Jerks 0.C: Diversity

Diversity breeds moral confusion, which is aggravated by the high population density that encourages a comfortable sense of anonymity.  Anyone who has lived 50 or 60 years in North America can understand what has happened.  As a student I used to go to various uninhabited barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina.  My friends and I could build a fire, set up tents or a lean-to, fish and swim and drink until we could not stand.  At two o'clock in the morning, we would be bellowing out songs and urinating in plain view.  A few years later, we would run into other parties, and one had to be a bit more careful about noise.  Despite differences of class and age, everyone shared a common sense of what was expected, and frictions were minimalized.  

A decade later, when the island had been made a public beach run by the state, swimmers, fishermen, and boaters had to follow an elaborate code of rules to prevent them from interfering in each others' activities.  The differing ethnic, religious, and social groups created frictions.  Roistering college students came into conflict with church picnics, and Latinos, blacks, whites, and Asians soon discovered that other groups had different assumptions about public hygiene and behavior.  Natural anarchy had given way to an informal community that, in the end, became so diverse and overpopulated that it required laws and policemen to enforce the laws.

People who live in border towns or have experience (from either side) of military occupations have often found cultural diversity confusing.  American soldiers stationed in Europe in the 1950's have told me that when they got into a vituperative quarrel with young Frenchmen, the Americans would eventually throw a punch, much to the astonishment of the poor locals who thought they were engaged only in a war of words. 

Jerkitude is a contagious disease:  After putting up with bullying and rudeness for a few days, we come to expect it, and we are ready to lash out in a preemptive strike against anyone who even slightly offends us.  It's like the story of the salesman whose car breaks down at night on a lonely road and finds he does not have a jack.  He starts walking down the road, imagining the warm reception he will get from a friendly farmer, but the farther he goes, the darker his thoughts become.  What if the farmer doesn't have a jack?  What if he is reluctant to lend it?  What if he is unwilling even to open the door?  Finally, he comes to the first house, rings the bell, and when the door opens, he screams: "You can keep your damn jack!”

Every time my wife and I leave the Upper Midwest for a trip back to the  South, we spend the first few days anticipating the worst, and it is only with effort that we manage to be at all polite.  A few years ago we were renting a car in the Raleigh-Durham airport.  Every employee at the Enterprise rental car desk was black.  "Lord, I muttered to myself, why didn't I go with Hertz?"  I know, this sounds terribly racist, but if you have dealt with airport personnel at O'Hare, you will understand that I have come to anticipate nothing but rudeness and incompetence from airport employees of every type, and an almost unbelievable level of incivility from African-Americans working for TSA or as baggage-handlers.  What a shock to realize that North Carolina had not sunk to the level of Illinois.  Everyone I dealt with at the airport (most of them black) was polite, friendly, and efficient.  It took several days to remember that not all black Americans regard us automatically as the enemy.  This is one more instance of that sense of shared tradition that makes it possible for people to live with each other on civil terms.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Dom says:

    That story of the salesman is spot-on. I haven’t stopped chuckling.