At a recent conference I heard one person tearfully lament mass incarcerations and its relationship to systemic racism. Another passionately spoke about the built in advantages and privileges that have accrued exclusively to white European Americans. In each case their tone was accusatory, and since they were both white European Americans, it bordered on verbal self flagellation. Or it would have if they had not exempted themselves from the class of rich, white elite to which they ascribed the collective sins of racism and economic injustice.
I tried to listen with the ears of my friend Ed, a crusty tea party type, rich, self made, and certain that weak kneed, namby-pamby, nanny state liberalism is ruining our country. Ed thinks imprisoning criminals is a good idea, as many as possible for as long as possible, and if there are more blacks in prison than anyone else it’s because they commit more crimes than anyone else. He grew up poor and made it big. If he could do it, so can anyone else, so quit complaining.
Do you see the problem here? Both use English words, but their languages are anchored in such different world views that they might as well live in separate universes. Moreover, each ascribes to the other a moral turpitude that the other would both deny and find irrevocably offensive.
Where can a bridge be built?
I think maybe in two places.
Left wing liberals, such as those at the conference, need to be made aware of the rude arrogance of their self-righteousness. Arch conservatives, such as Ed, need to understand what systemic advantages and privileges really are, and how they have benefitted from them. Leave the other issues alone until this foundation has been laid.
The workshop I attended was led by Judith Roberts of the ELCA with a presentation as solid as any I have experienced. I think that if persons of her calibre could present it in separate sessions for liberals and conservatives, it could make a real difference. Each would have an opportunity to hear without the other making it difficult. That doesn’t seem likely, but it does occur to me that a workshop like hers, conducted in local congregations, with the clergy disinvited, might be a reasonable approximation. Why disinvite the clergy? The congregations in our diocese are a mixed bag, but they tend to be more conservative than the clergy who serve them, and clergy are sometimes inclined to speak out when they should be listening, I being first among them.
The key would be the presenter. Other workshops I have attended often had two weaknesses. First, they were labeled as antiracism with the premise that those who attended needed to be convinced about how racist they are. Second, they tended to be led by liberal persons who managed to raise the prickly defenses of any conservatives who may have attended. Folks went away more convinced than ever of the rightness of their position. However important the issue of racism is, it is someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem, and each was pretty sure who that someone is. Maybe what is needed first is a workshop for presenters at which someone like Ms. Roberts would explain not what to teach, but how to teach.