Prior to her entrance into the world of literature, Flannery O’Connor expressed a desire to work as a political cartoonist. Although O’Connor ultimately abandoned this endeavor, she retained an impressively adroit understanding of politics that continued to permeate her literature. In one of O’Connor’s earliest stories, The Barber, her political insight takes center stage. The story follows the interactions of a self-professed “liberal” college professor named Rayber, and his unnamed segregationist barber in the deep South. In this story, O’Connor masterfully provides the reader with a fairly comprehensive description of the problems that continue to plague efforts at political dialogue. O’Connor shows how a pervading sense of moral superiority, coupled with a refusal to acknowledge the rationality (and thus, the humanity) of our political opponents, taints our efforts at political dialogue from their very outset.
As with many of her stories, critical approach to The Barber is marred by a profound misconception of O’Connor’s thought as nihilistic. Those who force such a worldview upon O’Connor’s work see The Barber as a story exemplifying the futility of dialogue, and the dismal state of human nature. Speaking to this method of reading O’Connor, William Barrett writes in The Atlantic that, “The single moral, indeed, that runs through these stories seems to be that the liberal mind, convinced, of its own rationality and self-righteousness, cannot possibly understand the perverse depths of the human personality.” Of course, such methods of reading O’Connor fails to account for her deep-seated revulsion toward nihilism.
Although she was not one to shy away from the grisly and often perverse elements of human nature, O’Connor by no means presented life as worthless or pointless. Even in the depths of our perversity, O’Connor believed that we are always presented with a certain grace that prompts us to discover a forgotten meaning to our existence. However unpleasant this “moment of grace” and its results could be, the rediscovery of our true end would be worthwhile to us. Such teleological thinking is evidence of the philosophical impact that St. Thomas Aquinas had for O’Connor. Indeed, O’Connor’s famous rejoinder to accusations of nihilism was to refer to herself as a “Hillbilly Thomist.” As such, her work always reflected the Thomistic understanding of the intrinsic value of humanity, as well as our incredible (but often reluctant) capacity for good. Bearing this in mind The Barber cannot merely be a story about “the perverse depths of the human personality” but rather a story that shocks us into acknowledgement of the faults present in our efforts at dialogue and thus, plants the seeds for a better method of crossing the political divide. Rayber does indeed “spoil his complexion,” but it is through this character’s humiliation that we are challenged to reevaluate our own behavior.
After a rather humiliating conversation regarding politics, Rayber promises to present his barber with a compelling reason to change his vote in the upcoming election. Rayber drafts a speech for the Barber promising that he “won’t say anything you can’t understand.” Thus, it is at the very beginning of Rayber’s attempt to discuss politics with his barber that O’Connor presents us with one of the fundamental flaws common to attempts at political dialogue. Assured of the moral and intellectual superiority of his own ideas, Rayber finds it all too easy to perceive his ideological opponents as fundamentally below himself. Rather than viewing his opponent as a fellow man, in possession of and capable of exercising the same faculties of reason that he himself is, Rayber becomes indignant when the Barber suggests that “All he had to do was think”, and shouts in response “You call yourself thinking?” In doing so, Rayber emphatically dehumanizes his opponent. Man’s ability to “think” has been identified as that which has sets him apart from mere animals since before even Socrates. By denying that the Barber is thinking, Rayber implies that he has abandoned his humanity. Consequently, Rayber’s attempt at dialogue is doomed from the beginning because it is not truly an attempt at dialogue. One cannot have a discussion with a mere animal.
Although Rayber states that his speech is defensive in nature, and that he is not attempting to tamper with the “damn fool ignorance” of the Barber, his manner of perceiving his opponent clearly indicates otherwise. By believing that his opponent has forfeited his humanity, Rayber understands his role in dialogue as analogous to that of the Bible’s “good shepherd.” Rayber sees himself as venturing out into the wilderness to retrieve a lost sheep, and through his morally and intellectually superior arguments, to be bringing the Barber back to the fold, and restoring his humanity. This arrogance permeates Rayber’s argument, and as such makes it singularly unappealing, not only to the Barber, but everyone who sees it, including both his colleague, who warns Rayber to not “spoil [his] complexion arguing with a barber” and his own wife, who states “just because you teach doesn’t mean you know everything.”
Because of his arrogance, Rayber’s argument is inherently flawed, and as such it is destroyed. In fact, it is not necessary for Rayber’s argument to be destroyed through counter-argument, instead it implodes upon itself due to the aloof pretention that birthed it. It is clear after Rayber delivers his speech that the Barber’s attitude towards their discussion is considerably different than Rayber’s. The Barber clearly does not see political beliefs as a valid means by which to discern the humanity of an individual, but rather as a topic of discussion amongst friends. All of the Barber’s characterizations of Rayber are, although somewhat gruff, surprisingly friendly. He declares that “Rayber’s all right. He don’t know how to vote, but he’s all right,” and calls Rayber’s pompous ramblings “a fine speech.” Although these remarks can be, and were by Rayber, interpreted as sarcasm, they were intended in both good faith, and more importantly, good fun. Rayber’s failure to recognize the Barber’s friendliness is undoubtedly the result of the gravity that he has placed upon this casual conversation. The subsequent consequences of Rayber’s misstep serve as an important admonition against taking oneself too seriously. What is most important in this interaction however, is that rather than seeing Rayber as an antagonist, or dismissing his argument as irrational, the Barber acknowledges Rayber as a fellow human being, treating him with respect and offering him friendship even in the face of serious political disagreement.
By acknowledging Rayber’s humanity, and responding to his condescending speech with continued friendship, the Barber strikes the blow that finally destroys Rayber’s argument. Indeed, the fundamental flaw of his attempt at political dialogue is Rayber’s overzealous assertion of moral superiority that prevents him from seeing the Barber as a fellow human. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that in this particular case, Rayber actually stands upon the moral high-ground. Rayber’s violent reaction to the Barber serves to drive home the point that we all too often refuse to accept the humanity of our opponents, and that doing so costs us our ability to effectively argue our point, even when we stand as advocates for justice. O’Connor suggests here that political conversation requires a mutual acknowledgement of humanity and rationality in order for it to be effective. When confronted with this reality we would rather forfeit our own humanity through acts of vitriolic retaliation, than acknowledge that of our opponents.
Put simply, the greatest obstacle that O’Connor sees to productive political dialogue is pervasive and uncompromising pride. The fact that O’Connor seems to focus more upon identifying this problem as opposed to proffering a solution is characteristic of her work. In her essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country” O’Connor made clear that she saw it as her calling show that the “distortions of modern life” were actually perversions of reality, rather than reality itself. It would be wrong however, to assume that O’Connor makes no attempt at all to provide a solution to the problem she has identified. Although her solution is only implied, and is itself rather vague, it remains the only true antidote we have to the vice of pride. That is of course, the virtue of humility. In order to engage in productive political dialogue, we must humble ourselves, acknowledging that both we and our interlocutors are flawed human beings, filled with passion as well as reason. We must come to understand that no matter how morally superior our position may be, we cannot effectively use the truth to browbeat our opponents into capitulation. As O’Connor shows us through Rayber, in the absence of humility we inevitably run the risk of spoiling our complexion.
Joseph Natali is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, and has published work in both The Daily Signal and VoegelinView, an online academic journal published by the Eric Voegelin Society.