Really – everywhere we look – there are dead white guys. National holiday? Most likely in honor of a dead white guy. Statue on a green? Founder of a major Christian denomination? Dead white guy. Classic literature, painting, play, music ‘everyone’ is supposed to know about? Yup, probably by a dead white guy.
It’s a little exhausting.
It’s easy to develop a pretty negative attitude about all these dead white guys. I mean, some of them were pretty questionable if not downright oppressive people. Enough, already! Am I right?
Yes! Yes. Well… sort of. The thing is, some of them really did say and do wonderful, important things. I suppose we should not dismiss an entire portion of our history just on race and gender alone. And, truth is, I have a confession to make. I kind of really love the insights of some of these folks. I guess it’s easy to complain about all these dead white guys… until you fall in love with one of them.
I fell a bit for David Hume. It wasn’t just his sense of humor and stinging critique of organized religion – those are great – but it was his dedication to compassion and to community. Hume argued that if we peel away all the trappings of religiosity, what’s left is communities of people trying to live together in compassion and justice. The more compassion we express, the less justice a situation requires – and vice versa. And what gives us compassion? Not our reason. Our passion. If we allow good judgment to guide our passion, we literally fall in love with one another and the whole Creation. Relationships keep us honest – community guides our desires away from selfishness and toward the common good. It falls to us to form those relationships with people – and creatures, and ecosystems – outside our clan and comfort zone – and to advocate for the disempowered within it.
Okay, great; so Hume’s a proto-ecofeminist. I’m sure he’d love that label. This is good stuff! I just wonder, sometimes, whether Hume himself really deserves all the credit. See, I’ve noticed this habit, when studying these dead white guys, of lifting up their pearls of wisdom as the true essence of their philosophies – and dismissing anything considered objectionable as a ‘product of their time.’ Insights that build peace and justice? He’s a genius! Comments that betray a lack of awareness about gender and race – such as Hume’s comments about the inherent inferiority of women and “negroes”? Oh, he didn’t know any better; in those passages, he was just a product of his time.
I like that phrase – a product of his time. I agree. All of us – including all the dead white guys – are products of our time. Because I say, you can’t have it both ways. Either someone – maybe everyone? – is not only a genius but also a bigot; or, everything we write is a product of our time. All the relationships, conversations, experiences, environments, ecosystems – they work together to form our thoughts, insights, and rough edges. I propose that everything – from the embarrassing flaws to the lasting legacies of wisdom – emerges from context. Our webs of relationships and our life journeys build ideas and enable us to articulate them. The people who became famous are the ones who articulated the most powerful thought of their time in the most accessible ways. They had access – to education, to an audience, to the microphone. It was Hume – and it was not. Hume never could have written these beautiful, powerful theories without all the women, children, other creatures, relationships that formed his thought – which was also formed by his patriarchal context.
It seems like every week, we read new allegations of sexual harassment and assault by another of our male heroes. The #metoo awareness campaign, begun by Tarana Burke and spread more recently by women who Harvey Weinstein assaulted and harassed, has now raised awareness of not only how many women have experienced these attacks, but also, how many men have committed them. The list just keeps growing. Val Kilmer. Kevin Spacey. George H. W. Bush. Ben Affleck. Casey Affleck. Bill Cosby. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Elie Weisel. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi.
Naturally, we initially respond with horror and disbelief. Despite the federal study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center that demonstrated that accusations are false only 2-10% of the time – and that at least 63% of assaults are never even reported – why do we have so much trouble believing these accounts?
Maybe, deep down, we resist letting go of our idols. Maybe the deeper problem stems from a toxic paradigm that not only dehumanizes female bodies – especially bodies of color – but also elevates others to superhuman personifications of all that is wise, prophetic, creative, intelligent, or talented. Clearly, we need to reclaim the humanity of women; maybe, we also need to reclaim the humanity of men.
Anyone, of any gender – any parent, mentor, teacher, or boss – in a position of power, of superior strength or influence, might abuse that power. Children experience much of what passes for parenting as nothing more than abuse. Heartbreaking as it feels, I would not be surprised, today, to learn that any of my favorite male superstars, from Hume to Jesus of Nazareth, was poisoned by power and adulation to the point of abusing that power. After all, that is what patriarchy does – it poisons. For every idol it creates, by necessity, it also creates another demon.
So as we work, as Hume did, to name oppression and build compassion; as we strive to heal patriarchy, form resilient communities, restore ecosystems, and rebuild our kinship with sea and soil, let us also dismantle the idolatry and vilification that enables us so quickly to glorify one and blame another. Let us bear witness to the truth of another’s testimony. Take responsibility for the brokenness in our communities and cultures. Weave new structures that embody the divine, interconnected web that embraces all Creation. And maybe, a new generation will emerge – one with no more idols who abuse and eventually topple, smashing our hopes and illusions and blissful ignorance. And one with no more daughters struggling to find the courage to face the shame, rejection, and disbelief when they come forward to say, #metoo.
 See David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (153-61), and Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary and the Principles of Morals (438-41).
 Annette C. Baier argues for the compatibility of Hume’s philosophy with feminist principles; see “Hume, the Women’s Moral Theorist?” Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics, Harvard University Press, 1995. Gus diZerega similarly argues for compatibility with biocentrism: “Deep Ecology and Liberalism: The Greener Implications of Evolutionary Liberal Theory,” The Review of Politics 58, no. 4 (Autumn) 1996.
 See Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Various Subjects, 227; Essays, Moral…, I.XXI, footnote 10.
 For in depth analyses of this concept, see The Social Psychology of Good and Evil (Arthur G. Miller, ed., The Guilford Press, New York, NY; 2nd edition, 2016), which includes discussions of hubris, dehumanization, and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. René Girard’s mimetic theory also discusses the futility of scapegoating.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.