Even old-school nature documentaries struggled with identifying what set human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. The narrator would begin by declaring “man, the tool maker.” Tool making, we understood, set us apart. And yet as the documentary progressed a chimpanzee would be filmed turning a leaf into a funnel and using it to extract ants from a tree. Unmistakable tool making, We were dished! Or were we?
The issue remained ambiguous and yet I believe that old idea was onto something. We are as imposed upon by biological imperatives as any other mammal, to be sure. We are capable of the same level of reflexive and sustained prejudice and violence as that exhibited by a group of territorial weasels. It is not physical tools which make us our best selves but rather the creation of intellectual constructs, tools of the mind such as the First Amendment, and adherence to principles such as non-violence and critical discourse, which elevate us over a state of nature.
In my view, faced with difficult times, with our best selves under pressure, these tools allow us to maintain our integrity and pass through the furnace without descending into simplification and baser means of confronting hate and injustice. When there is no recourse to these tools we are living in the worst of times indeed. Adhering to them while we still can, when it is hardest to do, when we need them most, is our most forceful means of preserving them.
Books are tools too, of course. Supple and remarkable ones. They are not best made to solve a problem, but rather to engage powerfully with a reader and provide the insight, context and subtle direction in which complex problem solving becomes achievable. Children’s books provide young readers with the means to be their best, to embrace empathy and kindness because they have embraced them in the context of a beloved story. The reading experience is best when it follows the advice of the creative process, to show and not to tell. As Tolkien observed, “I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
There are wonderful books to turn to in most any need, and the wake of Charlottesville is no exception. Let us turn to them with the thought that they will help us do the job we need to do ourselves: engage effectively with what is best and most important.