How Do We Fix Bigots?
The wars for the rights of women, people of color, LBGQT persons and many others that raged throughout the twentieth century were won in the same sense that the Iraq war was won. That is, nobody directly affected by these conflicts, on either side, really considers them over. Every so often there will be another bomb in a marketplace, a suicide attack on a checkpoint: abortion laws in Oklahoma, bathroom laws in North Dakota, Gamergate, Sad Puppies. Like Iraq, we have mostly toppled the legal basis that kept a oppressive regime in power only to see it replaced by chaos and the rise of what could potentially be something worse: Fascist anti-immigrant gangs in the U.K, the Golden Dawn in Greece, Trump in the U.S., the ‘alt-right’ online.
The struggles for social justice in the twentieth century did one thing particularly well: they made bigotry, at least in it’s overt burning-cross-on-the-lawn form, the de-facto mark of evil in our culture. Voldemort was a racist, the Empire and First Order are clearly modeled on Nazis, so were the Daleks, COBRA, HYDRA and too many more to count. We cheered for Django watching a slaver die and Rey powering up a lightsaber. We’ve been so effective at equating hatred and evil that the KKK is trying to rebrand itself as an organization that, shucks, just loves white people so, so much. So effective that the alt-right throws around ‘fascist’ as an insult as much as they do ‘SJW’ or ‘cuck’ (well, not cuck- those guys have some issues to work through.) People who don’t want anyone but straight white men to be able to have the right to artistic expression or representation are recasting themselves as champions of free speech.
Progressives, and I’m including anyone from the most clueless white/male feminist to the hardest of the hardcore activists, have made it so Nazis think that they have to pass as us in order to be heard. White people want to be an oppressed minority, men want to be the second sex, Christians want to be the subject of religious persecution. They’ve convinced themselves that the Others have won, and the only way to get back on top is to become them. No amount of empirical evidence of how this is so not the case can convince them otherwise.
The conflation of bigotry and evil has its benefits of course. We’ll never know how many people would have embraced hate if they hadn’t been shooting hateful people in the halls of Castle Wolfenstein and the streets of the sky-city of Columbia from an early age. Call it brainwashing or propaganda if you will, but art is going to say something, and that something should probably be, on aggregate, something good. However, I would like to propose that it has a drawback, and that drawback is being used by the core of the reactionary movement as a tool to radicalize and recruit people who, in other circumstances, might have been good people.
And it’s because of terms like ‘good people’.
There’s a general consensus in the progressive world, one that I agree with, that blaming poverty or drug use on character flaws in the impoverished and addicted is morally wrong, factually incorrect and will not lead to more than a tiny percentage of the people in these communities deciding to change. These attitudes are the cover for greed and indifference: if the poor are poor because they’re bad or lazy then attempts to help them are doomed to fail, so better to spend our tax dollars on something we know will succeed- like F-35 fighter jets. Worse, they exacerbate the problem by convincing marginalized people that there is no hope, that help isn’t coming. The human mind has a fix for that: internalize it and turn it into a virtue, into a part of their identity. I’ve known more than a few hardcore drug users who considered themselves morally superior to the people they hurt, stole from and used because at least they were being real. Not waking up to find your friends OD’d next to you, not stealing your grandma’s pain medication, having no hallucinatory insects under your skin, that’s fake, it’s bourgeois, phony. You’re living a lie in your ‘house’, with your ‘wife’ and ‘job’ and ‘no psychotic episodes’.
I’d like to advance the theory that a significant number of bigots are created in the same way. Society sees a flaw in them and tells them that it’s their fault, that it’s permanent and that it’s a sure mark that they are fundamentally awful people. Then they set out to make that true.
Nobody is born to hate, but we are born to take the simultaneous overabundance and lack of information about the world and simplify it. If every time we’ve been mugged or assaulted it was by somebody in a red hat we’re going to avoid people in red hats in the future. To personalize this: my parents aren’t fundamentally bad people, but they are from a generation in which attitudes we’d call ‘problematic’ were the norm. When my dad was home late from work and I asked my mum where he was she’d joke that he’d ‘run off with a black lady’. I grew up in a very small, white town, with only one person of color in my class of over thirty and, later, one out gay man. That was literally it for diversity. Later in life, living in major cities, travelling abroad, I noticed something: when I would see somebody who was visibly ‘other’ I would have a reaction; a tiny, barely perceptible ‘ping’ on my internal radar while people who were visibly similar to me were invisible. That ping hasn’t (to my knowledge at least) prevented me from getting along with those ‘others’, being friends with them, loving them even. It doesn’t make me want to strip rights away from the people who appear on my radar, nor did I feel somehow oppressed when I would walk through my old neighborhood in North London and be the only white face. It’s there, it may always be there, and it doesn’t bother me or cause me to bother anyone else.
They’re insignificant, but what if what if I had interpreted those pings as something real? That if people appeared on my radar then it was because they were intrinsically other and perhaps even a threat? What if I had been told that whatever faulty wiring is causing my ‘pings’ was evidence that I was morally corrupt? How should I react to that? It is, after all, some evolutionary throwback to the days when being wary of outsiders was essential to survival, and it’s not going away. Might I not react to being told that I am morally depraved by embracing that label? Making it into an identity? Might I not try to situate it less as an involuntary reflex and more as a rationally chosen political position, with a whole psuedo-history and psuedo-science to back it up?
In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler talks about the first time he saw a Hasidic Jew after moving from a small town to cosmopolitan Vienna: “Was this a Jew?” he asks himself, “was this a German?” He pinged, and found in the anti-Semitic pamphlets that circulated around his adopted city the answers to his questions. Today you can find the same on Breitbart, vDare, Return of Kings, Stormfront and, in dog-whistle format, increasingly in mainstream political discourse. Where are the pamphlets that say “Look, we get it, you feel these things, but they’re going to make you angry and miserable and seriously limit you in your interactions with the world, so here’s how you can get better”?
To give another example, the sub-class of bigots in Gamergate were able to draw in and ‘red pill’ enough people to cause real damage to their targets’ lives because they were able to persuade formerly apolitical gamers that they, as a group, had be slandered as racists and misogynists. Pointing to the so-called ‘Gamers Are Dead’ articles that spoke out against the harassment Zoe Quinn was receiving at the hands of a mob led by an ex boyfriend, they essentially said: “the gaming press has called you bigots because you play videogames, and you’re not bigots, right? They’re holding you personally responsible for those actual misogynists who harassed Zoe Quinn. So to show that gamers aren’t bigots why don’t we all harass the hell out of Zoe Quinn and while we’re doing that have you heard about White Genocide?” It’s not for nothing that Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer, who has a swastika on his chest, praised Gamergate as a great recruiting tool for white nationalism.
We refer to hatred of identity groups as phobias: xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia. What if we were to treat them as phobias? Treat them like they aren’t necessarily moral failings (though they can definitely turn into them), but the result of an admixture of nature, nurture and a master narrative that is still overwhelmingly white, male, cis, hetero and so on. What if treatment programs could be developed to help people overcome this debilitating condition?
This wouldn’t be an easy task, and it’s one that would have to come from the top down, from governments, in order to be effective, but there are reasons that they would choose to do this. If we take police departments alone, conscious and unconscious racism is costing taxpayers billions in compensation claims. Members of minority groups who could contribute to the economy, the arts and sciences being sidelined in favor of mediocre white males is causing inestimable economic harm- who knows how the world could be better if the playing field was leveled and we operated as a true meritocracy? How much productivity is lost because of mental illness caused by the trauma associated with discrimination? What are we paying in healthcare costs because of the impacts of said trauma on physical health? How do the biases of citizens being translated into the policies of pandering governments affect national security? Leaders have a monetary incentive to treat hatred as a social problem, as do corporations losing money to discrimination claims and harassment suits, who can’t hire the best and brightest because their HR people instinctively put resumes with ethnic names to the bottom of the pile.
Note that I’d make a distinction between treating something as a mental illness and believing that it is one. Mental illnesses, broadly anything originating in the brain that has an adverse affect on a person’s life or the lives of others, have a complex web of cause and effect. Some people develop depression after a traumatic event, for others it just happens, likely because of genetic factors. However, there aren’t powerful social forcing telling you to be depressed and there aren’t groups of people who consider depression to be a virtue and look to inspire it in others (except from Goths, obviously.) Bigotry may have vague evo-psych causes, but society and culture can it pathological. I somehow missed out on my indoctrination into the cis-hetero-shitlord clique, but another white, male, vegetarian, tee-total, struggling artist didn’t.
Also note, that I wouldn’t advocate that the victims of bigotry cease calling people out on their shit in the name of treating the damaged people who propagate hatred with compassion. It’s okay to get mad. You’ll be the stick, and the promise of no longer having to be afraid all of the time and thereby missing out on everything good will be the carrot.
So what can you do right now to fix the bigots around you? If you happen to be a psychologist, there’s a lot of research that needs to be done on how to transition people out of destructive ideologies of all kinds- cult intervention might be a good place to pick up ideas. If you’re an artist, it could mean showing bigotry as a character flaw common to everyone, not just the guys getting Captain America’s shield in their faces. Show that changing harmful thought patterns is something normal and beneficial, but in not so After School Special ways. If you’re a decision-maker in an organization, question whether zero-tolerance policies for discrimination are actively reducing bigotry or making it invisible, and if possible find ways to tell the bigots that might be lurking in your office or school that they can get help. For the rest of us it means, where possible, telling the bigots in our lives that yes, there’s something wrong with them but that thing can be fixed and it doesn’t mean that they’re excluded from the greater community.