Exceptionalism and Principles

In my day job advising MBAs pursuing consulting careers, I give a lot of students practice interviews, especially case interviews. A typical case interview presents a hypothetical business/client problem and asks the student to lay out a structured approach to the problem. So far, so good. At some point in some cases, however, the student is expected to make some assumptions. There can be a fine line between reasonable generalizations and pernicious stereotypes; this is one of the challenges/injustices facing algorithmic advertising. If an entity knows my income, education, homeownership status and credit score, they might plausibly display a different set of products and services to me than to someone who fits into a different demographic category. This could further reify bifurcations of society, both actual and perceived: if I know that I’m shown different ads from my farming neighbors, it becomes easier for either of us to believe that the game is rigged, that secret forces are treating us differently without wanting us to know. In a consumerist society, hyper-segmentation of customers might contribute to the erosion of democracy/communal ethos almost as much as unreliable news.

I’m interested in exceptions (and being exceptional). I think one of my strengths is a knack for articulating and identifying potential exceptions to the group’s assumptions or alternate interpretations of initial data, leading to more robust strategies and ideas. People who adopt a minority religion in a repressive environment (such as the Baha’i South Carolinians described in “No Jim Crow Church” by Louis Venters) are exceptional in such a way. A German immigrant, Margaret Klebs, and numerous attorneys (Louis Gregory, Alonzo Twine) were a part of the community, which became the largest minority religion in the state. Though the community never grew very large, it seems clear that it had an impact, creating a community that was local and committed to desegregation. I don’t pretend to know much about the Baha’i faith, but I appreciated the focus on personal morality, oneness of humanity, and anti-materialism that were described in this text. Additionally, I appreciated the reminder that when we speak in terms of generalities such as “the views of religious people in the South” we gloss over diversity and complexity, presenting a frequent or most common profile as a universal descriptor.

In a related elision, there seems to me to be a categorical difference between those who actively choose to die rather than reject an element of their faith, and those who are killed because of religious conflict, but were not given the option of conversion. Not that one category has moral superiority or is a greater tragedy, but I might call the first category “active” or “voluntary” and the second “passive” martyrs. “Martyrs and Martyrologies,” Vol. 30 of the periodical Studies in Church History, covers several examples of both. While some of the “Kakure kurishitan” (Christians in Japan) were hanged, John Kensit protested ritualism in the Church of England and was killed when a protester threw a file that struck him in the head in 1902. I’m not sure that he expected to die for his cause- even more so was Guinefort the Greyhound. The connection to Christianity was tenuous at best: a knight had gone hunting and left his infant in the care of the dog. When he returned and saw the nursery in a shambles and the dog with a bloody mouth, he killed Guinefort. When he turned over the crib, he discovered his child alive and the body of a dead snake, proving that the dog had protected the child after all. Regretting their decision, the family erected a shrine to Guinefort, and locals began to pray for miracles there, beginning the legend of “Saint Guinefort.” I’m sure the papacy wouldn’t have approved of such informal canonization, but it highlights how fine the line can be between praying to the spirits of a particular place and praying to a saint for intercession (though as a dog-lover, I could well imagine a dog’s intercession being more effective than a human’s).

I cannot pithily articulate those causes or beliefs for which I would lay down my life, but I hope to spend more time thinking about them. If we are unwilling to take any risks or pay any price for our beliefs, we have acceded to simple survival and comfort as our highest objectives. This goes for a country as well; we must have values that are even more important than our citizens’ wealth and safety, and be willing to accept the risks that go along with defense of those values. Active martyrs and the Baha’i of South Carolina understood this.

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