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.

Must self-interest and distrust make us inhumane?

Am I overly sensitive to people’s selfishness? Or is a greedy attitude overtaking Americans this year because we feel our lifestyles (or our aspirations) have been threatened for far too long by a poor economy? Can pushing aside the concerns of entire groups of people because of their ethnicity or perceived status actually help us feel powerful and righteous?

Part of our animal nature makes us pigs at a trough—each squealing and rooting to get to the slop, heedless of the weaker ones, and oblivious to our ugliness.

However, as human beings, we are not completely ruthless in our determination to thrive. It’s wrong to believe that our natural state of mind is to lack empathy for people of other cultures, races, and economic strata. Our minds and hearts are much more complicated than that.

True, it’s not as easy for us to feel empathy for people who are different, because our overriding initial response to them is fear. From an evolutionary perspective, our fear is useful. It makes sense. Yet, if we have even a little time to get to know someone who is different, the fear often dissipates, and then we can feel empathy naturally.

What we cannot do, unless we’re psychopaths, is handle the cognitive dissonance that results from harming another human being when we really don’t need to—in an immediate, literal sense. If we’re put into the situation of doing harm to someone, we quickly rationalize in order to eliminate the cognitive dissonance and feel good about ourselves. In other words, we make up a story the way a toddler would. To onlookers whom we haven’t recruited to our self-righteous worldview, our story is about as convincing as a child’s.

Balancing our opposing natures is not easy. It’s a challenging, often frustrating, lifelong endeavor to know ourselves. The importance of making the attempt is why one of the criteria I use for selecting new clients is a writer’s skill at presenting ideas that bring people together and help them understand each other.

If you share an interest in recognizing our common humanity, I invite you to attend the first U.S. screening of Riccardo Valsecchi‘s documentary film Schwarzkopf BRD at the Bat Haus in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on February 10, 2015, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are free. Watch for it on the Bat Haus Film Club‘s Facebook page. There’s also an Indiegogo campaign underway.

More on this topic

I can’t link you directly to Philosophy Talk Podcast 361: Humanity Violated (featuring David Livingstone Smith), which you can buy from iTunes. Smith makes the argument that dehumanization soothes people’s guilty consciences.

In the podcast, host Ken Taylor asks Smith about the process of dehumanization:

If I could just get….an evildoer to see, “Oh, that’s a human being you’re doing that to! That’s a fellow human being you’re doing that to”—and they could see it—do you think all this would stop? I’m not convinced that if I could just see that the “other” was a human being like me it would make all this stuff go away. What do you think?

Smith answers:

It would not make all this stuff go away. People would find other ways to solve the problem—the problem being overcoming inhibitions against harming others.

This, I believe, is one of the many tendencies we need to understand about ourselves.