The State of Public Discourse: On Race and Related Issues

Observations, Conclusions, and Solutions

My undergraduate degree is in Sociology. Much of that discipline studies and observes the different institutions of society (religion, marriage, government, education, the justice system, etc); how individuals and communities interact within them. In that course of study there were many opportunities for us to discuss a variety of issues pertaining to these different institutions. In evaluating them, many people have come to the conclusion that within these institutions there are disparities of opportunity and treatment for different people groups.

This conclusion, many people feel, is strong evidence of negative-racially motivated attitudes and beliefs that pervade society at any and all levels. As a result, those people will often advocate for policy reform, usually at the federal level of government (e.g. affirmative action).

Emotionally Charged Discourse

Not everyone agrees with this observation, or the conclusion, or what the best solution is even if the observation and conclusion were true. This frustrates many people because of the perceived ubiquitous (there’s a vocabulary word for you!) nature of the evidence. Still, many people do want to discuss these issues with others because they believe that public discourse is the way to shape public opinion and change hearts and minds.

The current state of public discourse concerning race, racism, and racial reconciliation is undoubtedly a complex, frustrating, divisive, and lastly, wearisome one.  Perhaps the most frustrating thing about it is that people often engage in a public discourse because they are concerned for the related issues of peace and justice, and yet the result is all too often a more polarized and divided relationship with those whom they wish to close that gap with.  

People are angry.  Angry at past and present injustices.  Angry that others can be so apparently hateful or ignorant that they can’t see the truth of the matter.  Angry that their voices are not heard. And angry that this reality persists despite attempts for change. What are we to do?  For people who seek justice, peace, and the greater welfare of all persons, how are we supposed to address this subject if all it does is make more enemies than friends?

Discussing anything for which persons have strong and differing opinions seems near impossible; controversial issues aside.  Literally (I mean to use this word in its literal sense!), almost anything you can have an opinion of people will argue over.  Transitioning from the topic of healthcare or climate change (which of course bears with them a great deal of partisan loyalties and emotional investment) to the topic of race is like stepping out of the trenches of WWI into no man’s land, making yourself a clearer target not only for your enemies but also for the friendly fire from behind.

The No Man’s Land of Political Issues

No Man’s Land is the area between the trenches, the front-lines of warfare.  WWI bears the deepest scars from the history of its use.  Famously depicted in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, trench warfare of WWI was a particularly gruesome and hopeless climate for the human soul.  Mired and immobile in thick mud, under constant threat of mustard-gas (which kills by drowning the victim through the buildup of fluid in their lungs after inhalation), enemy snipers and machine guns ready to mow-down the first person who exposes themselves above the safety of the trench wall, yet still called upon to make frequent advances on the enemy line over many yards of barbed wire and other deadly obstacles. These soldiers had little options other than hope and pray when called upon to crest that trench wall.

Tragically ironic, the front-lines were notoriously stagnant and ineffective.  That is, much of trench warfare resulted in a stalemate.  The turf which was gained by one advance would only be lost again during the next enemy advance.  The average distance between front-lines were estimated to be 250 yards with some as close as 50 yards.  Think about that.  These men lived and died over a couple hundred yards of turf; turf which would only be lost and gained, again and again, over the many following days.  

Granted, they were fighting for something more than land.  There were ideas and ideologies (however meaningful or meaningless) symbolically attached to that little piece of land.  But where ideologies fail to be quantified and measured, we try to understand the cost of the many thousands of lives (some estimate approximately 200,000 deaths in the trenches alone) in the Western Front by the yards of mutilated earth which exchanged hands back-and-forth as if young school-children playing hot-potato.  Strategy, it seems, had little affect towards its intended goal; unless the goal was in fact mass-slaughter; in which case it succeeded quite well.

Education Helps Us Articulate Our Thoughts

My need in depicting the nature of trench warfare of WWI is an educational one.  Often our use of analogy comes where technical language fails at explanation.  Some of you may already be familiar with the discussion such that you have foresight enough to see where I will inevitably take this analogy.  Some of you lack, perhaps, the categories of understanding at this time to speak in well defined terms related to this subject (i.e. justice, inequality, discrimination, cultural appropriation, etc.).  This is, of course, nothing to be ashamed of.  It is not a lack of intellectual ability but rather of educational experience. Nor is this to insinuate that a lack of education is a person’s own fault.  Simply, we all have subjects and disciplines for which we lack understanding because we have never been educated in them due to constraints of time and resources.  

Regardless, we still can listen to someone speak on these subjects and understand them on an intuitive level.  For example, I was recently reading a book about evolution where the author describes a biochemical process using very technical language.  I’ve had a very limited education in chemistry so I was quite ignorant when it came to the technical names for the different proteins and molecules, yet I was not so lost in understanding the binding and breaking of atoms; again, not because I’ve studied it but that the basic concept of breaking and forming a bond is intuitively comprehensible.  But some limited study would obviously help not only my understanding of that biochemical process, but also my ability to think and speak critically about it.  In fact, that is one of the reasons for education itself; so that we might be more informed on a subject enough to develop our own thoughts and opinions, thinking critically about them.

For this reason, a helpful and achievable goal for the concerned individual is to become informed about a subject to the degree that they speak with more nuance and clarity about it.

Carrying the Analogy Further

Back to our trench warfare analogy.  My aim at utilizing the scenario of trench warfare could easily be construed as insinuating there is some kind of race-war happening either overtly among the streets of our cities and neighborhoods, or covertly among the nuanced and confusing mediums of media, entertainment, and culture at-large.  That is NOT my belief or position.  I do not believe there is some race or class-warfare being waged by government or social institutions, or other groups hell-bent on perpetuating race-inequalities for fear that those in control may lose their wealth or privileges or both.

Rather, my decision to use the analogy of trench warfare is meant to be a commentary on the divisive and ill-productive nature of the public discourse which does take place in our governmental institutions, across media platforms, in our universities, among our communities, and between friends, families, and coworkers.  How so?  What do I mean by that?

Explaining the Analogy

The public dialogue concerning racism in the U.S. is like the trench warfare of WWI in a variety of ways.  First let’s consider the polarization of the issue.  On one side there are those who claim that racism is so endemic to American society that it is described as systemic and structural; meaning, the very design or aim of American institutions is to advantage white persons and to disadvantage or discriminate against minorities (often, in particular Black-Americans).  The other side argues that racism is of little to no affect, or is negligible, in today’s America.  Further, that American society is something of a meritocracy; that is, each individual’s socio-economic status is purely a result of their own efforts, ambition, and abilities.  These positions often (but not always) fall strongly into partisan platforms, the DNC being the former and the GOP the latter.

Rarely if ever do you find someone who takes a middle-of-the-road position on this issue from either party.  Should a Republican or Conservative believe racism in America is a serious issue worthy of discussion and policy reform, he would surely come under fire as quickly from his own party than he does from the opposition.  That is not to say that people from his own side would aim for him intentionally, but that his position is no longer protected by the consensus-opinion of his party’s platform.* So, in some sense, he is no longer completely allied with his own party.  Simply, he has stepped out into No Man’s Land where he is isolated, alone, and an open target from all directions. Persons at polar-ends need only protect themselves against from what is in front of them. But the person who takes a moderate position must defend himself from both sides. 

*This is one reason why you can predict to a high degree of success, what a person’s position is on numerous issues based solely on their political affiliations. 

The second tragic likeness to our illustration is the striking inability for either side to budge.  Instead, both are so entrenched in the belief of their own rightness (often, moral rightness) that they refuse to give any ground, make any compromise, or worse, fear any real productive engagement with those across the aisle.  

With the most recent Presidential election cycle we have seen the rise of even more extreme and resolute fronts with the birth of what is called on the far right, the Alt-right, and on the far left the army of SJW’s (Social Justice Warriors) and Antifas (Anti-fascists).  I don’t mean to say that the Alt-Right and SJWs are extreme in the sense that they are dangerous.  Rather I mean that they are simply separated farther along the political spectrum than are traditional Republicans and Democrats.

Both, the Alt-Right and SJWs, are dissatisfied by what they see as the moral failure of their political wing’s dominant party-line and their inability to create any lasting-positive change.  The Alt-Right has lambasted the GOP for its moral compromise and the SJWs have become disillusioned by the DNC’s failed bureaucratic tactics.  Instead of the front’s moving closer together the political wings have each moved further apart on many issues.  

I’m no military or political-strategist but under the assumption that each side desires progress, that would seem to be counter-productive. As a result, I suspect that the current state of things is such that both political wings have forfeited all belief in some kind of progress and especially any kind of bipartisan product where both obtain some degree of their desired outcome.

So What’s to Be Done?

So what’s to be done?  Is public discourse dead?  Is there no hope for progress or agreement?  I don’t believe all hope is lost, but the solution is certainly a difficult one. It requires patience and listening; listening to those we inherently distrust or judge as morally repugnant. It requires seriously considering their point-of-view because we desire the same opportunity and receptiveness from them. It requires humility, such that a person is willing to learn and not presume to know. Perhaps the most difficult, it requires the intellectual honesty that compels a person to change their attitudes and behaviors when they’re shown to be wrong. 

Looking Forward

Looking forward I hope to address some of the issues related to race, social justice, cultural values, and society. I can’t promise that my views will be unbiased. In fact, I can guarantee you that they will be. But that doesn’t mean they must inherently be wrong. Subjectivity doesn’t undermine objectivity, but it does have the potential to pervert it, to manipulate it. For that reason, looking forward, I’ll have to ask you to have patience with me as I address some of these very emotionally charged issues.

 

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