Black History Month ’09 #21: Ether

February 21st, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

I’m trying to figure out how to approach this one. I almost didn’t want to talk about it because it seems like such a “No duh” situation to me, but I have clearly missed something.

Noted comics writer Bill Willingham recently wrote an essay in which he responded to Attorney General Eric Holder’s position that we’re a nation of cowards in terms of discussion and treatment of race. Holder’s speech (transcript here) says, boiled down, “use black history month to genuinely discuss race and learn from each other, instead of self-segregating.”

From Willingham’s own mouth:

According to the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, speaking today at the Justice Department, we’re a nation of cowards because we don’t talk about race enough. I have several responses to that grotesque statement, most of which aren’t printable. But I will say this much: If the past discussions about race in which I’d participated (voluntarily and otherwise) didn’t always – not often, not most of the time, but always – devolve into name calling, where I was denounced as a racist (usually as a starting point for said conversation), then I might today be more willing to continue to have discussions on the subject. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

In my experience, anyone who doesn’t immediately and enthusiastically subscribe to the idea that all American whites are active oppressors against other races is an irredeemable racist. Of course if you do agree you’re still a racist, just one of the self confessed variety.

In the interests of full and fair disclosure, I’m apparently also a misogynist, a homophobe, and a Nazi, this according to folks (some of whom were friends and colleagues) upon finding out that I have problems with feminism, gay marriage, and gun control. There were other accusations I could list, given time, but the truth is such incidents are too common and never important enough to be worth devoting too much of my time and memory.

Willingham is running into a lot of things here, among them extremism, either/or politics, and (wait for it) cowardice. He also makes a lot of statements (“Name-calling is the proprietary weapon of the left. There’s no equality of blame, no comparison. We on the right aren’t “just as bad.”“) that are just completely stupid to anyone with half a brain and indefensible to those with a full one. I’m going to stick to the first three, however.

Extremists exist on both “sides” of the political spectrum. The people who scream about how Bush is Hitler is no different from the people who suggest that single mothers are the downfall of society. I find DailyKos just as aggravating as Ann Coulter. These are the people who are going to shout at you for thinking differently and they exist on both sides of the aisle. News flash: jerks are jerks, and will be jerks according to their opinions.

Just to give Willingham the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to assume that he’s talking about outrage-based discussion. When something bad or offensive happens, people blog/talk/write about it and either discuss their outrage that it happened or suggest ways to fix it or ensure that it never happens again. I can see how that would be daunting to join that discussion, as it involves a lot of raised emotions, anger, and pure helplessness.

If every discussion you’ve ever had about race has ended in name-calling, you’re either a racist or arguing with fools. You aren’t going to get in touch with extremists of any stripe. The people who matter, and the people who actually think about things, are the people in-between. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with people who were racist in thought and deed, and I’d like to think that we both came away better for it. When Holder said that we need to do better in discussing race, this is what he was talking about. A frank exchange of ideas.

Building on that point, I think it’s important to say that I disagree with either/or politics in general. I think that reducing someone’s political views to Repub/Dem or Liberal/Conservative is a loser’s game at best, as no one is actually that simple. I’m conservative or liberal on some things, but not others. My grandparents run conservative, but they voted Obama. Politics isn’t as easy as black and white, and approaching it on that level, and only that level, just means that you lost before you even started. It isn’t just liberals who want to discuss race. There are plenty of conservatives who care about equality and becoming truly integrated. Caring about race, or even just talking about it occasionally, doesn’t make you liberal.

The main thrust of Willingham’s post, however, is that since people were mean to him when discussing race (or other “liberal” issues), he is going to take his ball and go home. He isn’t going to discuss it with liberals because they have no interest in reasoned discourse and are only interested in name-calling. He’s only going to discuss it with those who are interested in actually speaking. While I can understand the spirit of the sentiment (you can’t get through to some people), the way he’s applied it is extraordinarily myopic. Anyone can tell that both sides descend to name-calling on a near-daily basis, but for some reason, only liberals count? But, okay, let’s treat it as if it were a reasonable choice.

The problem with making that choice is that it makes you a coward. Someone hurt your feelings by calling you a name, so you are going to tighten up and kick the dirt and flip over the chess table and kick the ball over the fence and go home, because screw them. Making that choice, and making a point to explain your position in opposition to Holder’s speech, makes you a coward.

Holder’s position is that people are still too tight-lipped about race. Not even racism: just race. This isn’t an indictment of conservatives or liberals. It’s an indictment of both. There is too much shouting and not enough listening going on. When your idea of a reasonable response is to go “I’m not listening, because screw them,” you lost. That’s a child’s reaction.

At the same time, if you’re that scared to talk about race, maybe you should pump your brakes and just sit in the corner while grown folks talk at the grown up’s table. Race isn’t something you can boil down to right and wrong, so it is something that is difficult to talk about. It’s easy to screw up on either side of the argument, and race is sensitive enough that screw-ups can be intensely frustrating.

Okay. That’s fine. That’s why Holder says, “[A]n unstudied, not discussed and ultimately misunderstood diversity can become a divisive force.” You should discuss race because it is something that impacts all of our lives, and until we push through it, we can neither get past it nor understand it. Holder wants the races to talk to each other and share. I think that’s an admirable goal, and it’s one I’ve discussed over and over this month. Conversation is key. We’re not that different from each other, but we are different.

Bill Willingham lost. He fell right into Holder’s trap. Holder says that people don’t honestly talk about race enough, and put up so many barriers that race has remained a touchy subject for far too long. Willingham’s response? “Nuh-uh, don’t even talk to me.”

I’ve had people tell me that they don’t talk about race because they know that they’ll just screw it up or because they don’t have anything to bring to the table. And you know what? That’s a fair and intelligent response. Being able to recognize your own shortcomings is just taking responsibility. Some people don’t know how to dig in and get their hands dirty, and recognizing that fact is something to be respected.

But, being that guy that’s like “I’m not a racist, but people keep calling me one, so screw liberals and forget any idea of talking about racism?” That makes you a coward.

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16 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #21: Ether”

  1. Man, Willingham makes it damn hard to just ignore every jack-ass thing he says and just try to enjoy Fables and Jack of Fables. I haven’t been this disapointed in him since I read the second volume of Ironwood

  2. I have to say, I think I match up pretty well to that second-to-last paragraph. I’m not sure that it’s fair and intelligent though. Perhaps more, I don’t know exasperation? I don’t think that’s anyone in particular’s fault, though. I recently got invited to this function at the college I work at called “Stand up by Sitting Down: An Honest Discussion of Race,” which probably got jumpstarted by Holder’s comments. I probably won’t go to it, because I’ve been to these things before as an undergrad. No one really says anything, and even when they do, there’s that fear of even stating something awkwardly that can make people regret opening up. The cons of being perceived badly to people who don’t really know you outweigh the benefit of possible understanding. And in my experience, the people who could get some use out of discussions don’t show up to them anyway.

    It just sort of reminds me of a South Park episode, where the South Park kids go to Iraq or Afghanistan (it’s been awhile since I saw it), and they just can’t fully understand the years of historical and tribal conflict in the country as explained by the native kids. Turning the “Wow, we’re not so different after all” trope on its head, Stan says something along the lines of “The only thing I understand is that I can’t understand.” That seems like a cop out, but really, there was no way any of them could see the world through those Middle Eastern kids’ eyes. To pretend that they could or say they understood would have been facetious. Maybe that’s how I’m seeing the world now: Just be respectful of other people and move on. It’s great to learn other people’s cultures naturally and on our own time, but to sit down and hammer out issues with race is just too personal and volatile a subject for most. Hive five for those that can, but my own hesitation to click the submit button shows I’m not one of those people.

  3. It’s a passive-aggressive tag. “I’m not going to say anything because you’ll just call me a ____ if I do.” It makes it sound like there is a wealth of reason and maturity on one side and naked aggression on the other.

    Plus, it’s a guard against that person legitimately calling you anything. By anticipating their response you’ve made it their bias instead of your own.

    Honestly, though, I think it’s natural to identify the extremists as representative of the movement you are arguing against while disavowing extremists in your own movement. After all, *you* know that you don’t believe the same thing as the extremists in your movement. You’ve had experience with your group and can identify different degrees of political extremism. When you look at the other side, the extremists are just the loudest part of a monolithic group that is attacking you.

  4. Man. The comments section is about as deep as the post, itself. Impressive.

    Damned good points all around. With regard to Dane’s comments about how the absence of the people who would gain the most out of those discussions… I feel you, but I think there’s a sympathetic middle, too. Kinda like the undecided voters people keep vying for all the way up to election day. The undecideds may show up and may have just enough of a crack in their positions to let someone else’s seep in.

    And then, of course, those who are already preaching to the pulpit and singing in the choir… Well, everyone needs a spa treatment once in a while – even if it’s of the figurative variety. A bit of rejuvenation (and sometimes ______-____ing) can keep good people fighting the good fight for a while longer.

  5. @West: Ouch. Yeah, I just went and skimmed the comments section to Willingham’s post. Scary stuff…

  6. Every time I read about Willingham, I like him less and less. Am I going to let that stop my enjoyment of Fables? Probably not, but he is making it harder and harder to ignore his comments and views.

  7. “If every discussion you’ve ever had about race has ended in name-calling, you’re either a racist or arguing with fools.”

    It’s ridiculous that this isn’t common sense. I can understand, totally, if this is what happens on message boards and the internet–but if in real life this is somebody’s experience; if real, actual discussion always results in “name-calling”–jesus, Stop Arguing With 4 Year Olds. It’s never as hard as people want to make it. Never.

  8. To play devil’s advocate for Willingham, I can see where he might get a jaded attitude toward topics concerning race. According to some, the definition of racism need not include intent or belief; maybe racism is just the power/privilege that comes from being part of the racial majority, thereby making all white people (and racially mixed people who pass for completely white) inherently racist. By this definition, the most tolerant or open minded of white people are still racist. It’s an unfair label, and takes away from the impact of true racists (the ones who are actively filled with hate and intolerance). Things like that offend white people, who in today’s society consider the “Racist” label a great insult, and can scare them away from discussing race in fear that they’ll be labeled an inhuman monster just because of how they were born. In a way, it’s a little ironic.

    However, the topic still needs to be discussed. You can’t just avoid it. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. These conversations aren’t impossible, but they damn sure aren’t going to be easy to work through, either. So bad show, Mr. Willingham.

  9. @Manic

    The person saying someone is born racist is wrong. A person may benefit from racist institutions, but that doesn’t make them racist. There exists a distinction between racist persons, racists actions/speech, and racist institutions.

    The irony of the situation is that those persons abstaining from the conversation are doing so because their ignorance about the subject let them be persuaded by equally ignorant people to remain ignorant.

  10. I was talking about the comment section and post of this website.

  11. No, the main thrust of Willingham’s post was not that some people were mean to him so he’s taking his ball and go home, it’s “I don’t play your silly games anymore. I only ever talk about important matters like race and gender politics with those for whom there is still the possibility of serious discourse and reasoned debate”. But I notice you handily stopped quoting him before he got to that part.

    Perhaps you should be having this conversation with Willingham instead of… “cowardly” attacking him behind his back with a chosen segment of his post.

    And for those of you who find yourselves suddenly conflicted with your enjoyment of Willingham’s writing as you become more aware of what other folks claim his views are (through cut-n-paste attack articles like this), get over yourselves. Do you struggle through FROM HELL or LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN because the author worships a snake god that he made up himself? No, of course not — Alan Moore can believe whatever the hell he wants as long as he doesn’t lean too far towards the right. I love most of Moore’s work even though I’m convinced through reading interviews with the man that he’s probably a bit loony. Are you afraid Bill is implanting subliminal messages in FABLES that are going to somehow rob you of your free-thinking capabilities? If you’re not offended by the stories, then don’t bother trying to let his personal beliefs affect your enjoyment of them.

  12. @Hash Astro: Read closer, Hash. I do not directly quote the silly games quote you have in your first paragraph, but I do mention it and explain how I can understand the sentiment. I also provided a link back to his article. That put a link back on his site, so if he chooses to read it, he can. In fact, it’s the fourth item on his comments list right now. What am I supposed to do? Call him up on the phone and read it to him?

    By your logic, Willingham is a coward for attacking Holder “behind his back with a chosen segment of his [speech].”

    Suggesting that people are afraid that they are going to be robbed of their free will… that’s a little silly, man. I don’t care about Willingham’s politics, I care about his post on a very specific subject where I think he has things completely backwards and vice versa. His views are laid out very clearly and in plain language, and I made it a point not to misrepresent them in my post.

    Cut-n-paste attack article? This:

    I don’t play your silly games anymore. I only ever talk about important matters like race and gender politics with those for whom there is still the possibility of serious discourse and reasoned debate

    is intellectually dishonest, considering the rest of his post. He makes it explicit that he’s only interested in discussing race with like-minded people, in this case “conservatives.”

    Nice try on trying to pin the coward label on me, but I think you should have tried harder.

  13. Without some idea of the sort of name-calling that Willingham experienced, I can’t know if he was debating with someone who’s rather stupid, someone intelligent who happened to be inarticulately angry at the time, a small child, or a political pundit. It’s also possible that he took criticism as name-calling when it wasn’t. That’s pretty common in political discussions, especially with social issues like race or gender.

    I can sympathize with Willingham’s position, albeit from the opposite side of the political spectrum. Sometimes I don’t feel like discussing race or gender with people whose views are opposite from mine. Sometimes I feel like I’m repeating the same arguments over and over again, and they are being swept aside. This is the type of feeling that leads people to create opposing argument bingo cards, as an oblique way of letting commenters know that their arguments have been well-hashed in previous discussions. It’s amusing, to begin with, but as a platform of discussion it rarely works.

    I believe that prejudice is a learned behavior that is ubiquitous in all societies. I believe it’s so strongly ingrained that it is most often applied by people who don’t realize they’re prejudiced. Most people I’ve discussed race with have taken the opposite approach to Hanlon’s razor, assuming malice when only ignorance is implied. The more they fortify themselves in this position, the farther they cross into willful ignorance, which is much more dangerous territory.

    The sum of everything I’ve learned about racism is in applying Hanlon’s razor and the principle of willful ignorance: to not know something isn’t a crime, it’s a human being’s natural state of ignorance; to avoid knowing something because it makes you uncomfortable is willful ignorance. You can always benefit from listening to what someone else has to say, even when you think you’ve heard it all before. That’s why I intend to read every word of Willingham’s essay when I get home from work, even though based on previous experience, I don’t think I’ll agree with him.

    More discussion is always good.

  14. Seems to me his reaction is typical of some group that has been the top of the power structure: Heigtened sensitivity when his authority or particular way of thinking is challenged. Also, the very nature of liberalism as it applies to these type of discussions is usually the acceptance of everyone no matter the race, ethnicity, sexuality ect. So if he’s getting into name calling arguements with these type of people regarding race, I am really curious to know what substantive issues they are discussion regarding the issue.

  15. David,

    You certainly could have engaged Willingham directly over the issue at the location of his own post. Much easier than tracking down his phone number. Instead you run back to your own dark corner of the internet to write your piece and have your say. Sure, he’s welcome to track down your post and debate you, but I really don’t think he’s desperate enough to defend himself against every little attack that comes at him from whatever random third-rate blogger decides to set off on a nice rant to meet their black history month whine-quota. Let’s face it, it’s much much easier for you to engage Willingham in what passes for a face-to-face debate on the web than it is for Willingham to engage Holden. Maybe Willingham did contact Holden directly — or maybe he just hoped Holden would play “follow the link”, as you’ve invited (or expected) Willingham to do with you.

    My accusation of “cowardice” was not meant to apply some sort of blanket logic onto Willingham’s statements, it was meant to call attention to your own carefully yet hastily constructed straw man that you closed your piece with, labeling Willingham a coward through your misinterpreted “summation” of his points in an attempt to make him appear flippant, foolish and ignorant. I can’t blame the man for not wanting to discuss it with folks who would resort to such tactics.

    You still seem to be dead wrong that Willingham is only interested in having conversations about the issue with “conservatives”. He clearly states he is only interested in dealing with folks who can reasonably debate the issues seriously and with a cool head. If you’re somehow equating folks who tolerate his views and/or engage him in discussion of said views without attacking him with loaded and childishly-defensive “hate-tags” (which are really only used to avoid rational discussion by painting the other party as villainous before the argument even gets under way) as strictly “conservative”, which seems quite myopic, well that’s your own distorted viewpoint that you get to deal with.

  16. 1st thing: You clearly didn’t read my post if you think “If you’re somehow equating folks who tolerate his views and/or engage him in discussion of said views without attacking him with loaded and childishly-defensive “hate-tags” (which are really only used to avoid rational discussion by painting the other party as villainous before the argument even gets under way) as strictly “conservative”, which seems quite myopic, well that’s your own distorted viewpoint that you get to deal with.” is anything I said, implied, or actually believe.

    2nd thing: u mad?