Thursday, July 23, 2009

"[N]o respect without knowledge"

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. talks with CNN.

I wonder: presented with Gates' Harvard ID and driver's license, what did the police officer who went on to arrest Gates make of these items? Was he unable to see the man in front of him as a Harvard professor standing in his own house? (I think I just answered my own questions.)

I like the following passage from Gates for its suggestion that we may come to see one another as we really are:

Ours is a late-twentieth-century world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. And the only way to transcend those divisions — to forge, for once, a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities — is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture. Beyond the hype and the high-flown rhetoric is a pretty homely truth: There is no tolerance without respect — and no respect without knowledge. Any human being sufficiently curious and motivated can fully possess another culture, no matter how "alien" it may appear to be.

From the Introduction to Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), xv.

comments: 4

Slywy said...

Yes, but the troubling thing is that Gates, who is part Caucasian, isn't exactly from some alien culture. I'm not sure what the officer needed to be educated on to grasp that a middle-aged, middle-class man's trying to get into his house.

Another troubling thing: Two authority figures told different versions of the story. Which is to be believed? Why any need to distort? And who is to be believed about anything these days?

Michael Leddy said...

"I'm not sure what the officer needed to be educated on to grasp that a middle-aged, middle-class man's trying to get into his house."

There should be no need. It seems to me that that Gates in this situation was invisible: the police officer saw not him but a "black male."

There are conflicting accounts, yes. But even if — even if — Gates was "loud" and "tumultuous," the appropriate response is to defuse, not escalate, tension: "Sir, I'm sorry about this situation. We did have a report, and we needed to check it out," et cetera. No need to make an arrest, save to make some sort of point. (And what would that point be?)

JuliaR said...

I am very interested in human culture. Lately, I have been seeing everything that humans do as culture, as a deliberate choice. Even the words we use and the spelling of the words are deliberate choices that reflect our culture. I think we get into trouble (and fail to understand other cultures) when we allow ourselves to be unconscious (or unaware) about these choices. When both "sides" are unaware that difference are merely cultural, then you have a conflict. But I would have thought that as a Harvard prof who wrote a book about it, Gates should have been able to diffuse the situation quite easily. The fact that he didn't leads me to believe that he chose this conflict to make a point. Which he is entitled to do.

Michael Leddy said...

I don't doubt that Gates was angry. There are apparently audiotapes that can clarify what happened (if they're ever released). But it seems to me that whatever was said, it was the officer who chose to escalate things by arresting Gates.