So, apparently this tweet got kinda popular:
Here’s the thing about “economic anxiety” and racism: If someone is ONLY a good person when their life is good? Not actually a good person.
— Bob Chipman (@the_moviebob) February 2, 2017
Do I stand by it (and the rest of the “tweet chain?”) Yeah, pretty much. I tend to regard social media as a stream of consciousness kind of thing, i.e. if I have something to say I think might deserve quoting or preserving, I’ll put it here or into one of the shows. But once in awhile I guess a solid thought sneaks out amidst all the shouting into the void.
The fact is, this is something that’s been bugging the shit out of me for awhile now; this amorphous idea that because modernity isn’t “working out” for a certain class of hinterland dipshit we’re not only supposed to look the other way and make excuses when they lash out violently or embrace bigotry (a courtesy that, for some reason, is seldom afforded to nonwhite people in urban areas who turn to crime/violence under difficult circumstances – despite there being actual systemic/societal forces conspiring against them historically) but regard this as some kind of meaningful, special phenomenon that we should all be very, very contemplative about. I just don’t buy it.
The fact of the matter is, a person is not their circumstance – a person is how they react to their circumstance. To me, if someone I know runs into some job hardship and “suddenly” starts bellowing conspiracy theories about “The Mexicans” taking his job; the conclusion I come away from that with isn’t “Aw, that’s sad – hardship has turned him into a racist.” The conclusion I come away with is: “Wow! He hid his racism really well when he was living comfortably.”
This is one of those places where I don’t fit in very comfortably with a lot of the economics-first Left, which lately tends to hold as a matter of ideological faith that racism, misogyny, etc are mainly just symptoms of capitalism forcing us into gladiatorial combat with each other rather than distinct moral/intellectual shortcomings in their own right. I understand why people want to think that: It’s the same impulse that drives conspiracy theories about how certain dangerous psychiatric diagnoses “don’t actually exist”: a lot of very well-meaning people are deeply, profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that some humans are just “bad” right down to their core. We all want to believe that we can become whatever we want to be, so we want to believe that impulses like hatred are wholly curable.
Now, me? I’m not someone who holds the human race (myself included) in what I’d call overwhelmingly high regard. I think that as a species we’ve accomplished remarkable things, but my sense of history (and science, and nature, and general lived experience) is that the collective aspect of that achievement is rather overstated. A relative handful of us have been the visionaries/thinkers/builders/leaders who’ve dragged the rest (often with great resistance) over the goal-lines of cultural evolution, and way more of us are of the “weaker” (in the intellectual/moral sense) stock that’s susceptible to bigotry and hate than will ever acknowledge or even recognize it. That’s the power of societies and civilizations: They provide the incentive and means for that sort of person (read: “that one guy” you know who always seemed so nice but now you know voted for Trump and thinks Breitbart “makes some interesting points”) to keep the worst impulses of their weakness in check.
Maybe that’s the real purpose and goal of social systems in general: Letting us all make our way through life together without ever having to realize just how rotten a plurality of “everybody else” actually is. Either way, the point remains: Just because you didn’t hear “that guy” or “your racist uncle” behaving badly when things were going well for them doesn’t mean hardship “changed” them – it means you’re now seeing their true face. And yeah, I also think it’s worth considering that maybe the “causality” here is, if anything, the exact opposite. I’m no “social darwinist;” but when we keep hearing “This town/city/region is in ruins, that’s why it’s full of angry bigots” shouldn’t we at least ask if it’s the inverse – that the people being shitty and bigoted was the contributing factor to the regional decay, not the other way around?
I don’t necessarily know the answer to that. But what I do know is that plenty of people go through hardships (economic and otherwise) and don’t “turn into” (read: “reveal themselves to be”) horrible monsters – and it feels decidedly unjust (though unsurprising in the “squeaky wheel” sense) that we seem to have less of an impulse to be sympathetic and generous to them. Even if you do buy into the idea that hardship is “to blame” for hatefulness, isn’t the person who experiences such and doesn’t succumb – who instead rises above – more deserving of your affection and help?