It began, like most matters in this never-ending election cycle, with a tweet.
Corey Richardson, a writer and storyteller, wrote:
Unlike most declamations that begin with those three not-so-little words, this brush-back pitch was aimed neither at bumbling Karens intent on complimenting African-American hairstyles nor at bellowing MAGA-ites unable to differentiate a jogger from a fleeing burglar. It wasn’t a plea for heightened sensitivity or awareness. It was a get-out-of-our-kitchen-with-your-oversimplifying-bullshit communiqué directed toward the scores of caucasians eager to prove themselves allies, and the scores of caucasians eager to point out what hypocrites those identity-politics-obsessed libtard allies are.
Richardson’s message was: Life is complicated. And context matters.
Just as we can no longer accept overt racist aggression, we can also no longer act as though every microaggression, failed joke, or blind spot is a window into the heart of a racist.
And we can no longer refuse to accept apologies or demand that they be so hand-wringingly cringe-inducingly self-flagellating that any authentic engagement over sensitive topics is made impossible.
Joe Biden went for a joke he shouldn’t have. He whiffed. And then he admitted he screwed it up.
The African-American community has bailed out the Democratic party again and again at the voting booths. So the surprise wasn’t that key voices in the community from Symone Sanders to Reggie Hudlin seemed largely willing to contextualize the remark, accept the apology, and move on. The surprise was that many white allies generally intent on chest-beating and virtue signaling were willing to listen.
Absolutism apparently no longer holds water.
Not when the temporary occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue waxes poetic about Henry Ford’s “good bloodlines.” Not when African-Americans and Hispanics wait nearly twice as long to vote because thousands of polling stations in minority communities have been closed since the Supreme Court weakened voting discrimination laws in 2013. Not when nearly 100,000 Americans have died from a mismanaged crisis and (according to the Guardian) 1 out of every 2,000 African-Americans in the entire country has already died of COVID-19.
Maybe now, with Americans perishing, unemployment skyrocketing, our economy shut down, and our Democratic institutions under assault from an administration and attorney general sworn to protect them, it seems we might be—might be—waking up to the fact that we can no longer brandish our political positions with religious fanaticism. We have to look at a dangerous world as it is, not as we wish it could be, and make complex, nuanced, and—gasp—adult decisions.
The Tara Reade debacle also illustrates the need for nuance. One of the rallying cries of #MeToo has been “Believe all women.” But all women are not to be believed any more than all men are. To suggest that females are magical truth-telling creatures isn’t just insulting; it’s objectifying.
And of course the leaders of #MeToo knew that.
But the biosphere of social and mainstream media no longer responds to—or has any interest in—nuanced positions. So, “Women will no longer be silenced just because they lack relative power in certain circumstances, an injustice that now demands we give equal weight to those who’ve been victimized” became “Believe all women.”
Which then, by its very lack of nuance, set off a firestorm of cancel culture, circumventing due process and harming people of both genders. And when members of the left said nothing or responded with glee to the one-size-fits-all mob sentencing guidelines, they ended up condoning the same sort of overzealous nonsense that the right does when pretending that cancel culture rules the day. With Trump in the Oval, Kavanaugh on the bench, and a full trough of cabinet members marinating in swampy emolument-immune fecundity, it’s ridiculous to pretend that cancel culture—damaging as it is—is more than a counterweight to the national imbalance.
If we’re going to deal with problems of endless complexity such as untangling the unjust and systemic kinks in our wonderful engine of capitalism, addressing environmental and climate challenges, and flattening a curve while not flattening our economy for good, we’re going to need more than bumper-sticker slogans and all-or-nothing thinking. We’ll need to listen, assess our own blind spots and confirmation biases, and open ourselves to the possibility that someone we disagree with might have something intelligent—and not disqualifyingly immoral—to say.
And just because those on the (actual) far right will never admit the unreasonableness of their positions doesn’t mean it’s wise for the left to do the same. Time and again, studies have shown that the vast majority (up to 92 percent) of Americans dislike political correctness, and the people most associated with that correctness are Democrats. Yet ironically, most Democrats are part of the 92 percent who don’t like it. So who are the Democrats pushing all this political correctness? The Atlantic tells us they are “much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year.”
In other words: people who don’t have enough real world concerns to worry about have ended up coloring the nation’s view of who Democrats are.
Well enough of that—we all have plenty of real world concerns now.
In Biden’s gaffes, in the struggle for our democracy and the institutions that sustain it, in the face of a pandemic unlike any we’ve endured in our lifetime, maybe we’re finally getting ready to concede that we can’t win a war if we decide that every last hill of perceived or potential insensitivity is worth dying on.
That nuance matters.
And that this Republic, if we can keep it, is counting on our willingness to engage imperfectly with imperfect people, to make imperfect progress within an imperfect system if we hope to keep this great chain of democracy unbroken.