Tim Dowling captures something that had been vaguely bugging me for some time but that I could not quite put my finger on, and that is the way that some people in the US, when someone in their organization is exposed as doing something outrageous or criminal, are quick to say “This is not who we are”.
This has become quite common as a way to avoid taking collective responsibility for a systemic problem. It is usually followed by the other cliché, that the wrong acts were the work of a ‘few bad apples’. The question that they should be asking themselves is what is wrong about our orchard that so many apples go bad?
“This is not who we are.” So said Oklahoma University’s president, David Boren, after fraternity members were filmed chanting racist epithets on a coach. The leadership of the fraternity in question, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, released a statement that said, among other things: “This is absolutely not who we are.”
Both assertions echo President Obama’s reaction to the CIA torture report published late last year: “This is not who we are.” Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, said exactly the same thing in 2013 while apologising for years of systematic torture of suspects by the city’s police: that may have been who we were, he seemed to be saying, but that’s not who we are. Recent reports that the Chicago police department operates its own CIA-style black site suggest it’s not all in the past.
Obama liked to use this construction even before he became president. In a 2007 speech on Iraq he said: “A war to disarm a dictator has become an open-ended occupation of a foreign country. This is not America. This is not who we are.”
I can see this is a catchy way to encapsulate outrage, to address the gap between American ideals and American realities. But used over and over again, in response to depressingly similar situations, it begins to sound merely self-exculpatory, if not completely delusional. It’s like handing over your CV at a job interview and saying: “This is not who I am, by the way.”
As an American living abroad, I sometimes find it convenient to distance myself from injustices that happened while I was minding my own business on another continent. But it’s hard not to look at these incidents – and many others besides – without being forced to acknowledge: this is sort of who we are.
The Daily Show had a great segment on one particular manifestation of this practice, the way people seem to go out of their way to deny that racism is a serious, lasting problem in the US.
(This clip aired on March 11, 2015. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)