Take a good look at the photo above.
Husbands, fathers, wives, mothers: entire families dressed in their Sunday best. Note the absence of anger on their faces: there’s no hatred, no vitriol; some of the children are smiling.
This is just business as usual. These events were announced at churches like a carnival: tickets were sold, picnics were planned, food vendors came and peddled their wares. This was an American pastime: baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and lynching.
It takes a particular kind of disconnect from your humanity to torture and kill a human being for entertainment. A deeper look proves even more unsettling. The abject horror is the image above is distracting enough to prevent one from asking far more uncomfortable questions. To unpack this, we have to move beyond the public spectacle into something more intimate, more deeply disturbing:
Someone thought it was a good idea to commemorate torture and murder by sending a postcard.
The United States Postal Service can trace its roots all the way back to Ben Franklin and the Second Constitutional Congress. The practice of sending postcards gained popularity in the late 1800s, as postal service spread across the frontier. In the early 1900s, Kodak made the (relatively) new technology of photography available to the masses. As railroads began to crisscross the nation, postcards became (and remain) a simple way of sending forget-me-notes; a cost effective form of saying “having fun, wish you were here” to faraway friends.
Forget for a moment the atrocity this postcard documented. Forget the participants, forget the spectators: what does this postcard say about the sender? What does it say about the receiver?
No one wants to think of themselves—or their friends and family—as bad people. People want to believe they’re good people. When something enters their psyche that might contradict this assurance, it is easier psychologically to construct a reality that suits your belief system, than to reexamine your beliefs. Good people own homes and businesses. They go to church and pay their taxes and coach little league. They have bake sales and donate blood and kiss their mothers. They say please and thank you.
All of this is nice. None of it is good.
The word nice first appears in the English language around the end of the 13th century, when it was used to describe a dullard. Taken from the Latin “nescius” the literal translation for nice is “not knowing” or ignorant. Eventually nice diffused into the modern meaning of “something mildly agreeable.”
Niceness isn’t goodness. Politeness isn’t goodness. If goodness has a litmus test, it is the response to oppression. It is not enough to simply not actively participate in acts of oppression: you cannot tolerate, sympathize, or condone oppression, and be a good person. In the words of Desmond Tutu:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Entrenched systems of oppression require complicity. “We must take sides” said Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
We may never know about the sender and receiver of this postcard—whether they approved, were amused, repulsed, ambivalent, or just indifferent. We do know this: to choose non-action because you are personally unaffected by oppression is to give tacit support.
You cannot be neutral to oppression and be a good person. The two are irreconcilable.
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Photo: Wikipedia Commons