Recently, I read a post, On Shattering at Close Range, in a blog that I highly recommend for intelligent writing that makes the reader think, in which the writer made some observations about a boorish dinner guest who made bigoted comments, evoking discomfort and disapproval on the part of the other guests. I left a comment in which I questioned why, when someone makes a bigoted comment based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, religious belief, etc., the rest of us behave as if we are the ones who have done something embarrassing. I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since.
It seems to me that bigotry is nourished by our silence. It doesn’t matter that the object of the bigotry is not present at the particualr gathering. Seldom are the distasteful remarks made in the presence of the group being discriminated against; does this make the comments any less reprehensible?
There is a scene in a film starring Gregory Peck, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” in which a non-Jewish woman tells a Jewish friend, who is a decorated veteran of WWII, of boorish, anti-Semitic remarks made by a dinner party guest. Her Jewish friend repeatedly asks her, “What did you do?” She doesn’t understand the question and variously responds that everyone else ignored the man, felt embarrassed for him, etc. Finally, she really hears the substance of his question, “What did you do when you witnessed this man’s bigoted commentary?” Upon understanding the question, she looks away, unable to fully face her friend’s gaze, finally comprehending that silence in the face of bigotry is a sort of agreement to overlook the bigotry and in doing so convey to the perpetrator a tacit approval of his or her beliefs.
I first read the book and saw the movie when I was in my 20’s, and I’ve never forgotten that scene.
The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Laura Hobson, and published shortly after WWII when the world was still trying to understand the how and why of the horrors revealed in the camps. I’ve always thought that Hobson was challenging us all to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “What did you do?”
This is not a rhetorical discussion for me. I am a news junkie and everyday the news is filled with behaviors that have at their root bigotry and prejudice. I can’t but wonder what it will take for humankind to become intolerant of intolerance. When will the bigoted boor be asked to leave the party? When will the rest of us make the bigot feel ashamed to espouse such hatred in front of us?
I have had people suggest that I am consumed with self-righteousness because I have no problem calling someone out for their foolish, bigoted commentary. I used to try and appease those people and tone down my challenge of the bigot’s comments. It’s a new day, and if challenging prejudice, bigorty, and discrimination makes me self-righteous, then hallelujah and amen, I’m self-righteous. The other argument that people frequently offer for remaining silent is that we are all entitled to freedom of speech. I firmly believe that. One of the reasons that I became a lawyer is because I believe in the principals espoused in our consititution, including freedom of speech. However, freedom of speech does not mean that I have to allow your words to go unchallenged. When I choose to challenge bigoted speech, I’m exercise my right to speak freely. Why should someone else’s freedom of speech supress my own right to freedom of speech? If you’re bold enough to speak and/or behave as a bigot, don’t hide behind the Bill of Rights; you put it out there, now suffer the consequences.
If we witness bigotry in words or deeds, and say nothing, then we are condoning that behavior by our silence. Bigotry is the nasty seed that breeds hate, feeds wars, engenders genocide, and nurtures holocausts. In the words of Albert Einstien, “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”