Friday, January 04, 2008

Liberal White New England Couple Wants To Know If They Should "Dump" A Friend Who Suddenly Revealed His "Racism"

On January 3, 2008, published a two-page article about a letter from a liberal white New England couple who were offended when a close friend suddenly articulated what they considered to be "racist" thoughts. The letter was sent to one of Salon's advice columnists, Cary Tennis. Hat tip to Newsnet14 for tipping me off to this story.

This letter is an ideal example of the quasi-religious nature of liberal beliefs in general, and anti-racist doctrine in particular. The lady brags about how "open-minded" her husband became after years of "therapy" (therapists are the secular equivalent of priests or pastors).

Since protects their content with a copyright, I can only replicate excerpts under "fair use" guidelines. Here's the most pertinent excerpt of their letter, and of Cary's response:

Dear Cary,


My husband and I have a relatively new friend whom we both like a lot. We've known him fairly well for about a year now, and he and my husband have really enjoyed spending time together, watching and talking about sports, current events and their past lives. He's single, about five years older than my husband, and retired here about 10 years ago from Massachusetts. Coincidentally (neither of us knew it when we first met him), he is also a recovering alcoholic (with, I believe, about 20 years of sobriety). Needless to say, this revelation gave him and my husband even more in common, and their friendship has grown until my husband considers him among his closest friends.

Now the problem. My husband and I have both always recognized that this friend is more conservative than we are, but we've been able to discuss our differences over politics and social issues with humor, while "agreeing to disagree" -- until a few days ago, when we both became suddenly and uncomfortably aware that our friend is, to put it bluntly, a racist. The three of us were having a pleasant conversation about football, when he remarked that he couldn't stand it when a certain black sports commentator "slipped into jive talk whenever there's another black guy in the booth." Successive remarks led us to realize the extent of his prejudice, and finally led me to say, incredulously, "Please don't tell me you honestly believe that white people are smarter than black people?" I was hoping he was putting us on, and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when he said, "Yeah, I do." He went on to say, "Except for people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, but, as a rule, yeah."

My husband and I were both floored, and we continued the discussion in hopes of getting him to -- what? I don't know, retract his statement or change his mind, I suppose. He gave several examples to illustrate his position -- rough gangs of black kids he had gone to high school with, the behavior of some of the black men he had served with in the Navy, black men he had known who abandoned their pregnant girlfriends -- while we both tried to get him to see that culture, not genetics, was responsible for what he perceived as innate differences between the races. He ended up by assuring us that he always "treated them nicely" -- had some black friends in the service, tipped the black server at the doughnut shop, etc. -- unlike his father, who was, apparently, a raving racist who talked about "jigaboos and jungle bunnies" when he was growing up.


My question is: Where do we go from here? Do we continue the friendship as before, skirting the issue of racial prejudice? Do we tell him we're sorry, but we no longer feel comfortable being his friends? Do we say nothing, stop inviting him for coffee, and let the friendship lapse? I feel sad to think that my husband may lose a friend with whom he has found so much common ground, but how much of a difference in viewpoint can a friendship sustain? And how much of a stand do we need to take to be true to our own values?



Note the supreme arrogance of the couple. They are considering termination of the friendship not because the man betrayed them or let them down, but because he voiced some political opinions with which they disagreed. And what a way for the couple to betray the man's trust - the man was willing to trust their friendship enough to let his hair down and be himself, to reveal confidences which he would ordinarily shield from the general public. And in exchange for showing that trust, the man is to be cast aside.

Cary's response is interesting. While he reinforces the couple's political beliefs, he gently chides them for their arrogance, and recommends they consider continuing the friendship under the concept of "love people despite their personal flaws". Here are two excerpts from his response:

Dear Disappointed,

It is indeed a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about. People fail you, they do.

This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your time to believe your own beliefs -- to believe your own beliefs are the only ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress. If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the 1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.


I just think lots of us are pretty dumb, and we're not all that virtuous either, and big deal. I'm not so impressed with our own assumed air of virtue, we liberal coastal elites. I don't think we're all that morally superior to the racists and sexists we can so easily pick out of the crowd and condemn. I think in fact that our frequent presumption of moral superiority is a deep character flaw that blinds us both to the vast virtue around us and to our vast capacity for growth. And more than that: Our air of superiority bores me. It bores me how we talk. It bores me how seriously we take the liberal taboos, how easily we are stopped at the borders of good taste.

Cary Tennis does attempt to take the wind out of the couple's moral sails. He gently chides them for their superiority complex, and invites them to step out from behind the liberal taboos once in a while in order to continuing growing as individuals.

And indeed, this advice is applicable to anyone, regardless of political philosophy. If someone otherwise adds value to your life, you should be slow to to discard them as friends simply because they reveal an aspect of their philosophy you find disagreeable. Now if they try to convert you, and don't respect your desire to maintain your beliefs, then you have to sever the relationship. But one can have friendship with those of different worldviews, so long as there's mutual respect of the other's personal sovereignty.

Cary Tennis has authored the "Since You Asked" advice column on since 2001.

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