A Few Words on Bigotry
Years ago when I was a bit younger (but still very much a grown adult of the world) I was traveling by car on business. A young man we’d just hired was accompanying me.
We’d put a number of hours on the road and I was finding him to be great company. He was a pleasure to talk with and get to know; his wit was sharp and quick, to the point where I found myself frequently laughing out loud – something I do not often do even when I’m amused. Added bonus: He looked exactly like John Cusack, and so engaging in casual, droll patter with him felt like being in a scene from Gross Point Blank.
The son of Asian Americans, he had recently graduated from Lewis & Clark, which is a highly respected liberal arts college here in Portland. The company I worked for gave condition-of-hire testing, and though one half of the test was a cheap Meyers-Briggs knock off the other half was a series of complex (and increasingly difficult) problem-solving questions. Because I was involved in the hiring process, I knew that not only had he done very well on the problem-solving portion, he had actually scored higher than anyone else in our company’s history.
When the subject of politics finally came up, I made a comment about how due to corruption and fiscal irresponsibility in our State’s Democratic party I was considering becoming a Republican. He asked me what was holding me back from pulling the trigger, and I explained I really didn’t like some of the political causes the GOP was willing to sign on to so often. He asked for some examples and I gave a few, and then ended with this:
“You know, I think that if the GOP would at the very least distance itself from those Gomers that want to outlaw the teaching of evolution in favor of the superstition that the Earth is 6,000 years old I would switch parties in a heartbeat.”
He laughed, and then looked out the window for a minute before speaking. “Yeah… So, the thing is, I’m one of those Gomers.”
I have a hard time telling people this story; it’s certainly not easy publishing it here, on-line for anyone to read. I still cringe in shame when I think about it.
The part that shames me isn’t the obvious social and HR faux pas, which were bad enough. The part that shames me is that until that day, my sincere, drilled-down-in-my-brain impression of a Biblical literalist was far worse and cartoonish than even my verbal slip betrayed. Picture in your mind a barefoot, mouth-breathing, uneducated hillbilly with poor hygiene and missing teeth and you’ll get the general idea. This image was not based on any kind of real data. My bigoted assumption was rooted in that soil from which so many bigoted assumptions bear fruit: Up till then I hadn’t actually known anyone that was a Biblical literalist. (Or, far more likely, I had known plenty, but since they were smart, articulate and well educated I had assumed they weren’t literalists.) My relationship with that coworker, which over the years has become a strong friendship, forced me to come to terms with a pretty big and bigoted blind spot. What’s more, that blind spot had been habit for so many years that at this point it will probably never go away entirely. I still have to actively guard against it. It is still my enemy.
There’s been a lot of talk about various kinds of bigotry in the threads recently, thanks to a delicious post by Burt and a solid reading recommendation by Nob. While there has been some insightful discussion, most of it seems to go nowhere. There are a lot of separate specific reasons for this. For one thing, the subject of bigotry is one where everyone comes to the table with a chip of some size on their shoulder. Additionally, too many people assume a lack of good faith on the opposing side, and use this assumption to grant them dispensation to hold back good faith themselves. And any community of any size has its own Bill Maher, Glenn Beck or Density Duck, someone that enjoys poking the embers just to see if they can start a forest fire. These things are not unique to our site, of course. I am not sure how well the rest of the civilized world handles discussing bigotry, but we Americans are terrible at it.
Ironically, I suspect a big part of this comes as a result of our having so successfully used media to quickly go from a society that demanded apartheid to a culture that truly wants to be (and be seen as) unprejudiced.
When my father first went to college, blacks were not allowed admission at his alma mater; and though Jews were, they were made to live in separate fraternities. The college was technically co-ed, but not in a way that we would recognize that term today: there were only a few majors available to women at the school, and most of these were designed to train them to perform basic, low-level clerical and service-industry tasks. After all, why waste too much of the college’s sweat equity on that part of the student body that was only there to find a husband? In less than a generation, all of that would be torn down by fiat. Even more remarkable, it would be mocked by just about everyone in the country – even people that had supported the old regime. I believe that part of what allowed this to happen was buy-in from the Hollywood set.
In the years that followed my father’s graduation, the writers and producers of television shows and movies seem to have decided independently that one of the worst villains a narrative could offer was the bigot. And to make sure that no one missed the point of which characters audiences were supposed to boo, these bigoted villains were drawn to look really, really bad. The bigots we grew up hating on television and in the movies had all the subtlety of a chainsaw, as more realistic examples of bigotry were largely ignored. Take racism, for example. Those fictional racists that taught us so well never said “We’ll just adjust the voting districts slightly to make sure that our people are elected; I doubt anyone will notice.” Instead, they were more likely to say to one another, “It’s a nigger, Cooter! Let’s string ‘im up!” (And then, because the wheels of progress only move so quickly, the black guy about to be lynched would be rescued by the white hero.) I believe part of the reason we were able to move so quickly from my father’s college experience to my own was this constant over-the-top portrayal of bigotry in our entertainment. In fact, I’d argue that Hollywood is singularly responsible for how we colloquially think of bigotry today.
Unfortunately, although the colloquial bigotry Hollywood taught us to hate is mostly gone, real bigotry continues. And it continues in part because of our ability to honestly say to others and ourselves, “Well, I’d never string up the black guy for talking to the white woman – so I clearly have no bigoted thoughts.” The word bigotry has become so toxic and is used in such a clumsy, bludgeoning political manner that it’s become part of the problem: The absence of the fictional, Hollywood colloquial bigotry gives us all permission to go through our lives lacking the introspection needed to combat actual bigotry.
In Burt’s post, I asked the question how the position that the state should be forced to honor my marriage while simultaneously outlawing Russell’s or Jason’s might be completely detached from anti-gay bigotry. This was (and is) a sincere question; most people I know say that this is often the case, but I cannot think of the situation where actively not allowing gay people to marry is not bigoted… and by bigoted I mean the real life bigotry of being negatively prejudicial, not the cartoonish made-for-TV-movie “let’s get a rope and string up the guy listening to Judy Garland!” All the answers that I received boiled down to this: Because of [religion/ignorance/fear/etc.] you can be in favor of not allowing equal legal privileges to gays and lesbians and still be a good and decent person. And to that I say:
Well, of course you can have a bigoted position or opinion and still be a good and kind person. That’s actually kind of the point.
Bigotry is an universally human thing, deeply ingrained in or very DNA. If you find yourself talking to a liberal or conservative telling you that they or their party are pure and free of bigotry – that the ability to see others not as Others isn’t a battle that has to constantly be fought to be won in the soul – well, then you’re talking to someone that’s either not being honest with you or not being honest with themselves.
Bigotry is almost never a black and white issue, no pun intended. And despite what we tell ourselves, it’s not always easy to see – or to avoid seeing in error. Take our president, for example.
It seems patently obvious to me that you can dislike President Obama and not be a racist. Similarly, it seems patently obvious to me that 25% of the country believing that he’s not a “real” president because he was born in Kenya (despite all the evidence to the contrary) is the kind of statistic we wouldn’t be dealing with if a white person now sat in the Oval Office. When I hear people say that all opposition to Obama is entirely racially motivated, it seems as hollow and lacking in insight as those saying there isn’t any racial motivation at all in the opposition. The truth is much greyer and more nebulous, teeming with complexity and humanity alike. Making the good-faith effort (on both sides) to sort through that fog seems like a thing worth doing – partly for our own individual betterment, and partly because it’s hard to actually solve national problems in the middle of all of this pea soup we’ve made for ourselves.
Maybe what we need to do is find a different word than bigotry, one that doesn’t come with all of the Hollywood and Washington baggage. One that allows us to look at one another and ourselves more critically than we do now – which is just about not at all. Maybe we’ve just seen too many episodes of Kung Fu and “very special editions” of Facts of Life, and all we can do now is associate the word “bigotry” with cardboard characters we feel safe knowing aren’t us.
Whatever word we use, it seems obvious to me that progress isn’t going to be made until we stop refusing to look more closely at ourselves, and start asking others in good faith what things look like from their vantage point. Because this whole conservatives and liberals looking at each other and declaring, “I’m not a bigot but you are!” thing ain’t getting us anywhere worth going.
In a recent comment stream here, Zombie Contentions blogger CK McLeod chastised this site for its name. Specifically, he suggested that the use of the word “Gentleman,” while paired with the imagery of men’s hats, was bigoted. (Though I should note that, this being CK, “bigoted” was replaced with phrases like “white male hegemony.”) As it turns out, the potential limiting factor our name gives us is something we are all discussing behind the scenes right now, editors and contributors alike. I found CK’s comments unfortunate, because had they been put slightly differently they might have led to the community having a timely and healthy discussion about where this site is going. Instead, they immediately shut any potential dialogue down.
Had he talked in terms of what the name of the site represented to him, it would have been a useful thing to take into consideration – CK is an intelligent guy, and many here take note of his opinions (myself included). He might have suggested that others might see the site in a less than flattering light because of the name and imagery, and in that he certainly would have been correct. I would have loved to have had CK’s comments lead to a community dialogue about the perceptions the site’s name and imagery provoke.
But CK went that extra step we all seem to take when we talk about bigotry these days. He said that not only did he see the name as symbolizing a time when white men ruled, he knew that all of us that write here see it that way as well – and what’s more, that the very reason we have the name is that we are seeking to recreate that world. By making that leap he not only assumed motivations for people he doesn’t really know, he assumed the very worst motivations possible. And when he did so, he successfully ensured that no conversation worth having would be had in those threads.
I feel the same way about our nation as I do about this site: I want it to get better, and I want it to become so by consensus. Until we find a constructive and good faith way to talk about bigotry, this will never be possible.