Bigotry, these days, is a subject treated very much like a supernatural monster. Racism, sexism, and homophobia exert an outsized influence on the popular imagination. They are our vampires, werewolves, and zombies. And precisely because of their exaggerated power, while many people fear them, others deny their very existence.
To be accused of being a racist is little different from being charged with sorcery. Anyone so tagged becomes a pariah. Humanity recoils from such an individual as it once might have shrunk from one familiar with the devil. That this is true precisely because racism is no longer considered acceptable in decent society is largely lost on those who see a racist under every rock.
Racism is still, very sadly, real. So, too, are sexism and homophobia, though the latter two still lag behind racism in witching power. The problem develops when people are accused of these faults whether they’re guilty or not. As in colonial Salem, the charge alone is sufficiently damning and needs no proof.
To be accused of being a racist is little different from being charged with sorcery. Anyone so tagged becomes a pariah.
Most bigots don’t think they’re bigots. Their beliefs are misguided, but they’re based in something other than themselves. No one sets out to be a bigot. What sounds like prejudice to others sounds, to them, like the truth.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia — that unholy trinity — are said to simply exist, like the Blob. People in public life are branded, especially as racists, with no thought to their motivation. Any insensitive remark can be cited as proof. The Blob can strike anyone, anywhere.
Some people simply say stupid things. And sometimes, after they’ve said them, they change their minds. Finding a bigot under every rock casts doubt on the entire enterprise. Very often the motive to smear an individual shows more clearly than the motive to hate the members of a particular group of people.
What happens when the charge is factual? Do real bigots suffer much when they’re exposed? When, for every real bigot, there are 20 unjustly accused, which real bigots really suffer?
Free speech tends to show people in a true light. If people aren’t deathly afraid to say the wrong thing, genuine racists, sexists, and homophobes will say what they have to say; but when speech is chilled, everyone is careful. Real bigots can hide.
When, for every real bigot, there are 20 unjustly accused, which real bigots really suffer?
I want to know what people think about me. They shouldn’t need to hide. Not that it makes much difference to me that some may irrationally hate a group I’m part of. I’m an individual, and everyone whose opinion I value judges me as such. The free market will deal harshly with those who wouldn’t serve me because of any circumstance I can’t change — if I even wanted to.
A sort of hysteria has overtaken us. At any time, any one of us could be branded guilty of criminal thought. That’s what bigotry really is — thought. But only those who act upon their hate are truly dangerous. If they can hide, simply refraining from saying the wrong things, we’re defenseless against the actions they may sometime decide to take.
In the hierarchy of accepted speech, certain forms of prejudice are perfectly acceptable. At the other end of the ladder, some people are suspected of bigotry simply by circumstance. Now certain political views come under automatic suspicion. Even wearing a red cap is enough to evoke suspicion. We live in a frightfully irrational age, and the fright is visited on all of us. How many points do I have in the aggrievement Olympics? Two: I’m female and gay. Others will always outrank me. I have to watch my step.
Aggrievement isn’t power. It’s weakness. People obsessed with how badly they’re treated are not masters of their own fate.
The free market will deal harshly with those who wouldn’t serve me because of any circumstance I can’t change — if I even wanted to.
None of the vigilance against bigotry makes me feel safe. Our guards are trigger-happy. In their extremity and sheer irrationality, they’ve turned those who really hate me into heroes. Not surprisingly, standing up to a charge of bigotry has become an act of courage — a mark of integrity.
I think I’ll take my chances alongside those who resist the witch hunt. That sometimes puts me in strange company. But bigotry is on the wane, and the very atmosphere of hysteria — of unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims of bigotry — is proof that it is. Someday, sane people will realize that. When we’ve all been branded, branding will no longer loom as a threat.
In the meantime, I still don’t have enough points. Surely that ought to count as a handicap. May I have another point?