The Particular as the Enemy of the Good
Here is a true thing that happened. I just took my 18 year old son on a road trip to celebrate his highschool graduation. He wants to do editing or special effects for movies as a career, so I thought traveling around finding cool places to shoot a movie that he can work on would be a great experience. We were visiting dozens of national parks all around the western U.S., many of which are in Native American nations. He really wanted a cow skull so he was constantly scanning the roadsides as we drove. It was either the Hopi or Navajo nation we were driving through when he spotted one. I don’t know the rules about this sort of thing. I know all the signs at trail heads leading into the national parks said not to take anything out. But never saw any warnings about that sort of thing for stuff along the side of the road. But I didn’t feel right about stopping and taking that cow skull. It’s WHY I felt wrong about it that I’d like to analyze here. Because, when examined as a PARTICULAR event, it’s really not a big deal. In fact, I’d go so far as to say no one SHOULD be upset by a kid snagging a piece of clearly discarded and unvalued carcass from a roadside. However, one thing I’ve learned over the past several years is that by LISTENING to other perspectives, it allowed me to stop seeing only PARTICULAR events and to think more holistically. Which in my opinion is a superior way to think, interpret, and be a good person. Because if I only interpret the world from MY PARTICULAR perspective I find that a lot of people act in “irrational” ways.
To explain this, let’s add a fictional element to the story. Let’s say I told Shane that I didn’t see a problem with him grabbing that skull, and so Shane happily ran out of the car and grabbed the skull. Halfway back to the car a Native American man steps out of the woods and starts shouting at us.
“How DARE you come on our land and steal our resources!” I retort: “But how is that a ‘resource’? It’s clearly been laying there for over a year and no one has seemed to want it.” He comes back at me: “Your people have been doing this same shit in various forms for hundreds of years! You make assumptions about what is and is not important to us! Your people take what you like and leave us scraps. And now you: a white tourist who has paid us nothing, asked no permission, and did no research, continue that tradition by blithely taking this skull!”
Now I ask you. In this vignette, was the Native American man “wrong” to be angry? Nothing about the PARTICULAR action of taking an abandoned cow skull is intrinsically different. But he provided a historical context that added symbolic weight to the action. You can still argue that no literal gain or loss would have befell him or his community from our action. But our action would still REPRESENT an ongoing real problem that DOES have true and lasting real-world effects on him and his people. Does the fact that the action is only particular and symbolic (and had no ill will behind it) mean that the Native American man was WRONG to be angry about it? I submit that you or I are not in the position to pass judgement on his reaction. I further submit that to say he was acting crazy or out-of-proportion, or “pulling the Indian card” would be downright arrogant and, yes… WRONG.
But here’s the thing. It’s SO much easier NOT to listen. Not to consider the history and how our ‘innocent’ actions are a symbolic continuation of a legacy of genocide, theft and abuse. Instead we can focus myopically on the PARTICULAR event, analyze it with a magnifying glass and come to our satisfactory conclusion that IN THIS CASE, that dude is an irrational maniac.
Please feel free to apply this metaphor to any other events wherein one person seems to you to be acting completely irrationally while they point to a larger context in which systemic patterns hinder, insult, and oppress them.