It used to be that there were only two subjects that you were told you shouldn't discuss in public, politics and religion. And while these two may yet remain on the forbidden list in polite society, we can certainly add a third ... race. Today it seems, some aren't allowed to talk about race anywhere, while others can talk about nothing else. It has probably always been so, but it seems that while over the years the situation between races improves, the potential to hold a rational conversation on the subject gets no closer than it has on the other two banned subjects. As someone fascinated with words however, it's interesting to note how much these three in particular have in common:
- Such 'discussions' these days are not so much about achieving consensus (or even hoping to) as much as they are contentious debates in which competing sides attempt to win debating points.
- Those who speak the loudest or interrupt the most are often held to be the most persuasive in such discussions, regardless of the truthfulness or effectiveness of their arguments.
- There are 'trigger words' that dare not be spoken in all three, lest any rational discussion break down (far earlier than would otherwise happen).
- There are a far too people who appear to make their living off of one subject or the other (and in some cases, more than one).
- Facts and statistics are not as important as feelings and emotions in such discussions; and as such, the former are often subject to multiple interpretation through the window of the latter.
Politicians can't talk about race, but that's because they can't seem to talk about anything these days. There's something about turning a camera or a microphone on in front of a politician today that creates an electronically generated field that disrupts rationality and enhances party politics instead. Race, as a consequence, becomes little more than another partisan issue in which the other party's policies (past or present) become not only the issue, but the overriding cause. And since today's politicians are always fundraising and running for office, any subject worthy of a recorded sound-bite must be one met with carefully prepared rhetoric designed to enhance the officeholder and his or her party, denigrate opponents, and encourage contributions regardless of its relevance. (In other words, it has to be full of double-speak and bullshit.)
The Media can't talk about race because it's not a subject that lends itself to the six or twenty minute segment (six on TV, twenty on radio). The current mainstream media is after all a business enterprise built around the interruptions of its commercials. Any subject being covered by the media must therefore be capable of being diced up into convenient segments in order to accommodate this monetary necessity. While this might work for a birth in the British Royal Family, the opening of the State Fair, or the latest Lindsay Lohan arrest, it's not a format that lends itself to anything resembling weighty discussion on so serious a subject. Besides, most of what passes for punditry in the mainstream media has already divided itself into ideological or political camps that must be zealously promoted and defended in order to serve the true purpose of the medium ... ratings.
Churches can't talk about race because they have their own axes to grind. Religion has enough a problem getting past the normal dichotomy between enforcing top-down 'Official Religious Doctrine' and the dealing with the local policy interpretations of its various ministries on a multi-national basis. Throw in the flaws of human nature and personal idiosyncrasies of those standing behind what passes for a pulpit and you end up with a confusing inconsistency that most true believers find easier to ignore. Besides, Churches survive through the willing contributions of their congregations. Even with the ability to offer veiled threats of eternal damnation, they must at least to some extent follow the same rules used by politicians and the media, lest they risk the anger of their audience / contributors.
The general public can't talk about race because they're scared to death of it. In today's Twitter connected, Facebook addicted, politically correct society, an incorrect public pronouncement on such a subject could well make one an unemployable social pariah, soon abandoned by even friends and family electronically and otherwise. (Who knows, writing this may have cooked my own goose.) Life moves damned fast these days and there's little time (and often less interest) in doing proper research on anything that doesn't help you pay the bills every month. Accepting this as the world we live in, grown lazy from a lack of exercise in free will, and unable to easily discover source material not already tainted with the prejudices of politics, media, and organized religion; far too many happily accept the instant gratification of the pre-packaged answers supplied without question.
Besides, discussions of race are generational; and such conversations, like the species, continue to evolve (well, in most cases anyway). Those old enough to remember real historic discrimination are fewer every day. For the rest of us, the differences which one generation cannot get beyond are far less apparent to their offspring, and all but invisible (if not inconsequential) to succeeding ones. Any multi-generational discussion therefore becomes difficult (if not impossible), since there is no singular frame of reference for them to use.
Oh I know that we would like to talk about race, that we should talk about it, and that somehow we have to keep on trying to do so; but it's unlikely today that any conversation that we begin will end up the one that we started with, the one that we want, or the one we should have.