Why We Can’t Talk About It
Getting Americans to talk about our greatest problems has become impossible, because everyone is talking and no one is listening.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, December 2, 2020
This is not an easy topic to broach in the best of circumstances, and very likely impossible for a straight, white cisgendered man to do with any hope of a sympathetic ear. As my cousin Sean told me, “No matter how good your argument is, there’s really no way to avoid tackling this and not coming off as promoting ‘All Lives Matter’ like a clown.”
He’s not wrong of course. It would be easier for me to say nothing, but my fear is that this is also part of the problem, our frightened silence. So I am proceeding with the notion that as Sean puts it, “You are opening yourself up to be vulnerable and be attacked, which takes balls, and maybe some good comes out of it.”
I can only hope.
We don’t have productive discussions in America anymore. We don’t talk about uncomfortable subjects because there is an insistence by cultural elites that only those arguments that adhere to strict proprietary definitions are considered to be valid or worthy of reasonable dialogue. So we don’t talk about it, and it doesn’t get any better, because nothing changes.
This, in a nutshell, seems to be the modus operandi in America when it comes to our most tempestuous topics, namely race, religion and sexuality. The list goes on, but let’s call those the big three. The trifecta of problematic topics that we avoid at all costs in pleasant conversation because there is presumably no way to talk about them without getting into some sort of conflict.
Of course, we blame polarization, ignorance, bigotry and a fractured media landscape, and it’s true, much of our troubled discourse is to blame on that to be sure. But there is also an insidious intolerance from the progressive left to open discussion about difficult topics when it doesn’t conform to their predetermined understanding of what is politically correct, just as there is a refusal from the conservative right to accept new ideas that might shake the existential foundations of who they might be as a people, and which could actually cast doubt on their value as participants in the broader culture.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing as of late regarding why so many white men, and an alarming number of white women, continued to show support for a cretinous buffoon like Donald Trump, despite his transparent racism, utter lack of interest in performing the job at hand, his complete absence of qualification or temperament for governing, and his obvious willingness to engage in criminal behavior while pursuing an authoritarian agenda that flies in the face of traditional American values. How can this be so? Where did we go so wrong as a nation?
“Wouldn’t it be a rather drab world if everybody was wise and sensible…and good? What would we find to talk about?”L.M. Montgomery
There are many reasons that have contributed to the rise in right-leaning movements worldwide, but much of it is a clear reaction to a sudden and dramatic shift in our socioeconomic, and cultural environments. We fear change as a species, and no one wants to be cast as the villain in the epic narrative of our lives. All too often we respond to those who promise the fantasy of what we imagine to be a simpler time, where we understood the world, or at least thought we did.
Let me pause and reflect on something you already know, or have likely guessed by going back up to read my name, and that is that I am indeed, in today’s parlance, a straight, white, cisgendered male who was born and raised as Protestant Christian in middle class America. That’s quite a mouthful for a group of people with such distain for labels and identity politics, but there it is.
I represent, not by choice, but by birth, both the normative standard of American culture, as well as the definitive symbol of oppressive patriarchy in Western culture. I am both everyone’s boogeyman, as well as part of the one group in most need of rehabilitation if we are ever to move forward as a civil, thoughtful society.
Straight, white men, however, are also the one group no one wants to hear from; the group that presumably has nothing to add to the discussion about—well, anything, if we’re being honest. That’s not a complaint so much as a fact of life, and it’s entirely understandable given the centuries of oppression and inhumanity perpetrated by white men in the fight to gather and maintain power at the expense of all others. I accept that as a perfectly sound reason for resistance to engagement, but not as a premise for an ongoing lack of interaction.
Of the big three, religion is the easiest to dismiss as relatively inconsequential as it is quite socially acceptable to confine yourself to your own theological ghetto, where everyone agrees with you. It is not only understandable, but maybe even expected that those of a single religious belief gather and associate with those of like minds. There is an expectation that we compartmentalize religion to certain aspects of our life and hopefully respect that everyone has their own faith tradition that most likely doesn’t have anything to do with how we perform our jobs or play golf or read poetry. It’s something that is often easy to ignore, and so we do.
It’s also, for many people, more of a cultural touchstone, a faith tradition, as opposed to a deeply held belief system that governs all other aspects of our life. You might attend church occasionally, or even religiously so to speak, but that might not extend to any other aspect of your life.
For most of us, religion informs what tribe we identify with to a certain degree, but doesn’t necessarily encompass our entire identity. Where we have gone off the rails in America with regards to religion, is that it has become intertwined with the tribal identity of politics, geography and the urban-rural divide. It’s just one cultural touch-point that adds to the cultural soup that defines which tribe you fight for, but it’s not everything.
Issues of race and sexuality, on the other hand, cross all sorts of socioeconomic and cultural boundaries that we are forced to deal with one way or another—or not—as we attempt to maintain a civil society of inclusivity and equality. Put aside those who would prefer America to be a white, Christian nation of married couples with 2.5 children, and let us assume for the sake of argument that there are enough of us, a slim majority in fact, that recognize the value of diversity and believe that is one of the things that makes American a unique, and sometimes, great country.
I would like to believe that there is no question that America has a dark history of racial oppression and violence, but nearly half the country would no doubt disagree with even that basic premise, despite all the historical evidence. We have not yet come to terms with just how deeply embedded white supremacy is in the American psyche, because the white majority understands that their time on top is nearly up, and they fear what the future will bring. On possibly a lesser, yet no less consequential note, no one wants to be saddled with the responsibility of the sins of the father. I did not own slaves, so why must I pay the debt owed by someone long dead? It seems like an almost reasonable response for where does the responsibility of the individual end, and the burden of society begin? What is the statute of limitations on genocide, slavery and racial oppression? I don’t have answers to these questions, but we must confront them and attempt to answer them if we ever expect to heal that wound.
Without a religious or cultural tradition, a common understanding of a supernatural deity, or commonly held belief, what drives our understanding of morality? Who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong? Are we even capable of making the distinction if left to our own devices? If you were the proverbial last human on earth, with no hope of rescue or reconciliation, would morality even exist? Is it nothing more than a social construct to regulate human behavior so we don’t degenerate into violent anarchy and just kill one another? Possibly.
As I get older, I am not nearly as confident as I once was on the concept of an afterlife, or a moral premise for the existence of life, let alone an all-powerful God that has a divine purpose for us all. I’m also not confident that one doesn’t exist either, and so am bound to the middle ground of agnosticism where I don’t know much of anything for sure, except that I am confident you don’t know either.
Recently some aspects of the arguments surrounding sexuality and the concept of gender as nothing more than a social construct, have been suggested to be solidly based in science and therefore incontestable. Now maybe that’s true, but as it’s a relatively new definition in human culture, I would like a little more time to consider the issue.
I want to take this opportunity before we get too far, to say that I believe in science. I also recognize that just because I don’t understand something, does not mean it doesn’t exist. Like faith, just because something is theoretical, and cannot be proven empirically through witnessing the phenomenon, does also not mean it does not exist. I trust that black holes exist because I have been told they do, and not because anyone else has seen one themselves, but because they have seen evidence of one. I am capable of believing in a thing I have not experienced or witnessed.
But I also believe that science has, more often than not, been wrong over the course of human history. At any given time, our greatest scientists offer the best explanations they can with the data and understanding that we have at the time. The best explain them as theories, not facts.
There are many things we still do not understand, about the world around us, and about our own bodies, let alone the existential causes for the circumstances we find ourselves in. The use of leeches in bloodletting were once considered solid medicinal practice until being abandoned as grossly primitive and a misunderstanding of science, only to be rediscovered in the form of maggots that could effectively clean a flesh wound and promote healing in ways no other medicine could. Doctors have found this to be curiously effective in treating war wounds and goes on today.
So we’re not always wrong, but we also don’t know as much as we think we do, and we are often flying rather blind no matter what. Scientific facts are, more often than not, defined by their significance in our culture, as opposed to having some arbitrary empirical weight.
As we begin to chart the building blocks of what makes us human, and begin to understand and manipulate our DNA, we are on the cusp of eliminating disease and extending life. We might soon be able to genetically modify babies to end hearing loss, as easily as we might design a baby with blue eyes and blond hair. But is being deaf a disability to be cured, or a culture to be protected? The deaf community would no doubt be concerned with the prospect of ending their entire culture with the genocidal swipe of a genetic splicer. Is this a medical question, a cultural consideration, or a moral issue? Who gets to make that decision?
Autism has been treated as if it’s a new phenomenon, but that is not only highly unlikely, but demonstrably false. If we could cure you from being on the spectrum, what would we lose in discovery from all the savants currently working in science, math and the arts?
Where is the morality in allowing a baby to be born with Down’s Syndrome if it could be prevented? Is that merely a genetic mutation, a naturally occurring variation like red hair, or even God’s providence in gifting us an angel? How far do you allow religion to be part of the scientific equation? Does God want you to live forever? Does He want you to be in pain? Is aspirin interfering with His plan for your life? Is penicillin? What about birth control? Organ transplant? If there is no God, what then? Why not design everyone to be their best, and then who gets to decide what that is?
Two hundred years ago, what would the moral ramifications have been to taking the beating heart from one man and inserting it into another, in order to extend human life? What could have been more evidence of the indefatigable soul if not the human heart? Can you trade souls with someone? How is DNA manipulation anything but just a more sophisticated technological advancement to heal the sick and extend life?
The question I am getting to is, who gets to decide? On morality? On what defines normal? On who and what is right? Who gets to live and who must die? Is it you? Is it me? It’s a pretty big question and leads me to today, and the discussions we are currently having about racial and gender equality in America. These are discussions most often viewed as possibly the least accessible to straight, white men, who it is deemed, should really have nothing to add.
The one thing I will concede without question is that I don’t know what it’s like to be Black or South Asian, transgendered or gay, a woman or an immigrant, or any number of things frankly. The breadth of knowledge I do not posses is incalculable in its enormity, but that should not preclude me from joining society in its efforts to evolve and grow. It will not preclude me from trying to be the best version of myself I can be; to attempt excellence in all my human endeavors, and to pursue happiness in whatever forms are available to me. But my aspirations should neither preclude anyone else from following their own path. Opportunity is not a zero-sum game whereby for me to win, someone else must lose.
While human beings are generally resistant to change, we are constantly adapting and evolving, or we die. We might be the most adaptable species on the planet, so there is evidence to suggest that we are more than capable of changing throughout our lives. But we are not all on the same continuum, let alone in the same position on the line. Someone once said while we all may be weathering the same storm, we are not in the same boat.
Now it’s altogether possible, and ultimately likely, that this is the only life I will ever be given to live. Whether or not you believe in an afterlife or not, most of us agree that we only get one ticket to ride on this big blue rock. I will not therefore, choose to sit my turn out, simply because my great-great grandfather was a product of an evolutionary society that overvalued white men, and passed his genes on down to me. If this is all I get, I’m going to make the most of it, and will not be told to sit down and be quiet. I recognize the problematic tradition of white men inserting ourselves where we are not needed or wanted, and the curse of mansplaining that exists, whether conscious or not. But this remains my only ride and I mean to make the most of it.
I find it fairly mystifying that so many individuals in my social circle believe that there are topics of discussion that straight, white men might be precluded from without prejudice, but nothing that they themselves might be prevented from having a valid opinion about.
No one is crying for straight, white men—not even straight, white men. Most of us know how good we have it, and in our best selves, we recognize not only our privilege, but our responsibility. Despite this, the distain and condescension can get tiring, a concept I would think women would be able to understand from personal experience at the hand of our less evolved brethren.
I have no perfect answers for racism and gender equality, and possibly no imperfect answers either, but I know I’m willing to learn and evolve as I do so. I do not consider that to be a small thing.
What else I have to offer is that I have real insight into the minds of straight, white men that you will never fully understand because you’re not a straight, white, cisgendered man. You never were, and you never will be. We’re an awfully large group of people with a shameful amount power for you to simply ignore, or to presume that you understand in a way you don’t believe we are capable of reciprocating.
You might not think this holds any value, this knowledge about white men. You might even think you know all you need to know, because you have friends and relatives that are straight, white men. You’ve read the books and seen the movies, and have an intimate understanding of the culture that drives them. But if your efforts so far are meant to be taken as evidence of your ability to manipulate the culture of this group, then I might suggest you’re not as evolved as you think you are, and not nearly as knowledgeable as you presume.
Which brings me back full circle to the issue of being able to talk about difficult things. If we begin with the premise that others cannot understand us, we will forever fail to connect with anyone else who is unlike us. Whether this is race, gender, religion or lifestyle. We have to be able to have a dialogue of sharing and this begins with language.
When we first start trying to communicate with someone who speaks a foreign language, we teach them the words that we use, and we learn words they use. We find common ground by understanding that we each have different words that to us, mean the same thing. Your word is not wrong and neither is mine, assuming we are both speaking of an orange. You might even ascribe a gender to that orange, while I may not. But either way, we understand that we are speaking of oranges. But if you insist on me using your word, even though you understand my meaning, I will take that as a sign that you do not value my perspective, let alone my culture. The same holds true for me. I have an obligation to not only learn your word for it, but to understand the meaning behind it. Hopefully we learn from each other and therefore begin to understand one another.
If, on the other hand, you have already decided that it’s not your job to teach me your words and explain the intricacies of a culture you think I should already understand, I will be left with nothing but my own ignorance and the expressed feeling that my interest was not welcome in the first place.
I would imagine that most people have had the feeling, at one time or another, of being dismissed, and are therefore painfully aware that it is not a pleasant one. Straight, white men, while guilty of a great many things in the course of history, are not immune to pain or devoid of emotions. We do not have to be in charge, but we might like to be included, and might even have an opinion, where appropriate.
One of the areas I think we are most often overlooked is how much more effective we, as straight, white men can be at speaking to other straight, white men about a given topic, and to do so in a way that makes sense to them, and to us.
Of course, you can continue to choose to assail, abuse or ignore straight, white men if you so choose, and you can likely do so without any real consequence socially. But you are willfully making the decision to maintain them as opponents rather than turning them into allies. The path of least resistance is to win them over, have them see your side of things, and join you in agreeing. If you can do this in such a way that they do not feeling threatened or attacked, or that they have nothing to lose by promoting someone else, they are much more likely to be supportive. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, and in fact looks rather pedantic in print.
The argument I suspect is that it is men who should come to the mountain, rather than asking the mountain to come to Muhammad. That’s fine if that’s the way you feel, but don’t be surprised if your efforts to change a society still dominated by white men takes longer to change than you might like. It’s just a different type of resistance to change, but it’s resistance just the same, and an obstacle to progress.
The obvious downside to even writing this down, let alone publishing this (if I decide to), is that no one gives a shit what white men think, except maybe for other white men, and I’m not even sure about that. What’s worse, if you happen to be someone who is empathetic and tolerant, open-minded and caring, and you talk about such things, you invite the worst of our kind to agree with you in ways that you do not intend. I have no interest in being an apologist for straight, white men. I’m not trying to help them. I’m trying to help everyone else by explaining that which they are unwilling or unable to tell you.
Every time a straight, white man makes a comment on social media, and the knives come out because they didn’t say it the way you want them to, or because they said it at all, or God forbid even thought it, you aren’t keeping them from thinking the way you don’t want them to think, you’re teaching them to keep their opinions to themselves, because they are not valued, or worse they are a threat.
Now maybe they’re not valued, these ideas, which is a fair point in many cases, but you’ve also done nothing to help change their minds. You’ve simply invited them to retreat, fight back, turn off, or otherwise ignore you and anything you cared about in the first place. You didn’t win. They didn’t win. Everyone lost.
I’m 3,500 words in to what I meant to be a short piece about learning to speak civilly to one another, and I’m not sure I’ve gotten anywhere. It’s unlikely that I convinced anyone of anything, except a few white men who might still reading, and nodding their heads in agreement. I’m not even sure I made the point I wanted to make, which is that while I agree that white men are a problem (I wrote a whole piece on why, which you can read here), I also believe that we are not the enemy, at least not entirely.
The solution to solving the white man dilemma is not to dismiss us as unworthy of your time, or incapable of understanding your point of view. It’s entirely plausible that we both understand your point, and in fact disagree with it, or have a difference of opinion that you might find worth considering. The fact that you assume you’re right and we’re wrong, as a starting point, is a problem and precisely why a majority of white men voted for Trump, which I’m willing to bet, you still don’t understand the connection to, or why I bring it up at all.
What do the white supremacists, misogynists, bigots and trolls who voted for and who support Donald Trump have to do with gender pronouns, inequality, and civil discourse? I’m going to give you my theory, and tell you right now that it’s not important that you agree with me, it’s important that other white men agree with me. That, in an of itself, is enough to send most people’s blood pressure off the charts, but I’m merely suggesting I might be able to teach you something about straight, white men that could help you, and us.
Liberal intellectuals have very little tolerance for willful ignorance and bigoted intolerance and I count myself among those in that cabal of distain for the deplorables. But college-educated, white-collar professionals who live in cities and belong to the intellectual elite, whether they think they do or not, have a tendency to believe that everyone thinks as they do, or least that they should.
Elite is a funny word in this context because a lot of people think it means wealthy or powerful, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t even necessarily mean highly-educated. It means in the bubble of thinking that most likely comes from the culture you surround yourself with, the books you read, the movies you watch and the people you associate with. It’s not a bad thing, but is in fact an enlightened state that comes from world experience, wisdom and sometimes pain.
If you are a political junkie, spending inordinate amounts of time reading up on policy issues and following political reporters on Twitter, or even reading something as esoteric as The Standard, you might begin to believe that your sphere of influence, even your understanding of the world, is fairly universal, or at least common knowledge. You would be wrong. Very, very wrong.
The issues I see with so many of my peers in the liberal community, is that they begin with the assumption that everyone of good moral character understands the nuances and complexities of the culture of Black Americans, or the struggles of the trans community, or the real plight of women in corporate America, or the very real threat of authoritarianism on democracy, free speech and the freedom of religion and expression. If you’ve been living through the hell of the past four years, you might find it inconceivable that there are those who have been going to work every day not thinking about any of it, at all, ever. But roughly half the country thinks you’re out of your fucking mind and nearly 90% are barely paying any attention at all.
So what do we do? We shut them down. Like a fancy preacher in a wealthy suburban church, we tell them to come back when they’ve got their shit together, when they have learned how to dress and figured out the right words to use, and understand all that you have spent a lifetime learning. Only then will they be worthy to have a conversation with and join the choir.
So they feel stupid, and insulted, and angry, and defensive. They were not convinced that their thinking was outdated, because you did not begin with them where you began. You began the conversation where you are now, and they have no foundation to understand your point of view.
There was a comedy documentary a few years ago featuring several comedians including Chris Rock, and he talked about how he builds a smart joke for a broad audience. He explained that he can work on a rich vein of material, getting into rather complex subject matter, but only if he takes the time to set up the joke. He has to begin with the premise. He starts small and works his way forward, layer by layer. Once the audience understands the premise, they can enjoy the punchline and the bit will get the laugh he expects it to get, every time. But if he doesn’t take the time to set up the joke properly, by explaining the premise first, he will lose the audience, and no one will laugh. The joke will fail.
Most of us on social media, but especially those who are quick to be offended by anything deemed less than politically-correct or too socially-insensitive, are far too quick to dismiss a comment as too ignorant for serious consideration, and therefore either worthy of being casually dismissed, or vilified and attacked. We are all guilty of it, and yes, you too.
But any white man who has ever spent time online will tell you, that they know there are places they can’t go, and things they can’t say, and discussions they can’t have, for fear of the wrath of Karen or Timothy or whoever they have in their circle of online acquaintances who consider themselves to be the arbiter of woke culture and acceptable behavior.
There are times when I want nothing more than to have bigots go back to being ashamed and wearing hoods, and so I can understand the desire to attack and shame and force that sort of behavior back under a rock again, but I don’t think that’s a very effective strategy as we have seen in the last four years. Trump didn’t make half the country racists overnight. They were already racist, he just gave them a green light to be proud about it.
I’m not suggesting we stop calling out bullshit, but if you don’t know the person, maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to have the conversation with them. If you do know the person, you probably have a bit more understanding of the depths of their heart. You can engage with them and offer alternatives for them to think about without explaining your belief system in dogmatic, unassailable fashion as if you alone hold the keys to the castle of knowledge. For one thing, you might be wrong. But more importantly, we don’t listen to self-righteous assholes, so you’re wasting your breath. Even worse, you aren’t doing it for their benefit, you’re doing it to make yourself feel superior, and that’s just ugly, no matter what the subject, or how righteous the rationale.
There is actually quite a lot of insistence that we all now agree on a new set of protocols that most of us had no part in enacting, that changes not only the fabric of our culture, but our understanding of language as well. We are not being asked to have a discussion on this, we are being told this is simply the way it is now, and that we all need to get on board immediately or be cast out of decent society.
Forget my reluctance to simply bend to the will of the mob for a moment and disregard the question of the validity of the argument itself. I want to talk about our ability to discuss the merits or need to change the language on the whim of an infinitesimal percentage of the population. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before. I’ll be wrong again. But I don’t want to live in a society where I can’t talk about something without being attacked for being insensitive.
I made it this far in life by questioning everything and everyone, which is one of the ways I’ve managed to progress and accept new ideas over the course of my life. Telling me to do something, just because you said so, is the fastest way to get me to reject your argument. I am a logical, empathetic man who is open to having his mind changed. But I like to talk it out and I’m going to usually begin with where my head actually is, not where you think it should be. I need to get there myself, by my own hand, and not because you told me where to go, but because I myself see the wisdom of it. To allow me anything less is insulting and counterproductive.
Just because you have decided that your definition is the definition, does not make it so. You can offer your suggestion or opinion and make an argument for why it should be. I might agree or not and over time society will come to a consensus. But don’t tell me the sky is green, and not blue as it has been my entire life, because you have just now decided that it is green.
The insistence that anyone’s opinion is meaningless, that their contribution has no value, is exactly what advocates accuse the white patriarchy of when it comes to those most vulnerable in our culture, such women and children, communities of color, those with disabilities, and yes those on a different spectrum of gender identity.
Turning that weapon on straight, white men is precisely what drove them to a charlatan like Donald Trump, as inconceivable as that might seem to you. As the world changed, both economically as well as culturally, they were left behind, told they were no longer needed, and told they were the cause of everyone’s problems. Then along came this person who proclaimed to be wealthy beyond what most of us can imagine. A successful real estate tycoon and television celebrity, who moved in the upper echelons of society and married beautiful women. The fact that he was a boor was why he appealed to them. If he had been a sophisticated, suave, eloquent wealthy man with taste, they never would have accepted him as someone who could represent them. But he was none of those things. He was successful despite being a low-class grifter. He told them it was okay to be a misogynistic, racist, bigoted bully. He was all these things and was sitting in the White House. How could it be wrong?
The point of all this is, dismissing straight, white men as unnecessary, inconvenient, or evil has been, and continues to be, a mistake that will only serve to exacerbate our divisions. If you want to convert someone over to your way of thinking, you don’t start with your enemy and try to make them your friend. You start with a stranger and try to make them an acquaintance. You find an acquaintance, and attempt to make her your friend. What you don’t do is attack them for voicing a thought you mind find inconvenient, insulting or ignorant.
Not if you expect me to listen. Not if you expect me to care.