I started class by reading to the students, again, the closing of James Baldwin's magnificent essay, "Notes of a Native Son." In part, the essay narrates Baldwin's experience of his father's death, set against the backdrop of a race riot in Harlem. He writes:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
- What level of blame should we assign the individuals who see evil happening, but do nothing? Are they in any way responsible for the evil itself?
- How much blame should individual members of a mob bear for the actions of the group?
And we talked through and teased out nuance.
For over an hour.
We returned again and again to the big-picture tension--is our higher responsibility to our moral/ethical beliefs, or is our higher responsibility to self-preservation? The general consensus? That the higher responsibility should be to our own ethical standard, but when it came down to it, most people preserve themselves first. We applied this to Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, bullying situations, and even the Biblical story of the disciples denying Christ before the Crucifixion. In all of those texts/situations, the individuals knew (either during or immediately afterwards) that they should have said something to the persecutors, even if it meant their own deaths as well. But most people would have done exactly what the stories say: they (and likely I) would ignore our ethical precepts in honor of saving our own lives.
This sets up one of our final units of the semester, for when we come back from Thanksgiving: How Do We Respond To Injustice (even if we don't think we can do anything about it)?
I look forward to these conversations, especially as we weave The Things They Carried into it, and begin to discuss how the baggage we carry with us affects how we choose to interact with the world.