What living in the South has shown me

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina
Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina
I lived the first fifty years of my life north of the Mason-Dixon line in two blue Ohio counties surrounded by red ones. When I moved to South Carolina in 2012, I had to recalibrate my bullshit detector, which takes a lot of trial and error. I’m still disconcerted by the deceitfulness of people who have tried to befriend me and by the self-confident warmth of those who, in the North, automatically would have doubted me and frozen me out until I proved myself trustworthy. I had been expecting the opposite, which is to say, Northern stereotypes are useless in the South.

It so happened that I moved during 2015 to the coastal town of Beaufort, South Carolina, midway between Charleston and Savannah, a few weeks before a young, self-proclaimed white supremacist shot and killed nine African American congregation members in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. I hadn’t been oblivious to the existence of the alt-right in America. Neither had I assimilated into the Southern culture beyond accepting that it was compulsory to express a greeting when passing someone on the sidewalk. That summer after the church murders I wondered where, exactly, I had planted myself. Or more precisely, among whom?

In the days following the hateful attack on innocent churchgoers, part of the Southern African American culture that had mystified me was articulated straightforwardly: “Wrong Church! Wrong People!”

I remember fumbling to explain to anyone who cared or at least listened that the African American people I encountered in South Carolina were not hostile, militant, deferential, or even avoidant. Their interactions with me were remarkably different than what I’d been accustomed to in the North. Particularly here in Beaufort, where some of the African American citizens are connected to the Gullah Geechee culture, their relaxed self-assurance is beautiful. I admire it.

After the racially motivated killings in Charleston, the members of the Emanuel AME Church congregation automatically lived their creed of peace, nonviolence, and forgiveness—Christians behaving exactly as Christian doctrine had taught them to respond to hate. It was an inspiring moment in the wake of unspeakable evil. It also placed into context the manners of my black neighbors in the South, which until then had puzzled me. Without saying anything, all along they had been demonstrating, “You can’t drag us down into the gutter. We’re better than that. We’re better than you.” I am a proud, incorrigibly idealistic child of the ’60s, and it makes me deeply happy to have them as role models.

Perspective

stay human
Photo courtesy of Toa Heftiba

When we treat someone badly, we are consequently more inclined to think of the individual as a bad person.

This is the reverse of what we know is true. We understand that in order to rationalize cruelty, one of the necessary first steps is to dehumanize those who will suffer. Blaming them for their own misfortune is yet another step toward our absolution.

Full awareness of these psychological phenomena entails accepting that each of us is capable of cruelty. Understanding human nature means recognizing that we all have blind spots concealing at least a portion of our capacity for evil. We’d be miserable if we possessed an utterly realistic view of ourselves.

In front of the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Bexley, Ohio, is a small memorial garden. Its lighted centerpiece is a bronze sculpture by Alfred Tibor titled Remember. Behind it is a map engraved with the locations of former concentration and extermination camps extending from Latvia to Hungary, from the Netherlands to Belarus. The memorial was created to invoke humanity’s conscience. I’ve never noticed anyone lingering in the tiny garden.

We struggle and rarely succeed at balancing the instincts Christian Jungersen illuminates in his novel The Exception. The psychological thriller deals with workplace intrigue among a small group of Danish genocide researchers. Its characters, who turn against each other as the result of perceived insults, typify our self-centered existence.

Jungersen told Klaus Wivel for Weekendavisen:

We all know that the money we spend having a good time in town could save the lives of several people in the Third World. And that thought does occur to us occasionally, but we shove it back into the shadow world where it leads its own life. If there are people in the Third World whose children die for lack of something from our world, it’s easy to understand why they would hate us and think to themselves: how can anyone be so callous? They would call that evil.