Am I Racist for Feeling X?

This is the question Bill Maher asks, answers in the affirmative, then says, “and I don’t apologize for it.”

Wow, what bravery on the part of that Bill Maher and Juan Williams.

First of all, unless we’re talking Archie Bunker (and often even if we are) it’s almost always better to refer to actions rather than persons as “racist.”

So are feelings “actions?” How about thoughts? I think they’re both “actions” but of a special kind; let’s call them covert behaviors to distinguish them from overt actions, things we can observe.

Now I think a lot of what we think and feel we inherit from our parents, one another, and the culture at large. I also happen to believe a lot of what we think and even more of what we feel is reactionary, in response to our environment. Think skin flushing, hair standing on end, or the human sexual response. Largely involuntary, in my view.

So I don’t hold people morally responsible when they say, “look, this is what’s in my heart.”

The moral question for me is, what are you going to do with it?

It’s one thing to say, “hey I have this biased thought or feeling and I struggle with that because I know it’s not true.” It’s quite another to say, “hey I have this thought or feeling and I’m going to proclaim its truth from the highest balcony.”

It’s one thing to say “I have this biased thought or feeling and I know it says much more about me and my struggles than anything else.” This, I think, is an act of humility and considerable social courage.

It’s quite another to say “I have this thought or feeling and I regard it uncritically as a fully accurate representation of a reality outside of me.” That’s an act of bigotry, as well as cowardice, in my view.

The bigotry comes from generalizing about others uncritically based on one’s own experience. The cowardice comes from refusing to stand up to social pressures that legitimize and invite us to hate the group du jour.

Just me.

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Juan Williams & the Culture of Hate

I’ve been listening to a lot of the chatter that followed the firing of Juan Williams from National Public Radio. It falls neatly into two categories, but not the ones we’ve come to expect. And the party missing from the conversation — sidelined, perhaps — is all the more interesting for not trying to speak up.

Of course any conversation about culture has to involve the right – they’re the ones who invented the culture wars, after all. So the right is well represented by way of the steam they’re letting off.

The meme is familiar. Liberals — the source of all terrestrial evil — have once again conspired to infringe upon the civil liberties of good, patriotic, well-meaning conservatives. The victims, once again, are those poor souls who love their country so much they’re saying “what must be said,” trying only to expand the bounds of our civic discourse and thus improving our democracy. Their only presumable sin is to speak what is presumably on everyone’s mind.

These battered and wounded defenders of truth and freedom feel bludgeoned by the baton of “political correctness” under whose oppressive yoke they struggle to tell a very important “truth” — if only those evil liberals who control the media (and, presumably, the White House) would let them.

It’s enough to make you want your country back.

Eternally thoughtful (as only they can be) about the distinction between governments and private entities, the right doesn’t hesitate to describe NPR’s actions as censorship. Indignant and outraged over the firing, they are threatening to “stop watching” NPR and even calling for defunding it.

So much for the right. Now you’d expect the blowback to come from the left, no? No.

The other party to the conversation comes from those eminently calm, thoughtful, educated, mature, and responsible citizens who occupy the political “middle”.

You know these folks. They promise the light of reason where others provide only the heat of argument. They don’t shout. In fact, you’d get the impression reading or listening to them they’re not passionate about much at all (ok, maybe literature or the arts); certainly not about politics.

Here, in the “middle,” one finds not partisans (gasp!) but the understandable attempt to turn down the volume and analyze “the issues” in as dispassionate a way possible.

Here the sin is not to be liberal or politically correct so much as to have a horse in this race, to care enough to take sides in the culture wars. So yes, for them liberals also suck because they’re partisans, which makes them, for the middlers, equivalent to conservatives.

Middlers know and preach the truth of “there’s always another side to the story,” by which they mean each side is as good as any other. Thus standing in the middle expresses the highest form of intellectual, moral, and civic virtue. I like to call this the model of the citizen or journalist as jurist: dispassionate and unconcerned with “taking sides.”

In the “middle” one finds concern in the place of outrage, and thoughtful critique in place of diatribe. So while the right denounced the fact of Juan Williams’ firing, the middle turns its attention to analyzing the way in which he was fired, and what this means for the profession of journalism.

Both sides are united by more than a belief that liberals are bad, however. They share an assumption that there are things it is OK for a journalist to say on NPR but not on Fox (or perhaps even MSNBC). Most importantly, however, they both operate under the tacit assumption that Juan Williams was fired not because of what he said but because he violated the rules of an organization, in this case NPR.

The right, of course, finds no legitimacy in those rules whatsoever, while folks in the “middle” are trying to analyze or legitimate them. However, both the right and “the middle” seem to believe there is little to nothing wrong with what Juan Williams said. Jay Rosen, speaking on NPR puts it very directly at about 16:45 into the talk show:

“I don’t think that the specific words he uttered were really all that bad and deserved a firing in and of themselves.”

When this is taken as a given, without debate, it follows quite naturally that the attention be placed on NPR, its rules, and how it enforces them (or Fox’s, MSNBC’s, whoever’s). What I’m going to argue is that — whatever NPR’s stated reasons for the firing — it was perfectly appropriate to fire Juan Williams; not on journalistic but on moral grounds.

In order to do that, I have to point to the words I take to be grounds for firing, not just from NPR, but from any organization that claims to speak authoritatively on matters of political or public consequence:

“Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

First of all, I have to tell you, on a personal note, how reassured I am whenever anyone prefaces a remark with the disclaimer that s/he is not a bigot. “I’m not racist, but…” “Nothing against gays, but…” Whew. Looks like the idea occurred to at least one of us, though.

Kind of like when someone tells you a dream and then immediately says, “but it’s not about my mother.” But I digress.

Juan Williams prefaces his “truth” by establishing his bona fides as a non-bigot and as a civil rights warrior. Then this role model for us all tells us how frightened he is when boarding a plane and seeing individuals in “Muslim garb.”

As if each and every hijacker or terrorist, now and forever, wears Muslim garb.

As if he’s never heard of people being judged by their appearance, clothing, or the color of their skin.

As if we have more to fear from terrorists abroad than right here at home (I’m looking at you, Operation Rescue, Timothy McVeigh, and the Tea Party).

Think, Juan. That’s what they pay you for, isn’t it? To think before you speak?

What Juan Williams did, from the standpoint of someone on the left like me, is to legitimate hatred. He didn’t say, “I struggle with my fear of Muslims (that only benefits terrorists foreign and domestic),” he said, “hey, it’s OK to fear these people, I fear them myself.”

What he could have said is, “hey, the terrorists have won – they’ve gotten me to hate and suspect fellow Americans. Isn’t that great news for Al-Qaeda and those who benefit politically from ads like these?”

What Juan Williams did was give the green light to those who think it’s OK to ask Muslims to move their center out of TriBeCa. After all, we have a long history of Karl Lindners (always speaking from the thoughtful “middle”) asking certain families to move because of the “sensitivities” of the current residents.

Those sensitivities have to be respected, you see. And by respected we don’t mean listened to and understood but acted on.

Why? Because conservatives feel them, not liberals.

And of course, if you feel something, you have an obligation to say it. That’s a civic virtue known to every third-grader. Just ask yourself: where would we be as a civilization if we started keeping certain thoughts and feelings to ourselves?

Snark aside, and believe it or not, I’m actually quite down with honesty. In fact, I daresay I especially appreciate the unique courage it takes for people to confess a thought, feeling, or impulse they’re not too proud of, especially to someone they may barely know.

But that’s not what happened. What happened was Juan Williams consummating his years-long love affair with a network that spews hatred of liberals, gays, Muslims, Latinos, women, intellectuals, and the poor 24 hours a day. He consummated it with the words, “Oh, Bill, I hate too,” to which Bill replied, “of course it’s OK.”

“Come here,” said Sith Lord O’Reilly. I can hear Juan Williams crying into Bill’s arms even now. “You were right about those evil liberals, Bill.”

“Of course I was. There, there. Hey look, what about two million dollars?”

From my perspective, we don’t choose many of the thoughts and feelings we have. But we do get to choose our actions. Giving voice to hatred without in any way trying to suggest acting on it is wrong is, well, for partisan leftists like me anyway, just wrong.

What Peggy Olson Should Have Said to Joan Holloway

At the end of Mad Men Season 4, Episode 8 (“The Summer Man”) Joan takes Peggy to task for firing Joey, the copy editor who drew and posted a rather vulgar picture of her. In the final scene, inside an elevator, Peggy tells Joan what she did, with some pride. Joan replies with considerable sarcasm and anger.

“I don’t know if you heard, but I fired Joey.”

“I did, and good for you.”

“I defended you!”

“You defended yourself. All you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary, and you’re a humorless bitch.”

The scene ends before we get a chance to see what, if anything, Peggy said in response. Here’s what I would love to have watched Peggy say back to Joan:

“Look, Joan. I’m well aware of the fact that you used to be my boss. But you’re not any more. And even if you were, that doesn’t authorize you to use that kind of language with me, which is totally out of line. I would never address you in such a manner and hope you would extend me the same courtesy.”

“Now if I hear you correctly, you’re saying you were handling Joey and his crowd your way, and that by firing him I undermined you, demonstrated a lack of a sense of humor, and behaved like a ‘bitch.’

“I need to apologize for the way I just presented firing Joey, as something I did to protect you or earn your approval. That’s wrong. You don’t need protecting, and firing someone is not and should never be done as a personal favor to someone. I’m sorry I presented it that way to you just now.

“Truth is, I fired Joey for three reasons. First and foremost is the fact that it’s wrong for any member of our workplace to harass another. Period. What Joey did was harassment, and that has no place in this company, regardless of who does it to whom.

“Second, after speaking with Joey, I got the sense that he really didn’t understand what harassment is, how it affects people, or how his behavior was a prime example.

“Third, I couldn’t reassure myself or the people I’m responsible for in this workplace that Joey would not harass again. Indeed, given the incredibly dismissive and disrespectful way he treated me and the situation to the very end, it seemed quite likely.

“Now should I have given him a second chance? I don’t know, and that’s something I’ll have to deal with. And Joan, I think you know me well enough to know I have a sense of humor, regardless of whether others share it or see it.

“But you know something? I don’t think I’ve ever had to prove that to anyone, even when I was a ‘lowly secretary.’

“I fired Joey because I believe it was the right thing to do, both morally as well as in the best interests of this company, not because I think it is what you would have wanted.

“Now here’s what I think happened. I think you have a very powerful behind-the-scenes way of handling people like Joey, and I admire that. At the same time, I have a responsibility to my team and to this office that you don’t, so I had to act out in the open.

“Joan, it doesn’t have to be your way or my way. I did what I did as a boss, and you did what you did as a co-worker. Neither one of them has to be opposed to the other.

“Now with all due respect, I think you believe a number of things that I just don’t. You may believe that boys will be boys, that little can be expected of them by way of manners and respect, that it’s OK, fun, or even funny to treat women the way you were treated, that it’s humorless to assert otherwise, or that there’s something intrinsically unfeminine about wielding more overt forms of power.

“You and I may even disagree more than me and Joey on what constitutes harassment. But you know what? I have a responsibility to act on those complaints in a manner that’s transparent and open, which you don’t have.

“My main concern now is the fact that you feel your position was compromised by my actions, and that you feel belittled by the way I handled things. Going forward, I hope to mend fences with you and not step on your toes ever again. So let’s keep talking about this and see if either of our thoughts change afterwards.”

The Difference Between Explaining & Apologizing Redux

To illustrate what I was talking about in my last post, here’s some excerpts from Carl Paladino’s “apology” for making some of the most homophobic comments I’ve heard out loud in a long time. I added my translation right under some of his choicer words.

“I am not perfect…I have made mistakes my whole life…”
I would like to begin by acknowledging my imperfections. It takes a big man to do so. I am such a man.

“I am a simple man…”
I am also not as formally educated as my elite critics. Therefore you should be cheering for me, because I’m clearly the underdog here.

“Yesterday I was handed a script…”
This simple man before you bears no responsibility whatsoever for anything I said. I was simply reading someone else’s words; probably someone with a whole lot more education than me. So if you’re upset (which you shouldn’t be), blame the folks who thought the words up, not me.

“I redacted some comments that were unacceptable…”
I tried, but failed, to temper their awful words.

“I did say some things for which I should have chosen better words.”
I spoke inartfully. That is to say, I meant and stand by what I said; I just should have chosen better words to say it. That’s all. Don’t blame the messenger, especially if he’s 1) a simple man 2) who acknowledges mistakes and 3) is the furthest thing from a bigot there is (see below).

“I said other things that the press misinterpreted and misstated.”
Once again, I am not to blame for any of this. It’s the elites in the media once again picking on a poor, simple, uneducated, working man like me. Again, working folks and those without much formal education, you should be on my side.

I sincerely apologize for any comment that may have offended the Gay and Lesbian Community or their family members.
I apologize, broadly and generously, but only if there was any offense. The legitimacy, validity, veracity, or even reality of any such offense is something which I’m trying to call into question by my use of the subjunctive (you see, I may be simple, but I’m not stupid).

The portrayal of me as anti-gay is inconsistent with my lifelong beliefs and actions and my prior history as an father, employer and friend to many in the gay and lesbian community.
I’ve already told you how pure I am by acknowledging my mistakes and my humble background. As further proof of my virtue (which translates into immunity from criticism, hello-o), let me remind my ignorant detractors what a compassionate and open-minded person I am.

Therefore, if there was any offense (which I still doubt), the problem must lie with the media or the listener, who is clearly in need of a reminder of what a virtuous person I am (hence my explanation – I mean “apology”).

I am a good man. Good people do not say the things you heard me say. Therefore, you heard wrong.

Besides, who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

“I ask you for forgiveness on my poorly chosen words and the publication by others not involved with our campaign of unredacted script that did not reflect my oral statement or match my personal feelings.”
Please forgive the terrible scriptwriters and those in the media who are exclusively to blame for all the trouble I’m in, for which I once again take absolutely no responsibility for. None.

“Although I am not perfect, I do admit my mistakes.”
And when I make one, I’ll be sure let you know.

Upshot: rather than acknowledge the existence of bigoted beliefs or attitudes, express contrition, or make amends, Carl Paladino reminds us how immune he is from criticism. It’s all about Carl here, not the people he hurt with his remarks, or the climate they create, which has already cost the lives of countless children and youth.

The Difference Between Explaining & Apologizing

(N.B. What follows is inspired by an article, regrettably no longer available online, that’s inspired many to write about these and related topics: McWilliams, N., Lependorf, S. (1990). Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life: The Denial of Remorse & Gratitude. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26:430-451)

Here’s the situation: someone says or does something that annoys, bothers, hurts, or offends you, after which they “apologize.” But then an interesting thing happens. You don’t feel any better. In fact, you may even feel worse.

You may notice your self-esteem decreasing as a result of the entire affair. You may tell yourself you’re being petulant, childish, spiteful, or “too sensitive.” You could be right, of course (sometimes we just are), in which case it’s useful to lift the value judgments off the condition in question, and tend to it the way you’d tend to a cut, scrape, or any other medical condition.

But you could also be wrong. These are not mutually exclusive propositions, by the way; both could be going on at the same time. That is to say, your feeling of discomfort may actually be trying to tell you something other than “you need repair.”

One tip off in this direction is if you find yourself angrier towards the “apologizer” as a result of their “apology.” If you’re not at fault, then what gives?

Let’s look at what an apology is and isn’t, from the standpoint of the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Mrs Klein theorized that when people hurt one another, inadvertently or otherwise, there exists a real (not “imagined” or “imaginary”) injury. She further theorized that what healthy people do when they hurt someone is make reparations: some attempt to make the situation right.

Suppose I say something that really gets under your skin, in the heat of an argument and/or casually, out of utter ignorance. Let’s say you tell me, or it becomes unmistakably clear from your expression that I’ve said something hurtful.

Situation A: I tell you that I misspoke, that what I really meant to say was X and that no offense was meant. I say “I apologize if there was any misunderstanding that may have caused pain in any way.” Then I say that if you’re still upset, it’s because you’re taking what I said the wrong way. Come on, I say, buck up and “get over it.” I may or may not imply that this is what grownups like myself do all the time.

Situation B: I ask you what I said or did that hurt you. You tell me. Regardless of whether I understand the connection between my words or actions and your pain, I say, “I’m sorry.” I look you in the eye, if you’ll let me. If not, that’s ok too, and I can go on to say I want to make it up to you, because you matter to me. Then I follow through.

Ok, now compare how you feel between Situations A & B. Unless you’re extraordinarily suspicious in and of human relations in general, Situation B tends to feel better. Why? Well, for a number of reasons.

First, you’re taken seriously as a person and an equal in the interaction. In A, I have what I call the epistemic advantage, and I’m not willing (or able) to share that with you. Epistemic advantage is the authority to interpret experience, but most especially the experience of others. If I have epistemic advantage over you (which means you give it to me, however unconsciously), then what I say about you and your feelings has far more weight than anything you can come up with.

If I don’t, then that means each of us are equally authorized to interpret the world of experience, but that you remain the authority of what’s going on inside you. If we grew up with parents or in an environment where we, our thoughts, words, and feelings were taken seriously, then this is second nature. If not, then we automatically entrust others with the epistemic advantage.

Now if you’re the kind of person who’s accustomed to giving the epistemic advantage to others, then you’re still likely to think this is all your fault (hence the drop in self-regard). That is, you’ll think – and deeply believe – that what’s really going on is that you’re a bad person for harboring injustices, not letting bygones be bygones, or being, you know, “sensitive.”

Not that there’s anything wrong in any way with the “apologizer” or her/his “apology.” No, you see, because once that person achieves the epistemic high ground they’re in a position to interpret experience more authoritatively than you. And yes, that goes for your own experience most of all.

Put another way, it’s not what you’re feeling that counts (because, of course “you don’t”), it’s what they’re feeling that really matters. And if they say you shouldn’t be feeling upset anymore, then they must be right, and you must be wrong for feeling upset.

Secondly, your injury is taken seriously. It’s not belittled, disparaged, or dismissed as imaginary or childish. To take an extreme example, imagine writhing with chest pain in an ER. Under those circumstances, it helps a lot to have a doctor who thinks there’s something the matter with which she can help.

Injuries that aren’t acknowledged can’t be healed but only covered up, in which case they fester – emotional injuries perhaps more so than physical ones. This is why some “apologies” leave us angrier than before: because they’re implicit rejections of the validity of our experience. In legalese, they most often come in the form of subjunctive, or “if” statements: “if anyone was offended, if any harm was caused.”

As if that were ever in question.

Thirdly, some real effort is made at reparation, or healing. It can be a cupcake, a note, or sometimes even a smile. And the relationship heals, which means, among other things, you may feel closer to or trust the person who hurt you more. Those on the other end who grew up in an environment where they and/or their words were taken less than fully seriously will tell you just acknowledging you f**ed up goes a long, long way.

Now if B is so much better, why doesn’t everyone do it? Put another way, why do some folks go with B instead of A? We have to shift away from Melanie Klein here and towards someone named Heinz Kohut for the answer, which is because they can.

That is to say, some folks – because of the way they were raised or some innate gift – have enough of a certain psychological commodity in their own bank to be able to use it to repay the people they hurt. This commodity is most commonly known as respect. And being grownups, they know that hurting people is as avoidable as breathing air, so they have some practice in the art of dishing out respect and making amends.

If you’re short on respect, then you’re holding on to whatever quantities you have and are very reluctant to share it with others. You may need to put other people down in order to feel good about yourself. You may need to “command” respect, which is often shorthand for taking it away from others (in as socially appropriate a way as possible, of course). Some folks also need to excel for this reason (as opposed to, say, a pure and total love affair with what they’re doing, which is infectious).

When someone is low on respect, they’re having enough of a hard time giving it to themselves to even consider giving away or even lending any. They’re just not convinced that they’ll get anything in return for their investment, so they hog things like the upper hand, the last word (“bottom line” is a common catchphrase here) or the epistemic advantage whenever they can.

This is the kind of person who can never be wrong, ask for help (or directions), or acknowledge that they hurt someone because this damages their image of themselves as perfect. They protect this image the way someone in the throes of an addiction protects their supply of their preferred substance: fiercely.

So when you get upset over something they do, you hurt them. How? Well, by hurting their image as someone incapable of harming others. The more (publicly) you hurt, the harder it is for that person to maintain the illusion of perfection. Thus you must be dealt with, by being ignored, marginalized, or disparaged.

This is why, when you’re hurt, it becomes all about them. As a moral point, it shouldn’t be. But as an emotional reality, it just is, and we can often make matters a lot worse for ourselves by demanding people be (or pretending that they are) healthier or better put together than they actually are (in the moment).

This is also, I think, is the central dynamic behind the Vatican’s slow response to the sexual abuse crisis. In psychological terms, it’s the inability to apologize because too much energy is being directed towards maintaining an image. In Christian terms, it’s an inability to acknowledge the sin of the Church so that grace can come in and do the unbelievably hard work of healing (I don’t suspect converted Catholics invest this power in a Holy Spirit for nothing).

When we can’t apologize, we explain instead. We explain what we really meant, how grownups behave, or what’s “really going on” for the benefit of all concerned.

When we’re strong enough to do so, we apologize, which means acknowledging our imperfections and the reality of conflict and pain, and taking responsibility for fixing that which we broke. We let explanation come later, if at all.

Notice that you can apologize effectively (as measured by the strength and health of a relationship) even if you feel you’re done nothing wrong. All that matters, in this case, is that someone else did and that you may very well be in a position to do something about it. In those rare cases when you’re not, then as painful as that fact may be, you can still live with it without disparaging another or their experience.

Oh, and to make things more complicated, guess where the word apology comes from. The Greek ἀπολογην (apologēn) means, of all things, to explain. Go figure. 🙂