The long habit of not thinking a thing is wrong

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

Each visit to the beautiful museum the Southern Ute community has built in Ignacio to portray its long history brings to mind questions that are similar to those I have when I visit family and childhood friends in the South. I am puzzled at how one group of people can demonize and mistreat another less powerful group over long periods of time.

It seems unnatural for people – for the most part good, hard-working citizens – to mistreat another group of people without being aware that what they are doing is wrong. It is difficult to understand why it took so long to recognize that something as terrible as slavery was wrong.

For people living during those periods, the status quo was accepted. It had the feeling of being right or normal. Even as a young child in North Carolina, I sensed the racial divide, but I don’t recall thinking something could be done to change it.

In Thomas Paine’s 1776 essay “Common Sense,” he advised the colonists that “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” Paine was trying to spark the American Revolution by breaking through a long-held habit of thought.

There were Paines trying to get us to see the evils of slavery and segregation, of course, but custom is hard to break; and it was a long, difficult road to a consensus that inequity is damaging to the democratic urge.

It raises other questions. What long-held habits today are we blindly clinging to? A famous political cartoon from the 1990s depicts a Native American chieftain looking out across the Atlantic as the Mayflower approaches shore. He is holding a sign that reads: “Aliens Go Home.” It remains a reminder of the immigration issues that have been hard to resolve in part because of human fear and political opportunists preying on those fears.

And there are the gender issues like sexual harassment, sexual orientation, same sex marriage and women’s rights. The equity issue as related to women has had a long and bumpy road; but those issues have come into a sharper focus and become better understood over the last half-century. And yet, the right of a woman to control her own reproductive issues is still unresolved. Extremists have killed physicians associated with family planning clinics over abortion. Always the extremists!

In parts of the world, women can be stoned to death within the law for a sexual indiscretion. Then there is Malala Yousafzai, the brave Pakistani schoolgirl who had the audacity to speak out for educational equality for boys and girls. Extremists shot her. She was breaking through a long-held habit of not thinking a thing wrong.

In Colorado Springs, there is a self-described “family values” organization that has settled the problem of men and women disagreeing. Husbands and wives should sit down together, it helpfully instructs, and quietly discuss the issues. When the discussion has been completed, the man must carefully weigh all the sticking points. And then he makes the absolute and final decision. We are told it is God’s will. Scripture is often used to trump reason.

This is a reflection of what can happen when those long-held habits of not thinking a thing wrong infuse family life. Finally, we gained laws prohibiting a husband from striking his wife, at least in western culture. But it is still legal to strike our children. And certain places in the scriptures say it’s OK. Who are we to argue with that?

The separation of state and church is still a vital principle of democracy; and yet there are many who question the issue of keeping prayer out of public schools or religious holiday scenes out of the public squares. The ministers of my childhood community, my father among them, bemoaned the growing fad of abbreviating the word Christmas to Xmas. Change makes us uncomfortable.

Our opinions and beliefs are frequently skewed to our own particular biases. It is difficult to change our “long-held habits” especially if we consider them our privileges. “Everything is OK. Leave it alone.” Doug Muder, a blogger who writes regularly for the magazine Unitarian Universalist World, calls it “privileged distress.” He lists a number of examples, such as the writer to the Wall Street Journal who recently characterized the campaign to wipe out sexual assault in the armed forces as a “war on men,” which shows signs “of becoming an effort to criminalize male sexuality.” It would be interesting to know what privileges the writer thought he was losing.

Muder observes that distress among the privileged can happen as society progresses toward justice; and those enjoying certain advantages feel worse off as they lose some of them. Wealthy individuals, as an example are perfectly happy, until it is suggested that fair tax rates should be imposed. When our advantages shrink, we feel distressed.

How many political groups and ideas have we affiliated ourselves with because of the discomfort we feel over what we perceive as changes in the privileges we enjoy. The arc of justice is not about maintaining status quo.

And how easy is it for the privileges we enjoy to strengthen our resistance to change. Or to lead us into the temptations of the convoluted ideas of the Ayn Rands of the world, or for the anti-government sentiments of the 1850s Know-Nothing Party or the 1990s tea party anomaly.

Perhaps “privileged distress” contributes to our inability to recognize that something like slavery or segregation is wrong. When our comfort zones are threatened and some of our privileged positions are in danger of being lost, it can be uncomfortable.

Paine understood that as he helped create a nation.

Ralph Blanchard, of Durango, is a retired naval officer and former consultant to the Pentagon on issues related to military families and their support systems. Reach him at blanchard@

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