Guest post: Can the Internet Tell Me How I am Supposed to Think About the Bad Shit in the World?

Guest post by Claire Ramsey.

I have not been able to reconcile the competing ideas, feelings, and pieces of knowledge in my mind since the fire at Notre Dame in Paris was in the news.

In 2012 an act of white terrorism drove me to engage in anti-racism learning and action, when Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood by a domestic terrorist merely because he was Black. I could not go on living with the hatred and violence generated by white supremacy. Studying, reading, and learning have all offered compelling evidence that white people in the US, and particularly white women, are the only ones who can dismantle racism. We need to listen to Black voices, we need to believe Black people, we need to accept Black women as our teachers, and we need to invest money in groups and individuals we trust to lead us away from white supremacy. I paced, screamed and cried when a white terrorist murdered innocent people at church in Charleston. I am filled with rage at the white asshole criminal who destroyed those three churches in Louisiana. Each police murder of an unarmed innocent Black person looks to me like domestic white terrorism. I still have a lot to learn and a long, long walk ahead of me.

I am sad but not very sad about Notre Dame the building. Nor do I mourn the religious site at Notre Dame. I am not a fan of organized religion, ill-gotten ecclesiastical wealth, popes, pedophilia, or priests. The Notre Dame fire on April 15 was an accident waiting to happen – dry old wood and plenty of oxygen. It’s amazing that no one was killed in that fire. The structure’s insides will be rebuilt. Lots of big medieval buildings have been destroyed by various forces, and many have been rebuilt.

When I think of Notre Dame I think about the stone masons and draftsmen in 1163 who figured out how to start building such a huge structure with the limestone that was right under their feet. They knew they would never see their project completed. I think about those flying buttresses and the miracle of the human brains that imagined making them and analyzed how they would work. I try to imagine what that huge structure looked like to people when there were no other buildings around it. And I think about kilometer zero, a marker embedded in the concrete near Notre Dame. Parts of the structure that we, in the 21st century, prize were not ancient – the spire was 150 years old. The colored glass windows were replacement windows and not original. The stone was already crumbling from acid rain and other pollutants. Gargoyles’ noses had crumbled off.

I think we were struck by the images from Paris because we have a primal human terror of smoke and flames. I felt a similar primal fear on 9/11/2001 and on the day Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980 – events I observed in real time, from very close locations. I feel similar fear and shock at forest fires, prairie fires, towns in Eastern Washington burning down from out of control fires. I couldn’t not look. But I didn’t want to look and have those images in my mind. Natural events, a terrorist attack, a construction accident – the flames and smoke are what they have in common to our primitive brains. The media exploits what they know we are drawn to. We can be smarter than the media though, and we can easily outsmart the media with our own ability to think.

I am struck – and confounded – by the public moral instruction posted on the internet in the last 24 hours. They suggest that it is wrong to be sad about the fire at Notre Dame because human beings have committed worse crimes against other human beings, last month, last year, and over history. The moral instruction takes the form of “You are sad about Notre Dame but. . . you did not cry when XXXXX.” Or “You mourn a building in France but where were you when XXXX?” This a rhetorical move that I do not have the knowledge to really understand. But it rankles and it feels slightly fallacious, as did advertising for a Christian children’s fund in the 1970s, that pitched: “You can turn the page or you can save a child.” I asked around, and this rhetorical move is an example of the fallacy of relative privation – Wikipedia defines it “dismissing an argument or complaint due to the existence of more important problems in the world, regardless of whether those problems bear relevance to the initial argument.” Others call the move “whataboutery.”

The moral instruction via the fallacy of relative privation prompted a lot of thinking, about what I know and what I don’t know, about how to think. In particular, I was asking myself

“What shall I be concerned about?
How can I distribute my many feels about the world over the many bad situations in the world? Am I required to justify my worrying priorities?
How are they justifiable?
Specifically, are my worrying/sadnesses/shames/guilts merely the output of my white privilege? Am I a bigger racist asshole than I thought I was? (Because all of white people are, no matter what you think).”

I know a lot about the US, white supremacy, racism, the lives of Black Americans today and in the past, and white terrorism, far more than I did in the past. Most of this knowledge is new because it wasn’t in my history books in high school and I have a huge amount of privilege, so did not have to develop that knowledge to survive.

And even though I know that the moral instruction via the fallacy of relative privation IS A DAMN FALLACY, still I am compelled to ask:

Is there a way to reconcile what I know about white supremacy in the US/my own privilege with the images from France of French people in sad shock about Notre Dame?
Am I really only allowed to pick one tragedy to be sad about?
Can I think about the wonder of medieval engineering and be sad for French people?
Can being sad for French people coexist with my disgust at the pedophilia, murder, and violence of the Catholic Church?
(It feels to me like it can).

I am not French. I know that I am unable to genuinely understand what the fire in Notre Dame means to French people. I will not judge their response – that structure symbolizes French-ness to them, something outsiders can’t understand. Symbols are crucial. As a species, humans are symbol users and manipulators, for good and for bad. I am not the person who is going to chide French people about their response simply because I know about worse fires or worse events in the world. I am not going to tell French people how to be sad or what they should be sad about. By the same token I do not want to be told what to think or how to think. I am a white supremacist on a par with other white women. But I don’t think merely holding several ideas or several pieces of knowledge is a reliable marker of white privilege, or that it proves I am a thoughtless white woman.

I think racism and all of its evils now and in the past in the US is the most serious issue we face. it is the most dangerous part of American life. It is the most damaging part of American life. I say this despite the fact that I know about horrors taking place all over the world that hurt and kill people, and that world history is violent, bloody, and greedy. White privilege is reality. To deny it is racist and deluded.

Like all of us, I can consider two or three ideas or facts at the same time without upsetting my mental balance. I do not like the push to pick one over the other. But the public moral instruction offered on the internet leads to the conclusion – and sometimes to explicit critique – that it is wrong to see images of sad and shocked French people and feel sad for them, while simultaneously holding knowledge of the racism in the US and my role in it. That it is perpetuating racism to attempt to reconcile them in my mind.

I alway turned the page, so I guess I starved quite a few a children. Fallaciously, via relative privation. Sorry children. You said I only had two choices. I guess I picked the wrong one.

9 Responses to “Guest post: Can the Internet Tell Me How I am Supposed to Think About the Bad Shit in the World?”