What’s Good about Bigotry?
I am going to answer this question (and yes, it does have a real answer). It is essential to any real thought about genocide. First, though, two things that appeared on Twitter this week:
“I am not a racist. I don’t even see race, not even my own. People tell me I’m white, and I believe them because I just devoted six minutes to explaining how I am not a racist.” – Stephen Colbert
This has been an interesting week for me. I’ve gotten into three separate discussions with people who truly believed that they (or theirs) have absolutely, positively, zero bigotry. This is an attitude that comes close to terrifying me. It is the best possible setup for huge conflicts. It’s a soup of self-justification that is very, very easy for people to fall into. But friends, woe betide us if we do.
Woe betide us, because what we deny, we become blind to.
Woe betide us, because if we’re unwilling to admit the possibility that we could be wrong, we will be unwilling to admit that others are hurt by what we do and say.
Woe betide us, because when we pretend to stop seeing difference, we stop seeing others as unique human beings.
We all have prejudice. We all have bigotry. It is valuable to us in several ways. The latest science shows that infants develop preferences for certain people before they are a year old. They prefer people that are familiar to them. This is a shortcut for an infant; they learn who to ask for food, and who will actually help them get their needs met.
Another positive value of bigotry is that it is a shortcut to other people’s intentions. You may not wish to be biased against people with severe psychosis. After all, illness is terrible. You’ll still avoid the guy talking gibberish to himself on the street, though, and teach your children to do the same. You have learned that people who do that are unpredictable, and unpredictability is dangerous to humans. You may be judging that person wrongly, but the mechanism to make a snap judgement is there to protect you.
Finally, there is a deep value to admitting to having bigotry. It enables you to listen when people tell you that the things that you are doing are harmful to them. It enables you to see your reactions to others for what they are. It enables you to do the work of figuring out which bigotry is useful and which is not useful. It enables you to be engaged with yourself and the world on a deeper level. To me, that is the greatest gift of bigotry: when it is conscious, it gives you the power to understand yourself and others better.
You don’t have to fight all the bigotry in the world. The best work you do is in learning about and fighting it in your own attitudes, your own ideas, and your own life. This should not bring you shame. It should be freeing.
On a final note, I would encourage you, if you live in Los Angeles, New York, or Jerusalem (or are visiting those cities) to seek out the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. They have many, many resources exploring different types of bigotry and how they have played out in world affairs.