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Falling Upwards

June 21, 2015

In these few hundred words every week, I talk about a variety of things, including my personal experiences, some interesting facts I find, and often, current events that I think are relevant to the majority of the people in the world to think about. But as I've talked about previously, history can't help but repeat itself, and in the short span of time that I've been writing here, there continue to be current events that seem like they repeat themselves, with complete and apathetic disregard to the mantra of historians to learn from our past.

So when those similar events pop up time and time again, I have a hard time making a decision whether or not I should re-address a previously talked-about idea in a new post -- I hate to be repetitive. But something happened last week that, after quite a bit of thinking-over, I've deemed worthy of a discussion here, again. And as you've no doubt heard of if you are at all in contact with reality, especially in the US, today's ideas have to do with the rampant shooting against a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

There continue to be current events that seem like they repeat themselves, with complete and apathetic disregard to the mantra of historians to learn from our past.

I trust that news organizations can do a better job of reporting facts and summarizing, so I'll give you a brief synopsis here, in case you aren't up-to-date. (If you want to read more, The New York Times, I think, is a good starting place.) But in short summary, Last Wednesday, Dylann Roof, currently almost entirely confirmed as a white supremacist motivated by racism, open fired in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the oldest black churches in the country and a historically significant place for the civil rights movement, now almost two hundred years old. The suspect was captured, but eight churchgoers died on the spot, another on the way to a hospital, and one was wounded, but not fatally. In addition to the act being considered a hate crime, it has spurred controversy on the use of the word "terrorism" on Roof's actions. Jon Stewart, in particular, was noted for putting aside his usual comedy during his show that week to talk more seriously about the event.

I don't want to hasten to put definitive conclusions on the situation of racism in the US, except to say that it persists in our culture, not the least because I've addressed it several times in other posts, and because to make conclusive statements about the specifics of such a nuanced situation would be erroneous. But that doesn't mean I have nothing to say, and rather than make one, single main point through the post, I thought I'd address a few thoughts relating to the issue of racism and discrimination over time, beyond this one event.

One of the ideas that come across my mind most often is how easily we, the community of people, forget about events that only directly affect individual people. It's what I've called "the global amnesia", where the fast-paced cycle of news seems to prioritize the importance of events and happenings by its recency rather than its significance. And that means older events, regardless of how relatively impactful or important it is to our society, are forgotten in the span of a few weeks or even days, unless we constantly remind ourselves of it. For the first two or three days after the massacre, the news media was flooded with stories, discussions, and controversies about the state of racism in the United States and the motivations behind the shooting. But today, not even a week past it, I think most of the world's starting to forget. And in two weeks, now many stories or discussions on racism do you think will be there? Probably not many more than before the shooting. For a change to take place, we need to be reminded constantly, or else remember to keep remembering.

Secondly, there are several different camps of thought around the issue of social change, and specifically racism. None are entirely correct, if correctness is even a concept that can be defined accurately here, but I do think one is more productive than the other. On the one hand, as Jon Stewart briefly mentioned, we can talk about how and why the society refuses to admit that racism and discrimination are still deeply rooted in our culture. We can talk about the unwillingness for the American culture to come to a consensus on the fact that while the law has changed, the culture hasn't changed nearly as much, or nearly as well. But while that's true to an extent, that's not the view I'd go with.

While it's (comparatively) easy to change a few words in a legal document, it's infinitely more difficult to change the minds and biases of an entire nation's people and cultures. And that step is also the most important and fundamental shift that needs to happen.

I think social change is (usually) a three-step process*. There's the initial push by the social innovators, those who aren't afraid to speak out and be the martyrs and the leaders in a movement. Those people, followed by their first supporters, usually lead the first step of a change, which is to bring attention to the issue that needs to be changed. In my mind, that was the role of Dr. King in the civil rights movement, among others. If successful, that step is then followed by a legal change. The movements and revolutions have to be powerful and loud enough for the laws to bend or break, and for new laws to be put in place. But that's not where the change ends. While it's (comparatively) easy to change a few words in a legal document, it's infinitely more difficult to change the minds and biases of an entire nation's people and cultures. And that third step is also the most important and fundamental shift that needs to happen.

So in my view of the situation, we can't hasten to say that there's nothing happening, because there clearly is something happening. With each event in the public eye and each discussion in the media, there's an increasing tension that's moving towards shifting the culture. The caveat happens to be that cultural shifts are much slower and harder than changing the law. But on the flip side, it also happens to much more fundamental and rewarding.

It's like falling upwards, if that's possible. It starts moving slowly, but the momentum comes with time. The best most of us can do is to remember to keep at it.


* Three steps, that is, after many gross oversimplifications and omissions of details and nuances. But for the sake of the argument, hear me out.