I recently wrote an op-ed published in the Gazette-Mail explaining and debunking the negative attacks by extremist Republicans on what they call “woke” (the English teacher in me wants to correct that to wokeness).
They apply this taunt to anyone who holds ideas different from theirs, especially those held by Democrats, liberals and progressives. Beliefs such as democracy being important; our Constitution protecting us from being subject to the religious rules and practices that might not agree with our own. They apply the “woke” label to anyone who acknowledges American history is not simply a story of rugged individualists conquering a wilderness and building a modern nation, but that our history contains many shameful chapters in which the majority white settlers oppressed, murdered and stole from the indigenous people; that they enslaved people they imported from Africa and the Caribbean and any immigrants whose skin was not as light as most northern Europeans.
Republicans want laws that protect them from having to treat people equally whose sexual identity does not match the two genders recognized in the Christian Bible. They want to ban books, teachers and ideas that might cause their children to question the narrative of American greatness in all things at all times or cause them discomfort as they grapple with difficult issues encountered in factual history.
Remember Hillary Clinton’s comment that there were different “baskets” of Republicans, most of whom were reasonable and could be worked with, but a minority of whom belonged in the “basket of deplorables?” Remember Obama’s observation to a group of educated urbanites that when some working class folks lose the industries that had supported their communities for generations, sometimes “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations?”
Clinton and Obama weren’t wrong. Who could argue that some of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol or those who marched with tiki torches in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” weren’t acting deplorably?
While I believe one shouldn’t label a person deplorable, suggesting they can’t change, aren’t many rural, white Americans angry, going to churches or seeking news sources that tell them criminals and rapists are flooding over the borders to change our way of life? Aren’t some even considering using their guns to start a revolution?
But I want to argue that we are not going to change minds by writing people off as crazy, stupid, uneducated or un-American. Despite our facts, statistics and logic, many every day West Virginians feel as if they are victimized by life in America — and they are not wrong, either.
West Virginians endure jokes and even discrimination because they use the language they grew up with, a dialect that includes words like “ain’t,” usages like “he don’t,” accents that make it hard to distinguish “pin” from “pen” or make “flower” sound like “flar.” Their pride in independence — the ability to eke out sustenance from a rocky and mountainous region — causes them to be subjected to stereotypes that they walk around with rifles, barefoot, carrying a jug of moonshine. Of course some do, and they celebrate that, and will invite you to join them hunting or drinking. Many people believe Trump wasn’t entirely wrong when he said, “there were very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville.
We’ve had presidents, writers of the Constitution who it’s hard not to call “very fine people,” but they owned other people and profited off their labor, while being civil and polite to others. Among the Jan. 6 rioters were people who truly believed they were protesting a stolen election. It is never easy to define people in black and white. There are always shades of grey.
My message is simply this: We can’t write off our neighbors as beyond redemption. They may believe things that we know are untrue, they may fit Appalachian stereotypes (suspicious of outsiders, believers in strict religions that promise hellfire in the hereafter for anyone who touches demon alcohol or strays from moral strictures regarding gender and sexuality). They may speak and write in what appear to be near-illiterate ways, and they may express hatred for people who do not look like them, who they actually may fear. Nevertheless, they can be decent people who would “give you the shirt off your back,” tow your car out of a ditch or give you a basket of fresh vegetables.
Perhaps we can change their minds, but not unless we start from a place of respect. They may be extremists and may be fast asleep to the changes we see in the culture of the United States and the world, but we can begin to wake them up only if we rise above our prejudices.
Paul Epstein is a retired teacher and musician living in Charleston.