And How We Keep It Going

We have had a lot of it recently, much of it directed at Muslims.  I think it fair to say that bigoted minds are made up and closed.  But how does that happen?

Nicholas Kristof reminded us last Sunday how much a part of American history it has been:  “Screeds against Catholics from the 19th century sounded just like the invective today against the Not-at-Ground-Zero Mosque.”  And there have been similar attacks against Germans, Italians, Chinese and other immigrants.

“During World War I, rumors spread that German-Americans were poisoning food, and Theodore Roosevelt warned that ‘Germanized socialists’ were ‘more mischievous than bubonic plague.’”  The public was  “warned that Jews were plotting to destroy the United States. . . .  A 1940 survey found that 17 percent of Americans considered Jews to be a ‘menace to America.’”

“Chinese in America were denounced, persecuted and lynched, while the head of a United States government commission publicly urged in 1945 ‘the extermination of the Japanese in toto.’”

Kristof adds a vital insight about the motives of bigotry:  “The starting point isn’t hatred but fear: an alarm among patriots that newcomers don’t share their values, don’t believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.”  (See, “America’s History of Fear.”)

Kristof’s point is important.  We tend get angry at those who frighten us, and if the threat continues we want to get rid of those who cause it.  But that’s not all.  Ignorance about the other is required.  Some fears are not founded, some threats not real.  Almost by definition, bigotry is directed against those we fear but have no substantial reason to fear, as Kristof’s examples illustrate.  Otherwise, we are seeing real dangers, real enemies.

This takes us to a crucial question: how does ignorance about others take hold and thrive?  To begin with, it is far easier to fear those who have different customs and beliefs.  Their very differences can cause us to be suspicious.  But ignorance gets a considerable assist from bystanders who know better but don’t speak up.  It gets support from a kind of group consensus that thrives when those who have exposure to information and knowledge are silenced.

That is much of the problem now.  One motive for keeping silent is timidity, fear of challenging prevailing opinions.  It is now well known, for example, that bullies thrive when bystanders don’t want to get involved.  Another motive for silence is self-interest.  Historically bigotry has thrived when jobs were threatened.  New votes will eventually change the balance of political power.

So we might be asking ourselves right now: what do some of us stand to gain by not speaking up about the misinformation and distortions being spread about Muslims?   Why might we prefer to stand on the sidelines and watch this bigotry grow?

Hated often starts from fear, as Kristof points out.  But what do we have to gain from letting it run its course?