The inertness of one’s behaviour need not be correlated with its moral value. This trivial syllogism is often difficult to apply to our own realities. How often do we go about our days ignoring the needs of the despaired? Frequently it is unavoidable, we would be unable to function if we had to ponder the destiny and suffering of all our brothers and sisters around the globe every waking minute. The acclaimed German novelist W.G. Sebald has been quoted saying about Holocaust that “no serious person thinks of anything else.” In the literal sense it is of course impossible. But what he meant to show is that people who never have it in their minds cannot be serious citizens of the world. The same is true of many other issues of great moral weight.
In the United States racism seems to be such an issue. This is not to say that racism is an American issue, even though the ethnic heterogeneity makes it a particularly important and widespread problem in the United States as opposed to many other countries. Thinking about, as opposed to acting on, racism matters because it is no longer an open issue, people are no longer openly racist, which makes it much harder for people to see the issue clearly and deal with it appropriately. Racism is no longer about the acts, it’s about letting the self-consciousness of one’s own race be crushing the minorities. This feeling is not limited to race, but race being a permanent and deeply divisive characteristic is a particularly potent trigger, as it may make such self-consciousness unbearable.
When the society changes as the American society does now, and when white people are losing the majority, the problem should become resolved, as the crushing realization of loneliness should no longer be widespread for any group. But on the other hand the fear of the white majority is making them heighten their otherwise senile racism as a defence mechanism. This can be seen on the upper level in the way the Republicans are trying to hold on to their seats by making it hard for minorities to vote. But it’s not just political, it’s working all the way down into most citizens. And it should be a job of every responsible citizen to contemplate his own action or indeed inaction and admit to himself his own inclinations, even if they are only odd impulses, on the way to understanding and controlling them in the society.
Mychal Denzel Smith gets it right in his recent blog for The Nation, where he says that: “While we’ve all come up internalizing racism, since it’s all around us, only one group of people actually benefits from its existence. Not every white person is a racist, but the genius of racism is that you don’t have to participate to enjoy the spoils. If you’re white, you can be completely oblivious, passively accepting the status quo, and reap the rewards.” Passively accepting the status quo can be very dangerous, as can be inferred from countless historical examples. We can go back to the Holocaust and the silent acceptance among the Germans to get the point across, in a somewhat excessive but effective manner. Then we can see what Smith means when he writes: “No, it’s not the job of people of color to win over racism, it’s the responsibility of white people to abandon it altogether.”
This is of course not an outrageous requirement. We have to question our beliefs, knowledge and notions constantly, in all areas of life, in order not to be cornered by blind faith or fetid backwardness. This, the notion of the necessity to question even the seemingly obvious theses and conceptions, has laid the foundations for the scientific method, which in turn seems to have not only brought more comfortable life to most, but also a positive change in the global Zeitgeist, and is trying to start to influence morality in an open way, Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape being a recent example. All we need is for this method to be applied not only in a lab, but also in everyday lives.
So what needs to be changed is the insistence on discussing only the obvious. Trayvon Martin’s case is a firebrand starting the discussion on racism, which otherwise will not be discussed or dealt with in a meaningful way (to quote Smith again: “It has to be a concerted effort on the part of white people to actively reject racist beliefs, thoughts and actions.”). The same is true of other discussions on the verge of politics and the society at large. The discussion about weapons is only sparked when a tragedy is in our memory, but when there is nothing to mourn and nothing to gain politically the discussion and the introspection is nowhere to be found.
The gun debate or the discussion about racism cannot be had on the political ground, even if it can only be dealt with on that level. These are social issues which require the people to change their ways and realize that it is their duty not only to avoid actively inflicting harm, but also to stop the harmful inertia, which is no doubt easier to ignore and therefore harder to weed out. But without that there will not be a civil society to lead the world into a better place, with justice for all.
This essay first appeared in The Firebrand Magazine.