And God Said, “Let there be Stupid.”: Mob Mentality and Southern Sociality

A friend of mine posted a video on her Facebook page about Southern racism during the 1960s, and a particularly slanted interpretation of the action a little girl took on the part of those in need of help.  She headed this post up with “Why I will never be proud to be a Southerner.” That little girl’s father was part of a demonstration against black voters in a small Southern town, the latter of whom were simply attempting to claim their lawful rights as citizens of this country.  I will not deny that I find much of what went on in such instances utterly horrifying and repugnant, but I try to look at every angle as carefully as I can.  I want to understand every aspect of such conflict, because I feel that’s an important part of not doing the same thing over again.

 

Some Unpacking Needs To Get Done

Let’s think about this particularly unsavoury aspect of Southernness for a moment.  To my mind, it’s one of the first things people associate with the region from which I derive much of my identity.  But what are they missing out on, glossing over, or outright ignoring when they reduce a Southerner to a Racist? First off, try to understand that simply because the variety of vitriolic and bigoted rhetoric so prevalent among a certain breed of Southerner is a well-known patois in American history books, doesn’t mean no other part of the country practiced racist policy.  Every part of this country has its own spin on that tired, stupid song and dance.  It’s just a matter of knowing about what they don’t teach in history class and never mention in the popular media.

If you need a little help understanding what that means, look up the United States Policy for inhabitants of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado during the first half of the 19th century, the Brown Berets, the Watts Riots, and Indian Schools.  Take a stroll through Detroit in January, or read up on Revolutionary American policies regarding punishments delineated for slaves who fought for the British.  While we’re on that subject, actually read some of Lincoln’s debate rhetoric and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Our greatly touted Liberator was neither a fan of ending slavery nor did he deliver the Proclamation in a fit of zeal for an “equal” America.  Moreover, the legal implications of that document don’t provide emancipation for any individuals enslaved north of the Mason Dixon line.  It was a political maneuver designed to punish an intransigent region of the country.  Nothing more.  That it was a political necessity is often lost among the backwash of emotive hindsight, hero worship, and a historical understanding that the utility of the abhorrent practice of publicly sanctioned human trafficking had waned.

Here, we’ll find one of the roots of that aforementioned brand of Southern racist rhetoric.  As we’ve spoken of in the past, the cultural foundation of the South is largely based on an agrarian mindset.  This is where a lot of issues seem to return–a sparsely settled population, with a very small group wielding the lion’s share of the power, influence, money, resources, and education.  Religion served as a means to interact with distant neighbors, and also as a commonplace guide for behavior in and out of church.  Chattel Slavery, initially an American Institution, one which shaped the very foundational language of our Constitution and Bill of Rights was not practiced by everyone in the South.  In fact, very few individuals were wealthy enough to own other human beings.  They were too busy being owned ipso facto by those privileged few who collected rents and acted as semi-feudal lords of the land.

 

Why Should This Matter?

It matters a great deal, because the accompanying ideas that surround the slave model of the antebellum Southern economy were ingrained as a way of keeping the uneducated tenant farmers quiescent.  No matter how poor they are, if they’re “white” then they are by default still better than someone who is not.  This is a very old trick used by those who wish to maintain their stranglehold on a much larger population, but we seem to fall for it every time.

Let’s fast forward to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century.  This is, naturally a huge glossing over of a very important time in National history–much occurred and a great many changes were enacted.  America expanded all the way to the Pacific and beyond.  There was even an unfortunately doltish attempt to pick a fight with Paraguay over rights to use a river.  The United States lost that argument.  During this time, the orators of the Southern Stump had not been idle.  Less than a hundred years had passed between a humiliating military defeat accompanied by a radical shift in how things went about getting done and a hopelessly ham-fisted “reconstruction” process of the war-ravaged South.  It happened.

Now, those who had suffered beneath the intolerable yoke of enslavement were free.  But the freedom they were so generously allotted was pretty crappy as far as freedom goes.  It was kind of like that enjoyed by women in this country.  The result of slackish enforcement of Natural Rights for all humans is usually that someone gets left out on purpose, but no one is willing to say it straight out anymore.  On paper, it all looks oh-so-legal-and proper.  But it isn’t, is it?  All that happened was that the overt, unabashed signs were curtailed and there was little or no support forthcoming in the form of enforcement of equal rights.

 

What’s That Got to Do With It?

This is, of course, a terribly simplified and glossed over examination of the issue.  Entire books can and have been written about this subject.  And quite frankly, I’m willing to defer to people who make their living researching narrowly bounded spans of history or significant events.  However, the point I actually want to make is this: the video my friend posted said something that struck me deeply.  Paraphrasing it, the woman said that the Southern psyche was a complex one.  Individually, a person might be kind, considerate, moderate, compassionate, and well-rounded.  However, get them in a group and they lost all sense of that other “personality.”  The mob mentality is incredibly seductive to the Southern mind.

I have a theory why that might be.  When in a group, we, generally speaking, are conditioned to direct our mental focus toward a single speaker.  Our back story is one peppered with the standard of regular religious participation, in which individuals with oratory prowess hold our attention and possess cultural capital enough to pronounce judgement upon our behavior.  Politics is much the same.  While the literacy rate of the region has thankfully increased, we still follow much the same pattern of political decision making based on speech-making (or propaganda spreading via television, internet, and radio).

Historically speaking, local government was run and populated by the elite of society.  This fact strikes a deeply buried cultural root.  We respond with inordinate fervor to the demagogue.  And in many parts of this region, the old, unspoken maxim seems still very much in play:  There are haves and have-nots.  Everyone knows where they stand.  Have-nots are meant to work long, hard hours for little reward.  That reward comes from their social betters, the one’s who know, who have, who own.

The Witch Hunt Vibe–the ability to get people stirred up about something that may or may not be in their vested interest to pursue–is crucial to this dynamic.  It’s the other half of the mob mentality.  The South has its fair share of ring-leaders.  I like to call them Elmer Gantry’s or Rainmakers.  The charismatic persona that takes a crowd in thrall and whips them to a frenzy before pointing them in a desired direction and letting them loose.  This is the magical ingredient you need to turn a mild-mannered, basically fair-minded and intelligent individual into one frothing idiot in a crowd of them.  They know all the places to push, and how much pressure to apply indirectly or directly, in order to draw in the audience.  They are masters of the show, the revival, the campaign.  They work people for a living.  The South seems inordinately good at providing templates for this, because these people are all, to some extent Story Tellers*.

 

Keep Your Bigotry Where I Can See It

Unavoidably, there’s going to be tension between groups who offer different perspectives or life ways.  These differences may sometimes be ascribed to physical characteristics, but that brand of bigotry is hardly a uniquely American one or, for that matter, one particular to the South.  I set myself up for some considerable acrimony in Albuquerque because I tend to prefer my bigots where I can see and mark them well, rather than letting them hide behind the bland mask of civility.

During a somewhat inebriated conversation with Jezebel one night about Mississippi using the Rebel flag as a part of their state flag, we strayed off the beaten path of that discourse.  Into the murky waters of personal freedom we strayed, and I made the statement that as far as I was concerned, if an individual wished to display a Confederate flag on their own private property, it was my right not to look, but I could not demand that they remove it; nor was it appropriate for a government entity to dictate what they could and could not display.

She, of course, was very angry with me about this.  Perhaps, she believes that when you destroy bigotry’s chosen symbol you destroy the attitude itself.  I also know that she was particularly sensitive, hailing from Mississippi as she does.  It has drawn a great deal of critique for backward policy in recent years.  But I could not convey to her that: 1) Demand that they take it down, as an individual or a government body and you give them grist for their mill while accomplishing absolutely nothing beyond the removal of a bit of colored cloth; and 2) When you successfully take that visible sign down, you render the bigotry no less robust, but a great deal less visible and therefor that much more difficult to root out effectively.

i personally don’t care what people choose to display in their private homes, or on them for that matter.  If you drive the General Lee and pain the side of your house with a Rebel Flag, I will mark you well and act according to the dictates of my conscience.  That basically means that, so long as you are sweet to all and pleasant to me, treat people with equal regard in employment, education, public services, and protection of the law, I have nothing to say about your taste in decor.  However, as soon as you step out of line, which I will be looking for because of said taste in decor, I’m ready to step all over you.

 

Liberty Means Many Things

I think many people conveniently forget that the Natural Rights, the liberties upon which we base much of our nationalistic pride, are reserved to all.  That means you, me, those people standing on the corner, your grandmother, and your worst enemy.  You can say just about whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t actively endanger the public.  Now, that doesn’t guarantee that what you choose to say will be right, considerate, or even particularly intelligent sounding.  But you do that.  You go right on ahead and be however you need to be in order to feel you are, in fact, alive.  The first instance of the abridgement of another’s freedoms I observe on your part–be it subtle or gross–I’m stepping on you.  And it’s going to hurt.  A lot.

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Dark Side of a Silver Lining, by Erin Sandlin

*(see Piscatory Narratives.)

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