A few weeks ago I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen — beautiful, majestic and inspiring. But what really struck me was the fact that I couldn’t truly see it. Like, I was looking at it, but I couldn’t actually take it in. It was like trying to see a painting with your eyeball pressed to the paint. The canyon was too big, I was too close, and I couldn’t get far enough away to gain perspective.
But I could see the irony of that situation. As a minority, I’m used to being at the margins. While that is certainly a dangerous place, the distance does give one the benefit of a wider view of society.
For example, Deering High School has begun encouraging their female Muslim athletes to wear sports hijabs. Some people have been vocal about their belief that hijabs shouldn’t be allowed at all. Those people are too close. They can’t see themselves. They can’t see that covering one’s head is a sign of devotion in most faiths — very likely including their own. They’re too close to see that their racism is showing.
This kind of nearsightedness is endemic in this country. In “There is Much More to Say,” an essay from 2011, Noam Chomsky remarks upon “the ease with which we name our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Blackhawk. Tomahawk. … We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’”
Most people don’t notice the ways this problem extends into civilian life, too. Think about the Jeep Cherokee. Now imagine a German car company releasing a model named after a sect of Judaism. I think you’re probably far enough away to see how dreadful the response would be to the BMW Hasid.
This problem goes even deeper. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in a discussion involving race when someone has tried to counter my view by claiming to “understand human nature.” Now, on its face, that’s some silly-ass shit, but let me show you just how silly-ass that shit really is.
We’ll start here: human beings have been around for just about 200,000 years. That’s people more or less like you and me, who looked like us and had nearly identical capabilities. The second thing is, we’ve only been recording history for about 6,000 years. That’s 3 percent of the time humans have existed.
Look at any object in the room you’re in. Now zoom in to look at 3 percent of that thing. How could you tell what it is if you didn’t already know? Chances are you couldn’t even name it, let alone know its true nature.
Want another try? OK, here’s 3 percent of a sequence of numbers: 41381. You have just about as much ability to figure out the other 97 percent of that sequence as you do to understand human nature. You probably have more of a chance with the numbers, actually, because on the human-nature side of the problem I’ve already granted you two things: 1) that anyone could be capable of holding 6,000 years of history in their brain; and 2) that that 6,000 years of recorded history is accurate, which it is not — at all. So to claim an understanding of human nature requires one to understand something with only 3 percent of the necessary information while recognizing that most of that information is false.
Imagine you’re starting a challenging new job. Your training begins and ends when your boss hands you 3 percent of the employee handbook and walks away. You hold it up and yell after him, “What’s this?” “Mostly lies,” he replies.
The truth is that we only understand what’s immediately in front of us, and if you’ve ever been wrong, then you know we don’t really understand that either. The Grand Canyon showed me what it’s like to have this proximity problem. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable, but I was happy to gain the perspective, because it showed me just how indispensable other, wider viewpoints are.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.