Bigotry's Permanent Appeal

I grew up in the Deep South.

I was born in New Orleans but spent most of my first 40 years living just north of the city in what is still unapologetically called "plantation country."

When I was a kid in the '50s and '60s, the vilest racial epithets were casually tossed about.  Jim Crow held sway; racism was rampant.  I was witness to a great many acts of racial hatred, particularly in the '60s as the schools integrated.  I'm old enough to recall seeing on the nightly news video footage of Bull Connor and his troops turning the fire hoses on women and children in Birmingham. 

But racism wasn't always, or even mostly, manifested in the way you've seen it depicted in popular literature and in the movies -- or in the news of the time.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt famously described the banality of evil.  The idea resonates.  So often, that's the way the most vicious racism was evinced: not through anger, but rather in workaday and otherwise unremarkable moments.

I recall a woman I knew, the mother of a friend, patiently explaining to my friend that he had misused the word "lady" when describing a black woman.  "They are women, not ladies," she said. 

"Only white women can be ladies."

Hers wasn't an overt expression of anger or hate, as we might commonly understand those terms.  Rather it was a simple corrective to his vocabulary.  It was breathtakingly ugly, but hardly a lynching.  It was, in a word, corrosive.

People explain bigotry as the end-result of ignorance and fear.  True enough.

But here is the conundrum: why do some people enthusiastically embrace ignorance and fear?

The answer, I think, is simple: it's very pleasant to be ignorant and fearful because that circumstance makes it so much easier to regard yourself as superior to others. 

Stated plainly, many people enjoy being bigots.

That explains a great deal, doesn't it?  Bigots will be bigots.  They'll find a way, seeking out the objects of least social resistance within their caste.  Among the Southerners of my time, the popular targets were blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics, and gays. 

Nowadays, of course, participating in open acts of bigotry toward any of those groups is largely unacceptable.  Which is not to say that it doesn't happen.  It just isn't done in polite society.

But have we done away with approved bigotries ?  Hardly.  We just keep changing the targets.

Recall the attitudes of feminists in the '60s and '70s toward housewives. 

As an experiment, you might today try bringing a big-haired woman -- perhaps a Dallas socialite -- to a Manhattan cocktail party or gallery opening. 

Go ahead.  I dare you. 

And may God have mercy on those who live in a trailer park.

These thoughts were all prompted by three recent events when someone I had just met, and with whom I was having a friendly drink, launched into a jeremiad against "Christians." 

They are awful, I was told.  Rank hypocrites.  Hateful people.

This isn't an altogether rare phenomenon, of course.  In fact, it is epidemic.

I suppose I should have felt complimented.  The unspoken assumption is that I am smart enough and sophisticated enough to share these attitudes.

Unfortunately, I'm not.  I continue to find bigotries of every description pathologically indistinguishable.

I have found one highly effective way to force these bigots to stand eye-to-eye with their bigotry.

Simply ask them to substitute another minority for Christians and repeat the statement.  Blacks are rank hypocrites?  Muslims are hateful people?

No?

Then why do you feel so comfortable saying these things about Christians?

I like to think this is a quiet and loving way to teach a good moral lesson, but the response so far indicates that it will always result in anger.

Oh, well.

This weekend I'm sure some of these folks will rent a video of The Help.  If the movie's producers have done their revenue-maximizing job well, by film's end, my new acquaintances will be puffed up with the certain knowledge that had they lived in the benighted South in those appalling times, they would have been immune to the popular prejudices -- they would have been inoculated by their enlightenment against the terrible social pressures that existed.

They will be assured of their moral superiority.

In all of these beliefs, they will be exactly wrong.

Theodore Dawes is a reporter at a weekly newspaper near Mobile, Ala.  Contact him at teddawesmobile@gmail.com.

I grew up in the Deep South.

I was born in New Orleans but spent most of my first 40 years living just north of the city in what is still unapologetically called "plantation country."

When I was a kid in the '50s and '60s, the vilest racial epithets were casually tossed about.  Jim Crow held sway; racism was rampant.  I was witness to a great many acts of racial hatred, particularly in the '60s as the schools integrated.  I'm old enough to recall seeing on the nightly news video footage of Bull Connor and his troops turning the fire hoses on women and children in Birmingham. 

But racism wasn't always, or even mostly, manifested in the way you've seen it depicted in popular literature and in the movies -- or in the news of the time.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt famously described the banality of evil.  The idea resonates.  So often, that's the way the most vicious racism was evinced: not through anger, but rather in workaday and otherwise unremarkable moments.

I recall a woman I knew, the mother of a friend, patiently explaining to my friend that he had misused the word "lady" when describing a black woman.  "They are women, not ladies," she said. 

"Only white women can be ladies."

Hers wasn't an overt expression of anger or hate, as we might commonly understand those terms.  Rather it was a simple corrective to his vocabulary.  It was breathtakingly ugly, but hardly a lynching.  It was, in a word, corrosive.

People explain bigotry as the end-result of ignorance and fear.  True enough.

But here is the conundrum: why do some people enthusiastically embrace ignorance and fear?

The answer, I think, is simple: it's very pleasant to be ignorant and fearful because that circumstance makes it so much easier to regard yourself as superior to others. 

Stated plainly, many people enjoy being bigots.

That explains a great deal, doesn't it?  Bigots will be bigots.  They'll find a way, seeking out the objects of least social resistance within their caste.  Among the Southerners of my time, the popular targets were blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics, and gays. 

Nowadays, of course, participating in open acts of bigotry toward any of those groups is largely unacceptable.  Which is not to say that it doesn't happen.  It just isn't done in polite society.

But have we done away with approved bigotries ?  Hardly.  We just keep changing the targets.

Recall the attitudes of feminists in the '60s and '70s toward housewives. 

As an experiment, you might today try bringing a big-haired woman -- perhaps a Dallas socialite -- to a Manhattan cocktail party or gallery opening. 

Go ahead.  I dare you. 

And may God have mercy on those who live in a trailer park.

These thoughts were all prompted by three recent events when someone I had just met, and with whom I was having a friendly drink, launched into a jeremiad against "Christians." 

They are awful, I was told.  Rank hypocrites.  Hateful people.

This isn't an altogether rare phenomenon, of course.  In fact, it is epidemic.

I suppose I should have felt complimented.  The unspoken assumption is that I am smart enough and sophisticated enough to share these attitudes.

Unfortunately, I'm not.  I continue to find bigotries of every description pathologically indistinguishable.

I have found one highly effective way to force these bigots to stand eye-to-eye with their bigotry.

Simply ask them to substitute another minority for Christians and repeat the statement.  Blacks are rank hypocrites?  Muslims are hateful people?

No?

Then why do you feel so comfortable saying these things about Christians?

I like to think this is a quiet and loving way to teach a good moral lesson, but the response so far indicates that it will always result in anger.

Oh, well.

This weekend I'm sure some of these folks will rent a video of The Help.  If the movie's producers have done their revenue-maximizing job well, by film's end, my new acquaintances will be puffed up with the certain knowledge that had they lived in the benighted South in those appalling times, they would have been immune to the popular prejudices -- they would have been inoculated by their enlightenment against the terrible social pressures that existed.

They will be assured of their moral superiority.

In all of these beliefs, they will be exactly wrong.

Theodore Dawes is a reporter at a weekly newspaper near Mobile, Ala.  Contact him at teddawesmobile@gmail.com.