Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Glass Houses

Lately, every few months or so, a TV news- or sports-caster, radio talk show host, actor, or even a stand-up comic is caught on air or on tape in a racist rant. The incidents get broad coverage, the person who made the remarks is pilloried, sponsors withdraw, and they are relieved of their jobs. One of the first such incidents involved Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Las Vegas bookmaker and expert commentator for CBS Sports. In 1988, in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., Snyder was filmed making comments about black American athletes:

"The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade … the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid . . ."

Incredibly, the first thing people say when caught in the act of a racist or sexist rant in their defense is "I am not a racist," or "I am not a homophobe," or "I am not an anti-Semite." When asked for a response to his racist remarks being aired, Snyder said, "What a silly thing to say." CBS Sports quickly fired him. 

There seems to me to be a powerful streak of hypocrisy in these purges. Anyone who is neither a saint nor a fool, and who is in touch with an inner life, harbors within him some prejudice or other toward the opposite sex, different races, religions or ideologies. In some people these hatreds lie just beneath the surface. In others they lie deeply buried. Most people have enough sense to suppress them. But, as in all cases of such psychic denial, suppressing prejudices can lead to neuroses that can make matters worse.

George Orwell, who died in 1950, was himself susceptible to homophobic and misogynistic views. In a reply to the questionnaire, "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War" in 1937, Orwell's unpublished reply included the line, "I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender." And in an essay on George Gissing, Orwell wrote that "Doubtless Gissing is right in implying all through his books that intelligent women are very rare animals."

There are certainly plenty of people prepared to dismiss Orwell entirely because of some of his slips of the pen. But Orwell would've insisted that he wasn't at all immune from such thoughts. In fact, he knew he had them, and challenged other intellectuals of his age on the subject. In a review of Sartre's book Portrait of the Anti-Semite, Orwell wrote:

"Race-prejudice of any kind is a neurosis, and it is doubtful whether argument can neither increase or diminish it."

But Orwell doesn't stop there. In his 1945 essay, "Anti-Semitism in Britain," he wrote:

"What vitiates nearly all that is written about anti-Semitism is the assumption in the writer's mind that he himself is immune to it. . . . The trouble is that so long as anti-Semitism is regarded simply as a disgraceful aberration, almost a crime, anyone literate enough to have heard the word will naturally claim to be immune from it. . . . I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual. [italics mine]

There are certainly plenty of people who are prepared to dismiss Orwell entirely because of his occasional slips of the pen. But there seem to be fewer and fewer people who are prepared to look into themselves the way Orwell advised them, and admit that they, too, are guilty of racist or sexist thoughts.

We are right to be outraged when ideas like those of Jimmy "The Greek" are exposed, but we are wrong to pretend that they are so uncommon. There have been countless occasions in my life when, alone with other white men, one or another of them will feel free to say something so scabrously racist or sexist that it is difficult not to laugh at its utter absurdity.

I once incurred the ire of an officer in the Navy when he told an "off-color" joke to a few of us (white) sailors. I asked my supervisor to please let the officer know that I didn't appreciate his joke. I only "outed" the officer because I thought he was an asshole and not because I thought he was racist. This same officer then made it his special project to make my remaining months in the Navy as difficult as possible. Witnessing an officer using his authority to enforce his personal prejudice - or simply the system that gives authority to such an asshole - was just one of reasons why I hated the military and couldn't wait to get out.

I hope it comes as no surprise to those who know me that I freely admit to occasionally having racist and sexist thoughts. But I also have sense enough to know that the prejudices I sometimes feel are irrational and unacceptable. I may not be able to make them go away, ever. But through constant vigilance and circumspection, I can silence them. However much we strive to be right, we are wrong to deny that we can sometimes be very unwise.

There seem to be more and more Pharisees who, on finding a woman in adultery ("in the very act," as John puts it) can think only of stoning her. When Jesus told them "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her," they got up and left, "even unto the last," leaving Jesus alone with the woman. He asked her "Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?" "She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee."

How should we behave, then, who live in glass houses?

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