Thursday, March 14, 2013

Peace, Perfection, and Purity

I got e-mail the other day from someone I'd quoted in a previous post, Scott from Chicago, who'd urged  Ta-Nehisi Coates (and presumably other African-Americans) to play nice:
I am starting to have misgivings about articles like these: All that is good in the world (that I have observed) comes from tolerance and a willingness to forgive. Nothing ever good stems from quests for perfection and purity.
I wrote that I have misgivings about people who make such recommendations, and Scott asked me what those misgivings were.  I didn't go into that at length in the earlier post, partly out of laziness and partly because I thought most of my readers wouldn't need to be told.   But since he asked, it seems like a good idea to explain. What follows is a slightly longer version of my reply to him.

I stated my misgiving in the blog post, right after I quoted him: it seems that it is always the people being picked on who are expected to play nice.  It never seems to discredit majorities, and especially powerful majorities, when they behave badly; no one scolds them about demanding "perfection and purity" from the people they attack, no one says that they need to exhibit more "tolerance and a willingness to forgive."  A similar pattern can be seen when righteous liberals demand that dissidents be non-violent, though they make no demand that the State renounce violence.

I'm not sure what "tolerance and a willingness to forgive" have to do with it.  I think most African-Americans, for example, would be perfectly happy to "tolerate" white people if white people would just stop being racist.  (I know that's how I feel about heterosexuals, as a gay man: I get along fine with many or most heterosexuals.  The bigots just need to stop being bigots.)  I think it is very significant that the request to refrain from racist behavior is considered a counsel of "perfection and purity."

As for being willing to forgive, I think it's reasonable to expect people to recognize and admit they've done something wrong before one forgives them.  Since so many white people indignantly deny that they've done or said something racist, no matter what they do, I think forgiveness would be premature.  Not all white people do this, of course, but I'm not talking about them: I'm talking about those who think you're only a racist if you've ever owned a slave or lynched somebody.

The requirement of "tolerance" also interests me because it implies that white people, for example, are somehow disadvantaged, even oppressed, by black people's alleged intolerance of them.  But what TNC is calling for (if I understand him correctly) is not intolerance of white people, it's intolerance of racism, and I don't see any reason why racism should be tolerated.  It can be forgiven if someone actually asks for forgiveness.  But I see very little (if any) of that.  Polls continuously show that most white Americans believe that racism is no longer a problem in the US, and that's absurd.

There's a similar line about "guilt."  Criticize someone for racism or sexism, he may protest that you're just trying to make him feel guilty.  Not at all.  I just want him to stop being racist or sexist.  I'm probably obtuse, but I've always been baffled when I hear white men talking about how they were made to feel guilty for being white or male.  Maybe they were, but I've never gotten that feeling either from anti-racists or women, and I've always been a major guilt junkie.  What they wanted was for me to change my behavior.  And my attitudes, if at all possible.  I found it quite possible.

P.S. A flood of rants about the new "Mexican" Pope on Yes, You're Racist's Twitter feed.  But then someone tweeted "These people ... are frightening. Following makes us non US think all white Americans are vile racists."  The blame for stereotyping should fall on the person who stereotypes, however.  As Yes, You're Racist replied, "But I'm a white American ..."