I was still half-asleep as I stepped out to the end of our driveway to retrieve our empty recycling bin, when a strange conversation began. 

An older (than me) gentleman was walking by, stopped, and began to talk. He was pleasant, so I thought the polite thing would be to have a chat. (It’s the kind of thing we retired old fogeys do.) 

I thought we’d talk about the lovely weather, and we did, briefly. 

But then he began to tell me about what ails and has been ailing the world. 

White people

I quickly woke up (in the old sense of “woke”). 

Like many folks I’ve known, this gentleman saw things as black and white. But his black-and-white view had a woke twist (in the new sense of “woke”): he saw things in terms of white versus non-white. Everything bad was the fault of white people. White people are orcs (my words). 

I listened politely. 

But then it was my turn to speak. 

I politely reminded him of the following (well, some of the following, not all of the following; it was early morning after all, and my coffee hadn’t kicked in). 

Yes, many white people have done much bad, for sure, and that’s wrong, for sure. No argument from me against these points. 

But, I added, we should remember that non-whites have done bad things, too. 

(Note: This wasn’t an attempt to say two-wrongs-make-a-right; it’s an attempt to get history right, i.e., accurately. It’s not only white people who are the problem — it’s all people. As Christians would say, all have sinned and are prone to sin. All of us have a tendency to be orc-like.) 

For example: 

In other words, people throughout history, whether white or non-white, enslaved others — including people of their own skin colour. 

Also, whites should be given at least some credit, especially when they’re being dismissed, mistakenly, as a whole, as bad. (It turns out that sin-prone people can also do good.) 

For examples: 

  • The Japanese (non-whites) began war with the U.S. in 1941 (remember Pearl Harbor?) and wanted to dominate the world — and were well on their way to doing so until whites (and non-whites) pushed back. (Happily, I had recently viewed the movie Midway, so this was fresh in my memory).
  • In the U.S. civil war (1861-1865) at least 100,000 white soldiers fought and died in combat so Black slavery in the U.S. would end. (I can’t find the video interview, but I heard an American Black man say that his family, which included former slaves, saw this sacrifice from white people as sufficient reparation for slavery. If I find the interview, I’ll post it.)
  • In the late 1700s and early 1800s many white people in England (e.g., William Wilberforce and company) struggled for over fifty years to end Black slavery in the British Empire.

In addition, I noted, history is more complex than the mere race-versus-race binary. 

My point: Ideas besides race matter, too. 

Here are some examples of bad ideas not solely based on skin colour: 

  • Leninist-Stalinist-Marxist governments murdered millions of their own (white) people. Their idea of an atheist communist utopia justified such large-scale killing.
  • Mao Tse Tung’s Marxist government murdered millions of their own (non-white) people. Again, their idea of an atheist communist utopia justified such large-scale killing.
  • Nazis murdered millions. Their idea was that all non-Germans (whatever their colour) were inferior.
  • Aztecs murdered thousands of their (non-white) people in their temples. Their idea was that their gods needed to be satisfied.
  • (For further reading and substantiation, see “Remembering Communism” and “Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital.”)

On a more positive note, here are some examples of good ideas not solely based on skin colour: 

  • Chinese foot-binding (which cripples women) should be stopped. This idea began with some white missionaries (at least these missionaries were key players in promoting this idea).
  • Character is more important than skin colour. This idea is from the late Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • All people are made in the image of God and thus have equal and great moral worth, regardless of race, sex, age, culture, etc. This idea comes from Genesis (for more on how this idea developed over time, see this five-minute video in which agnostic Tom Holland tells N. T. Wright: “Why I changed my mind about Christianity”).

My new (old) friend quickly changed the subject and our conversation ended as pleasantly as it began. And he continued his stroll. 

I picked up the recycling bin, walked the 10 metres of our driveway back to our side door, and began to think of Bilbo’s words to Frodo. 

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

Yes, it is. But if my years of studying philosophy have taught me anything, it’s this: Cultural amnesia — forgetting the good as well as bad events and ideas of history — is more dangerous. 

And, I thought: Did I just have a conversation with Saruman?

Hendrik van der Breggen

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosopher who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada. One of his interests is and has been the history and philosophy of science. He is double vaccinated, is...