When Gray is the Color of Hope

Years ago I wrote a column about the complexities of race relations. It bore the same title as this commentary. I revisited it recently because of a troubling experience that brought it to mind.

The event that triggered that first piece involved an exchange I’d had with a black woman for whom I felt deep respect. We were in a women’s group talking about women and depression.  I said that my maternal grandmother had hung herself. I talked about her limited, sad life and recalled that her happy moments were few. One of them was occasional day trips to the beach where she could sit quietly and escape her daily life, rife with various oppressions. Suddenly, the woman snarled, “At least she wasn’t cleaning other people’s toilets!” The comment pushed our conversation into a contest about which of our grandmothers had suffered the most in their equally sad lives.

In the essay, I wrote, “What is it that brings about the rage of one woman, or one race, against another in so powerful a way that what might have been shared in the name of solidarity is obliterated? I do not ask this out of historical naiveté. One can certainly articulate the roots of black, and feminist, rage. But there is something in our psyches striking out, pushing on frayed edges, about to burst. It is palpable and it is straining our collective being.”

I also recalled a letter I’d written to writer Alice Walker who seemed then to be very angry at white women. “Mea culpa,” I wrote. “I am not black. I am not poor. But have I nothing of value to offer? Is there no way for us to hear each other and to find strength in common experience so that we can grow and build a better future together?”

These questions resonated again in a recent exchange I had with someone I have long respected for the vital work undertaken by this community leader. I had hoped to attend an event being organized by this person as a journalist in order to write about the organization’s important work. When I asked to attend the event as media, limiting conditions were imposed that were outside standard journalistic practice. The restrictions were particularly disturbing since I was known to the event’s organizer and should not have presented a threat of insensitive reporting.

When I said the restrictions were unusual, explained why and asked for them to be lifted, I received, to my shock, an accusation that I was revealing my sense of “white entitlement” and that I had “implicit biases.”  In an exchange that included reference to our respective work,” I was told that I enjoyed “the luxury of whites” to retire when I tired of my career while people whose “dedicated life work” could never stop.    

These comments left me breathless. They smacked of reverse racism offering no path to reconciliation. They suggested that all white people constitute the Other, the perpetual outsider in need of education in order to understand and empathize with the black experience. This from a community leader whose entire raison d’etre is said to be racial justice, dialogue, and the growth of healthy diversity within our communities.

In the piece I wrote on race relations, I paraphrased feminist writer Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. “She makes a strong case for conversation in which community is the center.  She asks us to explore how our fierce claims to individual rights may be impeding the larger context.”

In Fox-Genovese’s own words, “Race and gender should enjoy privileged positions in our understanding of American culture for they lie at the core of any sense of self, [but] unless we acknowledge our diversity, we allow the silences of the received tradition to become our own.”

“Acknowledging our diversity, finding our centrality, and deciding what kind of a community, and nation, we will become are lofty goals not easily operationalized,” I had written. “But perhaps if we could all find a way to talk about it together we could begin. Maybe someday, even though things may not be absolutely black and white, it won’t matter quite so much whose turn it is to ride in the front of the bus.”

Where we sit in the bus is no longer germane to a discussion of what divides us. We have, at least, moved beyond that terrible and unjust chasm. But within the context of my recent experience there is still much room for healing, it seems. That healing cannot take place if we can’t speak to each other respectfully, free of difference-based assumptions, and charges of gross insensitivity. Healing will not take place if we can’t work together to realize the benefits of individual and organizational relationships or foster partnerships that lead to respectful and productive dialogue for social change. Finding such common ground is especially important among people in leadership.

It broke my heart to participate in the exchange I’ve partially shared, especially because I believed the two of us were respectful of each other and our respective work. The episode showed me that there is still much work to do, even between people we think share similar goals and aspirations.

But most of all, the exchange made me sad, like my grandmother must have been when she sought understanding.   

Revisiting "The Banality of Evil"

In the midst of troubling times that include torture, police brutality, sexual abuse, and other acts of violence I happened to be reading about the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, best remembered for her phrase “the banality of evil.” 

Arendt was writing about Adolph Eichmann after having covered his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 when she wrote those words. “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” which first appeared as a five-part series in The New Yorker, was considered a “masterpiece” by many and is still widely studied and debated. It also continues to spawn vivid controversy about the meaning of her words and thoughts, which some consider to be wrong theoretically while others call them outrageously anti-Semitic.

What people thought – not about her but about how to live their lives – is a loaded word in the context of Arendt’s work.  Thinking – being a sentient human being - was central to Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was not only “monstrous” but “terrifyingly normal.” In an attempt to explain intellectually the horrific times in which she lived she posited that Eichmann acted devoid of critical thought as much as ideology or other sinister factors in his character.  He was, she suggested, not very different from multitudes of others whose behavior may not be as hideous but who are all too willing to act without compunction, whether to succeed or to survive.

Arendt wrote later that she was “struck by a manifest shallowness in [Eichmann] which made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives.  The deeds were monstrous, but [Eichmann] … was quite ordinary, commonplace…”  Eichmann was, she had said, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time.”

While Arendt may have been wrong about Eichmann in terms of his capacity for evil, her argument that ordinary people can be brutal seems to stands up.  As Yehuda Kurtzer pointed out in a November Times of Israel blog, most Germans went along with events that led to the Holocaust.  Even Jews assisted the SS to buy time in their own lives. Later, decent men bombed North Vietnam because they were unquestionably following orders from what Arendt called “desk murderers.” 

In Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, Kathleen B. Jones writes that what troubled Arendt most “was how many others were like [Eichmann] – terrifyingly normal, banal perpetrators of evil. What had happened, Hannah wondered, to make so many people thoughtless?”

After reading Eichmann in Jerusalem Jones wrote, “If I’d been born at another time, in another place, I could have been an Eichmann,” not because of any similarities in their lives or characters, but because of “the uniquely ordinary tale Hannah wove out of the facts of Eichmann’s life…I began to see I could no longer be certain I’d not only know the right thing to do but would do it.”  She continues: “I began to think the Eichmanns among us exist because the world has changed and there are no longer any simple formulae distinguishing right from wrong to turn to when we’re confronted with something unexpected. We have to decide all on our own what we should do and what we might have to risk doing it.  Thinking demands a burdensome kind of vigilant, imaginative observation of the world. Maybe that’s why many people prefer to avoid it.”

In a society in which police can shoot unarmed children and choke a man to death for selling cigarettes and not be indicted maybe we need to think about what Hannah Arendt was trying to tell the world.  When one out of five female college students is sexually assaulted on campus, when military women can’t report sexual abuse for fear of retaliation, and when famous men are alleged to have drugged and raped numerous women whose stories are doubted perhaps we need to think about how easily cruelty can enter our lives.  When politicians with an extraordinary lack of insight, compassion and intelligence can condone torture and legislate against ordinary people and when the ultra-wealthy spend untold amounts of money to buy those politicians, maybe it’s time to think about how quickly so many of us acquiesce and collude. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if this is a time to think again about “the banality of evil”?

In 2013, writing about “The Banality of Systemic Evil” on The New York Times Opinionator blog, Peter Ludlow made the observation that Hannah Arendt was making “a statement about what happens when people play their ‘proper’ roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing – or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.”

It’s an observation that seems eerily prescient, and one that makes me suspect Hannah Arendt got a bad rap when what she was trying to do was simply make people think about some of the most urgent issues of the times in which we live.