Hypocrites and Hypotheticals
I am watching CBS Sunday Morning–a church for non-believers–because it is a habit I have tried to keep for so many years now that it has become sacred to me in a non-religious sense. If I can, I watch the show and then watch the Sunday political news on ABC, now hosted by George Stephanopoulos. It used to be Tim Russert I watched, but he has been gone for several years. I still miss his political acumen. I digress.
Today’s CBS Sunday Morning story is about Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He owned slaves. He loved a slave. He had children with her. He kept his love for her a secret as long as he could in his time. Others kept it secret thereafter. It was in recent times that the “black” and “white” lines of his family first gathered together for a family reunion.
The news story ended with a view of his grave. On the monument that marks his grave, Jefferson’s accomplishments are inscribed. There is no mention of his hypocrisy–perhaps because it did not die with his mortal shell. As I sit here pondering the lint in my navel, I find myself wondering what it is that would allow a person to fight for the freedom of a people “enslaved” by political responsibility (taxes) while keeping people “enslaved” (the quotation marks ironic and unnecessary) for economic success.
The only completely consistent people are the dead. – Aldous Huxley.
All of us are inconsistent at times. I can admit that there was a time in my life when everything in my life was more black and white. Now I am confounded by the shades of gray that surround my life. I was not a better person when things were clear. I recall hurting people from time to time with my certainty about what was right and what was wrong. Now I am sometimes uncertain of whether I am more correct and yet still managing to hurt others.
Last night I drove home from my mom’s house. A man darted into the street in front of my car. I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting him. Everything in the back seat catapulted forward onto the floor. The largest casualty was a ruptured container of yogurt. Nevertheless, I was enraged. I know. I was motivated by fear. I yelled (to no one), “What is wrong with these people?”
Today I am asking myself what I meant when I said “these people.” It was one man who ran in front of my car. But I was angry with a people. I am not even certain what type of people he represented. I never saw his face. I live in a very mixed neighborhood. The people who surround me are hispanic. Some are Middle Eastern. My grocery store hands out Jewish calendars in September. The people who live in my four-flat residence are Caucasian with Western European surnames. There are many Asian families on my block. Did I say “these people” because I meant to impress a gender, race, or creed of people with my blanket judgment? Was I attempting (perhaps more nobly) not to convict one person with my judgment?
The thing about inconsistency that puzzles me most is the thing that Thomas Jefferson embodied. It reflects dimension. I am human and three-dimensional. It is possible for me to face north and south. I can feel the sun rise on my eastern side and watch its spectacular setting from my western exposure.
Last week I had lunch with a friend. We discussed discrimination in our profession. He often speaks to the legal profession about racial discrimination. He often finds himself at meetings in which he is the only black man and a bunch of white men ask him why none of their efforts to diversify take off. He has to point out that if the law firm’s diversity team is made up of all white men then the message it sends to a minority candidate is you won’t find much comfort here.
There is something to that feeling. However, of women in business I sometimes hear the expression that women will never take over (despite being the majority in many places) because some women hold others down. I recall a female partner who, upon hearing that a female associate was pregnant for the __nth time said, “Oh, did I just hear you will terminate this pregnancy? Because that would be great news. Over the last five years I’ve often wanted to send you home for coming to work with baby vomit on your suit collar.” Talk about the comfort of finding your own people in the ranks! It is not always about numbers or making room for people with one characteristic.
I once sat in a lunch meeting at a firm and heard a supervisor use a racial epithet. Another partner said, “I don’t think that was a PC thing to say. It’s a good thing we had no one of color here.”
I looked up from my meal into the startled eyes of a black co-worker. Both of us were shocked by the epithet and the comment to it.
I guess what stunned me most was that the second person did not realize a black person was present. I remember thinking, they don’t even see him. I did not think that was right either. Was it? Is our goal to become “color” (or other) blind?
That’s the hypocrisy I thought about this morning. On the one hand, I think my behavior should be right whether or not anyone is looking. On the other hand, if my behavior is right, then it should be the same whether or not I realize I am in company. Sometimes I wonder whether I have come as far as a person as I can in doing right by others.
I think I should be conscious of whether I engage in secret hypocrisy. If my references to “these people” is ever about a people whose only significant shared attribute is gender, race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or some other similar characteristic, then I should stop that. I do not want to be merely politically conscious. I would like to become and remain unconsciously fair. I also think I should be aware that I am always surrounded by people whose differences may require me to extend additional courtsey so that they will understand that all are welcome.
This is the difficulty with affirmative action, isn’t it? If all are equal, then there should be no need to favor a group previously discriminated against. By accommodating in deliberate fashion, we can isolate someone else for a trait that such a person has come by as innocently as did the one isolated in the past.
I guess it is okay to yell about “these people” if I mean pedestrian scofflaws. Of course, I have been known to jaywalk, so that would still be a type of hypocrisy, wouldn’t it?
Maybe the answer is to live consistently enough that, when I appear to have misstepped, others who do know me presume I have misspoken rather than misjudged others.
Maybe the answer is to speak out about what I perceive as injustice without judging the person’s motives. If I focus on the effect rather than the motive, will I be both more just and less judgmental? If I follow that rule, then I may fight discrimination but back away from affirmative action. Is that the better course of action? I really do not have one answer to this question. Like everything else in my life, I see gray in even the “simplest” hypotheticals.
Perhaps the real measure of a person should be to be an epithet rather than have one as an epitaph. Maybe I should be enough of a pain in the behind to others that they will notice me but not judge me too harshly because I was that to the exclusion of all else. I would like to be a @#&%! woman, a @#&%! lawyer, a @#&%! Catholic, a @#&%! Caucasian, a @#&%! teacher, a @#&%! cancer survivor, a @#&%! rabblerouser, a @#&%! jaywalker, part of a @#&%! people, and anything else you can think of to classify me as for at least part of the time. But I will never be just one attribute. And, in my eyes, neither will you. Because all of us are people with multiple dimensions. And all of us have to figure out how to live with our epithets and epitaphs.