“All About The Benjamins” and extending empathy
Some time in the early 90’s I was guest of honor at a convention in Houston, teaching a morning Tai Chi class. One young man had been challenging, and a little hostile, but then when I taught him to breathe properly had calm down and opened. Seemed to have some secret sadness behind his eyes. He hung around after class, and I knew he wanted to talk to me.
I sat beside him. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He couldn’t meet my eyes. He seemed near tears. “It’s just…it’s just…”
He blurted it out. “It’s just that it seems a white man doesn’t have a chance any more.”
I’m sure my mouth dropped open. So…my being guest of honor, perhaps the girls flirting with my studly self in class, or something else had triggered a cascade of regrets, fears, embitterments. Perhaps someone he knew had lost a job. Or a girlfriend, to one of dusky hue. I probed a bit, and from his point of view all the great athletes, the funniest comedians, the coolest movie stars were all black. There was anger and pain there.
And also, just a hint of nuttiness. But…I really did feel he was being honest, sincere. Trying to make sense of a world which clearly did not match what he was expecting. Probably not the world his father and grandfather had known. In this world, despite the massive statistical advantages, he was disadvantaged.
Now…I could have reacted to the stupendous racism inherent in his words (if whites have advantage, but there is still some mysterious plot against them, that means that without said plot they’d be doing even BETTER). For some reason I was pushed beyond astonishment or even pale hilarity into compassion.
I took out my wallet. “Look” I said, fanning the bills. “Every face, on every bill…white. Every president of the United States…white. Every star of EVERY dramatic show…white.” I went on and on, and watched the light go on in his eyes. Why…it wasn’t so bad after all. Why…white people were doing great! Why…yes! They WERE the Alpha Dogs!
He smiled. Dried his tears. Jumped up and pumped my hand. “Thank you!” he said. “Thank you so much…”
And went whistling on his way. I sat there, wondering when Rod Serling would step out from behind a plant and say: “submitted for your approval…”
It’s not the Twilight Zone, however. It’s just human nature. Geeze, we are a funny bunch. And MAN, do I have a warped perspective.
I never heard the term “Benjamins” used as anything but a reference to money, especially big money, like a bank vault full of 100 dollar bills (“Benjamins” for Ben Franklin, the face on the bill.
But when Jews began complaining about the use of the term in a criticism of Israel, I also understood their ire. And if I were Jewish, I think I could have a very similar reaction. Why, one might ask, cannot the benefit of the doubt be extended? Well, it can…but it is very human to have a limited amount of trust to extend, especially if you have been hurt, threatened, or someone you love has been damaged. Under pressure, human beings get brittle and rigid. Our willingness to extend faith diminished.
Can someone call a black person a “monkey” without intending or feeling racial animus? Of course. But why precisely should we trust that, considering a history of pain constantly diminished and dismissed?
In the coming attraction for the new Spider Man movie (spoiler! He survives INFINITY WAR. Yeah, I knew that. I’m not stupid), he tells MJ that she looks pretty. “Oh, and therefore I have worth?” she asks. He fumbles for a reply, embarrassed, before she admits she’s just messing with him. On the one level, it is absurd of course. But on another, to women who found the “just women for their fertility” standard to be confining and demeaning, itching to get out of that box, a little over-reaction is human.
How about the mentally challenged and the term “Retard”? Just joking, man.
How about gay people and one guy calling another “fag” just to, you know, generally razz them.
And of course there are variations for the aged, disabled, poor, obese, or whatever. What’s the matter..? Can’t anyone take a joke? This PC culture is out of control…
But wait a minute. If you look at this, there is no real exclusivity for race, gender, sexual orientation, politics or anything else. “War on Christmas” or “War on Christianity” anyone? How about fanboys complaining if the gender or race of a character is changed away from THEM. Doesn’t matter what the underlying politics might be:
IF PEOPLE HAVE BEEN, OR PERCEIVE THEMSELVES TO BE, ATTACKED THEY WILL REACT WITH GREATER SENSITIVITY.
I see no difference in the tendency to “exaggerate the harm” or “whine about PC”. I do see some increased empathy on one side, decreased on the other. I don’t see an objective standard for “how much is too much,” but I do see hypocrisy if you do it yourself but complain when others do.
The real difference seems to me to be whether you yourself have been seriously disadvantaged. I’ve seen people who have zero sympathy at one point in their lives, but as they start growing older begin to complain about ageism. People who feel no empathy for OTHER demographics but complain about g about how rich people, or smart people, or Southerners, or veterans or whatever are DISCRIMINATED AGAINST!! Because there is a news article about some person of that label who is having a problem…and they either ARE that demographic, have a friend/family member who is, or hope to be such a person one day.
You see? They FINALLY extend their own humanity, and as a consequence, feel the pain. Now they empathize. Now they squeal. “A white man doesn’t have a chance” is nothing more than this: you discount the pain of amputees, but whine like a little twerp if you sit on a tack.
Got it. THAT is being human, it really is. We can laugh at it, but don’t laugh too loudly — whether you, personally would do it or not, the demographic group you belong to certainly would, and does. You can look at that honestly and wake the #$%% up, or remain asleep. Or, of course, you can be one of the snakes who KNOWS you are doing it, but wants that advantage. Or one of the monsters who actually CREATE the problems and profits from them, but piously gaslights everyone you can.
The choice is yours.
Me…if I were Jewish I wouldn’t be too quick to extend trust. I really wouldn’t. That’s being human, too.