I’ll never forget where I was sitting, and what I was thinking, when I first felt pity — rather than anger — for a bigot.
This was back at the College of Charleston. I was head over heels for a girl named Kim at the time, and we would hang out at her place or in the little bar where she worked. Perhaps it was the heady excitement of being in love that put me in a forgiving mood, or maybe it was something I’d picked up in a class, or just me finally getting around to understanding what most people know already.
A few guys walked into the bar, and one of them used a racial slur, and it was so nonchalant, so brazen, without an ounce of remorse or even self-awareness, and instead of seeing this guy, for some reason I saw his upbringing. I saw his peers, his parents, the South, the hard divide of Calhoun Street, Confederate flags, this entire support structure beneath him.
It was weird, the complete lack of judgement I felt. It wasn’t the same as forgiving someone, but it was close. My thought was: how do you blame a fish for not knowing how to fly?
Have you ever seen someone parked like this:
When I saw cars parked like this, I used to assume the driver was oblivious, perhaps even unempathic for their fellow drivers. How could someone be so unaware of their impact, however minor, on the world around them?
And then, one day, I had to park beside a car like the one above, because the other half of the neighboring spot was also encroached, and there were no other spots left. So I parked straddling a line, just like the other two cars. Walking away from the space, I turned and saw our cars like that, and it hit me: What if the other two drivers come out and leave? My car will be left looking just like the one above. The revelation that followed was this:
It probably wasn’t the other drivers’ faults either.
One car parks a little too close to the line, which cascades throughout the day, until people are parking in what looks like a rude manner. But it’s not anyone’s fault, really.
It’s not just ugly behaviors that are built up in this way. Some of our most beautiful creations employ support structures that are no longer around to admire and to demystify the building process. I’ve always loved arches and bridges, ever since I was a little kid. I remember learning about the keystones at the tops of arches that hold them all together, and they seemed magical to me. Heavier than air, and pushing down, but somehow holding everything up!
What hurt my head was trying to figure out how those stones were put into place to begin with. Before the keystone is there, what’s doing the keystone’s job? Why doesn’t the arch fall down as the builders are trying to erect it? Because the rest of the arch is holding the keystone in place, just as surely as the keystone is propping up the rest. The whole is needed. As a kid, I imagined a bunch of workers all holding stones above their heads at the same time. Because I didn’t know anything about scaffolding.
When you see how things are built from simpler support structures, so much of the magic of what — at first — seemed impossible disappears. But the loss is fleeting, because it’s replaced with the magic of human ingenuity. Or the magic of seeing root causes and how things come to be.
There are different types of scaffolding everywhere. Once you start looking for them, you can’t stop seeing them. Any temporary support structure qualifies. Some of these structures are just ideas, or theories. Some are environmental influences. Once they’re gone, or not seen, we can be left with confusion or wonder when the story is so much simpler.
The Egyptian pyramids befuddled those who don’t see scaffolding. Scientific progress can do the same. And so can technology.
The same semester that I was learning to see scaffolding — and to understand bigotry and poor parking — I was in an anthropology class. We had to write a paper on the Clovis point tradition, which was a dominant style of flintknapping that spread through the Americas (I think. It’s been a while). Being the smartass that I am, I wrote a paper instead on how poorly we understand human history when we focus only on the things that remain. Archaeology becomes a study of the hardy, the things that last. We don’t appreciate how minor a role those things play. The millions of iterations of wood, clay, leaf, and twine tools are lost to us.
Take the time to watch this entire video (it’s the best part of this stupid blog post):
A few hundred years later, what will be left of this primitive forge will be some metal ingots and that single stone tool used to split the wood. A college student will write about a people who threw spears at animals. The rest of the tools are gone.
Without seeing the scaffolding, we can’t understand primitive man any more than we can understand bigotry. This guy playing with the elements around him, and using just his noggin, his tinkering, and what he knows (or thinks) to be possible, is discovering more about ancient man than a thousand people digging in the dirt and pulling up rocks.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the video is that it dispels the notion that our current technology would take generations and generations to reproduce if we started from scratch with only our collective wisdom. Here is a case where we understand that scaffolding exists (you have to make wood tools, to make stone tools, to make metal tools, to make better and better metal tools), but we overestimate the complexity of the scaffolding. Or we underestimate human ingenuity. I’d wager that two dozen of the right men and women could build a simple electrical computer out of nothing within a year. And I’m being conservative. If they pulled it off in three months, I wouldn’t be shocked. Yeah, that means making batteries, dynamos, wire, and glass.
Primitive man had almost nothing but time and cleverness, and these are a potent mix. What arises at the end might seem miraculous, but only because we miss all the support structures along the way. The storehouse of knowledge is by far the most important technological tool, and in the time before writing this was the most ephemeral scaffolding of them all.
Where we most need an awareness of scaffolding is in controversial topics, the ones where emotions run hot. Like the poorly parked car, it’s easier to judge what we see than it is to look for what’s missing. When that college student walked into the bar, using language that normally drove me to anger, all the fungible elements that built him up are gone. Seeing those, in the casualness of his peers, allowed me to approach him from a place of understanding. Empathy is held by flying buttresses such as these. We need them to hold up the often thin and brittle walls that make up our compassion for those we disagree with.
Religion is an example. As I moved away from religion and toward science, I became bitter and judgemental of the former. How can people believe some of this dogma, especially if it’s built on hate? And how can religious thought ever hope to understand the natural world, when science does it so much better?
But for a long time, religious ideas were the most sensible with the data at hand. And for a primitive people whose populations were tenuous, rules to force procreation made a lot of sense (don’t masturbate, don’t be gay, don’t use contraceptives). Where the scaffolding pushes some of these systems can seem insane many iterations later, but a more studied look usually shows a natural process. This search for origins is done without judgement one way or the other on the outcome; that is separate. But in what better way do you think we can bridge understanding with those who are straddling parking lines, perhaps feeling foolish but also justified in their position, knowing quite well how they got there, or perhaps not knowing that any other option exists?
It’s always better to discover the root causes of things. We might learn that many of our biases are wrong (the driver of the car above might not deserve our shaming). We might also be able to reach out to someone in a compassionate manner. When you remove the blaming aspects of judgement, you provide an opening for people to change. Blame causes entrenchment. Most people know that they are good, and so they employ cognitive dissonance to justify their handful of poor features. But when those things are not their fault, it’s far easier to get rid of them. We often just need an opening, a way to bow out gracefully.
Often we are begging for a way to alter our circumstances, to apologize, to change our minds on a divisive topic. But the space is not being made for us to move to the position we long to take, or to heal wounds with someone we love. It sucks to say that the onus can be on the people who are hurt, rather than the people doing the hurting, or that the onus can be on the person with the more sound position, rather than the person whose mores need updating, but this is often the case.
Scaffolding needs to be erected to help prop up the person who is at fault. And while the person who is under the shaky arch feels like they’re the one who needs saving, often their feet are on solid ground enough to help erect that scaffolding.
I can think of times that I was angry at someone I loved for an unjustified reason, and even when I realized that I was in the wrong, I felt like I needed to hold on to that anger to make sense of my initial reaction. All the emotinal responses and triggers, all the words exchanged and the little annoyances of the day, were gone. I was left in a strange place, like that car straddling the line, and I had to make sense of this plus the feeling that I’m a good person. All it might take is a loved one pointing out that it’s been a long day, or that they know work has been tough, or that they know someone just needs their morning coffee, and suddenly you have a way down. A reason besides the fact that you were being a shit for a little bit. Just enough to be able to admit you were being a shit, apologize, save face, and move on.
For understanding people, ourselves, history, and technology, nothing is as powerful as a grasp of the temporary support structures that make things possible before disappearing from view. I see the shadows of them everywhere. I feel how they created the good and bad in me and others. It’s hard, of course, to see things that aren’t there. But it’s so rewarding, comforting, and illuminating when we try.
Oh, before you go, check this insanity out: