I don’t want to beleaguer the subject, but while my last few posts have weighed in on the so-called “safe space debate,” I haven’t quite gotten to the heart of the problem yet. Lost in the blind privilege, earnest ignorance, hostile rhetoric and emotional apologias involved is the value that cleaves the intellectual divide. The same love of righteousness that drove Martin Luther to nail his Theses to the church door inspires the passionate exchanges today. Whereas Luther’s approach was questioning, however, today’s contestants are assertive and sure.
Ours is a society that worships champions, and if the current election demonstrates nothing else, it certainly proves our preoccupation with winning debates. Staters love being right, and now that objective truth has been dethroned, in lieu of that, we claim authenticity or experience. We’ve found new measures of correctness. What we still can’t reconcile is being wrong.
Years ago, C. Vann Woodward suggested that the South — knowing what it was like to be defeated and, worse, on the wrong side on a serious moral issue — could be an example to the rest of the country, wrestling with developing a more mature, realistic self-consciousness as a society. Woodward’s hopes have failed us. The denial — rather than the irony — of southerners remains indicative of the larger white society in our country. As much as the old Confederate states resisted true reconstruction, privileged white Staters generally have pushed back against efforts to raise awareness of inequalities and hazards that exist in our society (though violent push back isn’t a common tactic anymore, thankfully).
White apologists employ a multitude of tactics in their efforts: minimizing the issues, deflecting, reframing the discussion, claiming free speech, and other various tricks. What great lengths people will go to just to avoid acknowledging wrong. In fairness, it isn’t something we celebrate in our culture or a skill we are proud to hone. Instead, we are socialized to excuse or evade responsibility, by any means necessary. In essence, everyone pleads not guilty because there are no final verdicts in cultural debates.
Public relations disasters have taught the image-conscious to master the non-apology, but pseudo-penitents are rarely sorry or admit expressly to being wrong (or privileged). This is especially the case with academics, who are trained in disputing points and interpretations. Never have I witnessed an exchange between scholars where one conceded s/he was incorrect. The academic may adjust his or her output in the future to account for previous error, but s/he doesn’t go back and make a full accounting. We don’t do reconciliations in the US, and this is really indicative of our culture. It’s built into the legal and social structure.
Where professionalism relies on the authority of experts, error undermines confidence in those leaders and the system — or, at least, that seems to be the common take in our country. It wouldn’t seem to bring down the edifice if individuals or groups efficiently acknowledged their error and moved on corrected — it might actually reinforce confidence if done well, but we don’t have a means for doing it and I don’t see scholars writing books that argue against their previous publications. Also, problematically, Staters seem prone to remember the initial error and miss any subsequent atonement, reducing incentives to admissions.
But, that kind of factual or interpretive error seems of a different sort than the kind I’ve written about recently. It’s one thing to misread a document or not gather your evidence broadly enough. Cultural disputes are of more serious stuff. You do far more damage to resist acknowledging racism (systematic, invisible, and not) on college campuses, in places of employment, and on our streets and to dismiss the harm of wrongs done than to flub some historical facts, even intentionally. The stakes are high in these philosophical exchanges, which makes it all the more important that we somehow learn to value humbling as much as achievement. In other words, we may get past our racism and privilege when we turn western culture on it’s head. Or, maybe the two go indivisibly hand-in-hand.