December 21st, 2009
Recently I listened to an interview with sociologist Richard Sennett he said some things which explain well why certain musicians make me cringe.
His comments came in the context of an elaboration of his views on cities. Sennett thinks of cities as confluences of cultures and places that help people grow as they are confronted with others who are different culturally. Sennett has an “insistence on the moral value of public life” upon which he elaborates. I have italicized the bits most relevant to this discussion.
Narrator: This value, for him, depends on our being able to encounter those who are different than ourselves at a certain distance. For it is only when we maintain this distance, he says, that we can experience what he calls “sympathy”, a word that he uses in a very particular way.
Sennett: To understand what this term is, you have to contrast sympathy to empathy. And empathy is a state of feeling for the pain of another. Because they’re suffering. The Christian visitor who goes amongst the poor because these poor wretches are in such need. Sympathy is a momentary attempt to imagine what somebody else is feeling. This is Adam Smith’s famous Theory of Moral Sentiments – all founded on this; that I try and make sense of what you’re feeling for yourself without imagining that I am you. I have this other thing, I try and say, “OK, you’ve got issues”, as my kids would say. “You’ve got issues and I see that you’ve got issues and I’m trying to understand what they are but they’re not my issues.”
And it seems to me that in complex communities where people are very different this kind of relationship where you try, not to get inside the skin of somebody else, but imagine why they’re saying to you what they’re saying without identifying with them is a foundation for an ethical order.
I give you a very good example of this. In race relations, I think we do something like the Christian moral visitor when we say about the problems of poor blacks, “God, I know what you must have felt. You poor thing, what can I do to help?” It’s a form of condescension. Or kids, you know, bourgeoisie white kids behaving like ghetto youth. It’s actually a form of condescension. The better thing is to say, “You know, I don’t really get it. I’m gonna try and understand what it’s like for you, why you say what you do, but I’m not gonna make any pretense that that’s me or I can really get it. But I’ll make that effort of what Smith calls the “dispassionate spectator” just to see if I could make more sense of you so we can communicate more.” That in my view is a more respectful way for people to deal with cultural difference than, as it were, to consume it.
While I’ve never defined “sympathy” in this way, I have always approached the music of non-white, non-middle class people in this manner. Sennett doesn’t address this but, for me, his idea of being sympathetic made me think of how my first glances at white hip-hop musicians/rappers as well as at white blues musos such as Susan Tedeschi always produce a gut feeling saying that they’re inauthentic. They can apprehend a style of music but they can never get inside the culture which spawned it and I have a difficult time getting past the posturing of white rappers and middle-class whites being placed in a lineage that includes Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. It’s the pretenses that bug me – the idea that some white person from a good home can tap into the mindset of an inner city black kid or a sharecropper from rural Mississippi.
There are certainly some grey areas and I think one can argue that playing a certain type of music doesn’t necessarily mean that you view yourself as being part of the culture that gave rise to that genre of music. So where does the condescension begin?
That’s a tough one. Eric Clapton, to his credit, has said in the past that he’s not a bluesman but tries to pay tribute to the real deal in his own music. (Though Me and Mr. Johnson can make this claim seem mighty disingenuous.) But hearing Matisyahu get above his raising by affecting a Jamaican accent seems condescending to me. He’s not just reveling in reggae, he comes across as actually trying to portray himself as someone that he most certainly is not.
Perhaps at some point any given style of music and its attendant mannerisms, slang, etc. move into the public domain beyond the culture from which it sprang. When rap music left the ghettos and entered white suburbia, maybe there was an ur-condescension of some sort which moved it out of inner city culture and into the mainstream for all to get their hands on it. Or do all cultural artifacts in some way belong in perpetuity to the cultures that made them?