Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Facing the Faces of Prejudice

I was so shocked and saddened to hear the ignorant, hateful anti-Israel comments made by Helen Thomas. I couldn’t believe it at first, I mean, she’s Helen Thomas! I have always greatly admired her for her tenacity, her pluckiness, the sheer reliability of her presence at every White House briefing and press conference, asking the tough questions, always appearing unbiased and fair, a seemingly pure journalist, by which I mean one who checked her preconceived notions, if she had any (and we all do), at the door. She was all about getting the news, the unbiased news, and nothing but the news. I thought she was great, a trailblazing woman in what was, when she started, a profession dominated by men. Again, I submit to you: she’s Helen Thomas! Surely Helen Thomas couldn’t be ignorant about anything, let alone be prejudiced or even perhaps hateful. Surely no one who is obviously intelligent and thoughtful, bright and questioning, could also be prejudiced...could they? Frighteningly and confusingly, the short answer is: yes.

I had a very wise teacher in college (June Edson, wherever you are, your teachings are still remembered and appreciated by your students) who told us that, in life, people are always trying to present things as “either/or”, when very often the reality is actually “both/and”. “Both/and” is more complex, complicated and therefore harder to make sense of and understand. Therefore, us humans tend to try to make everything “either/or”, because complexity is challenging. To think that Helen Thomas could be all those good qualities I listed above AND also be ignorant and prejudiced is confusing, and produces cognitive dissonance...yet people are, in fact, a confusing, contradictory amalgam of qualities. People are often “both/and”, much as it sometimes shocks us.

I felt the same shock and cognitive dissonance when Michael Richards, the brilliant actor/comedian who played “Kramer” on one of my all-time favorite TV shows, “Seinfeld”, erupted in an ugly slew of raw racial slurs at a heckler during one of his shows. No, it can’t be, I thought. It can’t be. How can someone who is so bright and sensitive (I believe an actor has to be sensitive in order to be a good actor, and Michael Richards is a damn good actor) and wonderful, ALSO be so full of unbridled hate? Now, true, in that case he was provoked and his anger, even rage, at the heckler in question was understandable, but NOT the words he chose to hurl at the guy. It showed a raw, ugly prejudice and hate that was right there under the surface and, as I said, I was shocked. I didn’t expect that from him, any more than I expected what I heard from Helen Thomas, or from a neighbor of mine who is soft-spoken and seems kind, yet often when our paths intersect as we are walking our respective dogs, she will make a comment about how she doesn’t like how “the gays have taken over the neighborhood.” I believe very strongly that, when you come face to face with prejudice and/or ignorance and/or hate, it is very important to stand up to it by making it clear that you do NOT agree with it, otherwise, if you remain silent, you are somehow complicit. So I always respond to my neighbor with something like “Well, I don’t care what anyone’s sexual preference is, as long as they are good neighbors, and actually, all the problem houses on and around our block seem to be populated by straight folks, as a matter of fact.” When I come face to face with prejudice, I try to respond in a way that not only makes it clear that I don’t agree with the statement, but also in a way that attempts to help the person somehow see the light, i.e., to see that they are being prejudiced, without me actually coming out and screaming “OMG, YOU ARE PREJUDICED!” I think it is better to try gently to undo some of their prejudice, than to come at them judgmentally in a way that makes them dig their heels in. And in the case of my neighbor, I’ve been able to get into a discussion with her that way and to learn that she actually thinks that, well, yes, now that you mention it, “they” are some of the best neighbors on the block, “even though I don’t agree with their lifestyle”. Okay, well, slight progress: she at least thought about things for a moment and realized that “they”—or at least the members of “they” that she knows of—are actually pretty decent neighbors.

It is challenging to think that not all ignorance, prejudice and hatred comes from people you would think of as being bad people. Sometimes it comes in bright, intelligent, sensitive, otherwise kind packages. This makes it even scarier, somehow, because we want to hate hatred right back. We don’t want it to be all enmeshed in a package that has good in there, that we don’t know what to do with, response-wise. But the hopeful part of that picture is: if there is a person in there, maybe they can be reached and helped to understand instead of to hate. This is why programs that bring together members of groups who tend to see each other as a subhuman “they” are so important and so effective at combating hatred, bridging differences, and fostering understanding and tolerance. For example, there are groups that bring together Israeli and Palestinian children, and the kids come away with a whole new understanding of “the other”. The “they” is no longer a subhuman enemy, but they are human faces, with human feelings, stories and history just like their own. When you realize and feel a common humanity with “the other”, then you can’t hate them anymore. Because they are you and you are they. The Palestinian kids come away with Jewish friends and the Jewish kids come away with Palestinian friends. So now forevermore when they hear hateful things about “them”, they aren’t a “them” anymore, they are a Sarah or an Omar, they are children just like themselves, with dreams and hopes and fears. They are human beings. We are all more likely to tolerate our fellow human beings, to make peace with our fellow human beings, than we are to tolerate and make peace with a “them”.

Just as the line from the musical “South Pacific” said that hatred “has to be carefully taught”, so too does tolerance, respect for diversity and understanding that we all share a common humanity. So when you are suddenly surprised to see the face of prejudice in front of you in a form you didn’t expect, try not to turn away in shock and dismay. Try instead to do something scary, challenging, but important: try to look that human face directly in the eyes and think: how can I respond in a way that has a chance of enlightening, instead of either remaining silent or simply judging? Because building a world of tolerance and understanding is something that we all have to commit to working on, and the way we work on it is to face bigotry head on whenever we see it in ourselves or others, stand up to it, and try to reach around and beyond it and grab for understanding of our universal humanity. Look beyond the ignorance, prejudice and hate in the person’s eye and see if you see any glimmer of light. If so, that’s what you try to reach and teach. That’s how we build a tolerant, peaceful world.