Failure to Comprehend: The Asymmetry of Historical Experience

A few weeks ago, this article, titled “The Banality of Butter” was published in response to the controversy surrounding Deen and her commonplace use of the word “nigger” amongst other things. The author, Professor Strauss of NYU, focused on using Arendt as a lens to understand why a group of individuals, who were aware of Deen’s use of racist terms, and her desire to have a plantation wedding that would remind her of the South prior to the civil war, would be so adamant in her defense as someone who was not a racist:

“Which is where Eichmann comes in. In Arendt’s most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she argued that sometimes what we call evil — and what can bring about the most horrible outcomes — can often more accurately and simply be thoughtlessness of a sort. That is to say, people, and communities, are often no good at the kind of abstract thought that helps us understand the experience of others. (Which is a shame, because abstract thought is what separates us from iPhones and hamsters.)

Eichmann, she learned, was not a monster but a “clown”—a fact that was hard to swallow ‘in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused to millions of people.’ But he was just an idiot. And his idiocy, his “clowneries,” meant no real communication was possible with him, ‘not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.’”

Following this, Strauss thinks that the Deen controversy brought to the surface a simple fact: that we, as a society, have not finished closure on the Civil War:

“I understand that my having brought up the Confederacy may seem far afield. Paula Deen’s a woman with a few cooking shows, who said some regrettable things — and who then apologized. Fair enough. But Arendt would say it’s pertinent that our country, in order to speed the post-war reconciliation, never had to acknowledge what the Confederacy really was. And many continue not to acknowledge this flat fact: any society founded on the bondage of one’s fellow man is rotten at its core.”

I bring this article up, because many of Arendt’s arguments seem relevant yet again with the acquittal of Zimmerman. At the end of this week, we have seen large numbers of protests over the case, which have been misidentified as targeting this specific case, rather than the justice system as a whole. For many of my white friends, the necessary emphasis for this examination in the justice system has been the law, and whether Zimmerman was guilty in a legal sense of the term. Many of these friends sought to defend the legal system as something that was wholly functioning. Some went so far as to remind us why jury nullification should not be considered, while others emphasized this verdict may not have happened in any other state. In a sense, this group of friends, of people on a whole, seem to have this ardent belief in a system that will eventually work itself out. This line of reasoning tends to follow with anecdotes about how slavery is no longer in existence, how women are now more likely to have the breadwinning job than a man in a relationship, or marriage, and how Defense of Marriage fell. The march towards perfection takes time, but we need to see it through, regardless. As one writer for the Daily Northwestern put it:

“I was deeply bothered by Trayvon Martin’s death, but I was also bothered by the fact that I saw some of my peers using this particular tragedy to condemn wider society in a way I felt was unjustified. Our society has a great many problems (and one of the largest is racism), but it has also made a great deal of progress and I believe that we should be thankful for what we have achieved.”

The problem with lines like this is that it fails to communicate with a very real experience within this country that does not fall in line with hopeful assessments like these. This Atlantic piece pretty clearly outlines the basic premises of how Hegel is not applicable to the experience of subalternity in America. Simply put, Martin is not an exception—he is the rule. Should you want to find more information on similar cases, you might look up names like Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, or Oscar Grant. John White in 2007 was convicted of shooting a white teenager he believed to be a serious danger to White’s son. If we want to go further back, the federal government assassinated Freddie Hampton for being a potential political threat in 1969. And if we go further than that, we run into the awkward elephants of segregation, discrimination, and slavery.

It appears that most of the time, people would like to separate this historical contextualization from the case at hand. The reasoning is built-in as a function of history as progressing in a linear fashion. The 18th century is inapplicable because we no longer follow nationalist doctrines, the 60s are irrelevant because we have had Brown vs. Board of Ed. as law for over 50 years, Rodney King is inapplicable because we might have learned from those experiences. This is where Arendt’s conception of abstract thought comes into play. Many of my white friends want to believe they have some ability to understand the experience of others, and that they take this experience into consideration when they discuss cases like this. Others want to reject any aspect of experience as being relevant, so long as we have logic, and rational discourse.

The problem with this conception is that historical context is necessary if you hope to understand why people of color are especially upset with this verdict. Our Constitution, and justice system takes the experience and history of white men as encoded into its laws and legislations (this is hardly novel research–the Constitution has been burned multiple times). We are now in an era where there are social repercussions to using the word “nigger”, but this does not mean that the conceptualization of humanity as found within our political structures disappears. It is found in every Confederate Flag that is still raised for “state’s rights”. It is found in every study that shows white people cannot associate positive words with black faces. This case has helped serve as a reminder for a fact that we, as a country, continually try to deny: we are not all human beings.

But because, for the most part, white people have never had to have this fight, it seems like they cannot comprehend where these feelings are coming from. Here, I’d like to call on Arendt’s summation of Israel’s reaction to Eichmann:

“They preferred to conclude from occasional lies that he was a liar – and missed the greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case. Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all “normal persons,” must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts, and Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.” However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.” This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape.”

I am not equating people of color with Eichmann, nor am I using Arendt’s discussion of Eichmann as trying to ground this connection in parallel histories of oppression. However, this asymmetry of being able to comprehend the normalization of violence is something that speaks volumes within the context of relationships between whites and people of color. Rather than consider that protests may be a normal, rational result of the experience of the person of color in America, it is easier to create a world where the basic tenets of American existence cannot be challenged by the collective enterprise of survival by those who have never fit the American model. We set the conception of American justice on a pedestal where challenges from other forms of experience are based on ignorance, yet we allow the selected form of facts that hundreds of years of oppression have built into our system. And in this narrative, people are simply misinformed, blind, or “race-baiters” when they refuse to accept this case as a fair outcome.

This is not to say problems with this historical narrative are unique to the white narrative. Historical narratives are always filled with inaccuracies and tensions—history is bound by what politics allows it to say. We would be hard-pressed to find a country, a group of people, or even an individual with a history that reflects their actions accurately throughout its existence. In fact, on the very basis of how different the nature of history is, it is difficult to consider that such a history could exist. Even the most ardent supporters of selective remembrance will acknowledge the foundation of American political life on the hypocrisy that is “free slave-owners”. One would expect a people of color narrative of America to be no different in this regard.

The problem, however, is that a people of color narrative of America does not exist. Reactions to the Zimmerman verdict are enough to determine this very basic reality. Arendt would probably point out that asking a person of color to ignore the racial elements of this case would parallel the UN’s refusal to treat the Jewish element of the crimes against humanity during the Nuremberg trials as a special case:

“Hence, the almost universal hostility in Israel to the mere mention of an international court which would have indicted Eichmann, not for crimes ‘against the Jewish People’ but for crimes against mankind committed on the body of the Jewish People”.

It appears that, in America, even the most well-meaning of white liberals can be content to allow our justice system sit upon the bodies of people of color, so long as that color is not recognized within discussions of the case. Statements revolving around the objective facts of the case, about the laws within Florida, or how Zimmerman was actually Hispanic completely miss the more systemic point. They confuse the particulars with the general, and refuse this distinction as having merit worthy of discussion, and as a result, refuse to communicate on these grounds. The people I know who have sought to eliminate race as an aspect of discussion of the case are not inherently bad. They’re simply out-of-touch, and in a fortunate position to have their personal experience taken as the experience of all.

Eichmann in Jerusalem, you should read this if you haven’t already.


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