Why Suffer Fools?

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.”

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5 responses to “Why Suffer Fools?

  1. Great post and thought provoking. I must admit that I’m at times guilty of staying silent when I should speak up, less so than I used to be. But you’ve reminded me that, where it’s not foolishly unsafe to do so, we all have a duty to call out someone’s bigoted remarks if we’re serious about ending prejudice and discrimination.

    My uncle has a nasty habit of making racist remarks. I used to call him on it until he claimed he was only doing so to get a rise out of me so I stopped, not wanting to give him the satisfaction. Now I call him on it every time because, for whatever reason he makes his remarks, they’re always wrong.

    As for the ludicrously ironic reasoning that freedom of speach means one can’t speak against what another say… a serious misunderstanding. Maybe freedom of speech is a right that comes with the responsibility that where free speech is damaging, it must be challenged.

    Happy New Year Sheria (it’s almost midnight here in Australia).

  2. If I can keep my wits about me, I find an effective approach something along the lines of “why are you so angry?” (which makes them crazy with denial, confirming my accusation) It puts the onus where it belongs, shifting the focus to the sayer of the bigotry and away from the object of his bigotry. One of the best phrases to come out of the younger generation is “Don’t be a hater” which accomplishes something similar.
    As the recipient of “faggot” by passengers in a passing vehicle, just by being in a gay neighborhood, more times than I can count, I also remember that such venom is entirely reflective of the person spewing it. Why should I react exactly as he wishes by feeling kicked in the stomach? If he called me a “goddamned chair!” with equal hostility, I wouldn’t be offended, I would think he’s quite deluded and only take sensible precautions lest he got physical. His hate is not about me, it’s about him, regardless if the word technically applies to me.
    What makes the n-word somewhat different is its historical legacy, as its expression often preceded lynching and violence. Thank God this is a relative rarity nowadays, most of the time the greatest harm comes from the degree to which someone to whom it’s directed internalizes its sentiment. We need to collectively mock the haters, but to take offense largely gives them the reaction they seek.

  3. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation Marc. Different circumstances call for different responses. I agree that where the bigotry is trying to get a response then anger often plays into the bigots hands. When I get the “fag!” drive-by, I smile, wave and reply “Good thanks, and you?”

    But when the bigotry occurs in an ordinary conversation, I think it needs to be called out. When my uncle throws a snide remark about “damn Asians”, I let him know that it’s offensive and why. Besides, witty remarks are often lost on him, being as he is bright as a lettuce. (Or is that bigotry against the dull?)

  4. Paul, we may be related, at least distantly. I also have some relatives who are as bright as lettuce, and on whom witty remarks are totally wasted.
    I agree that ugly shouts from passing cars aren’t worth dealing with, but you accurately interpreted my concerns as lying with comments made in gatherings of family, friends, colleagues etc. I don’t advocate shouting in anger but I am quite comfortable in asking someone to leave after first explaining why or if I’m not in a position to get rid of the offender, I leave, after explaining why. I just don’t see any reason to put up with such nonsense.

  5. Interesting question. How much do we forgive people for being ignorant or just plain mediocre? This is when I ask: “What would Martin do?”
    By the way, I have been known to either yell “Fucking Breeder!” at a passing car, or crab my crotch and say “Yeah, you wanna blow job?” I love the first time a straight person discovered we had a word that reduced them to one aspect of their personhood. Sometimes I wish blacks had something better than “whitey.” Isn’t is interesting that those in power so rarely have pejoratives for them? Every hear anybody take offense at being called a “friggin’ WASP?” –That’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant for you Aussies, who may have you own term…WAUSP?
    Lastly, where do I submit a time sheet for hours spent commenting and recommenting on the blogs of the Unholy Trinity?

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