Do old white men who have done well in life have anything useful to say? Do they have a right to speak? I’m an old white man who has done well in life, so I have an interest in what the answers might be. They’re serious questions in some quarters where angry voices demand that old white men listen without speaking back. Listen to what? Sometimes to a lengthy indictment alleging their personal responsibility for the inequitable conditions of society, for the unearned privileges that have benefitted them while denying the same to others, and for their deafness to voices that have gone unheard for generations.
The allegations are not without merit. White men of means, whether old or not, have held the reigns of political and economic power for a long time. Some believed it was their right and destiny. Some understood they had a moral duty to society as ones who had the ability and opportunity to act for the good. Others, perhaps most, simply wanted to do the best they could with the resources they had for the welfare of their families and themselves – no offense meant to anyone else. Within the context of their understanding of the society in which they lived existed a complex economic and social class structure making it easy to be ignorant of conditions facing those outside, and of forces of change at work. Indeed, forces of change, when recognized, could be seen, have been seen, are being seen, as dangerously abnormal, given their understanding of what normal is. They may upset the accepted norm of what society was, is, and should look be. Rather than changing everything, those outside the norm should aspire to enter into it. Why? Because it’s the norm. It’s the old, we’ve always done it that way, so it must be the best of all possible worlds. The more aware and open minded would break down barriers , open doors and throw down the welcome mat – sincerely, honestly, with good intentions. That with barriers removed and doors opened, the entire economic and social class structure might morph into something unrecognizable was never considered a possibility. Why would it? If some old white men look bewildered, it is as one should expect.
If that’s an allegation that can be stuck on the class of people known as old white men who have done well in life, can it be stuck on each of them regardless of who they are? Can each be held culpable while everyone else is declared innocent? Lumping all old while men into an undifferentiated class to be equally and individually reviled as guilty of systemic social and economic injustice is morally repugnant, just as it has been and continues to be for what we have done to others on the basis of their class, race, or ethnicity. Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, makes the point this way: “[Intolerance, in] a moment can switch to a decision to liquidate not only all actual criminals but all who are racially predestined to commit certain crimes.” She was writing about growing antisemitism in Europe that would lead to the Holocaust, but it’s the same dynamic that undergirds every form of bigotry and prejudice. We’ve certainly experienced enough of it in our own country, most particularly in our treatment of descendants of former African slaves, as well as every other non-white group, and a few “undesirable” Europeans. Should it be a surprise if changing demographics and new found voices inspire members of those groups to return the favor? That doesn’t make it right, just not surprising. It also avoids the question: Do old white men who have done well in life have anything useful to say, and do they have a right to speak? I think it’s the wrong question. The question should be, Does this person have anything useful to say, and should I listen to it?
As it turns out, some old white men who have done well in life have spent a lifetime listening to others as best they could, never ceasing to learn how to listen better. They may be less tone deaf than they are frequently accused of being. Some have had an abundance of life experiences, with time to reflect on them in ways that could help make life better for others, given the chance to tell our stories. Some know so well the various systems under which they have prospered that they are the experts on how to help others do so, even when it’s been stacked against them. Some are pros at handling the reigns of power, are willing to teach others, and will happily turn them over to a new generation of a new people. Some have the keys for changing systems to be more equitably fair, and are willing to help others learn how to use them, if asked. Some have learned that doing well, prospering by whatever measure, is but marginally related to money in the bank. Some know very well that the good things of life that have come their way are due to accidents of birth and good luck, but not without the aid of a lifetime of diligent hard work. They are happily grateful to have been so fortunate, and want to do what they can to see that others have the same opportunities.
Which some are they? You’ll have to decide.