Jeff posted last week, asking if 2017 would be the year that marked the end of White Guilt. Perhaps the assumption behind his question is that Obama was voted in because of “white guilt,” or perhaps that in a Trump America there is a “whitelash” (a white people backlash) as Van Jones called it, including disenfranchised white folks coming out of the woodwork on Facebook and Twitter with racist screeds, writing memoirs like Hillbilly Elegy, tired of being looked down on as “white trash,” and feeling every bit as disenfranchised as a minority or woman.
A Saturday Night Live skit portrayed this problem in Black Jeopardy, in which Tom Hanks plays “Doug” a disenfranchised white guy pitted against black contestants he finds, much to everyone’s surprise, that he has a lot in common with:
Political Correctness : Secularism as Commandments : Religion
Charles Taylor talks about what motivates people to behave morally, both in religious and secular societies. What would it take to sufficiently motivate moral sympathy? Human secularists would have us believe that our recognition of the dignity of others should be sufficient motivation. But we have seen that it is not, and when it fails to motivate us to behave morally, to (for example) treat others with equal dignity, rights and opportunities as we (and often by extension members of our group) are treated, what can we do about this?
The answer is a bit damning about our “secular” and “liberal” penchant for political correctness. The mechanism most often used to alter behavior is shame. We invoke shame whenever we perceive that someone fails to perform standards that we have come to identify with living a decent, civilized, pro-social, human life. In Taylor’s words:
One can see this at work in a heightened version of holier-than-thou: You don’t recycle (gasp)? You use plastic shopping bags (horror)? You don’t drive a Prius (eek!)? You won’t wear the ribbon?
This is evidence of mutual display (insiders wear the ribbon, drive the Prius, use the cloth shopping bag) and the self-consciousness it generates (look at us doing the right thing, wink, wink). If you want to be seen as moral, you have to obey the code of conduct which requires that you display the code’s current list of behaviors, you perform according to the standards that are required by those around you, and you monitor the behaviors and words of others to determine their conformity with the code. You have to become self-conscious about the things you say and do, your performance. You don’t have to BE just or moral or good–you just have to PERFORM justice or morality or goodness through the set of behaviors outlined in the code. Which is frankly the exact same problem religion has. We mistake goodness for the appearance of goodness. Secularism is apparently no different from religion after all.
So, maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s OK to “fake it until you make it.” The problem is that self-congratulating, supposedly “enlightened” concern for others while policing non-conformity to the code is something that has a shelf life. We are susceptible to fatigue. We may not tire of our own superiority, but we tire of others’ inferiority, their continual failure to meet “the code of decency.”
While I’m motivated to help the poor and vulnerable and even the undeserving because of their inherent dignity, I’m at the same time quietly patting myself on the back, recognizing my moral superiority. So over time it becomes frustrating that these other humans do not exhibit the same enlightened other-regard: What’s wrong with these people? . . . Your philanthropy becomes misanthropy. . . Behind all your pity and compassion has been a secret loathing. And all this philanthropy has really been self-interest and self-congratulation.
Again, this is the same fragrance that clung to us within religion: monitoring our own and others’ performance to a group-designated code of conduct, feeling smugly superior, and demarcating outsiders and insiders. We don’t want to be tainted by those who don’t conform to the code. We want to remain pure from them if they can’t perform according to our unwritten expected mutual display.
Bootstraps vs. Grace
Taylor posits that Christianity starts with the assumption that we will all fall short, all need the grace of God. Secularism, by contrast, holds a more optimistic view of man’s potential; it assumes that we have the ability to transform ourselves–no God required. Perhaps that’s why, as secularists, we have less tolerance for those who fail to meet that potential. We believe it was in their power all along. But as Christians, we can believe that the power wasn’t their own, that they had to be transformed by a higher power, and perhaps that simply hasn’t taken place yet.
Taylor is speaking of Christianity in a broad sense, and yet his descriptions are interesting in a Mormon context because our doctrine is very focused on an imminent framework (that which is within the person)–we individually have to work to merit the grace of God. We have a mixed view of humanity. Some leaders focus on our fallen nature (like most of Christianity does), while others focus on our personal responsibility to avoid making mistakes, our ability almost to save ourselves through our own worthiness and righteousness. Our failures are all individual. Our achievements are likewise evidence of our valiance and individual potential, at least as much as they are of the grace of God.
But, reverting to Taylor’s question, perhaps because religion expects us to fail (without divine intervention) whereas secularism expects us to succeed (on our own), we are more intolerant of mistakes, and mistakes are always more easy to perceive in others. Whether he’s right or wrong, the human tendency exists in both secularism and religion to reject others, even if the reason we are there is to hold ourselves and others to a moral standard that upholds human dignity. We want to uphold human dignity, and we’re not afraid to shame people, ostracize them, and even kill them, to do it.
Casting the First Stone
I suspect that the same kind of person we are as members of the church is roughly the same kind of person we are if we are not members of the church. The codes may change, but the insider-outsider thinking is still appealing. The desire to feel smugly superior and to judge others by a code of conduct is the same. A paper hanging in my first mission apartment said “Life lessons will be repeated until they are learned.” This one’s a particularly hard one to learn.
I have noticed a few times in the last few years just how much people are greater than the sum of their parts. There have been a few fellow ward members who initially rubbed me the wrong way, making ill-informed political comments, sexist, homophobic, teaching a lesson they don’t understand or haven’t researched very well, simply not being that smart in that moment or on that topic, and a host of other “performance” issues. But that’s not the whole person, as I’ve discovered. Some of these individuals were really just beyond the pale in things they said in that one singular moment. As a result, my initial reaction was that I really did not like them.
At the same time, I noticed that my kids were getting older and were very self-righteous sometimes about other people’s political mistakes or not using the right terms that are currently used. Kids are too young to know what it was actually like living in the decades that preceded their birth, and they are much less forgiving of these types of mistakes. I gave myself a challenge to make friends with the people who had initially irritated me. I chatted with them in the hall. Our families had dinner or played games together. We hosted sleepovers with their kids. When it came to creating true friendships, I had varying levels of success. There were a few people I still didn’t like. But I often found that there was far more good than bad to a person, and that we were more alike than I would have thought in other areas of life and viewpoints.
In E. M. Forster’s book A Room with a View, Lucy’s persnickety fiance Cecil makes grimacing faces when confronted with the middle class mannerisms of his betrothed’s family. The diplomatic Mrs. Honeychurch intervenes with her daughter Lucy:
Mrs. Honeychurch: Is anything the matter with Cecil? Because otherwise, I cannot account for him. Whenever I speak, he winces. I see him, Lucy. It’s useless to contradict me. No doubt I am not artistic nor literary nor intellectual. Your father bought the drawing room furniture, and we must put up with it.
Lucy: Cecil doesn’t mean to be uncivil. He explained. It’s ugly things that upset him. He’s not uncivil to people.
Mrs. Honeychurch: Is it a thing or a person when Freddy sings?
Christianity says that we have to overcome our human weakness with love, and I find that like everyone else, it’s a whole lot easier to spot others’ weaknesses than my own. Am I Cecil, sneering at the unattractive drawing room furniture and spoiling everyone’s pleasure, or am I Mrs. Honeychurch, putting up with the furniture, and asking everyone to treat people with dignity and kindness? In my case, I’ve certainly been both. It’s easy to feel superior to racist comments, but there are people behind those comments with more potential than just those comments. Shaming people doesn’t change hearts or minds–mine or theirs. It just bolsters my existing feelings of superiority.
Is it a thing or a person when someone makes a racist, sexist or homophobic comment?
Conclusion & Discussion
Last week I quoted the movie Easy A, and for some reason, reading Charles Taylor brings dialogue from that movie to mind. I’ll end with another quote from that movie, this time from Marianne, the uptight born again Christian girl at the school who leads a prayer group and wants to shame Olive, the lead character, into leaving the school because she doesn’t conform to the code of behavior Marianne and her friends believe is right:
Marianne: Jesus tells us to love everyone. Even the whores and the homosexuals, but it’s so hard. It’s so hard, because they just keep doing it over and over again.
Now substitute “racists, homophobes and sexists” where she says “whores and homosexuals.” Performance failures in others are hard to stomach, no matter what code of conduct you require. Often we only pay lip service to loving others, particularly when the church’s stance isn’t very loving or understanding. Is there secret loathing behind our behavior policing? That comes through.
- Is political correctness smugly superior and contemptuous of human failure? Is it a mask for contempt and misanthropy?
- Who’s smugger: Christians or secularists? Defend your answer without being smug or superior.
- Do you see humanity as fallen–needing grace to be redeemed, or as immanent–individuals needing to achieve their own potential?
- If shaming doesn’t work, how do we educate others to avoid offensive behaviors that merit correction? How do we do this without tiring of others’ failure to meet our performance expectations?