In my endless quest to be current and relevant (a failed quest, my children will tell you), I recently listened to a fascinating podcast called S-Town, one of the most downloaded podcasts of the year. The story begins when the show’s producer -- Brian Reed -- is contacted by a resident of the small town of Woodstock, Alabama. This resident, John B. McLemore, claims that there is a murder cover-up going on in the town. After much telephoning and emailing, Mr. Reed eventually travels down to Woodstock to investigate.
We find out fairly early in the series, that there was no murder or cover-up, but the story morphs into a process of discovering who John B. McLemore is, along with the other characters that inhabit the town of Woodstock. And I will acknowledge – to my deep embarrassment – that, as a northerner, listening to the voices, accents, and cadences of the people on the show, it was all too easy to immediately pigeonhole them. So, too, many of the settings – from the K3 Lumber Company (called KKK Lumber by John B. McLemore, which doesn’t seem to bother the owner) to the local tattoo parlor – fell immediately into my stereotypes of rural southern culture.
But as this southern, gothic tale unfolds, an interesting thing begins to happen. Brian Reed invites us into his conversations with John B. McLemore and his fellow Woodstock denizens, and they evolve into deeply unique and interesting people. McLemore himself begins by defying the stereotypes, as a brilliant, polymath, “antiquarian horologist” (he repairs antique clocks), who self-identifies both as a rabid environmentalist and queer. Likewise, the other characters in the story begin as stereotypes and quickly become – unexpectedly – full-blown individuals; far more complex and nuanced than they initially seemed to have been.
Encountering John B. McLemore was a wonderful reminder to me of my – deeply unattractive -- tendency to pigeonhole those who I perceive as different. I would probably feel more guilty about this if I didn’t have a sense that this seems to be a nearly universal human characteristic. In his seminal work on the nature of knowledge and consciousness, The Phenomenology of Spirit, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel tells a compelling story that we call the “master/slave dialectic.” In this story, Hegel argues that one of the primary ways in which we develop identity – both as individuals and as groups – is by finding characteristics that differentiate ourselves from “the other” – those not like us.
In this process of “othering,” we generally identify characteristics in ourselves that are attractive and characteristics in others that are repellant. There is, also, an unfortunate power dynamic in this process in which an element of the differentiation also involves seeking to place one group (us) in a position of superior power to the other group (them). So we seek to define (and value) ourselves, by degrading the value of the “other.”
We see a lot of “othering” going on in our national life today. Under our current administration, the “other” has been immigrant, refugees, and Muslims. This latest chapter of “othering” has built on a long tradition of makingpeople of color the “other.” In our United Methodist denomination for decades, the “other” has been our LGBTQ+ neighbors. But whoever, the “other” is, it is our responsibility to look beyond that “otherness” and to find the places where we are not different, but the same. It is to acknowledge that our similarities always vastly outweigh our differences, and that we are all sacred children of God.
The first step in countering this destructive tendency is to be aware of it. It is to acknowledge our own cultural biases. It is to acknowledge (for those of us who are white and heterosexual in this country) that we live in a bubble of privilege. To claim that we live in a “color blind” society, is to ignore who we are and how we have always engaged “the other.” It is our responsibility to have the ruthless honesty to see ourselves for who we are, and thus provide the possibility for moving beyond that.
A next step is to actively seek to engage, and build relationships with those whom our society “others.” This process requires great intentionality. It requires us leaving our comfort of our bubble (whatever that bubble looks like), and really building relationships with those who come from different places, who may look different, and speak differently, and may believe different things. This is what made S-Town such a gift.
A recent Atlantic magazine article on S-Town was entitled, “A Monument to Empathy.” In that article, the author noted that “again and again, characters initially presented in caricature-like fashion by McLemore or another source get a chance to speak for themselves, and the liberal ideal of universal empathy and understanding gets applied on a granular scale.” The process of learning empathy is the process of building a world that works for all its people, and is ultimately the process of learning to be human.