In one of his most perceptive writings, C.S. Lewis says that one of the most common temptations that leads people who are not yet bad to do very bad things is the desire to be part of an inner group — what Lewis calls the inner ring. "Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the moment you enter your profession until you are too old to care," Lewis writes. "If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an 'inner ringer.'"
We seem to have become a culture of ideological inner ringers, who crave affirmation from our in-group and zealously attack those who are members of other groups. The spike, even more pronounced in the time of the COVID-19 shutdown of social life, in social isolation and loneliness, the dramatic replacement of in-person connection with virtual interaction, only exacerbates our desperate need for a feeling of belonging and for affirmation from a defined community. Twitter is the inner ring on crack.
One gap in Lewis' analysis is that he seems to treat the entering of the inner ring as a conscious choice made by adults. In fact, most of us enter various inner rings as part of our upbringing. Certainly, racist impulses are often inherited and inhabited before they are reflective choices. The little signals — what or whom we are taught (largely, by example) to fear or to celebrate or to scorn — form us as members of an inner ring.
African American authors from Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, have been especially adept at portraying the blindness of the inner ring of racism. They even show the ways in which racism harms the perpetrator, whose treatment of other races as if they were subhuman renders the racist monstrously inhuman. Baldwin, who thought that American racism was partly rooted in and fostered by a forgetfulness of death and the absence of a tragic sensibility, insisted, "whoever debases others is debasing himself." But such pictures are not apt to persuade those most in the grips of racism. That is why laws are indispensable and why the corruption of law enforcement is so heinous and so damaging to public trust, especially among those upon whom the corruption is inflicted.
If persuasion and cultural change is never sufficient, the question is whether the enactment and enforcement of proper laws are sufficient?
In a recent editorial, The Dallas Morning News quoted at length from Robert Kennedy's speech given in Indianapolis on the day of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder. Kennedy was running a campaign that insisted both on the need for programs to combat racism and on the need for law and order, even as he was articulating what has come to be called an inclusive populism appealing to both inner city African Americans and rural whites. He was in favor of increased government funded programming at the same time that he was suspicious of bureaucracies that remained aloof from the particular conditions and needs of individuals and local communities. Can such a political vision even be imagined today?
Kennedy did not think we could rely exclusively on laws, policies or programs. As he made clear in that speech and elsewhere, he urged that we replace division, hatred and lawlessness with "love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another." Kennedy's language resonated with audiences not yet biblically illiterate. In fact, scriptural language lingered in much of the folk and soul music of the decade.
This makes clear something that Lewis knew, namely, that the alternative to being an inner ringer is not to be an individual thinking in isolation and stripped of any influence or communal formation. The alternative to the inner ring is a matter of communities that form individuals in virtues of humility, courage and justice, in the recognition of the dignity of every human person, even if that person does not look like me or disagrees with me about significant matters. In short, if charity doesn't begin at home, it may never begin.