The conversations we are told we so desperately need to have, have already been had, and better, before I was born. Science races forward so fast that the science fiction of my youth has been outstripped in many instances — consider the Starship Enterprise didn’t even have computers that could run Windows — and the most fantastical ideas have shifted from if to when. But unlike science, which builds on the past, learns from mistakes, and discards bad ideas, socially we insist on reinventing the wheel continually. The end result is that while science has taken flight and shot off into the stars, socially we are spinning our wheels in the starting gate.
Yesterday I ended up watching some YouTube videos about what kids had to say about various topics back in the 60’s. They were enlightening for a few reasons. One is that kids have much more developed thoughts on issues than one might think, and another is that this was the case more than a half century ago. There’s more to do with the childhood presence of ordinary people having been recorded and immortalized, while also knowing simultaneously these same children are older than myself. I found myself watching their eyes, oversized relative to adults, because the organ is nearly at its full size when you are three years old. The pupils flit this way and that, dilate or enlarge, faster than the words are formed.
And this led to other video suggestions, and a series that YouTube has apparently been recommending very aggressively, to judge by the millions of views and thousands of comments they’ve received since they were uploaded just last month. They are high school debates on various topics, from the 50’s. Here’s the one I watched:
Here, exchange students in America discuss prejudice almost a decade before I was born. While they use some outmoded terminology, the general discussion is nearly identical to the challenging new topics the more progressive, or “woke” among us are insisting we need to finally grapple with today. They talk about colonialism; prejudice based on skin color; prejudice against “hybrid” people; prejudice as a result of war; and of course the white/black divide in America at the time.
Their discussion is even somewhat more sophisticated, honest, subtle and nuanced than today’s variety on the same topics. Today people shout each other down with chants and slogans, and we’ve radicalized and reduced the conversation so that there is primarily only one group that is held responsible, culpable, and accountable for all prejudice, past and present, and globally. But here, the students openly express their own prejudices, including against the others present. The Filipino boy dislikes the hybrid Spanish/Filipino kids in his school who hold themselves as superior. He also has a particular problem with Japanese because of WWII history. The Indonesian girl hates the Dutch colonizers. The Japanese girl dislikes Koreans because of a contemporaneous political conflict. They even discuss how white people try to tan themselves, but colored people try to lighten their skin.
I knew we had all these discussions a quarter century ago, because I got a lethal dose of it in my graduate art school, which was far more an education in “political correctness/identity politics” than it was in art. Our graduate seminars, lasting 10 weeks each, were mostly on social topics, not art topics. We were reading Bell Hooks back then, Peggy McIntosh’s essay about “unpacking white privilege” dates from 1989, and it’s precisely the same discussions we are urgently having today. Any technical art skills I have predate and post-date my graduate education, which was essentially social indoctrination, which it’s taken me some decades to unravel.
And then I watched another high school debate from 1958 on the same topic, and it was even better:
The first part of the video [before going on a long tangent about Greece and Turkey] was the most frank, entertaining, and enlightening discussion of prejudice I’ve seen in the last 30 years. Bizarrely, their candor makes the discussion seem almost like it takes place in the future. The speakers include a Thai, a Filipino, a Malayan, a Turk, a Greek, and an Icelandic. The discussion among the Asians about their own very strong prejudices against each other, and westerners — including violence, derogatory terms, and more subtle uses of language — was particularly enlightening. Having lived in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, for nearly 15 years, their statements from 1958 are still evident today. Here we have a genuine confluence of diverse viewpoints, whereas in today’s discussions of the topic there is the hammering home of a single narrative that abstractly represents “diversity” and which everyone is compelled to be “unified” in believing! It is rather shocking to see a debate that took place before I was born — and in 1950’s America! — as more relevant and interesting in relation to the present situation(s) than the comparatively narrow, reductive, and theory-laden, contemporary debates on the same topic [which are also dramatically America-centric, and doused with French postmodern philosophy]. As I skimmed over more of the videos in the same series it became a bit depressing: the high school exchange students, of more than a half century ago, were more convincingly informed, and socially and politically aware, than are the “woke” of today.
One takeaway we could have is that we STILL need to have these discussions in the very present, in which case we’ve made very little progress indeed. Another is that our discussions of these key issues in the now are apparently less productive or honest than took place in high school in 1950’s America (though this is most likely an exceptional example]. What can’t be denied is that the discussions are not at all new. We are spinning our wheels, but with the aid of the internet and social media, we are spinning them much faster, and louder.
But for me, what it really signifies, on a practical level, is that I don’t need to pay attention to the news, because it’s the same old material dusted off and re-marketed. I could be stranded on a desert island with only material from before I was born, and be essentially up to date as far as the human condition is concerned. The more than 100,000 likes, and 10,000 plus comments on the first video I shared, indicate people interested in the topic of prejudice find a 65 year old high-school debate more enriching than the current ideas put forth by best-selling authors. There is unveiling reality, and then there is creating a veil over it. If the goal is to overcome the human inclination to prejudice, we may have lost significant ground. However, if the goal is to promote radical and reductive new theories, to purify belief, and to sell books — while incidentally inflaming prejudice in a self-fulfilling prophecy — then we are moving forward at breakneck speed.
We would do well to take a cue from science, to build upon our past knowledge and achievements in the social arena, rather than revisit the same quandaries as if seeing them for the first time. Part of that is overcoming the arrogance that says we know better, and are better, than the people who lived before. And as people have also been observing since before I was born, we can put a rocket on the moon, but we still can’t figure out how to get along with our neighbor.
Addendum: I later watched a few more of the videos, including one where the exchange students gave their candid opinions of the American education system. They overwhelmingly thought it was inferior in terms of academic challenge and intellectual development, but succeeded at providing a rudimentary education for the masses. So, these students, it must be pointed out, were NOT themselves American, nor the product of the American education system. They were among the international elite at the high school level. This doesn’t change my point that these discussions have been had since before I was born, but it adds a further feeling of disappointment with American education through high school, including my own.