief in God to be helpful in this regard. A cosmic entity, mythical or not, provides context for those differences, making them appear as small as they deserve to be. The Great Other puts us in our place — that is to say, it puts all of us in approximately the same place.
Outrage against supremacy in all its forms is not a natural human response. Those who take action against the hard-wired comfort that comes from feeling better than others — those are our outliers. They are the fringe. They take the fight to the majority, armed only with their shared conviction that their cause is just.
The abolitionists did not imagine they represented the majority when they called for the end of slavery. Suffragists marched for women’s rights not because it was the most popular view — only because they believed it was right. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not wait for most Americans to agree with his views. He led a minority movement that insisted on being heard.
Once logic catches up with the activists’ moral imperative, only then can a majoritarian movement begin. If the cause doesn’t feel like a lonely fight, chances are the hard work has already been done. If your feet don’t hurt from marching, look for a bandwagon beneath them.
The blameless among us are nearly none. Supremacism is among and within us. No one can root it out of our communities and our selves except us. And there’s no better time than when riots are shown on the TV, blaring a subtext that those behaviors and beliefs are (literally) unbecoming. They cannot be allowed to express where we’re going. But they are where we are — most of us, all of us, at least some of the time.
Charlottesville’s real message is this: there’s work to be done, very close to home.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs.