“You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.”Alan Watts
I’ve been watching white people all over the internet wrestle with their fragility. Our fragility. It’s hard. I see tweets and facebook posts with people saying things like:
I get what they’re talking about.
I’ve never really bought into “woke” culture, per se. There’s a radical version of wokeness that is really, at base, more about the status of the woke person than the rights or privileges of the person they’re ostensibly waking up for. Like they are better than you because they get it, and your clueless ass doesn’t. Doesn’t really matter what “it” is, which is the entirety of the problem. It could be the meaning of life (42) or the impact of MJ on the game of basketball (hot take: stifled beautiful, team-based innovation like we’re seeing now for 20 years), or systemic racism. Certain people, often white, simply use their woke-ness to one-up each other based on their getting it, and the other person not. For some, it’s become a status game. This is the beef that the people above are talking about.
Best example I’ve seen: This article was brought up in our book club this week, from Tablet Magazine, which purports to discuss this topic. It points out that there is such a thing as “moral cruelty”, which in this case is the woke people making other people feel guilty about their own racism. From the article:
The other key insight Shklar found in Nietzsche is that fear of “physical cruelty” can be transformed into “moral cruelty” by “deliberate and persistent humiliation, so that the victim can eventually trust neither himself nor anyone else.” Those who see themselves as fighting against physical cruelty, from Christian priests railing against the iniquities of the Roman Coliseum to their distant descendants, the social justice warriors of today, can inflict all kinds of psychological torment on their opponents—and themselves.
If one is really sensitive to cruelty, Nietzsche suggested, than (sic) one must reject the moral cruelty that lurks behind campaigns to eradicate physical cruelty. One must rescue people from the humiliation and loss of confidence that Christianity and its political heirs impose. Shklar took this paradox seriously. In a Nietzschean reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, she analyzed the ways that Christianity, ostensibly opposed to cruelty, can lead believers to inflict suffering on others and themselves. A “humanitarianism unshaken by skepticism and unmindful of its limitations,” she concluded, can indeed be crueler than more obvious and brutal forms of violence it seeks to resist.
Shklar did not provide present-day examples of moral cruelty, preferring to stay with the safely nonpolitical example of a 19th-century allegory about 17th-century Puritans. We cannot afford such detachment. Everywhere around us, people are acting cruelly in the name of eradicating physical harm and arbitrary power. Anyone working in a university, cultural institution, or large corporation today has spent recent weeks reading emails, attending meetings, and participating in conversations that are theaters of moral cruelty. White people in such contexts are asked—or required—to admit that they are culpable, that they lack ethical and epistemic authority, that they must listen to and heed the demands of victims of racism. They humiliate themselves, literally kneeling in propitiation.
Shklar found such acts of self-debasement no less cruel and terrifying than the violence that they are supposedly meant to resist.
It’s worth the read, as it thoroughly articulates the worldview held by the tweets above, and it cites Nietzsche. It echos many white voices who are really struggling with the changes happening right now, and for the reasons mentioned above I very much get what they’re talking about. The far edge of woke-ness is simply irritatingly, arrogantly, narcissistically missing the point. And it justifiably feels wrong to follow their lead.
That said, it’s a spectrum. Simply because some people take cancel culture too far doesn’t mean that paying attention to one’s blind spots around race, and owning them when we find them, amounts to self flagellation.
It’s not binary.
Being open to others’ experience of you as negative doesn’t amount to a lynching on your self worth. That’s unhelpfully simplistic, and I think that’s where this argument fails. In essence it states that people on top (white people as it pertains to racial equity) shouldn’t have to deal with the fallout of the physical and/or emotional violence we inflict on those we oppress, because it will emotionally break us to confront that. It’s wrong to oppress people, sure, but this train of thought says it’s an equivalent wrong to make people feel guilty about it.
I’m not even going to break down the false equivalency of the two types of violence, but it still seems to me humans can and should expect ourselves to handle nuance here. Paradox. We should expect ourselves to hold onto the idea that we are racist, a part of an enormous and systemic humanitarian problem, AND that we are good people, both at the same time. This is the challenge facing many white people today. Well-intended white folks who want to do the right thing, but struggle to reconcile their self-image with that of someone perpetuating racial oppression.
But we can walk and chew gum at the same time. I promise.
As a white person, one who doesn’t particularly like knowing that I’ve been racist my whole life, I get the temptation to push back. To think, It wasn’t me. It was ancestors, or KKK folks, or someone else. Someone other. But it damn sure wasn’t me and I’m not going to say it was if it wasn’t.
But that solipsistic view is the very definition of White Fragility. White people’s inability to comfortably talk about race without getting defensive. And White Fragility is at its foundation a cultural mechanism designed to keep white people on top by refusing to acknowledge the fact that there is even a top to be on. Like wealthy people refusing to acknowledge poverty (ever wonder why it’s so taboo to ask someone how much they earn). A way for white people to maintain power without feeling guilty about doing so. In fact while maintaining the moral high ground, as if we’re above it all. And if we have any doubt as to its efficacy, look at the last 200 years.
For me and many other white folks (including the guys in my book club), this is a difficult process to undertake, requiring the overcoming of many defense mechanisms along the way. The defense mechanisms are there for a reason, they are effective, and it feels good to stay on the right side of them. It’s comfortable. I, too, like being comfortable, and it feels bad to me, too, when I’m uncomfortable. It feels weird to step outside my well-coiffed self image, past those cultural defense mechanisms, and try on that actually I may have caused harm. The defense mechanisms make it seem like doing that means admitting to barbarism. But it doesn’t. My self image is not the same as me, and I will not die if I let go of the way I have always seen myself slightly, and try on that maybe other people’s experience of me is different. I won’t die if I try to understand rather than be understood.
And if you try it on, walk a few steps in someone’s shoes, if you really get outside yourself and do that, it doesn’t take long before seeing your own racism starts becoming unavoidable. You’ve been cultured to blindness, but once you do the work to see even a little, you can’t unsee ever again.
It’s easy to stop when it starts to hurt. It’s easy to poo poo the whole thing as a swath of performative art and status signaling. But I encourage us white people to not be so quick to think we have the answers. To not assume we know what this is before we actually take the time to look. To not throw the baby out with the bath water. We have an opportunity here, maybe for the first time in decades, to make real change, and I encourage all of us to not let a few narcissistic bad apples taking it too far to distract us from that very real opportunity. The opportunity to affect change is here, and I encourage us to push on with open minds.
We can feel good about ourselves while still trying actively to change.