More about Insult, Heritage, and Identity

I had already prepared myself for what I knew would be a particular old fella’s outlook on the world. A salt-of-the-Earth type, hard-working, doing it the right way the first time, former prison guard captain and tobacco farmer’s son (pulled tobacco from when he was six to nineteen). He was well in his seventies and looked every day of it, lots of miles. He grew up just a few miles outside the tiny brick town of Benson, North Carolina. He married a girl right down the road and traveled to the big city of Raleigh for work for thirty odd years until he took up painting houses and then he ended up all over the triangle area. I did not ask but I am sure he is a stalwart church-goer, likely proud to the core of having spent his life and times in the limited fishbowl of small town life. He likely considers even bagels communist and only missed one or two days of shaving in fifty years. He was quite likable despite his attitudes and predictable rants. I only asked him the leadership style questions, “Do you recommend corrections as an occupation?” No he does not, because “Them prisoners got it better than we do.” “How do you keep from getting drips when you roll that paint?” After a long discussion of technique he added, “not like them Mexicans.” I had NPR on with 1A talking a bit about Paul Ryan saying he is leaving his Speaker of the House position to be with his family. One of the panelists happened to be a lady who took Ryan to task a bit about the timing and possibility of the GOP losing grip on the government, and our old feller took some umbrage at the lady, not so much against her point, but that he was offended by her voice. Women don’t need to be making such comments (undoubtedly a Southern Baptist). And it lead rapidly into a defense of men (none mentioned by name) in sexual abuse cases. I am ashamed to say I merely nodded along. I can’t imagine there’s much sense in picking a fight with a senior citizen I’ll likely never meet again, but it does irk me that I’m stuck listening to hate and uber conservatism through my politeness and desire to maintain peace and a job. Why can’t folks just stick to their base of knowledge. Our elderly friend knows a lot about prepping walls and applying paint. He is in no hurry, and sands the walls by hand for several days, collecting every scrap of dust in a dustpan held in his left hand. Occasionally he hums to himself some sparky tune which made him seem like he might be an upbeat sort of fellow, and he occasionally was. But after knowing me only for a few minutes he was sharing his angst about foreigners and the terrible work ethic of young people. At one point some of the fellows on one of the job sites called me to have me deliver some parts they required, and I hung up the phone after getting the address and joked, “Well I’ve got something to do!” He piped up, “It won’t hurt ya!” I didn’t raise my eyebrows, nor incline my head. I merely chuckled and headed to the door with the parts.

This is the regular level of hate and anxiety that fills the heart of a tribalistic being. We aren’t alone in this, nor are we especially rancorous about it. I’ve seen it everywhere. I’ve seen the pride (pride not for accomplishments but instead for the base level of geographic birth, skin color and patriotism–the least of qualities) and I’ve seen the lack of reason and humanity. I’ve heard the phrase, “You want me to tell you what’s really going on?” along with the more forceful, “Let me tell you something . . . “ most often followed by a rant of tripe so useless and slovenly a KKK march will easily manifest itself before your eyes. Would it be useful to abuse would be KKK grand wizards in the ways of such racists? I doubt it. People see themselves as utterly righteous and no amount of well reasoned argument contrary to their views is likely to dispel that. So how do we convince a lout, or a movement of them, that hate is undeserved and also shockingly heinous? Our most apparent method is sarcasm and vitriol. And, of course, no one is going to learn to be properly introspective when they are on that sort of noisy and challenging defense. Therefor the opposition to hate, and the opposition to parochialism that feeds generalizations from isolated incidents, cannot simply be shaming. For example it does no good to call trump voters, “assholes”. Some may very well be “assholes”, but it’s not a useful clarification nor correctable quality.

In line with this thought, back in the 80s I used to run a little skeptics chatroom on a local dial-up Bulletin Board System. Despite the fact that the BBS really only serviced a tiny area of the tiny state of Rhode Island, I was often deep in discussions with religious faithful as well as a wide range of pseudoscientific bullshit. I was young and energetic at the time and I think the fact that I, and my few friends of science, utterly failing to convince anyone of much of anything, didn’t quite reach me. I was happily typing away for hours, long-winded and citation laden essays, debunking everything from ghosts to bigfoot to a personal and active god in our lives. All of it largely for nothing. And when I say I did this tirelessly I mean like I was going to get a Master’s degree for it. I worked at this, like it was a kind of beloved job. And I literally was getting nothing for it. Why did I do it? Because I wanted to champion reason and science over nonsense and faith-based beliefs. It took me years to realize that I had had absolutely no effect on anyone that I aimed my diatribes at. I collected Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, I talked to Phil Klass about UFOs, I talked to James Randi about all manner of goofball beliefs. I had sort of hobnobbed with my heroes at the time, but they also didn’t discourage me. I must admit that my interest was a kind of identification with heroes. I became somewhat obsessed. I went back to school because Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan (both skeptics) separately recommended it.

The Amazing Randi had just offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove dowsing worked. Self proclaimed “never-fail” dowsers showed up and were unable to mark the buried pipe with running water in it. Excuses flew, but the fact remained, they failed the test. Has it gone away? Absolutely not. I will admit I haven’t seen a good ESP, channeling, key-bending, or hypnosis demonstration in a long while. They’ve gone out of fashion in more recent years, but are likely to return someday when some charismatic celebrity picks it up. And the fact that UFOs are still best known from very old photographs and these days even meteors are caught on digital cameras burning up in the atmosphere you’d think would put a hole in the whole wacky, shitty, blurry-thing-on-a-picture UFO shtick, but that’s also bound to keep going. Most recently belief in a flat Earth is on the rise. Do people really believe such nonsense, or do they identify with the counter-culture, distrustful outlook that is so prevalent in certain stubbornly antagonistic folks?

It certainly isn’t just a matter of being stubbornly antagonistic though, it has a lot to do with identity. Many southern folk who know almost nothing about actual history, and couldn’t give a shit less about reading a Shelby Foote tome are nonetheless dedicated to the premise that their geographic forebears need their defense. People love a good challenge to a presumed “heritage” (as if it were heritage only a few owned). Few things can raise the ire more than an insult to a beloved—if mostly forgotten or entirely unknown—history. In fact, I’d argue that that’s more what the war was about. That’s what drew the soldiers, and that’s what motivates young people to take up arms and suffer tremendous hardships , the insult to identity and heritage (it gets them off the farm!). The North expected the war to be over rapidly, portrayed the Southerners as disease ridden and limp, and promulgated the idea that they’d walk right over the hookworm ridden Confederate soldiers.

It ain’t about the politics or the social argument. It’s about an emotional attachment, regardless of how irrational, to an identity. It also provides a solid chance to exercise indignation. Indignation is at least as powerful a pleasure as sex. Few of us can resist the opportunity to wield the righteousness of having been improperly wronged.
So what if dehumanizing insult were not part of a prelude to serious discussion and attempts at progressive change? Is it that hard to turn an economy away from heinous activities without the ridiculous old saw of personal attack? Could war possibly be avoided with a clever turn of negotiations that didn’t require so much fundamental antagonism? In the US, in Ireland, in the Middle East? Is it too much to ask to be aware of the emotional attachment to identity and avoid the potential of rubbing faces raw with childish insult? Probably not, it’s possibly too much to ask to expect human beings to not pounce directly on one another’s most vulnerable aspects. So we reap what we sow every time.

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