Wendell Berry on the destructiveness of distance and its remedy.
I’m reading Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and he’s helping me think about an unsettling dynamic I see in certain white people when it comes to talking about race and acting on the ideas they talk about. In a chapter titled “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture” Berry writes about well-meaning conservationists whose ideas about and actions toward the environments actually damage it. How these unintended consequences come about is important and, I think, may shed light on the harmful impact of certain assumptions held by earnest white people.
Berry begins with the limits of any organization.
One reason that an organization cannot properly enact our relationship to the world is that an organization cannot define that relationship except in general terms, and no matter how general may be a person’s attitude toward the world, his impact upon it must become specific and tangible at some point.
He is thinking about environmental organizations which, however good their intentions, have to deal in generalizations and, to some extent, abstractions. They are concerned with nature and the environment as essential concepts deserving of great advocacy and support. But, however necessary these generalizations may be for an organization, they obscure the particularities of the places they represent. It’s one thing to say that the environment is worthy of our protection; it’s rather different to speak about weather patterns, soil composition, and the migratory habitats of a specific plot of ground. The former is the purview of advocates while the latter can only be spoken about by residents.
I’m a frequent participant in or observer of conversations with white people about race. Sometimes these conversations involve diverse participants and other times they are homogeneously white. What matters in these conversations, as it relates to the dynamic I mentioned above, is that these white participants view themselves as informed to the realities of race and racial prejudice. We might call them “good white people” for the way they contrast themselves with other, less informed and less compassionate white people. (I’m prone to these tendencies so I write with some knowledge about this dynamic.) Berry’s observations about the generalizations made by environmental organizations seem similar to the troubling abstractions I hear from these white conversation partners. Their language is seasoned with concepts that may have been picked up on a blog or at a conference – centering, intersectional, asset-based development – but which require no specificity. The concepts themselves can be immensely helpful, but detached from place and people they take on the same generalizing sound that troubles Berry about environmental organizations.
Berry quotes from a letter sent to him by a rural man who cares deeply for the ecological health of his region while bristling at how distant environmentalists erase people like him from their advocacy.
What I’ve noticed around here with the militant ecology people (don’t get me wrong, I, like you, consider myself one of them) is a syndrome I call the Terrarium View of the World: nature always at a distance under glass…
I don’t care about the landscape if I am to be excluded from it. Why should I? In Audubon magazine almost always the beautiful pictures are without man; the ugly ones with him. Such self hatred! I keep wanting to write to them and say, ‘Look! my name is David Budbill and I belong to the chain of being too, as a participant not as an observer (nature is not television!) and the question isn’t to use or not to use but rather how to use.’
This man’s complaint is not about conservationist groups’ motives; he shares those in common with them. Rather, he’s annoyed that their distance from the land they claim to care about has forced them to deal in idealized generalities which render people like himself and their place as caretakers of the land invisible or irrelevant.
In conversations about race, white people who think of themselves as woke to racial nuance and prejudice can demonstrate a similar posture. Their language and assumptions often deal in vague and idealized notions about people. This white person genuinely cares about these communities of color but has very little actual relational connection with them. They remain an abstraction which can be discussed and debated without ever having to be consulted, much less submitted to in love.
Back to the environmentalists. By advocating from a distance, Berry believes they end up harming the land they claim to love. While not nearly as destructive as those who willfully exploit a place for profit, the idealized and abstracting lens through which the environmentalist views a place blinds him to the actual place and to the people who’ve long made their home within it. Action, when it comes in the form of advocacy or policy, will be weighed down by the unintended consequences that come with distance. How can you really know the possibilities and perils of a place if you’ve not made it your home?
In contrast to the incoherent visions for a place by those who don’t belong to it, Berry suggests the idea of “kindly use.”
The land is too various in its kinds, climates, conditions, declivities, aspects, and histories to conform to any generalized understanding or to prosper under generalized treatment. The use of land cannot be both general and kindly – just as the forms of good manners, generally applied (applied, that is, without consideration of differences), are experienced as indifference, bad manners… Kindly use depends on intimate knowledge, the most sensitive responsiveness and responsibility.
Obviously, kindly use can only really be employed by those near enough to the land to treat it kindly. Only they – farmers, residents, caretakers – have enfleshed access to dirt and trees and weather systems to imagine what will be best for the land and its inhabitants.
Kindly use, as we come back to the well-intentioned but distant white people, is kindness. It’s immensely possible to read all the important books about race, watch the latest documentaries about the many ways racism evolves within our American way of life, and attend social justice conferences and rallies without ever being kind. And this is simply because kindness depends on relationships with actual flesh and blood people. Kindness cannot be shown to an idea, however good and righteous it might be. Kindness can never by general, abstract, or vague; it must always be specific. Being kind requires proximity and knowledge about that person and her life.
That any of this is not intuitively obvious to some of us is a cold reminder about the power of race to depersonalize what must always be personal, to distance what requires closeness. There is nothing human about the abstractions of race and basic kindness demands that we push past them- not with agendas and foregone conclusions, but with the desire – maybe long buried – to be more fully persons, living not among generalities and stereotypes but alongside flesh-and-blood whose fates and hopes become our own.