When, on my first trip to New York City, I ordered a Coke at a deli, the man behind the counter asked me to say it again. “I’ve never heard that word in three syllables,” he said. That was 44 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it, the first of many slights about where I come from and how I talk that I’ve had to grin away over the years.
Nobody’s grinning anymore. It appears to have grown trendy to explain Trumpian outrage in part as an expression of marginalized people, particularly in Appalachia and the South, sick and tired of being treated like ignorant hillbillies, the butt of a national joke. As a Tennessean with a thick accent and deep Southern roots, I have felt the sting of being superficially judged. So I get it. I understand the impulse to get your back up, to turn feisty, to defend your own. I also understand the frustration over economic stagnation, opioid ravaged communities, and diminishing opportunities, the fear of change and losing control, the pain of shouting at the top of your lungs to a world that is not listening. But there’s a limit.
Scientific American recently listed five settled facts that even “in the constantly growing and devolving world of science,” are no longer disputable, and these include evolution and climate change. Denying either lands you in the-world-is-flat territory. By all means, feel free to say you don’t “believe” in evolution, but do not expect to be taken seriously. Same for saying you “know” more than scientists who’ve spent entire careers studying climate change, or screaming you want the government to “keep its hands off your Medicare,” or claiming vaccines are a government conspiracy. What if someone tried to sell you on some guy riding a chariot with the sun in it across the sky from east to west every day? Same thing. You can’t have it both ways. There’s a lot of stupid that’s just plain stubborn, and you don’t get a pass because you’re quaint, scrappy, country folk.
And don’t even think about calling this elitism. It’s not a cultural thing to know some basic facts about how the world works. It’s no badge of honor to hope your children don’t believe all that stuff they learn in science class. I understand it’s hard to combat motivated reasoning, the tendency to filter what we hear so that we select only what confirms what we believe, but while we can have different values, ideas, priorities, and solutions, we can’t have different facts.
Facing this latest rude awakening to social and economic class that feels so raw and angry and disrespected, I keep reminding myself that this is an old story. When Thomas Sutpen in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, came down from the West Virginia mountains where everybody was as poor as everybody else and so nobody felt “poor,” he ended up in Tidewater, Va., where he discovered that there existed a people who were owned by other people and that even those people lived in houses better than his own. He understood for the first time who he was. White trash. It’s a story about humiliation, and one of the novel’s themes is the tragic tale of what Sutpen decides to do about it.
How many times must this story be told? What might have happened if those who were treated like trash had found common cause with those who were bought and sold as slaves? What if together they had figured out their enemy was a group of people who used the time-tested tool of divide and conquer to prop up a social order founded on a belief that some people are worth more than other people?
And what if the conned could figure out that people screaming “conspiracy theory” every time a scientist or other expert speaks is just another way to keep them stupid?
I don’t know how to fix this. To those whose outrage stems from racism, misogyny, homophobia, or any other toxic bigotry, I have nothing to say but be prepared to fight and lose. For everybody else: If I could have one wish it would be to please recognize other marginalized people, because everybody wants the space to be heard. If people aren’t heard, they shout. And if they’re still not heard, they shout louder. Would it make a difference to acknowledge that a whole lot of people feel unheard? Would it make it easier to listen? Is it possible to understand that the way it feels to be called “stupid” is exactly the same way it feels to be gay and be called “depraved,” the way it feels to be black and be called “criminal,” the way it feels to be Latino and be called “illegal,” the way it feels to be Muslim and be called a “terrorist,” the way it feels to be transgender and be called “crazy,” the way it feels to be an atheist and be called “immoral,” the way it feels to be Native American and be called “irrelevant,” or the way it feels to be a woman and be called all manner of horrible things.
Respect is a two-way street. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The newly elected president has never shown evidence that he understands this, but that’s no excuse for the rest of us.
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