Thursday, November 28, 2013

Beyond Good and Evil

Ta-Nehisi Coates says some very wise things regarding whether Stephen Alec Baldwin is a "bigot":
Alwan believes that we shouldn't, "make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves." I reject the notion that "bigot" is a "global judgement." Aside from Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, no single white person may be more responsible for the destruction of slavery than William Sherman. But Uncle Billy was—even in his own time—a reconstructed bigot and white supremacist. This is neither shocking nor particularly complicated. There is no reason why one could not, on the one hand believe, that slavery should have ended, and also believed that black people were inferior and worthy of a lesser place in society. "Bigot" is not a polite way of saying "child-molester" or "serial killer" or "genocidal maniac" or even asshole. And it does not automatically blot out one's other qualities such as "caring father," "good husband," "charitable giver," or "supporter of marriage equality."

Black people—who have spent much of the history living around, working for, or working with actual bigots but have not had the luxury of dismissing them "globally"—understand this. I suspect that women—who have, for some time, had to live around, work with, and work for sexists and misogynists, but have not had the luxury of "globally" dismissing them—understand this too. And I suspect the LGBT community, where people must function in families with other people who believe their lifestyle to be a sin, understand this as well. If you are gay your father or mother could be a "homophobic bigot," but you might well love him all the same. For a significant period of American history it was common for black people to have fathers who were white supremacists. Some of us hated our fathers. But for many of us, the feeling was somehow more complicated.

The ability to "globally" label anyone is a privilege that people who live with a boot on their neck don't really enjoy. We see people as complicated, because we must, because your tormentor one moment might be your liberator the next. This is not theoretical. In 1863, General James Longstreet led an Army that kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery. Ten years later, Longstreet was leading black soldiers in a courageous, if doomed, campaign against white terrorists in Louisiana.
This is a very important insight. In contemporary parlance, "bigot" or "racist" or "anti-Semite" all refer -- and can only refer -- to someone on par with Hitler or the Klan (that is to say, "genocidal maniacs"). This seems like it should be a great victory for the anti-racist, anti-anti-Semitic, and anti-bigotry crowd. It isn't. As Coates observes, it flattens the enormous pluralism that comprises a racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise bigoted social sphere, which includes a wide range of attitudes and behaviors that often lie quite far from (and may be held in opposition to) these blood-thirsty extremes. But perhaps more importantly, it stunts our ability to think about bigotry in all but the most superficial and unproductive ways.

As the defense of Baldwin demonstrates, structuring our thoughts about bigotry so it is synonymous with "unmitigated evildoer" only acts to shield the majority of bigoted attitudes and activity from scrutiny. The analysis becomes simple: (1) Alec is accused of being a bigot; (2) to be a bigot is to be a monster; (3) Alec is not a monster; therefore (4) Alec is not a bigot. This applies when we are appraising other people, and it clearly applies when thinking about ourselves: it is a rare person who -- taking the "bigot-as-moral-monster" approach -- will proceed to think "why yes, I am a disgraceful human being with no redeeming characteristics." More likely, we'll reject the appraisal, and aggressively denounce the person who made such a transparently ludicrous and offensive characterization of us.

The net effect of this outlook is that racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry are so serious that they don't exist. It is pretty clear who benefits from that state of affairs, and it is not those still under the heel of these oppressions. It is to the advantage of those who hold onto or benefit from bigotry and oppression to have such things defined as the sole province of history's greatest monsters, for few would be so bold (and fewer would be convinced) that any sizable chunk of the population is such a creature.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Good points. It's Alec Baldwin, by the way, not Stephen Baldwin.