Friday, June 19, 2015

Ideas Kill: Charleston and Our Failure to Talk About Race and Hate

A lot of words have been written in the last couple of days about the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. Interesting and important discussions have broken out about whether this act constituted terrorism (yes) or a hate crime (yes) or whether this is a manifestation of broken race relations (yes). Some have taken the opportunity to advance their favorite pet theories, perhaps the most absurd being  that pastors should arm themselves so they can be prepared to shoot assailants (I guess we should ask, "who would Jesus shoot?")

Smart things are being said, too, about the language we use to talk about these kinds of incidents. Why is it that whites who commit mass shootings are put in the "mentally ill" category when others (Muslims especially) who commit similar acts are labelled in other ways? Would reactions be different if a black man went into a white church and shot nine people as opposed to a white man in a black church doing the same? (almost certainly)

I don't have a lot to add to many of these conversations - a lot of smart folks are already saying smart things, and while it's fun to echo I suspect that many are only being listened to by those who already agree with them. That's one of the downsides of social media (says the guy who primarily uses Facebook to distribute his blog posts...)

Beyond human compassion for the victims and the affected community (which I hope we all share, regardless of our political, racial, or identity leanings), I want to offer a thought for consideration. Even this I can't claim full credit for - a friend of mine sent out a group email earlier today that got me thinking along these lines.

I often write about cases of gun violence from a self-defense point of view, as a student of interpersonal violence. In this case, I don't want to do that - the argument about whether pastors should be armed is to me so ridiculous as to not be worth engaging in. Instead, I want to approach this from the point of view of someone who has spent his life in higher education. From that vantage point, there is one important concept that I'm not sure has been fully grasped:

Ideas kill.

This is easy to say but much harder to understand. In our drive to both defend free speech and promote tolerance (both noble and excellent goals), we have neglected the much harder work of engaging ideas. Instead, we sling mud and names and labels at each other, pat ourselves and our friends on the back for our righteousness, and go out for a beer.

I started to address this problem after the Newtown, CT shooting in this blog post. The ideas I was talking about there were ideas about guns in particular. I think that post has held up pretty well, though most of the hard-liners in the gun debate don't want to hear it.

But what we appear to be seeing in Charleston is broader. It wasn't just Dylann Roof's ideas about guns. It was his ideas about race and society, his vision of the world as a whole, that led him to kill.

This is the part of the conversation we are terrible about. We've been talking about race in this country for centuries, but haven't made a lot of progress recently. To minorities - blacks in particular - racism is a major problem, but to far too many whites it's an annoyance, a "special group" issue, a side bar to the "real" problems our country faces. The problem with our conversations about race is that they're primarily conducted by blacks, Latinos, sometimes Asians, and a few sympathetic whites. We see this on our university campuses - chief diversity officers tend to be minorities, and the events they organize and the dialogues they hold tend to attract the attention largely of the minority population. For much of the white population, it's simply "not my problem".

So here's why we have to start taking this much more seriously: ideas kill.

Those nine people in Charleston didn't die because Mr. Roof is mentally deranged, though by some standards he may be. They didn't die because he had easy access to guns, although that was certainly a permitting factor. They died because Mr. Roof held ideas - ideas he learned and inherited and absorbed from a lot of other people - about race and American society.

This fact makes this a critical issue for higher education, because ideas are our stock in trade. If universities can claim anything, it is to serve as idea foundries - places where ideas are developed, tested, debated, tried, and shared.

This does not mean that universities should run out and frog-march their students and faculty into diversity sensitivity workshops so that their latent racism can be lectured out of them. It does mean that we need to pay much more careful attention to the ideas that lead to violence and killing, both as individual components and in constructed views of the world. We need to study these ideas, where they come from, and how they are spread, in much the same way that epidemiologists study diseases.

This is true not only of racism. It is also true of the ideas behind rape and sexual assault. It is true of the ideas behind religious extremism. It is true of any number of ideas and constructed ideologies that lead people to believe not only that it's OK to kill other human beings, but that it is necessary and laudable to do so.

These are difficult, difficult conversations. They are hard topics to tackle. If this were easy, we would have done it already. How do we separate ideas from people (because people tend to get defensive and, when cornered, will shut down or lash out) and how do we work together as people to deal with ideas? How do we do all of this without becoming coercive about it, which defeats the whole exercise? I don't know - I'm as guilty of anyone else of not trying very hard.

One thing I do believe is true: if this is going to happen anywhere in American society, it will happen in colleges and universities. Our politics are too fragmented and vicious and infected with cynicism for a public figure, another MLK, to force a conversation onto the national stage. But despite all the ridiculous rhetoric from people outside the academy, all the "sky is falling" predictions of how universities are going the way of the dinosaur, universities still succeed for the most part in creating environments and spaces for real and difficult conversations. And sometimes, they even succeed in leading them.

This is not a prediction so much as a call to purpose. For those of us in higher education, we need to take our jobs seriously. We need to take ideas seriously again. Because as the world keeps reminding us, lives depend on it.

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