Across the nation chapters of the Audubon Society have been groping with the question of whether the racism of their namesake is a blemish that must be erased. In his day, not only did naturalist John James Audubon give us exacting visual images of the birds of North America, but he also held the view that slavery was justified, going so far as to advocate for the return of fugitive slaves to their “owners.” Audubon accepted the barbarous premises of slave ownership, along with many of the nation’s founding figures. Indeed, even the White House itself and the capitol building were built with the aid of slave labor. Exposing such a mix of attainment and debasement is now a common pattern for reassessing foundational figures who were once unequivocally revered. It’s a necessary process, but not as straightforward as it might seem.
We can add in many other everyday complications that might show up in the pasts of other figures we would normally revere: a sibling who contributes to a hate group, a generous mentor who has supported authoritarian politicians, a wonderful actor caught up in a religious cult, or a thinker who anchored an important intellectual tradition while revealing an anti-Semitic streak. We should not be surprised at how many slave-owning ancestors Henry Louis Gates Jr. discovers in his genealogical series on PBS, Finding Your Roots. Thanks to Gates’ tact, most of his celebrity subjects take the news with a surprising degree of grace.
And then there are hypocrites: people who say who one thing but conveniently abandon it when it is convenient to do so. Obvious examples are hate bills in legislatures proposed by legislator’s who find it convenient to argue that they are “protecting our freedoms.” “Showhorse” legislators are legendary for committing to ideas that they have refuted in private.
When is forbearance for another’s failures too high a price to pay?
The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with the famous line that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Most of us have had to deal with the dark beliefs that exist in a corner of an important and productive figure. But when is forbearance too high a price to pay?
Humans born to create, initiate, interpret and invent are bound to engage in actions that seem contradictory. Some are worthy of condemnation; but the pattern is too common to write off the whole species. After all, we are all we have. And, to be fair, we are the victims of language forms that handicap the capacity to deal with good people who do or say bad things.
It is obvious that we are more complex than being reduced to a singular response that something is “right” or “wrong,” “true” or “false.” Part of the problem is the common but false view that multiple answers are not possible with humans or the English language, both of which thrive on exclusionary binaries. We perceive with other oppositional terms well: true or false; good or bad; intelligent or stupid; correct or wrong, and so on. In English, something “is” or “is not.” We don’t typically entertain the idea that a person or an idea is both. Other non-western languages like Mandarin are more able to handle the natural ambiguities of life.
Consider one area where more contingent thinking is absolutely necessary. Researchers in the social sciences have reasonably clear pictures of how most people respond when placed in common situations. We have many theories that make “if”-“then” predictions. For example, group theory includes the idea of “groupthink,” an observational theory that applies most of the time. It predicts that if almost everyone within the same group thinks a certain way, any few holdouts will begin to shift their attitudes to align with the others. We have a natural interest in blending with the crowd. This kind of prediction generally holds, but not always. And a good researcher on group behavior knows that the theory will not fully explain what will happen in a specific case. It’s a necessary instance of “accepting” and not “accepting,” born out of diversities in human responses.
It would be the same for a scientist to hold to their religious faith, even though some teachings hold that the world is only 6000 thousand years old. He or she must know that earth science puts the age of the planet at around 4.5 billion years. They need to be able to handle both views without looking for a way to fudge the vast temporal difference. In short, the complexity of our world and those of us who inhabit it often requires multiple answers to single questions. Our multifaced nature should make it harder to completely write anyone off, even when they are guilty of the serious moral failure of John James Audubon.