Do you remember that time about a year and a half ago when Duck Dynasty actor Phil Robertson made some questionable remarks about homosexuals and black people during an interview with GQ? A&E, Robertson’s employer, decided to put Duck Dynasty on hiatus; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal misinterpreted the meaning of the first amendment; some of your friends probably joined an “I Support Phil Robertson” Facebook group on the website and claimed in harried status updates that Christians in the U.S. were now being persecuted for their beliefs; and then A&E–caving into the criticism against their choice to suspend Duck Dynasty–came to their senses and lifted the suspension nine days later when they remembered that ratings have always dictated the ethics of television programming.
The whole episode was a waste of time and maybe even a ploy by GQ and A&E to manufacture a controversy and garner attention for themselves. But I learned an important lesson during this “crisis ” that’s stuck with me ever since. That lesson is that there are many logical shortfalls to making arguments about the world based on personal experiences and perceptions. This lesson simultaneously applies to the ways we talk about contemporary society and how we talk about history.
When asked about racism in his native Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s before the Civil Rights Movement, Robertson relied on personal experience to argue that life wasn’t so bad for African Americans back then:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
There are many ways to interpret these comments. A generous interpretation could suggest that Robertson really was telling the truth about his experiences and that life really wasn’t that bad for the black people in his community. A more cynical interpretation could argue that Robertson’s status as a beneficiary of a racist system of legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence against black people may have blinded him to the actual hardships of his neighbors, and that his suggestion about African Americans becoming discontented and “singing the blues” only after the rise of the welfare state is offensive. My thoughts lean towards the latter interpretation, but that’s beside the point.
Relying on personal anecdotes to explain a society’s political, economic, and social foundations generally results in poor arguments that don’t advance the conversation because they are used at the expense of compelling evidence about a society’s systematic and structural regulations, policies, and philosophies. Robertson’s perceptions of racism or lack thereof in his own community tell us something about Phil Robertson’s view of reality in 1950s America, but they don’t necessarily reflect the structural workings of 1950s American governance. Across the United States blacks in impoverished communities at this time were offered fewer opportunities in the labor market, education, housing, and quality health care. It is not difficult to find this information or accept these realities, regardless of what Phil Robertson says or whether or not he is accurately describing an objective reality of his upbringing.
I make these points because it’s so easy to rely on personal experience as the final arbiter of truth without acknowledging the limited and flawed nature of our perceptions. Here in St. Louis, for example, I had no idea that various municipal governments were using aggressive policing and exorbitant ticket fees from petty misdemeanors to fund their operations on the backs of impoverished people until Radley Balko reported on it for the Washington Post in September. A Robertson-esque response to the Balko report might argue that “the police in my community treat everyone with respect. Nobody is discriminated against by the police on account of race, ethnicity, or class. People just need to follow the law and they’ll be just fine.”
That argument might very well be true for some people, myself included! Every police officer I’ve met in my area of St. Louis has treated me with kindness and respect. I have no doubt that those hard-working people are doing everything they can to keep my community safe. But just because I haven’t been witness to the corruption of these municipal governments does not mean that they don’t exist or that no one else has suffered. My experiences and those of others here in the area only make sense once they are fit together within a larger social, political, and economic context that explains how structures shape our society.
And just like Phil Robertson, we are always relying on personal experience to explain the past. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of arguments from
ancestors (typo!) descendants of Confederate soldiers who claim that their ancestors did not fight for the Confederacy on account of their support for slavery but instead fought for things like honor, defense of home, allegiance to the South, etc. For that reason, they argue, the Confederate flag is not just a flag of white supremacy. Again, that might very well be true for some. I readily accept that the Confederate flag has many layers of meaning, but the personal experiences of your ancestors tell us more about the experience of soldiering during the Civil War than anything about the political disagreements that precipitated the war. Soldiers and politicians often have very different motivations for participating in wars, and the vast majority of Civil War soldiers on both sides had no political role in the debates over secession in 1861. Therefore any discussion of a Confederate soldier’s desire to fight on behalf of “defending his family” (and not for slavery) is inadequate until you also take a look at the bigger picture and acknowledge what the politicians were willing to go to war over in the first place. It wasn’t states’ rights.
Are personal experiences unimportant or useless? Of course not. I would argue, however, that they are inadequate determinants for explaining how the world works. Our experiences don’t happen in isolated bubbles. We must account for that.