This Ended Worse Than Expected…
Note: since the subject of this post is openly alleging racism against me on his online postings, I figured there was no point in keeping this article password-protected. Greetings, former collaborator. I will let the readers make up their minds.
Some of you will remember my earlier post in which I enjoyed a bit of digital repartee with a detractor. That one, as the title states, ended better than expected. That’s always a pleasant surprise.
A week ago, I approached an online acquaintance with the concept of having a public discussion about different political ideologies, with me representing the conservative-leaning view and him representing a pretty hardline liberal perspective. I did this because I am really, sincerely interested in understanding the perspective of people who believe differently than me. I have come to realize that people can be reasonable and intelligent and still hold opinions wildly different than me. Thus, rather than simply dismiss people of other ideologies as idiots (which is, you might have noticed, sort of the new American National Pastime), I want to discuss the differences and hear their response to my questions, sans defensiveness or name-calling.
So, it all started relatively well. The acquaintance was very eager and the conversation got underway. I had hopes of hearing reasonable answers to some of those obvious questions that a conservative tends to have about liberal philosophy.
And then the email came. I won’t quote it– I won’t even paraphrase it– partly because it just wouldn’t be ethical, but also partly because I suspect my former collaborator is the sort of person who has lawyers on speed-dial. I will not mention his name or reveal it even if you ask. Considering the extreme few who knew about our endeavor (I won’t even tell you what it was called), I suspect virtually no one knows (or cares) who he is anyway. I’ll just give you the main thrust of the back-and-forth that followed, and the actual text of my own responses.
My collaborator’s email asked politely for me to refrain from the use of any offensive language about race, such as that which had appeared in a recent post on this very blog. He felt that, since he and I were hosting a public discussion, anything I said on Facebook, my own blog, etc would also reflect upon him. This, he stated unequivocally, was a requisite to our moving forward.
Reasonable enough, I suppose, although obviously I bristled, and for two reasons: 1) I, myself, am not wont to think that just because I am having a conversation with someone, everything they say in any other venue would somehow represent me. After all, it isn’t as if we were co-founding a public charity. We were obviously two extremely different people entering into a debate. We can no sooner be expected to represent each other than George Will and Paul Begala when they debate each other on any given Sunday morning. Frankly,the cynical side of me tends to think that the more stupid things my counterpart says outside of our interactions, the more his arguments are undermined. But I could live with this if not for 2) the accusation that I had, in fact, already used racially insensitive language. Before I go on, here’s the excerpt from my previous post that he found offensive:
“…I am often the lone conservative in a sea of born-and-bred liberals. It works out all right, so long as we avoid the topic of politics, which is totally fine with most people. Once, a couple of years ago, I was working in my animator pit, buried deep in the bowels of the building, when I was paged to come to the front lobby. There, I found a small gaggle of co-workers (women, not that it matters) pointing past the plate glass windows to where my car was parked. A gathering of service employees were leaning on my car, waiting for the bus, yucking it up with each other. They were all black. This, it seemed, required my immediate intervention, thus my summons to the front desk. Obviously, some sort of chicanery was afoot, and I was expected to go and shoo them all away.
“My car, it should be noted, was (and still is) a late nineties Ford Taurus P.O.S. I wasn’t worried about anything happening to it. I didn’t mind at all that the group had chosen to recline against it. If anything, it was possible that the car would end up cleaner for all that rubbing. I said as much to my collected co-workers. They were insistent, however, that this malicious and potentially volatile loitering needed to be put a stop to. When I made to return to the animator pit, one of my co-workers took matters into her own hands, stepping out the front door to shoo the gathering away. Needless to say, this turned a mild gathering into an understandably disgruntled and annoyed mini-mob. I didn’t blame them. I considered poking my head out and telling them that I was the owner of the car and didn’t mind at all if they leaned on it– they could sit in it if they wanted and turn on the friggin’ radio– but by that point it didn’t seem like it would help. Sometimes being a six-foot-four white dude just doesn’t help.
“And I remember thinking, as I headed back to the gloom of the animator pit, isn’t it supposed to be us conservative religious types who always assume black folk are up to no good?”
I should quickly mention that I do not think my former co-workers are racists. I do think that if a conservative had acted in similar fashion to such a situation, they would be branded racists for life. That was the point of the article.
At any rate, I glanced over this segment again just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. My intention with this little story was to show that attitudes about race are not specific to political ideology, despite what the popular media suggests. Not only did that passage not seem racist to me– it seemed, er, sort of the opposite. I was confused as well as disgruntled. This was my emailed response:
I assume you are referring to the opening story about the employees leaning against my car? If so, can you help me understand what’s offensive about it? If it isn’t that section, let me know what passage you are referring to.
I suppose I was a little terse. I felt terse, I admit. The response came back fairly quickly, wherein I was told that that section was, indeed, the offending bit. He didn’t like that I referred to the employees as black, since it implied that all black people are dangerous and threatening. There was no point, he suggested, in my inclusion of their race.
I was rather dumbfounded. My response:
I agree with you completely on most points. The main thrust of my inclusion of their race in the story was that the people gathering around my car were not, in any way shape or form, threatening or troublesome-looking. They were doing nothing wrong, and I had no problem at all with them leaning on my car. That, in fact, is exactly the point… You are offended by the very thing that offended me.
My point (I hope you understand) was not to imply that all liberals are racists– quite the contrary. In a social climate where admitting one is a conservative is nearly the same thing as admitting one is a racist, thanks to many, many portrayals (most erroneous) in the media, people like me have a very hard time openly expressing ourselves and our politics. There is nothing in our culture more horrifying than being called a racist, so I hope you can appreciate how the casual media portrayal of all conservatives as closet bigots makes life rather difficult for those of us who patently are not. The point of the entire post is summed up with my core belief that racism, like every other human trait, both good and bad, belongs to the individual, not to their political persuasion.
So. I am going to have to cogitate on this. Methinks a better solution than trying to police each other is to place some sort of general caveat on the page that proclaims what I suspect is obvious to begin with– that we are two people with wildly different perspectives asking each other honest questions and offering honest answers, and that none of the things that we do or say elsewhere remotely reflects the opinions and beliefs of the other.
Make sense? Because for both of us, trying to filter our thoughts through what the other might or might not be comfortable with would be, I suspect, both counter-productive and stifling.
What think ye?
Now. Here, I thought, the whole issue would probably end. Surely, I told myself, he simply didn’t closely read the article and hadn’t initially understood my point. Surely, now that I have explained it, he will sheepishly realize this and retract his demand of my self-censorship.
This was not to be. His reply stated unequivocally that, regardless of my stated intent, the post was indeed racially offensive– not only to him, but to any number of objective readers. There really is nothing to consider, he challenged: what he was requiring was nothing unusual in the world of journalism. His demand was not, he insisted, remotely unfair or unusual.
I began to realize that it had, in fact, been a mistake to ask him to be involved in this endeavor of mine. He had begun to take it over, and he was beginning to seem (to me, at least) somewhat irrational, not only in his demands but in his interpretation of my own words. With that in mind, I decided to put a stop to the whole thing:
I am sorry you feel that way and sorry that you still see my comments as offensive. I have no intention of censuring my speech in any way to satisfy anyone else’s sensitivities, and I frankly find the very suggestion Orwellian. Please remove me from [the public conversation]. I am disappointed that this could not be. I would ask only this: is this what you mean by a free society where people can live as they wish?
This last, I should add, was a reference to his stated beliefs about liberalism’s ultimate aims. I wasn’t quite as angry as the email sounds– something I realized in retrospect. I had simply realized that, completely apart from this email exchange, the entire idea of honest public discourse in this instance was probably going to be impossible.
He responded with incredulity, essentially asking if that was my final answer. He found it ludicrous that I would refuse to abide by such a simple requirement. Furthermore (he added), regardless of my points about race, the fact that I am a white, religious, conservative living in the South (St. Louis is the south?) meant that no matter how I stated it, it would likely fall on deaf ears with the average reader.
That last bit, I thought, was highly instructive.
I began to reconsider my idea that having a public debate with this gentleman might be a bad idea. Here, after all, was someone who, while obviously intelligent and extremely well-read, represented the quintessential knee-jerk liberal ideologue, even in the sense that he does not in the least believe he is an ideologue. I also determined that my previous email had, in fact, been pretty blunt and argumentative. I had fallen into the quagmire of defensiveness.
Because, as much as I didn’t like it, he might actually be right– the blog post I wrote might, contrary to my best efforts, seem offensive or racially insensitive. I deplored the idea. After all, I know what is in my heart, thus it was horrifying to think that some readers might actually interpret my comments in a way that did not at all represent me.
So I got a second opinion. A lot of them, in fact. I asked my readers to look at the post again and tell me, with total sincerity, if it was, in fact, racist. Even a little. I have readers and friends (I admit with some pride) from all across the political, religious and international spectrum, from ultra-conservative to self-proclaimed socialist, from atheist to devoutly religious of many faiths, and from any number of countries. They are, by no means, all white, Christian, or conservative, and I am thankful for that. I asked specifically for opinions from some of my friends who are the most honest and the least like me in terms of ideology. I wanted to be absolutely sure.
I won’t bore you with the response. It was unanimous, and in most cases pretty vocal.
On Facebook, I concluded the conversation with a comment that the person who had alleged racism was probably the sort of person inclined to see racism in nearly everything a conservative says. A little while later, I regretted saying that– I couldn’t know it for sure, after all– so I removed it.
Having given serious consideration to my collaborator’s allegation, I decided to swallow a little ego (I almost choked on it, I’ll admit) and write the following:
I know I probably sounded a lot more terse than I was actually feeling. Truthfully, I should thank you, because I really am considering your critique of that particular post. To be sure, I have taken some time to submit the post to my circle of readers… to get their objective response to it… I don’t assume you are interested in the response thus far (this is not an indictment of you– I would assume the same of most people in similar situations) so I won’t bore you with the consensus thus far. I just want you to know that I am seriously considering your critique and seeking feedback about it.
Regarding the continued existence of [the public conversation], it really isn’t a matter of whether or not I want to oblige your request, it’s a matter of me simply not being capable of it. I never intend to write anything racially insensitive, and yet you have found my writings lacking in that area nonetheless. This means, unfortunately, that I could not honor your request even if I wanted, since I simply would not know when or how I might be offending you (or others like you). I could, of course, choose to avoid the topic of race altogether, but I don’t believe that benefits anyone. I think it only fosters a sort of superficial, pretend version of “tolerance” that is not only meaningless but counterproductive. I know you disagree, and that is all right. I respect that, even if I don’t share that opinion.
Surely you are right that some publications would insist on similar self-censorship for their writers. This is why I would never work for such publications. The fact that it may be common practice does not make it good.
Honestly, I considered saying a lot of other things in this email. I feel that, despite our differences, I could offer some feedback that might be helpful to you, if you were able to hear it. I don’t expect that is the case, however, and I don’t blame you for it. I remember having the same difficulty when I was your age. If, however, you are curious… do just ask.
I’d rather end this amicably than continue to butt heads. I respect you and your knowledge and wish you well.
How do you think I did? How would you, dear reader, respond to such an email? I really am curious. Was it inflammatory? Argumentative? Demeaning? Was there anything insulting about it? Granted, I did suggest that my collaborator’s age might result in some sense of unassailability– a sort of self-insulation against personal critique– but that is hardly an insult. We are all like that in our youth, as was I (and possibly even more so than him). It might have been a little condescending at the end. Was it, do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Because the result was, to put it succinctly, amazing.
I will try to avoid the use of the words “shrill” and “screeching”. My collaborator’s reply to the above email was pissed off in the extreme. He re-iterated that it was patently ridiculous of me to balk at his demand. He made it clear that he had, in fact, been following along with the conversation on Facebook and was enraged at my suggestion that he, himself, harbored any racist tendencies.
Pause there for a second.
Huh? Comical cartoon head-shake with the yobbly-yobbly-yobbly sound effect? What? Where– and how and when– had I made any suggestion that he harbored racist tendencies himself? (blink, blink, blink!) I was, finally and completely, dumbfounded.
As I mentioned earlier, I had begun to think that my collaborator was somehow unable to understand my words– and probably the words of anyone who he patently disagreed with. Now, he seemed to be unconsciously inserting new words into mine, creating some fiction where I had suggested he was a racist. Even now, I am flabbergasted. I immediately tried to imagine how he could have misconstrued my comments. It seemed to be in relation to the Facebook conversation. My one comment there had been that, possibly, people like him were unable to read anything a conservative says without seeing racism in it. Had he somehow twisted that into some sort of reverse accusation? How? Was he serious? Or was he just inventing it on purpose to derail the conversation?
I think he was dead serious. It was apparent in the furious tone of his message. He actually seemed to believe I had publicly called him a racist.
Again, to be sure, did any of you who watched this unfold see that? Was I careless with my words? Because to be sure, I don’t think he is a racist in any way shape or form.
To make his point, he (tired sigh) went to great pains to shrilly explain that someone close to him is of African-American heritage.
Sorry, I broke my own promise and used the word “shrill”.
Here is my response:
Wow. I truly intended my tone to be respectful and understanding. I have sincerely tried to reach out in honesty. I can’t imagine what made you think I was suggesting that you yourself were racist, because I haven’t thought that in the least. My only comment on FB (which I removed before I received this email) was that I thought your accusation of racism was based in an idea that ALL conservatives simply must be racist– a view that you have actually made pretty clear you do embrace.
You can feel free not to read the following. I am saying it for my own sake, and truly— truly– not in a spirit of meanness but in helping you understand how you appear to a large number of people (more, I would contend, than would find my article racist).
With all due respect (I mean that literally) I have come to think you are a bit of a self-parody. You claim to represent an ideal of freedom, but you insist that I censure myself from saying anything you would find offensive– a request which, as I politely pointed out, is impossible to carry out, since I simply cannot know your mind. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t give a fig what you said about any subject whatsoever. I truly do believe in your freedom to say anything you want, because I know that it belongs solely to you and does not imply a whit about me. In fact, I would staunchly defend your right to say it, even if I found it repugnant, even if it amounted to attacks against me (which I know are a very real possibility).
I really do respect your knowledge and intellect. I have said that several times. But (and I say this knowing I am wasting my breath) I would invite you to consider the most difficult thing of all– that you might actually be wrong about some things. Not just me and my posts, but in general. I have given your accusation serious consideration– I am still doing so… Would you be willing to do the same?
In short, as a therapist friend once told me: just because you FEEL something is true does not make it true.
I may regret sharing all of this. Not because it isn’t interesting and somewhat instructive, but because I suspect my collaborator would hemorrhage from the ears at the fact that I have published even a description of our interaction. Fortunately, as I said, virtually no one knows or likely cares about the specifics here.
My point in sharing this is not to imply that this person is a buffoon because he is a liberal. If he had become an ultra-conservative, he would be just as much a buffoon. He would, in fact, be Shaun Hannity (rim-shot). And I do not call him a buffoon meanly– I am not resorting to name-calling. Words have meanings, and here the meaning, in my opinion, fits.
As I said in my emails, I respect his intellect and his depth of knowledge. I just cannot respect what he’s done so far with those tools. I am disappointed to lose an acquaintance over something so stupid. But I think I should have known from the beginning that it was inevitable. I suspect as he ages, he may mellow. Someday perhaps we will speak again. For now, I decided it was best to simply shut him off. I defriended him and am ignoring any further correspondence. I have no interest in stopping him from saying whatever he wants to say (and I suspect he will have plenty of choice things to say about me) but I can exercise that wonderfully liberating freedom of ignoring him.
So. As one of my wonderfully witty online friends suggested, perhaps I could try again with a different liberal thinker– perhaps Juan Williams?
If anyone has his email, do let me know.