Poor Pluto: reclassified from planet to mere ice body. Does Pluto care? It’s still a heavenly body, and it seems to have been content these past several billion years pushing along the rim of the solar system. No, it’s people who care. In the past week, I listened to a podcast and read a story that made me think about what lies behind our resistance to new information and ideas.
First there was the appearance by the astrophysicist and educator, Neil deGrasse Tyson, on a recent episode of the “Hot Ones” podcast series, whose gimmick is to have famous people submit to being interviewed while eating increasingly hot chicken wings. Toward the end of this exercise in masochism, Tyson says that when he and his colleagues removed Pluto’s status as planet, he got hate mail from third graders. Those third graders are now adults, and they still hate him.
The bits of information we collect at a young age turn into fixed points in our psyches. Nine planets revolving the sun, and “God’s in His heaven / All’s right with the world.” Eight planets? The solar system is going to hell in a handbasket. The uproar was doubly puzzling, considering that Pluto was named as a planet only in 1930, too late for Gustav Holst to write a movement for it in his Planets Suite (1914-1916). The nine-planet count lasted only seventy-six years, and yet long enough to win over several generations.
The brain goes through a lot as it acquires learning, but once the ideas have been absorbed, it finds in them comforting certainty. After that, the brain says it’s unfair to yank it out of that pleasant sanctuary and make it start over again.
Astronomy is one thing; social attitudes something else again. In a moving story by Richard North Patterson called “The Client,” the young lawyer narrator tells us about Sam Goldman, the elderly lawyer for whom he proudly works. Goldman is a family practice lawyer who did civil rights work in Alabama during the decade of the Kennedys and Governor Wallace. He says:
‘That was a shameful time, but our people have grown since then. People change, but sometimes you have to kick them in the butt.’
Soon after, the narrator tells the reader:
My own family had always implied that blacks would have evolved through the natural gentility of the better whites, without all this marching and disruption, which had just upset people, put their teeth on edge.
On the face of it, segregated bathrooms were a small thing, a few steps over there rather than here. The narrator’s white family apparently saw it that way. Of course, segregated bathrooms were probably less well-appointed and maintained, and they signaled inferiority. As Goldman tells his protégé: “‘They’d still be waiting to use the john marked ‘Colored only’ if they hadn’t raised some hell.’”
Racism isn’t over in Alabama any more than it is in New York, even if it might take different forms. In many parts of the South, racism is a code between neighbors; in the North, it’s often a separation between neighborhoods. At least it’s no longer accepted as a given.
A news item this week concerned an ongoing controversy over whether, during the 2016 election, the Democratic Party gave up on white working class voters in some states in the belief that they are racist. I can’t say if any part of that report is true. But assuming its accuracy for the sake of argument, it would suggest that the transition away from overt racism has been slower in some regions. Maybe employment and educational opportunities are limited there. Maybe the gap between rich and poor is more conspicuous. Nothing makes racism right, and no racist should take comfort in explanations. But the podcast and Patterson’s story got me wondering if we might look at lingering racists as in the grip of a neural Catch-22.
Like programming language with its binary code, our brains seem to want us to believe everything is one thing or the other, but not both. On the one hand, resistance to change keeps us on a course of continuity. Without continuity, there aren’t any standards, norms, morals. There’s no order. Without order, there’s no society. On the other, without openness to an ever-evolving society, a capacity to adapt to inevitable changes, there’s no civilization. Civilization is the culmination of many peoples, with their different ideas, traditions and tastes, accepting each other as equals. Preservation and flexibility, conservatism and liberalism. One without the other is stagnation or chaos.
Pluto’s discovery in 1930 was a wonder of astronomical observation. Its revised status in 2006 evidenced science’s taxonomic rigor. Can’t we embrace both? We really ought to demand that our brains do a better job of helping us work both sides of the many divides we encounter.
Note: Patterson’s “The Client” is the standout in an uneven collection, Legal Briefs: Stories by Today’s Best Legal Thriller Writers, edited by William Bernhardt (1998). Likewise, based on my brief sampling, Tyson’s interview, a triumph of urbanity over indignity, is the lone worthwhile episode in the Hot Ones podcast series.