I’m not fond of the Good Samaritan. I’m not saying I’m against the sort of people who are called that. This isn’t about them at all. I’m not fond of what has been made of the story.
How do we understand it? There’re these people, Samaritans, who just aren’t worth much. But a guy gets in trouble, and a Samaritan comes along and helps him out big time. You know him, the Good Samaritan himself. Bucking stereotype, this Samaritan is, so that’s why you need the adjective. The “Good” one. So you don’t go putting him accidentally in the category of other Samaritans. Who, remember, still aren’t worth much.
Does that sound like the story we tell ourselves? (Emphasis mine.)
I have another anecdote which explains why I put the emphasis where I did.
I was in high school. Some of my fellow students were standing around, and somehow a discussion of Indian literacy came up. I’m sure it wasn’t expressed exactly like that, I can no longer recall the details, but what was clear is that the generalization didn’t apply to me. I was the most literate of my school fellows, Mr. Walking Encyclopedia as my chemistry teacher called me. Teachers would ask me questions, not to test me but because they wanted to know the answer. I read a lot. A lot.
So I said, “Hey, that isn’t true. What about me?”
Oh, you’re different, my friends insisted. You’re not like other Indians, they said to me. Well, that’s true. Indians represent a range like everybody else. Indians are like and not like other Indians. Same as you are like and not like the people in whatever group you belong to. That’s my point. That’s our social reality.
No, I was different, they said.
I was The Good Indian, the different Indian. The exception that didn’t disprove the rule. The exception that didn’t disprove what they wanted to believe about Samaritans. It was not possible for them to accept me as evidence that Aboriginal people could be clever or articulate. I could only be accepted as the exception that did not challenge the rule. Indians were still dumb. My existence didn’t challenge that.
In the story, Samaritans, like Indians, are still worthless. The existence and works of a Good Samaritan didn’t disprove that.
Now the parable of the Good Samaritan could have been a story put to better purpose. It could have been a story that said prejudice was for fools. It could have been a story about how we have to grow our understandings of each other, how testing a prejudice with experience will prove that it was mere prejudice all along. Instead, we made it into a story that maligns Samaritans forevermore, while admitting, see, even worthless Samaritans don’t have to be worthless.
And if that behaviour can redeem even a Samaritan, why it’ll work for the rest of us too.
Except, I don’t buy it. I refuse to accept the worldview that implies. There are no Samaritans. There are no communities, legitimate communities, anywhere, who we can pretend are worthless. People are people. People can be pushed to this and that by forces of history, but none are more susceptible than others to the forces of evil. None. To believe so is prejudice and racism, and that’s a worse evil than everyday human selfishness.
No, I don’t buy it. We are all Samaritans. Everywhere human beings are found good, bad, humorous, clever, short, tall, with good hair, pompous, humble, sarcastic, foolish. Anywhere large enough has the entire range of human qualities. If someone happens in these communities treat us well, if someone surprises our prejudices by impressing us, how is that an excuse to continue to call the remainder worthless?
The story of the Good Samaritan as told priorizes and legitimizes prejudice against Samaritans. Why not make it a story where Samaritans were not legitimately despised, and only prejudice and distance prevented us from knowing it?
I prefer that story.
People who know my personal story know that I had a boyhood with, yes, unique characteristics, but very much shaped by the fact that I grew up Aboriginal in a profoundly racist society. In that sense, I was not an exception. I was what Aboriginal was. I grew up poor and here and there, with nothing to give me a scholarly advantage over my classmates except innate ability and a willingness to use it. I was the exception to no rule which disqualified me as Aboriginal. Yes, I was cleverer than most, but that was true in respect of me and my classmates, too. Being clever didn’t disqualify me from being Aboriginal except in inasmuch as it didn’t fit their stereotype. When the stereotype didn’t match, they simply refused to generalize the evidence.
Was this rational? Did White people, for instance, not get to claim their own clever White people?
Well, yeah, that Shakespeare. He was kind of an exception to the rule, right? I mean most of you White people couldn’t write like that if you tried, right? You can’t really hold him up as proof that White people can write.
Yes, there are some exceptional White people, we have to admit, but that doesn’t prove they aren’t Bad Samaritans, does it? Not using this kind of logic.
No, I don’t want to be the Good Indian who allows others to hold onto their prejudices. No one wants that. Expecting that, taking that attitude is profoundly disrespectful. What if the Good Samaritan came back and found how he’d been repaid for his hospitality. He helps somebody out, he takes them in, and that person goes home and retells and reframes the good deed as a story how his people, the Samaritans, are famously worthless.
Are you kidding? says Mr. GS. That’s what you got out of me helping you out? I’m the guy who throws my whole people into bad relief?
Gee, thanks for nothing, Chuck. And, by the way, if you’re ever back this way again, please don’t call.
Yours sincerely, a pretty unhappy Samaritan right now.