"Go Slow"

The oddest thing about teaching Classics of Social and Political Thought this past year was the students' attitude towards racism and sexism. To their minds, both were deeply-seated problems and would take a long time to resolve. One student thought Emma Goldman's "The Tragedy of Women's Emancipation" was a 21st century piece, rather than one written at the turn of the 20th century; they noted the similarities between Tocqueville or DuBois' observations on the treatment of black people. They took to heart Tocqueville's idea that society doesn't change until mores change, and mores take a long time to change, but they did so in the oddest of ways: by assuming this gets everyone in history, and themselves, off the hook. Changing attitudes is complex, and people can't do it overnight.

Raising the issue of justice rarely helped, as their tendency was to think in terms of efficiency and ease. Justice being neither efficient nor easy, they looked on this as a needless muddying of the waters. I offered the comparison with homophobia, which they all think untenable, and pointed out that American society has reversed itself on the question within the last 20 years. No effect. Even pointing out that racism or sexism is just a choice--one that can be undone with so little effort as 'now I'm going to treat this person like a person, as I do every day with lots of human beings I encounter'--did not dissuade them from the idea that these problems would take hundreds of years to solve. I found their position disturbing because of the quietism it seems to imply--that political and social conditions are a given, that individual effort matters very little, that the resolution of problems is largely out of their hands and is somewhere far off in the future. And I am not quite sure how to address it in the future.

1 comment:

Lindsay Lennox said...

What about discussing the mechanisms by which mores change? Art, journalism, seemingly fruitless political and legal activism, etc. Maybe focusing on the efforts of individuals (not the leaders who finally moved the needle, but the writers and film-makers and slow-grind activists) helps overcome the sense of personal powerlessless (and its twin, the feeling of personal non-accountability for change)?