I think I’m a pretty good writer. (Okay, let’s cut the crap – I think I’m a really good writer.) But I’ve still got a lot of areas to work on. I over-focus on plot and under-focus on characters. I spend hours fiddling with sentence-level changes while my settings remain lifeless and nondescript. And, no doubt, I have other weaknesses in blind spots I don’t even know about.
I’m working on it. Trying to get better.
Tolkien was a truly great writer, but he had his own problems, including a tendency to write long, dull, over-descriptive passages. Frank Herbert was brilliant, but he was deathly allergic to humor. Herman Melville wrote gorgeous prose poetry when he wasn’t rambling on about the skeletal properties of baleen whales.
Everybody’s got their weaknesses.
The athletes at the Olympics must surely be among the best in the world. Do they believe they’re perfect? Of course not. (Otherwise why would they have coaches?) You don’t get to be the best in the world unless you’re hyperaware of your own strong and weak points. A relentless drive to improve presupposes imperfections to improve upon.
Or look at the great Christians of history: theologians, missionaries, monastics, comforters of the sick and hopeless. Did Martin Luther claim to be perfect, free of sin? Did Thomas Aquinas, or Thomas Merton? Does Pope Francis say that he never breaks a commandment? No, no, no, and no. They are great Christians partly because they know very well that they’re not immune to sin.
If I met a writer who said he was amazing at every aspect of writing, that he didn’t need to improve at all, my first thought would be amateur. If I met a Christian who claimed to be without sin, I’d think they were confused about what “Christian” means.
We all know that nobody’s perfect – at anything. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a simple fact of life.
Why, then, does anyone, anywhere say that they’re “not racist at all”? Or, as Ivanka Trump recently claimed of her father, “colorblind”? (The latter term has its own problems, but let’s charitably assume that by “colorblind” she meant “not at all racially biased.”)
Any psychologist will be happy to tell you that the human mind is not a straightforward rational machine. We are full of biases of every kind – about people, about cars, about varieties of vegetables, about regions and religions, about driving habits, about childrearing philosophies, about anything you can imagine.
There are ways to (partially) overcome these biases, but it’s extraordinarily difficult and takes a huge amount of effort. No method has yet been discovered to eliminate bias from the human brain, whether we’re talking about the color of skin or the color of wallpaper. Straightening out your thinking is a staggeringly complex task. Doing so perfectly – not being racist at all (or sexist at all, or xenophobic at all) – amounts to a superhuman feat. So why do people keep saying they’ve done it?
Actually, I can answer that, because I used to think that I, myself, wasn’t racist at all.
I think I believed that racism was solely a conscious phenomenon. That is, because I wasn’t consciously aware of any racist ideas, they must not exist. Also, I had the idea that anyone who was at all racist must be bad, and I wasn’t bad, I was good, so surely I wasn’t like that. I didn’t see it as claiming perfection. I only saw it as claiming ordinary decency.
What I didn’t realize is that ordinary decent people still have racist tendencies, just like ordinary decent drivers still get in accidents and ordinary decent parents still yell at their kids sometimes. We’re just human.
This isn’t liberal guilt, because I don’t feel particularly guilty. This isn’t white-bashing; some of my best friends are white. It’s simple self-awareness.
Rereading this post, I notice that I gave seven examples above of great human beings, and all seven were men. You can debate exactly how or why that happened, but it is inescapably gender bias. The probability of that happening by chance is less than 1% (0.5^7 is about .0078). Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so. It just means that, as in every area of life, I have to be careful with my thoughts.
And if I ever write more than a thousand consecutive words about baleen whale skeletons, I want somebody to tell me politely but firmly that I have a problem.