Paula Deen and A Question of Mercy
Rod Dreher weighs in on the Paula Deen controversy.
The Georgia of Deen’s childhood was a place of deep racial hatred and legal segregation. It was very difficult for white Southerners to grasp the evils of racism, because they were immersed in a culture that denied it. I was born 30 years after Paula Deen, and I can testify that the experience of race for white Southerners of my generation – the first to go to integrated schools, the first to be raised after the Civil Rights era -- was enormously different.
The African-American linguist John McWhorter has said that given the world in which she was raised, and given her remorse, we should forgive Paula Deen. I agree, for the same reason I came to believe we should be more tolerant of the Rev. Wright’s obnoxious views (not that he asked for forgiveness).
As a younger man, I used to judge older white Southerners harshly for holding on to vestiges of racism. When I got older, though, I imagined how well I would have done had I been raised in the South during segregation. Would I have found the moral courage to stand up against the evil of racism, even if it meant going against everything my culture taught me?
I hope I would have. But I doubt it. It is hard to resist the power of culture to condition one’s views of right and wrong. Growing up in the South in the 1970s, the only place white kids of my generation received a strong anti-racism message was not, alas, through the church, but through television. Paula Deen didn’t even have that to counter what she was told by her culture.
We see a similar cultural divide between younger and older Americans today on homosexuality. Polls show that it’s difficult for people under 30 to understand why anybody looks on gay marriage with moral disapproval – this, even though disapproval of homosexuality was common until about 20 years ago. People who believe Deen deserves to be professionally destroyed for her casual racism should imagine how younger generations will judge them for believing and saying things about homosexuality that were well within the bounds of normal discourse today.
Who can forecast what moral norms today will be seen as moral outrages tomorrow? I do not know what my children will believe when they are adults, but I hope that when they look at their father, they will not judge me harshly, but rather with grace and understanding. I hope they see me as we all are: flawed, broken humans, sinners in need of redemption, bearing all the scars of the times and places that made us.
Rod Dreher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org