So I Guess You Want to Talk About Kanye Now?
Unfortunately, conversation for its own sake isn’t an unqualified good anymore. At least not the way we seem to think of it. It probably is the case that having actual conversations with actual people does a body good with a few exceptions. Conversations in our era, however, often consist of skipping a rock and observing the ripples. Social media has reduced our concept of a conversation to little more than sharing an article or a post and watching the comments roll in. That is not a conversation. It’s an abdication.
We think that because we cast the stone and watch the surface break, we are active in the moving of water rather than pairs of soles on sand that merely set forces in motion over which we no longer have control. But some rocks do damage when they strike the surface. Sometimes the surface isn’t water, but glass.
Sharing a contrarian idea is not enough to make us open-minded, but rather just no more close-minded to one side of an issue than any other. When we launch an idea into the air, however, we have a responsibility for where it lands and the damage it leaves when it breaks a plane. Throwing the words of another into the abyss with little regard for what they strike is not enough.
Some ideas are dangerous; even those that seem trivial. Kanye West, for example, with a handful of tweets and an interview in poor taste, started amongst numerous onlookers a startling number of near-discussions about ideas that have long plagued American politics. Along with them came streams of uncritical or misinformed or malevolent responses, likely entertained for the sake of discussion because the well-meaning caster of the stone, the re-poster of contrarian ideas, was unprepared for the direction and magnitude of the concentric circles.
When Kanye stated that “400 years of slavery” was a choice, he echoed a deliberate fabrication of black docility and suitability for slavery that Americans used for hundreds of years, against innumerable evidence to the contrary, to justify the institution and later to support the Southern construction of and Northern ambivalence toward racial hierarchy. Those who echo his idea, even merely to represent his opinion, without being prepared to push back against those who take his misrepresentation further, become part of its legacy.
When we release an idea like that into the wild, even in the words of another, we are responsible for the course it takes, the damage it does, the logic for which is it used, and the arguments it supports. If someone misrepresents the history, we need to be ready to correct it; when another uses it to support a toxic conclusion, we need to challenge it. We become a part of the idea’s tradition and can push against it or relax complacently in its current. Starting a discussion about an important idea, particularly one that has been used to rationalize real harm, requires a critical eye, an enormous ear, and a willingness to learn about it independently. Such are the tools we require to exercise the responsibility inherent in the reach of our words.
To be clear, we can't control what other people say (celebrities most of all), but we can choose how critically we choose to hear them and how and whether or not to amplify their words. I'm speaking to the peanut gallery; to those of us who share words far and wide for the sake of stimulating discussion.
We need to remember that discussion is not the same thing as open-mindedness. Airing uncritical takes on historically inaccurate political diatribes is a terrible way to stimulate discussion. Particularly when we don’t come to the topic with the requisite knowledge to discuss it. If our goal is simply to learn, then there are countless resources available before the Facebook horde (in this case, histories by McPherson, Egerton, Foner, Kendi, Baptist, and Blight or commentary by Coates, Bouie, Smith, or Newkirk).
When we take it upon ourselves to start a conversation for the sake of exchanging ideas, however, we also take it upon ourselves to know the topic; to be familiar with the contours and weight of the ideas. We need to know where the sharp edges are and the blind spots along its trajectory as well as the path it's already traveled and where it might land. If we don’t, we might find ourselves inadvertently a part, however marginal or peripheral, of a disturbing tradition. Ripples turn quickly into waves.