A couple of years ago I wrote a post advising people not to give advice. Let’s move on past the hypocrisy inherent in that sentence so that I reiterate my point. Giving advice is often a form of self-aggrandizement.
This week, Gene Marks, a technology writer, wrote a bit long chunk of advice entitled If I Were A Poor Black Kid. It turns out to be the sort of reductio ad absurdum argument against getting into the advice business. You can easily skip reading the article and just imagine what it says instead, and you’ll probably be right. What you should read is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ response to it.
He attacks the general idea people have that they would never allow themselves to be victims, be it of poverty, or slavery, or abuse, or any other situation that is obviously abhorrent. He writes:
What all these responses have in common is a kind benevolent, and admittedly unintentional, self-aggrandizement. These are not bad people (much as I am sure Mr. Marks isn’t a bad person), but they are people speaking from a gut feeling, a kind of revulsion at a situation which offends our modern morals. In the case of the observer of slavery, it is the chaining and marketing of human flesh. In the case of Mr. Marks, it’s the astonishingly high levels of black poverty.
It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings — to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter, that were we poor and black our sense of Protestant industry would be a mighty power sending gang leaders, gang members, hunger, depression and sickle cell into flight. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct.
As he points out further down, this is really a failure of empathy, an empathy that’s necessary to really understand the world at all.