Although I tend to think of myself as a liberal person, in recent years the ideas and behaviors that pass as liberal have become more and more disturbing to me. Ideally, I think, to be liberal would mean to be open to a wide range of ideas and possibilities, and to allow people to think and behave differently without punishment or marginalization. But recently, liberalness seems to have become about forcing everyone to have the same, seemingly enlightened, opinions. Opinions which are supposedly tolerant and non-judgmental. Racism, sexism, homophobia, islamaphobia, antisemitism, transphobia… labels like birther and climate-change denier… all these concepts are used like battering rams to force every mind into compliance with the right, the good way of thinking. And I don’t like it. Although I can relate.
The first time Obama ran for president, I didn’t vote because none of the candidates supported gay marriage. I remember Hillary saying she coudn’t condone it due to her deep spirituality (although, miraculously, just like Barack Obama, she has recently had a change of heart). Gay marriage was my number one issue. It felt symbolic to me. Rainbow flags, the very word “gay” with its connotation of happy levity… I naively believed that once gay people were accepted, everyone would be accepted. I would be accepted. People everywhere would drop their masks and let their true selves come forward. Unicorns would walk the streets. So passionate was I about gay rights, I told James I couldn’t marry him unless he would dance in a gay parade. Something which, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he wasn’t keen to do.
James and I would have our worst fights about politically charged issues, like abortion. It enraged him that women would kill innocent babies just so they could continue their debased, sex in the city lifestyle, and I would freak out about all the innocent preteen girls dying as they gave birth to rape-induced babies. He would get choked up as he thought of the poor dad whose first child was killed in the womb without him having any say in the matter; I thought James was being disingenuous to call a single celled organism a child, and if he really was that sensitive then he should be a vegetarian.
Plus, we would argue about black people. Race was a sensitive subject for me. In my mind, black people had become symbolic of my own vulnerable self, of every time I had been abused or treated unfairly. It was easy for black people to assume a symbolic role in my mind, since, to a large extent, I didn’t really know any. Growing up, the black people I knew were mostly housekeepers or waiters at the country club, casting a benevolent and helpful aura around them in my imagination, as though they were a little closer to the angels. Whereas James grew up in a mixed-race world where blacks and whites married, fought, and interacted on equal footing. Which gave him a different view of things like affirmative action. I thought of it in an abstract sense- trying to help a race heal from historical oppression. James thought of it in a more concrete sense- his next door neighbor getting an unfair advantage because of his skin-tone. He didn’t see why he should have to be weirdly sensitive to the black guy sitting next to him in the kingdom hall, stabbing him with a ballpoint pen.
But I really hated fighting with James. Eventually, I decided I would have to stretch my brain out, until I could see things from his point of view. And when I did, I could see that his ideas were valid- he was just reaching different conclusions because he was viewing things from a different place. When I looked at life through his lens, suddenly his ideas and feelings- once reprehensible to me- made sense. Slowly, it dawned on me that my strong feelings weren’t really about gays, black people, or feminism (another point of contention)- these issues had just become symbols for my own wants and needs, my own hurts and pains. And my anger about these issues was really displaced anger, from things that happened to me that I didn’t like. To the extent that I could detach my brain from its baggage and emotional associations, to the extent that I could let it fly free, I saw that, well, maybe a person could want to keep marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution without hating gay people, because, in reality, the only thing that means you hate gay people is actually hating gay people.
And I could also see that it didn’t really matter if any random person did hate gay people, so long as he didn’t set out to hurt them. If he does hate them, odds are that they are a symbol in his mind of something or someone that has caused him pain. We all have these personal symbols, I think, which cause us to irrationally like or dislike certain things and people. Many people who become irate in the face of homophobia make no secret of their aversion to Republican rednecks and religious fanatics. So, considering that it is difficult to even conceive of a person without prejudice, it seems we have no choice but to try and tolerate prejudice in others. If someone did want to wipe out prejudice, their only real option would be to try to wipe out their own prejudices, whatever those might be. However, we tend to view our own prejudices as harmless quirks, not the major threat to society that someone else’s prejudice poses.
There are so many forms of prejudice, so many reasons why people feel superior to others, that it would be impossible to even list them. Wealth, fashion, weight, education, age, career, popularity, sophistication, worldliness, accent, grammar, hair, vehicles, philosophies, diet, opinions, religion, house size, personal size, nationality, lineage, IQ… the list could go on forever. There is no reason to believe that the next Hitler would be an anti-semite. Maybe he would kill people with low IQs or else people with high ones. Likewise, there is no reason to believe that black people will be the slaves of the future- maybe it will poor people, or else rich ones. The devil never does what you expect him to; he is always sneaking up in your blind spot.
The fashionable isms of our day are just tiny drops in an ocean of potential evil. If we could somehow make it impossible for anyone to think a sexist thought, the world would be no better off, because the feelings and bad intentions that fuel one sort of evil can just as easily fuel another, like demons who leap with ease from one body to the next. Sexism is just a form that evil can inhabit- it is not the evil itself.
Which is why I think it is dangerous to go over the world with a microscope, looking only for examples of the evil du jour, while ignoring the bigger picture, which is that we all have crosses to bear and we all need protection from the devil. Or, to bring myself back to the point (sometimes I get carried away when thinking about demons), we are all both the carriers and recipients of prejudice, probably more than we realize. It is when many minds start to merge and congeal around shared ideas, everyone throwing their own emotional baggage into the mix, that I start to get uncomfortable. A large number of people who hate homophobes is more dangerous than the lone skinhead, in my opinion. And when a groupmind starts trying to wipe out the minds that disagree with it, then things can get downright scary. Once everybody shares a prejudice, it doesn’t even seem to be a prejudice anymore- it’s just reality. That must be when the devil really has a field day.
So, I would think, maybe the next time someone says the “n” word, or implies that Jews are good with money, women are bad at math, or gay kisses are gross, maybe, rather than unleash a torrent of righteous anger, we could just try to understand where they are coming from. I don’t think there is any danger in that. Sometimes, when you move your mind to encompass another person’s position, it enables their mind to move in the process.