Perspective: Walt Whitman can teach us how to overcome prejudice

Poet Walt Whitman was a radical egalitarian who pushed pleasure over prohibition.
Poet Walt Whitman was a radical egalitarian who pushed pleasure over prohibition.
Published Nov. 13, 2015

Everyone is afraid of being sexist or racist, or being branded as such. No one wants to offend members of the LGBT community. It almost seems to be the goal of many people's lives now not to offend anyone, ever.

I see the point. I'm on board. But I think the usual motives behind "do not offend" injunctions are almost entirely backward. Worse, the more we emphasize not giving offense, the more likely we are to miss bad behavior that is a lot more serious than a vulgar word or a painful joke.

The problem is, we are approaching questions of race and gender and sexuality by way of the negative: words we are not supposed to say, gestures we are not supposed to make. Don't cross the street to avoid passing a young black man. Don't smile at the latest in lesbian couture. Commit no micro-aggressions. Don't laugh at Chris Rock's jokes.

When I signed on to being a Walt Whitman-inspired democrat in the 1970s, I decided, among other things, that I'd quit getting down on people for being who they were: gay or straight, black or yellow or brown, male or female or in between. But I didn't make this vow — which I admit I didn't fulfill completely then — out of guilt. What Whitman taught me, a white, working-class guy from around Boston, had very little to do with thou-shalt-nots. It had to do with openness, the kind that makes humans happy, or at least happier.

Whitman was a radical egalitarian: "No stander above men and women or apart." Instead of prohibitions, he pushed pleasure. He was curious. He was friendly. He understood, I think, that the basis for lasting social change wasn't so much a hunger for justice and fairness but the feeling that as different as we are, we all compose one being.

"I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, / Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, / Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, / Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff / That is fine, / One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same."

He was above all practical: The best reason to put away hostility isn't to be a goody-goody or to placate your super-ego but to contribute a little something to making life better for you and everyone else.

Don't be this! Don't be that! Let's replace those dictates with what Whitman prescribes: Be friendly. Try to be open. Learn from other people. Treat them fairly. Don't let prejudices get in the way of a good time.

I understand that friendliness isn't going to solve our major social problems by itself. It's not going to cut the knot of mass incarceration, or income disparity, or make our schools better on its own. But when I hear Hillary Rodham Clinton say, "I don't believe you change hearts, I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate," I think, "Wrong." Laws change because hearts have been changed when people see that decency is tied to pleasure.

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What prevents us from behaving Whitman's way? Here's a guess: If all you have to do to be "good" is to not be overtly sexist and racist and to not stigmatize gay people in public, then it's pretty easy. Just zip it at the right time.

You can still buy plenty of stuff. You can live in a big house. You can go on spiffy vacations. You can send your kids to an Ivy League college. You don't have to vote to pay more taxes so that black kids and brown kids and poor white kids can go to better schools. You don't have to help pick up the tab for day care so a low-income mom can take a few classes, or just take a break. You really don't have to do a thing but mind your manners and watch your mouth.

If you're white, you might also be inclined to avoid various people, lest you offend them. You can segregate yourself and segregate them. Is that a great result?

I believe there are such things as micro-aggressions. Turning to a young black woman you just met and expressing surprise at the fact that in high school she was on the tennis team or in the chess club isn't right. That's a micro-aggression. But "micro" is the word. It calls for a genially tart comeback, not an Internet campaign.

People now seem to believe that when they hear something that smacks of prejudice, they are encountering the tip of an iceberg. Maybe. I'm more inclined to think that people, and especially young people, are shifting and inconsistent in their identities. They are unformed and forming.

Whitman (and I) have a simple message: If people are truly going to get along, we need to ask something better of them than verbal hygiene, basic manners and subservience to the political super-ego. They have to give themselves to openness and friendliness: liberation, a good time, and maybe even some joy.

Mark Edmundson is an English professor at the University of Virginia. His latest book is "Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. © 2015 Los Angeles Times