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Putting the Debate About Slavery and Statues In Its Proper Place
“So, what do you make of all this wokeism about slavery and statues?”
It’s not a question that I expected to be asked early yesterday morning while watching the sun come up over the Maine coast. The elderly woman, who posed the question, initially approached me to say hello to Otis, but we soon realized that we both once lived in central Virginia. I eventually made the mistake of sharing that I am a historian, who specializes in the Civil War era.
I could have responded to her query in any number of ways. Perhaps a snarky comment that would have sent her on her way and ended the discussion before it began.
Of course, it would have been just as easy to attempt to engage her in a meaningful discussion.
Instead, I simply acknowledged her question by noting that it is indeed an interesting and complicated subject and left it at that.
Maybe some of you out there believe that I had an obligation to respond directly to such an insensitive comment or that my failure to respond was tantamount to agreement or an acknowledgment that the point-of-view signaled by a reference to “wokeism” is a legitimate position.
In that moment, however, I didn’t see much of a reason to engage. The experience reminded me of why I recently decided to leave Twitter and the cesspool of meaningless and ultimately futile interactions that ultimately won’t make any difference to our public discourse.
I’ve recommitted myself since abandoning Twitter to spending more time engaging with others in- and supporting those spaces that encourage robust discussion about the tough questions in American history.
This was clearly not one of those moments.
That said, the more important reason why I chose not to engage is that we need to give ourselves more of an opportunity to connect with one another apart from the political and cultural feuds that populate our media and social media silos and that have weakened our democracy in recent years.
It’s likely that this person and I have very little in common in terms of our political views, but I reflexively had made a number of assumptions about her based on her question and she would have done the same had I attempted to engage.
We likely would have assumed the worst about one another and undercut any real opportunity to thoughtfully discuss the subject
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that we refrain from engaging one another in the tough questions that divide us today. A healthy democracy requires that we do so, but to do so effectively we need to begin to acknowledge one another as equals.
This involves, in part, in finding and taking advantage of those moments when we can interact with one another outside of politics, even if that means defusing a conversation about a subject that I care deeply about before it turns sour.
In the end, I am glad that I decided to refrain from responding.
After all, this person absolutely adored Otis and we had a really nice chat about the beauty of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and the importance of travel.
Difficult discussions about the history and memory of slavery and statues certainly have their place, but not before you have an opportunity to share a moment with a complete stranger around a lovable dog.
I hope all of you enjoy a restful and reflective Memorial Day Weekend.
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