Breaking White Solidarity: Desire for Redemption
Everyone wants to be forgiven for something in their lives. Only the most arrogant or pious among us would claim to not need forgiveness for some transgression in their lives. But when white people seek redemption for other white people, particularly those who have structurally or individually racist histories, what does that say to non-white people? And how does that relate to the ascending media redemption arc for Liz Cheney during her participation on the January 6th Special Committee?
A Word on This Series
As we wrestle with the consequences of the failed white nationalist coup attempt on January 6th, 2021, it becomes more imperative than ever that white people learn to break white solidarity. White solidarity is defined by Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, as “the tacit agreement that we [white people] will protect white privilege and not hold each other accountable for our racism.” (Beacon Press, 125) It can be as simple as letting racist jokes slide and as extreme as calling the police when feeling threatened by a non-white person. In the case of today’s essay, it can be willingly (or subconsciously) feeding a redemption arc for a person with a racist voting record. Every time a white person fails to call out privileged or racist behavior, it reinforces white solidarity on some level.
It is imperative that white people confront white supremacism in their lives at all levels. This article is the third in a series about breaking white solidarity. It is intended for white audiences, to investigate the ways in which we tolerate individual and systemic racism in our lives, and to investigate methods by which we can work effectively to remove individual and systemic racism to the best of our ability. Hopefully, there will also be an adjacent non-white audience here as well, seeing white people attempting to engage in hard discussions with other white people about the racists and supremacists among us. Today’s article was inspired by a series of conversations I had on social media about this very topic.
Liz Cheney: Then and Now
Liz Cheney has taken the spotlight as one of a few Republicans breaking party ranks to cooperate with the January 6th Special Committee, in contrast to the many Republican legislators and officials closing ranks around Trump, especially those being investigated for materially supporting the coup attempt. There is no question that her personal act, in this case, is an act of breaking white solidarity with the white nationalists within her party and should be a model for other Republicans looking to do the same.
But is this single act enough to make up for her actions prior to participating on the January 6th Special Committee? Cheney came into office very much on the coattails of her father, Dick Cheney, who made billions from war profiteering during both the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions and occupations. Her campaign was funded by that stolen money and succeeded with the support of many self-avowed white nationalists. She spent four years as a representative voting with Trump 93% of the time to move what many would consider a white nationalist agenda, the effects of which will be felt for decades, if not longer. Can all of that be wiped away by participation on one committee?
We’ve seen these kinds of redemption arcs happen before. The Republican Party has steadily drifted towards far-right, white nationalism since Ronald Reagan became president. Much of the groundwork necessary for Donald Trump to ever be considered for president was laid in the thirty years leading up to his presidential campaigns. Each part of the required groundwork moved the party further right. Many longtime Republicans have suddenly found themselves not recognizing their own party, and with much media fanfare, have come out as perceived renegades or mavericks, often being labeled as just the kind of bipartisanship this country needs. This phenomenon also happens within the Democratic Party, as in the case of Joe Lieberman who left because, in his eyes, the party had drifted too far left.
The motivations for these stands against one’s party fall into three distinct categories. First, the role of rotating villain: when one party member breaks rank to provide cover for their party’s larger political goals or to provide a veneer of party conflict. If it wasn’t for the very public falling out between Cheney and Trump, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to question whether Cheney’s involvement was simply an effort to stall long enough for a change in House leadership. It may not be unreasonable to consider that now, given the dismal outlook for the midterms and the painfully slow process to get to the results we’re seeing now.
The second category for standing against one’s party is quite simply, saving their own ass. This is the most likely scenario, not necessarily for any direct actions on Cheney’s part with regards to the January 6th Special Committee, but to save her political reputation given her enabling of Trump’s agenda. She’s certainly paid for it back in Wyoming, where that white nationalist support has shifted to her primary challenger, but with the right actions now, she can secure another career elsewhere.
The third category for standing against one’s party is the rarest: a genuine recognition of wrongdoing with a change of character. It is the most appealing and the most troubling of media narratives, and yet, a growing chorus of white voices from the center and right, and even a few self-avowed white liberals, have gone out of their way to recast this situation as Cheney’s noble stand for the soul of the Republican Party (which has been moving a far-right agenda), with a willingness to throw away her career (which was spent moving Trump’s agenda), that she was helpless to fight back until now (which is infantilizing about any woman serving in government), and that she’s the kind of bipartisanship we need, even some suggesting a run for president.
The redemption arc has a lot of appeal for right-wing voters who have grown uneasy with their party; it becomes an archetype for their own redemption for any taint from their previous support for Trump. The redemption arc, in this case, also reinforces the pathological bipartisanship of centrists, who see Cheney as some sign of an appropriate political course correction. But what is the appeal to white liberals who insist on promoting this redemptive narrative? And why are so many white people from across the spectrum willing to look past her entire racist record to praise her for doing what any politician should be doing with regards to an attempted coup? Because that willingness to not hold her accountable for her actions, to even make her a political hero in this moment, is a massive act of white solidarity.
Individuals and Actions
We believe in redemption arcs largely on how we view redemption in our lives. White people have largely been influenced by their culture, which in the United States is based largely on Christian notions of morality, particularly when it comes to ideas of forgiveness. Two ideals influence a lot of white culture: the notion we should “hate the sin, love the sinner” and that forgiveness “wipes away our past sins”. Both notions are not direct quotes from the Bible, but are concepts distilled from the whole of Christian theology. Both are also examples of the cognitive dissonance of white people with regards to redemption arcs for other white people.
“Hate the sin, love the sinner” is a wholly appropriate concept for a parent/child relationship. Children are in their formative states and lack the same control over their actions as adults. We understand children will make mistakes, which we correct out of love for that child, and that helps us to separate the action from the individual. This is a wholly inappropriate model for an adult/adult relationship and doubly inappropriate for a citizen/representative relationship. When adults commit harmful or hurtful actions, we expect them to take responsibility for their actions and to make some form of restitution. We expect this even more from our politicians; it is precisely what is being sought by the January 6th Special Committee.
White people want to separate the sin from the sinner, the action from the individual, to judge each part objectively and independently. But this is a willful act of cognitive dissonance, to separate the person from their actions. This is doubly true when white people say that you can separate people from their politics, which are perhaps the most important of all actions we take. This expectation within white culture to separate the action from the individual, which we champion as Christian forgiveness, is a clear example of white privilege.
We see examples of this ideology in right-wing media portrayals of shooters like Dylan Roof, Kyle Rittenhouse, or Payton Gendron, infantilizing white men as children or transferring their sins to their parents or blaming mental health issues. We see it within our own families when we tolerate racist family members and their politics, even when those politics directly hurt ourselves and the people we care about. And we can see it, perhaps most appropriately, in individuals who carry guilt for acts of individual or systemic racism, desperately wanting to separate themselves from their actions. Perhaps this collective expectation of forgiveness is even driven by a larger social subconscious desire to be redeemed for the social evils of slavery, segregation, and racism.
Actions and Consequences
The second major ideology that fuels these redemption arcs is another shallow form of Christian forgiveness, one that “wipes the slate clean”. Most Christian theologians, clergy, and believers, when pushed, will acknowledge that a more complete form of forgiveness also includes genuine regret, a pure intention to change, and appropriate restitution. But if you push those same individuals further, they will say the regret and intention are necessary, but the restitution is not. It is a belief that we can separate the consequences from the actions which caused them, a second form of cognitive dissonance within white culture.
We’re not just talking about individuals and their actions. Even when we judge an action, we are actually looking at three different parts of that action: the intention in performing the action, the action itself, and the consequences of that action. A shallow notion of Christian forgiveness, one which focuses solely on the intentions or the action while disregarding the consequences, is an attempt to separate actions from their consequences. We can create situations where good intentions and/or good actions have bad consequences, but even then, there is an expectation that one takes responsibility for those consequences. But if an act of forgiveness wipes the slate clean, then the forgiven person is no longer responsible for providing restitution for those consequences.
If we can rationalize our way into separating the individuals from their actions, then we can also rationalize our way into separating actions from their consequences. We lose all meaningful connection between an individual and their actions, and between actions and their consequences. This is what we’re seeing happen in this ascending redemption arc for Liz Cheney, a willful ignorance of her past actions in return for her participation on the January 6th Select Committee, and a growing round of praise for someone who was clearly indirectly complicit in laying the groundwork for the coup. We see this writ large when white liberals ignore or look past the conservative votes of their friends and family. In both cases white people are willfully ignoring the actions and consequences of other white people’s voting. In many ways, this cognitive dissonance is the basis for much of the white solidarity we see every day in our society, and our continuing avoidance as a group for making restitution for the great social evils of slavery and segregation.
Dangers of Redemption Arcs
There are two major dangers for promoting these kinds of unmerited redemption arcs. Media redemption arcs are often fueled by this cognitive dissonance. By placing a spotlight on Liz Cheney’s actions right now as part of the January 6th Special Committee, the media is often willfully taking a spotlight away from her complicit behavior leading up to January 6th and her structurally racist record. Social media enhances that narrative by placing emphasis on her perceived sacrifices or by placing our own subconscious needs for redemption into what we as white people perceive to be social progress within Liz Cheney herself.
It is important to challenge these ascending redemption arcs to remind ourselves and others about exactly all those actions for which these individuals are seeking (or being provided) redemption. Because whatever our intentions or actions may have been, if Liz Cheney is provided redemption, or worse, forgiveness for the consequences of her actions, without any restitution for the consequences of her actions, then we are engaging in an incredibly large act of white solidarity by not holding her accountable for her past racism. We are separating the sin from the sinner and wiping her slate clean.
Embracing this redemption arc also brings serious dangers to the Democratic Party, both internally and externally. Externally, every single one of these redemption arcs for right-wing politicians pushes the Democratic Party further to the right. The perceived courage in Liz Cheney standing up to her party becomes a blueprint for what the media believes to be the new political center, which many would argue is not 93% in line with Trump’s agenda. When we give support for this rightward re-centering effort, we get the likes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema elected who become right-wing roadblocks for all progress.
Internally, non-white and/or left-wing members within the party see it as a betrayal to watch their alleged liberal and centrist allies go out of their way to praise a white, right-wing politician who pushed structurally racist policies and legislation. Only white people see it as a bizarre sign of political maturity to separate the actions from the individual, or the actions from their consequences, because we have a pervasive cultural cognitive dissonance when it comes to redemption and forgiveness. While I was discussing this topic with white people online, two individuals went out of their way to prove this separation was possible by praising Trump for actions they agreed with. One even went so far as to praise Hitler for his stance towards animals.
It is important for white people to challenge other white people who insist on buying into these redemption arcs, ideally by exposing the cognitive dissonance at work. We should understand when white people insist upon giving “objective praise” to remind them that non-white people will likely perceive it to be “objective praise of racists”. We cannot objectively praise the actions of an individual without praising the individual themselves. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is a lot easier to swallow than “Hate the racism, love the racist”, especially when the enemy is white nationalism and there is no expectation of restitution for the evil they have perpetrated. It shouldn’t surprise us that the right continues to grow when we’re pathologically inclined, as white people, to forgive them and never hold them accountable for the consequences of their actions.
The media loves a good redemption arc, especially for right-wing politicians. Unfortunately, the same politicians are often complicit in giving rise to the conditions which lead to disaster, or in the case of Liz Cheney, supporting Trump’s agenda 93% of the time as a representative. Her actions prior to the January 6th Special Committee included many structurally and directly racist votes, the consequences of which will be felt for decades. Our willingness as white people to separate the individual from their actions and actions from their consequences provides a rationale to support these redemption arcs. It is a large act of white solidarity and we should challenge it.
I must make it clear that I do believe Liz Cheney is doing the right thing, but I also believe it is the duty of every politician to do whatever it takes to expose the attempted coup, whether or not they helped create the conditions for it in the first place. I don’t think we should be giving disproportionate praise to Liz Cheney for participating because that requires ignoring her past voting record. It will take a lot more than one or two acts that we should expect from all politicians right now. Once she’s accepted responsibility for her actions, and made restitution for the consequences of her actions, then we should offer up a redemption arc narrative, precisely because she will have done the work of redemption herself and we’ll be able to recognize it. Otherwise, we’re giving her redemption without restitution. Liz Cheney, and any other politician seeking redemption, shouldn’t be given a redemption arc; they should earn it, not by doing what should be expected, but by repairing the damage they have caused. As I said before, what Liz Cheney is doing on the January 6th Special Committee is an act of breaking white solidarity, but our willingness to support a redemption arc based on this action alone, while overlooking her past actions and without the expectation of restitution, can itself also be an act of white solidarity.
Breaking white solidarity is a necessary step for white people to confront the ideologies of white supremacy in our lives. Confronting these ideologies enables us to begin understanding what drives them, to begin dismantling this cognitive dissonance about individuals, actions, and their consequences, and to repair the damage to non-white individuals caused by this dissonance within society. We cannot champion shallow notions of forgiveness and redemption because the price is the betrayal of those who have been affected by the very people we are forgiving and redeeming. If we are not holding racist politicians accountable for their records, then we are tacitly approving the actions that were taken. We must break that solidarity in all its forms.
Here are links to previous entries in this series
Breaking White Solidarity: A Social Imperative
The start of a new series of articles on breaking white solidarity and why it is more important than ever before.