The Confederacy, nigger, gays, and the struggle to understand perspective.
Do not ever tell an arachnophobe that they should not be afraid because they aren’t in any real danger from spiders. Because the truth is most of us do not care about the danger presented by arachnids. The awful injury or possible death that can be caused by some species of spider does not bother me, and it is not the source of fear for most people that hold a fear of spiders. True; the fear of bodily harm would be a rational reason to be afraid of spiders, and true; generally speaking people are not at risk of being bitten by poisonous spiders. But that knowledge is not going to allay my fears. I am terrified of arachnids. I am paralyzed by this terror, and I have had nervous breakdowns as a result of this phobia. The presence of spiders will affect life choices I make in relation to where I live. If I ever find a tarantula in my house, I will probably move out or into a rehab clinic. And nothing you can tell me about this admittedly irrational fear will ever change my mind.
The lessons of arachnophobia apply in significant ways to matters of perspective and prescribed meaning. While it is commonly thought that the meaning of a word or symbol has some sort of finite meaning – one true meaning on which we should all agree – beauty is in the eyes of the beholder in almost every imaginable instance. What I mean is this: the symbolic collection of s-p-i-d-e-r has an agreed meaning in the English language, but what “spider” means is dependent on how the idea is received by individuals. No matter the “true” or “official” meaning of something, any meaning can be applied to almost anything based on individual perspective. As I will elaborate on later, this does not mean that truth does not exist, and that there is no such thing as incorrect perspective, but this concept should affect the way in which we judge the reaction of others to different words, symbols, concepts, ideas, and the like.
While I believe that reality and truth exist, and might be grasped and understood, multiple realities may exist in our sphere of being as persons with different perspectives experience and react to the same thing, making each perspective valuable and real if not true or validated by the majority.
It is by deconstructing our perceived notions of ultimate truth and meaning that we can understand, and perhaps empathize – or at least sympathize – with the fears, struggles, concerns, etc., of others. We can understand why the Confederate flag should be taken down, why “nigger” is hurtful, and why gay sex offends Christians. We can begin to see one reason for our society’s lack of compassion, sympathy, and love.
A moment of vivid clarity that contributed to my knowledge of this concept came by way of one of my professors at St. Norbert, who goes by the affectionately simple name of Reg. He is of Korean descent. Upon my request, he shared with me a talk that he gave at an event the year before about being a man of Asian descent in an overwhelmingly white place in the world. Reg has lived as an Asian man among Mexican-Americans in L.A., blacks in Oakland, Long Beach, and three boroughs of New York, and whites in South Boston, Oxford (England), and Green Bay.
Of all the young men he has lived around, Reg is most afraid of young white men.
Being a young,
white Scandinavian-American man myself, I found this strange. Surely the cholo boys roaming the streets of East Los Angeles and the black hoodlums occupying Brooklyn are more frightening than other men like me. Sure, there are young white men who are belligerent, drunken, foolish, haughty, and all other manner of unlikable traits, but I don’t think a grown man, regardless of skin color, has reason to be afraid of young and stupid white guys in Wisconsin.
But I do not have the right to tell Reg who he should be afraid of. I cannot tell him that I am less frightening than Trayvon Martin. For him, young white men are the scariest. And that means it is true.
I have never lived as a minority, let alone a minimal minority like most Americans of Asian descent. It is ridiculous that I should feel that I have the right to delineate what is scary and what is not. I do not know what it is like to live in the Great White north (as Reg calls it) as a non-white person. I do not have the capacity to take on that perspective. All I can do is listen to someone who does have that perspective, and that person has told me with honesty what Wisconsin looks like to that particular Korean man. And, of course, my
white Scandinavian-American perspective has limited access to stories about the kind of scorn and ridicule Reg faces on account of his physical appearance. A yellow man being asked if he “Spreeks Engrish” is hardly newsorthy, but that makes it no less hurtful.
The kicker here is this: Reg can be wrong and still be right. Perhaps, in truth, he is in no real danger from young white men. Perhaps a racist joke is the worst he will ever bear. True, Vincent Chin and Cha Vang were murdered by young white males, but most American men of Asian descent will make it through life unscathed. I could, with reasonable certainty, tell Reg that he is not in danger from young white men, and I might be correct (although, again, my
white Scandinavian-American perspective hinders me here). But that doesn’t change the fact that Reg still feels this fear. The conditions are such that, although he will probably never be physically hurt by a young white man, Reg has a very real fear that deserves sympathy, an attentive ear, and an open heart. My skepticism is dashed by his genuine account.
Consider, then, the Confederate flag, a point of controversy since a white supremacist murdered nine black Americans in Charleston. There has been a movement to eradicate that symbol from American culture, but calls to take the flag down, pull Confederate merchandise, and hide existing icons have been met with some resistance. Some of the resistance comes from fully fledged racist [insert bad words that I am stopping myself from using] who hate black people and want to flaunt their white supremacy. But this idea has also been resisted by people that we might call good honest folk who ask “What’s the big deal?” Many Americans have been quick to defend the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional pride, the rights of states, courage and valor demonstrated by rebel soldiers, a general nod to independence and freedom, and the like. Apologists have done an astounding amount of historical revision in order to explain that the Confederacy wasn’t really about protecting the institution of slavery and that the flag was never really used as the symbol of the Confederate States of America. “What’s the big deal?” they ask, “It’s just a flag. There’s nothing racist about it.”
The flag is offensive because of how it is used and perceived in the modern context. No matter what you say that specific design was used for, the flag has come to be the symbol of the Confederacy, and there is no way to get past the fact that slavery was an integral part of Southern life. Slavery is part of Southern heritage, and the CSA was formed to protect that part of their life. But even if you reject those notions and choose to take a different angle on that history, the fact remains that, in today’s society, the flag is used and is seen as something sordid. Yes, plenty of Southerners use it rather harmlessly, but the flag is also used intentionally as a symbol of white supremacy (see Roof, Dylan). Not only is it commonly deployed in such fashion, but those whom the flag is intended to hurt, black Americans, often see the flag as being a symbol of racist hatred. To them, the flag is offensive because of what they perceive it to mean.
Is there an objective meaning for the symbol of the Confederate flag? Maybe not.
But there are an awful lot of people who see the flag as a statement of white supremacy and a devaluation of black life. And that means that the flag is, indeed, a statement of white supremacy and a devaluation of black life. I don’t know if the guy driving his truck with the big Confederate flag flying behind it was aiming to offend black people as he drove past my place of work, but I do know that my black coworker would have every right to be hurt by seeing that symbol so proudly displayed.
Similarly, the word nigger (and not the word nigga, for that is a different word and a different topic) is the most sordid word in the English language, even if cunt remains the one true taboo word we have (and that is also a different topic) because of the way in which it is still used and still received. Some people do not understand why the word nigger is offensive, simultaneously citing the harmless etymology of “negro” and the tame way in which grandma and grandpa referred to black people as “niggers” in the way a white person today might refer to Mexicans as “beaners.” But, like the Confederate flag, nigger comes out of a history that is harsh beyond words and continues to exist in a fashion that is used and perceived as a way to call black people as being less than white people.
While it is, very often, used intentionally by white people to hurt black people, nigger is most offensive because it is received by black people as an offensive word, based primarily in a history that hearkens back to a past that is abhorrent. Does the word have an objective meaning? Is it inherently a “bad” word? Maybe not. But it is, in fact, a word that is received as meaning something quite awful, and is, therefore, a bad word that should never be used. HOWEVER, and I’ll take this moment to get on a soap box, please stop saying “the n-word”. That is one of my least favorite words. If you’re going to talk about the word, just say the word. And, for my part, this applies to “f-bombs” and the like. Please, please, just say the word if you’re talking about the word and not deploying it as an active part of speech. Damn.
Before I move to my last example, let me outline two rules that I think are necessary for understanding concepts of perspective.
- What’s true for you might not be true. By this I mean that, while each and every individual has the power to construct individual meaning, and while each individual perspective is important, an individual cannot always apply their personal reaction to the larger lens of social perspective. So maybe nigger is not an offensive word for you because you do not use it to offend black people. That doesn’t really matter, because the word is still being received in a certain way, and you have no right to tell receivers that they must accept the word as you meant to send it. There is, in a sense, a process of confirmation and corroboration in this. The confederate flag is offensive because a lot of black people think it is offensive, not just a few dozen.
- There is truth. I will never go so far as to deconstruct meaning to the point of denying truth. As Lecrae taught me, “If what’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me, what if my truth says yours is a lie? Is it still true?” There are truths in this world. I think we should earnestly and diligently seek truth with open minds, and expand our ideas of what truth can mean, but ultimately I do believe some things are true and some things are not true. There are truths, but sometimes they take a little more work to find.
I think homosexual acts are wrong. In fact, they (the acts, not the people) offend me. If what I just said makes you angry, go read my post on gay marriage when you’re done reading this.
I don’t hate gay people, and I don’t regard them as being “bad” or any worse than anyone, including me. But because of my Christian beliefs, I think all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, should reserve sex for monogamous, heterosexual marriages. I believe it offends God for people to carry on flaunting their homosexuality, and therefore it offends me (and, again, the legislation is a different issue. I don’t oppose the legislation, that’s y’all’s business). But, again, this is an allusion to another discussion (which is why you should go read the article I linked you too if this has got you mad at me).
I am allowed to have the perspective that homosexual acts are sinful. But so often my perspective on homosexuality, even though it does not prescribe any hatred or mistreatment of gays, is so quickly called hateful and bigoted by so many. In other words, Christians are not allowed to have their religious belief.
This is a failure to understand the nature of perspectives. If you could know what it is like to be a Christian, to have an idea of God that surpasses all worth and understanding, and to have studied the Bible and come to understand the key ideas in the Christian vision of love, sexuality, and marriage, then you could understand why I think gay sex is sinful. But those who are quick to call me bigoted, even though, again, I do not call for any mistreatment of homosexuals and since I am totally willing to let democracy define this legal matter, these people who call me bigoted don’t stop to consider that maybe I have a perspective that is worthwhile, even if they disagree. It is stunning to see the way in which perspective is shut down by rainbow zealots the moment a Christian speaks up. Unbelievably hateful things are said by people supporting a campaign trumpeting #lovewins.
After all, I’m doing the same for gay individuals. Even though I can’t imagine what it is like to come to the realization that I’m homosexual in a heterosexual society, I can try to imagine what it is like and I can seek to understand how terribly tough that might be. I get it: being gay is tough. Coming out is scary. Heterosexual society unwittingly offends and hurts homosexuals. And I am sorry for this. And this effort to understand the perspective has helped me to overcome homophobia. I can see why a gay person might think I hate them, and I understand my belief about their lifestyle might trouble them, but it is my hope that they would get to know my perspective in the way I have come to know theirs. No hate. All love.
These questions of perspective and offense have, asininely but not surprisingly, become political. According to conservatives, liberals get too offended by everything. Liberals are too focused on being politically correct and not hurting anyone’s feelings. Meanwhile, liberals see conservatives as being intentionally mean in their offenses. Conservatives are close-minded bigots who just want everyone to be just like them and don’t care about people who are different.
I’m a moderate politically in part because I find radicals on both sides to be equally repulsive.
This heartless conservative vs. whiny liberal picture is an illustration of how miserably we fail to understand perspective and the ways in which meaning can be deconstructed and reassembled by individuals. It is evidence of a sadly lacking effort to understand one another. It is a reason for our nation’s overwhelming lack of peace, love, and harmony.
I think the Confederate flag is an abomination, and I can give you good reasons why. I think nigger is the worst word in the English language, and I can obliterate your argument. I think gay sex is offensive, and I have reasoning that surpasses academia.
But this post is not about trying to get you to think that way too, as you have your own perspective that might not be so easily swayed. I am not writing to change your mind so much as to change the way you think, or maybe even the way you think about thinking. The meaning of anything is fair game for debate, and we should pay special attention when a perspective is adopted by a large group of people, even if we might disagree with them. And, while individual truths may be not true, sympathizing with the emotions caused by an individual’s view can help us to seek love before we write someone off.
Because I am fully aware that I should not be afraid of spiders. But I am.
The fact that my phobia is unreasonable doesn’t mean it would be okay for someone to put a spider on me, even if they did it in an effort to have a good-natured practical joke among friends. It’s not about how they send it so much as it is how I receive it.
If that well-meaning joke playing on a silly fear brought me to tears, would you dare to call me whiny, sensitive, or dare to justify the the intentions and actions of the offender?
Or would you maybe look at your own perspective and consider how you might react if it was your phobia?
Soli Deo Gloria