The Unlearned Lesson from South Carolina

The developments in South Carolina over the last few days have produced enough object lessons to fill a lengthy sermon series. Hate and fear; love and forgiveness; tolerance and intolerance — the victims’ families will be well taken care of because Oprah will stop at nothing to get the movie rights.

But in spite of all the lessons, nobody appears to be learning anything. Social media seems to be locked into its normal range of emotions, hovering between “outraged righteous indignation” and “righteously indignant outrage.” Everybody’s arguing their favorite arguments whether they have anything to do with the situation or not. And in watching these arguments play out, it struck me that the biggest object lesson in this whole thing — and one which no one will ever learn from or even notice — is that we have completely lost the ability to see things from another person’s perspective.

One version of this lesson played out on National Review’s Corner, where Jason Lee Steorts went after the Confederate flag:

…the Confederacy’s primary reason for being was to preserve racial slavery — that is, to violate natural rights rather than to secure them. That is what Confederate soldiers fought for. Whatever else their battle flag may mean, it has to mean that. It did not become a banner of white supremacy in the mid 20th century when racial segregationists took it up. It was a banner of white supremacy, and of lawlessness, from the beginning.

And that is more than enough to disqualify it from respectability. Valor and skill deployed in the service of evil do not deserve honor.

And Jonah Goldberg replied:

Culture and history have complexities to them that are greater than the light of reason alone can illuminate. Adjudicating the status of Jerusalem, for example, would be easy if Middle Easterners were all Vulcans.

What you call a “whitewash” of the timeless meaning of the Confederate flag I might call the evolution of meaning. I am quite sympathetic to the case for taking offense at the flag, but I am also sympathetic to the southerners who say it doesn’t mean what the offense-takers say it means, at least not anymore. I know many southerners sympathetic to that flag, I know zero southerners who’d like to see the return of slavery or Jim Crow (a few of the Texans might want to secede, though).

Culture isn’t a science, and symbolism isn’t math; in this realm Rashômon rules. A Jew of a certain era might see the Christian cross as a symbol of persecution, not salvation. But wisdom, experience, and moral imagination tell us that this is not the only or best way to look at a crucifix.

For millions of southerners … that flag simply does not mean being in service to evil or supporting slavery, and treating fellow Americans as if they hold such views or are just too ignorant to understand the truth strikes me as a thoroughly ungenerous and narrow-minded approach to politics. That’s why I liked Nikki Haley’s remarks yesterday so much. She acknowledged that good, decent, and knowledgeable people can disagree on this matter, even as she announced it was time for the flag to come down. Magnanimity in politics, Edmund Burke said, is often the truest wisdom.

Unfortunately magnanimity, graciousness, and even the benefit of the doubt all left town a long time ago.

You see lots of examples of this in historical movies, where the good guys — whether they’re Victorian lawyers or Old West farmhands or Ming Dynasty courtiers — all have the same beliefs about women’s rights and sexual liberation and the minimum wage as a 21st century sociaology professor. The bad guys, on the other hand, have opinions about those things that are just like the opinions of every other human being who lived on earth during that time period. But we know they must be bad, becasuse they, back then, didn’t think like we do today. We can’t accept the possibility that good people could think any other way.

And unfortunately this limit of imagination extends to the real world, where we go on expecting the universe, including the moral universe, to bend itself to fit whatever the conventional wisdom is today.

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