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Shame and Prejudice
March 15th, 2010

Before commencing with today’s topic, I want to thank all of you for making the discussion around Friday’s post so sincere, honest, and voluminous!  I had some suspicions that that post would touch a nerve, but I had no clue the extent to which you all would share your beliefs and experiences.  Blogging, at its best, facilitates wonderful dialogue between curious and intelligent people from all walks of life.  The commenting around ”Pressured to Push” was one such example, and I want to offer my most heartfelt thanks for your incredible participation in the conversation that went on.  If you missed Friday’s post, feel free to join in the discussion now. … Now, moving along…

The protagonist of The Help was encouraged by an editor to write about what she sees that bothers her.  After a couple of fluff attempts at other topics she realizes that she is keenly upset by the relationships between Southern white families and their black maids.  The story continues from there as the young heroine proceeds to summon her inner pluck and quietly dismantle the delicately balanced domestic ecosystem in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.

I enjoyed the book.  But something about it has been nagging at me since I reached its final page a few months ago.  The discussion prompts at the end ask all sorts of interesting questions.  But they are all local to the book.  They ask about the relationships between characters, how the characters were influenced by their surroundings, why we perceive certain characters in certain ways, etc.  And for a book whose characters were so willing to question the status quo, I’ve been bothered by the fact that the discussion questions don’t ask us to do the same.

We make mistakes.  As individuals, as a culture, and as a society, we commit all manner of offenses against all sorts of people (and animals, and ecosystems, etc.).  With time we come to recognize those offenses and typically do something to rectify the situation.  Slavery was abolished.  Women have suffrage.  Indian nations are sovereign land.  “Separate but equal” was ended.  Gays are slowly gaining a foothold on their civil rights in this country.  We’re making progress.

It’s easy to look back at this discrimination with embarrassment.  It’s easy to see in retrospect how hideous the dominant thinking of these latter days truly was.  And it’s equally easy to exhale a big sigh of relief knowing that today we are not guilty of the same transgressions.

But we are not perfect.  We are not fully evolved.  We are not immune from the cultural damage of new ignorant mistakes.  There are aspects of our society that our grandchildren will learn about in social studies text books and be made to cringe.  There are things we accept today that we will reflect upon in our later years and say, “That’s just how things were back then.”

But what are those things?  That’s the unasked discussion question that is stuck in my mind three or four months after reading The Help.  What is it that I’m doing today that is wrong?  What is that that I tacitly comply with or ignore?

Is it something environmental?  Is it the way we manage our food supply?  (I’m currently under the influence of Michael Pollan.)  Is it fuel-injection automobiles?  Is it prejudice against the obese?  What are the issues that surround me each day that I accept and yet shouldn’t?  What is the belief I hold today that will embarrass me down the road?  What is it that I might, given the awareness and the gumption, have the ability to change?

The very paradox of these questions is that they allude to the frustrating truth that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  But yet we have changed over time.  We have righted (sort of…) our past wrongs.  And this means that at some point someone knew more than his peers.  At some point someone stood up and spoke out in defiance of conventional logic.  At some point that person was loud enough and persuasive enough to turn a cultural tide.

Abigail Adams was onto something when she wrote to her beloved John in the spring of 1776, “…remember the ladies…”  She knew that it wasn’t right to be denied a voice in the birth of her new country, yet her forward-thinking mind could only rattle so many social constructs.  But this is how it begins.  Someone pokes a small hole in the status quo.  Then Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton blow it wide open and in 1920 women’s suffrage is ratified.  Or Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat, and nine years later LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act into law.  Or John Geddes Lawrence has the courage to appeal his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Today’s social and political norms are my norms.  Right now I am not ashamed of them, but someday I hope I will be.  Not because I want to be wrong but because I’m sure that I already am wrong about something, and I hope I am always amenable to change.

10 Responses to “Shame and Prejudice”

  1. Anne Says:

    I, too, often wonder what will change about our cultural norms. What will my children someday believe was antiquated or wrong? I think the important thing is to keep asking this question, and listen to where it leads us. P.S. Interesting about the discussion questions from The Help…I hadn’t read those.

  2. Eva Says:

    Ooh, this is such a good discussion topic. It is interesting, and painful in a way, to realize the beliefs that were common when my grandparents (or even my parents) were raised. I feel fortunate to live in the era that we do, but there is still much work to be done. Women make up half of the workforce (or maybe slightly more right now?) but we don’t have full wage parity yet. And there are still only 17 female US Senators.

    Likewise, what an accomplishment and a beautiful moment to live through the election of President Obama, our first black president. But diversity is still a sensitive issue for many people. As the makeup of our nation changes, and whites actually are replaced by Hispanics as the majority, I think we will gradually move forward to change our idea of our national identity.

    Now you’re really got me thinking, Gale!

  3. D Says:

    It is funny that you post this today because I had a discussion with my 5 and 8 yo yesterday about how important it is to follow your own beliefs about what it is right and wrong, even when it is difficult to do so. What sparked the conversation was our first viewing of “The Sound of Music,” and the kids wondered why the Captain didn’t want to join the Nazis. As I explained (in simplistic, somewhat sanitized detail) about WWII, somehow the conversation centered on Anne Frank and just watching their faces as I explained that people were killed because of their religion was both heart wrenching and illuminating. Because I, as an adult, am familiar with how cruel the world can be, you are almost immune to how horrifying it is to learn that such bad things can happen. The way I made it seem better was that it happened a very long time ago and the ideals Anne Frank represented (belief in good even in dark times) continue now. But you’re right, what are we gently closing the door, turning the key and looking away from that in a generation or two will horrify us? It’s food for thought and especially as a parent, something I need to be aware of. Great post!

  4. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Another great post, Gale, and another one that has me thinking. When I first learned about the genocide in Darfur, I wondered if this would be the crucible of our generation, if someday my kids would ask, “What did you do when you learned about these massacres?” I also wonder if the explosion of HIV in the developing world (despite drug protocols that have all but made HIV/AIDS a chronic illness in the developed world) is yet another one.

    My problem is that I spend a fair amount of time thinking about these things, but no time (just some money) dealing with them. And I think thinking is important. But thinking doesn’t get real change made.

  5. Nicki Says:

    Great thoughts, Gale. I do think we have a long way to go before coming close to being a perfect society. While it was not in my written thoughts, I think labels may play a role in this. We label people – whether it is women or those with HIV/AIDS or transgendered. Then we allow these words/labels to influence how we think in some cases. Hopefully, my children’s children will see this end.

    Kristen – Without all the thinking, a lot of the actions that have led to previous improvements would never have taken place.

  6. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Great, challenging post. I think that so many of us are overwhelmed by these vast, and critical issues. I think many of us think about change and cultural flux, but it is hard, so hard, to truly make sense of it all, to comprehend how, and what, time will tell us. I do think we need to at once acknowledge the true magnitude of these questions and all be willing to poke holes in the status quo. Maybe that’s what we bloggers and thinkers are doing? Poking itty-bitty holes in the fabric of our worlds and assumptions by asking questions, important questions, such as the ones you utter here?

    (So thrilled to see D commenting here! As I think you know, she is one of my very first and very favorite commenters over at ILI!)

  7. Jane Says:

    Loved this post. I struggle with the very same questions. And wondering, too, where I fit in it all, how I came to believe the things I believe – why other don’t feel the same way and why. Will it change? Am I “on the cutting edge” or “behind the times?” Fascinating discussion.

  8. Celeste Says:

    I grew up in the Northeast and despite a great education and active conversation growing up in a liberal household, in many ways I was oblivious to the inequities and malfeasance that exist in our society today. It wasn’t until I moved to the South that I observed first-hand the byproducts of our past mistakes.

    Let’s assume that we, any of us, were able to clearly identify these “things”. What if they were blatantly immoral, but perhaps lawful, injustices? What then? My daughter is doing a project on Susan B. Anthony for her 2nd grade class. Susan dedicated her life to her goal of women’s suffrage and to women’s rights as a whole. She never married or had children. How many people are willing to give their lives to their cause? True, a lot can be accomplished by taking small steps in the right direction and it isn’t always necessary to go the extreme. But it is also very difficult to make significant strides while trying to hold down a job (in or out of the home) and make life as good as it possibly can be for ourselves, our children, and all of those around us.

    My brother, my literal genius, follower of real (not to be confused with applied) science, unmarried and childless brother, and I had this conversation not too long ago. He describes a situation in which we try to raise our children to do amazing things in the world, “giant steps for mankind” kind of things. But, ultimately, what ends up happening is that children grow up, get an education (or not) and a good job (or not) and then start their own families. And very few of us do anything ‘consequential’. I tell him to come back and finish this conversation once he has children and tell me I am not doing something consequential. :)

  9. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I’ve been meaning to come by (and so glad I did). Late to the conversation – but one that is so thoughtful, and so important.

    I think we sense the inequities, but frankly – you’re right that once we’re embroiled in our own families, it’s difficult to do “big things.” Getting through the day is big enough, yet it is big, if we’re raising open-minded and centered kids. Perhaps you are right – we needn’t have “giant steps” so much as an ability to shift, to adjust, to edge into things that we sense are the right thing to do.

    This, to me, is key: I hope I am always amenable to change.

    Wonderful post.

  10. Sarah Says:

    Change, yes. For me so much of navigating life is knowing that I am willing and able to change. And when I take that to a universal, global level, I think that anything is possible for us as a Nation and as a World.

    I hope that in 10 or 20 or more years I can look back and really SEE the changes. But I Fear it will take much longer. And I hope that when my kids are raising their kids, the changes make life easier. I’m not naive enough to think there will never be struggle. But it will be different, I hope.