I’m not really in a good position to call this trend out, being that I am not a big fan of Southern US culture and have said many harsh things about it in the past. But while living among them, as tends to happen when you get up close and personal with a group you find disagreeable, you are also confronted with their humanity.
This trend has been going on for a long time. Deliverance probably sprang to mind when you read the headline. Deliverance depicts the residents of the Appalachians as mutant rapists. While certainly there’s been a historical association between incest and the South with some validity to it, this is the picture of it we see more often than any other.
Then there’s Cletus and Brandine from The Simpsons. While they live in Springfield, their conspicuous drawls make it clear which segment of US society they are intended to be a mean spirited parody of. Were poor blacks lampooned on the Simpsons in the same way, there would rightly be an outcry, yet for some reason poor rural whites are fair game.
Certainly they are often rough by the standards of people who live in major population centers. They often have harsh and uncharitable opinions, but usually as a result of having lived hard lives. It is much easier to be high minded and magnanimous when you have enough to eat, and access to the medical care that you or your loved ones need.
If you don’t, human nature is liable to make you look for somebody to blame. That’s just an expression of fear for your own survival and that of your loved ones. It is ugly but understandable.
Similar outbursts from black Americans in places like Georgia, Florida or Tennessee are best understood in terms of reactions to economic hardship and lack of opportunities, so why is this umbrella of understanding not extended to poor Southern whites?
I have often said it’s easiest to empathize with rough rural Southerners when they aren’t around. When their mouths open it becomes suddenly more difficult. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be understood and related to as fellow Americans and human beings, just that none of us is everybody’s cup of tea.
Nowhere is this casual “othering” on display more blatantly than Resident Evil 7 though. The whole angle of it is to play up the heebie jeebies that those of us from more developed parts of the country feel around poor white rural families. Often the people who feel this repulsion most strongly are also outspoken about fighting for the rights of the poor working class.
What do you think the poor working class in this country predominantly looks like? Is the concept of an intact nuclear family now so alien to us that we don’t relate, and find humble folks gathered around the table for a meal somehow unnerving?
How divorced have we become from the traditional ways by which our ancestors lived, that we now hold them up as an object of disgust? Let’s not pretend that isn’t what this is, either. Of course there’s more to the game than that, and they’re undead abominations. But every Resident Evil game has those.
The other side of the creep factor in this game is just overwrought paternalistic Southern family values. I have a lot of disapproving things to say about where women are meant to fit into that scheme and how it constrains their options and their lives. Also of course about their Biblically inspired, often violent hatred of homosexuality.
But why are we meant to revile these behaviors from Southern, rural white folks, but not when Achmed from Tunisia, Turkey or Yemen does the same things? We’re called to recognize they come from a different self contained culture with its own way of doing things. I reject that rationalization for backwards cultural moores, but I do so equally.
When you do that, it opens up the possibility of disapproving of a culture without dehumanizing its practitioners. But that’s not marketable, is it? Horror films and games need something or someone to be afraid of. Action films and games need a bad guy. That’s been Communists, Nazis and Jihadists at various points in history.
Are Southerners really in the same boat as those groups? Maybe during the Jim Crow era, but today? They are defeated. They are bitter and hateful mostly because they are downtrodden now, and vote for guys like Trump on the promise that they can trust him because he hates the people they blame for their situation.
That’s more sad than it is worthy of contempt. And the more contempt we pile on, the more ugliness we will get in return. Before making a bad guy out of an entire culture of human beings, first ensure that it actually is so evil that there is nothing morally dubious about depicting their mass slaughter in movies and games.
It brings to mind something Nietzsche once said about fighting monsters, though in this case they are only monsters to the degree that we’ve made them, and it is our mockery and indifference to their suffering which traps them in that role. If we are determined to see them in a certain way no matter what they do, what is their motivation to rise above that?
What of those who are born into that background but excel? I knew a Southern rocket scientist once. Many don’t know NASA has rocket construction facilities in Alabama. Do we honor them by making them out to be inbred mutants just because of how they talk? How they dress? What foods they grew up eating, what music they listen to?
Perhaps we just like having somebody to look down on, and don’t feel as bad about it when they themselves look down upon blacks and gays. But extending hospitality and reserving judgement is not something you necessarily do because the person receiving it is a good person; it’s something you do because you’re a good person.
That’s who you want to be, isn’t it? That’s who I want to be. None of us are above having our private prejudices pandered to. If you imagined you held no such prejudices, I’d wager you had second thoughts when you read this headline. This is the sort of situation where missing the forest for the trees is actually a good thing.
There is a sense in which groups aren’t real, only the individuals. It depends what scale you examine humanity at, and which sort of patterns you’re looking for. All of us want to belong to a tribe, but my tribe is not defined by outwardly visible traits. Nor is it defined by dialect, fashion, cuisine or musical taste.
My tribe consists of people who are not provincial, but citizens of the universe. Condensed, conscious pieces of that universe rather than the specifically simian creatures our instincts incline us to behave like. My enemies aren’t shaped like human beings. How could other pieces of the same universe be my enemies?
My enemies are my own prejudices. My own cognitive biases and hangups. Anything which prevents me from seeing the humanity in other people, and the fact that our life experiences are more similar than different simply by virtue of being the same species. I do not cherish and hold fast to my own petty hatreds, but instead identify and reject them…I invite you to do the same.
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