A good way to get yourself some attention and some trouble is to not only acknowledge the elephant in the room, but feed it some peanuts and ask everyone how it got there and if they can help you think of ideas for getting it out. It's troublesome and potentially dangerous, but I'd usually rather do it than try to tiptoe around it. Everything seems to get a little bit lighter and clearer when I do.
On Sunday, I talked seriously and at length about a part of myself that I don't take nearly as much pride in as, say, my big but surprisingly rock-hard rear end. I talked about my own capacity for prejudice. In speaking about that, I knew that I risked making myself look bad and, worse yet, hurting people who didn't deserve it. (By which I mean, "Hadn't personally hurt me first.") I want to apologize for that, if you were among those people, first and foremost. Please know that I posted in the spirit of asking for a solution to what I see to be a problem.
I posted the "defensive prejudice" post to several e-mail lists. I was asked via e-mail why I took the trouble of inventing the term "defensive prejudice" rather than using a term like "reverse prejudice." Another interlocutor asked me, why not just plain "prejudice"? Well, I first heard the term "reverse racism" in high school, and I hated it. To me, it implies that there is a group that *should* experience racism, and a group that *should* be racist. I don't believe these things, therefore I won't entertain that notion in my language. I don't believe that anyone should experience prejudice, either. Yet I do understand, very well, the need for a term that accounts for the kind of prejudice that arises from having experienced prejudice, the kind that manifests itself in *counter*-attacks. So that's why I say "defensive prejudice." It sounds more right than the alternatives.
If you think I took a lot of time and trouble with my language, well, I firmly believe I need to. I think most everybody needs to take more time and trouble with their language, and take a good look at themselves every now and then. I do it, and that's something about myself that I *do* take pride in. The whole problem with prejudice is that people don't trouble themselves to think hard enough.
I came to this conclusion early this morning: Prejudice is a phobia, an irrational fear. What makes irrational fears irrational is generally not the fact that you fear, but the extent to which you let it control your life. For example, if you don't want to fall off of the scaffolding of a third-story building and therefore take precautions, that's rational and sensible. That's healthy fear, in that it's life-saving and life-enhancing. But if you can't look out a third-story window without your legs shaking, or even get to the third story, your fear's run amuck and become acrophobia, which is irrational and life-destroying.
To fear certain other people and what they can do is perfectly rational. Other people can break your heart, fuck up your house, rob you, rape you, kill you, hurt you in all manner of ways. So you need to be able to discern between people you can trust and people you can't. We have to teach our children not to talk to strangers. We have to be careful about talking to other people on the bus.
I believe that prejudice against a group, whether defensive or offensive, is the overblown-into-irrationality version of this caution. If you are told over and over that a certain group is hateful and wants to strip your society of everything you consider precious, of course there's potential for you to fear them. And if you have a bad experience with a member of a certain group, and they claim it's because they are a member of that group, the potential for fear exists there, too.
But prejudice hurts individuals who had no intention to hurt anyone, and strips the prejudiced person of opportunities to get to know people who may benefit them. It is, as I explained to my younger cousin, "people seeing only one tiny part of a person, like their skin color, and thinking that's all they need to know about them." It also causes the prejudiced person to overlook people and situations that may really cause them pain. In her columns, Molly Ivins has talked about how fear makes people hurt themselves.
In a column for the May/June 1993 Mother Jones, she talks about a couple of young boys getting so scared by a chicken snake in a hen house that they smack their own heads against the door frame and bump into each other.
"Boys, boys," said Miz Faulk, "what is wrong with you? You know perfectly well a chicken snake cannot hurt you."
That's when Boots Cooper made his semi-immortal observation. "Yes, ma'am," he said, "but there are some things'll scare you so bad, you hurt yourself."
And isn't that what we keep doing in this country, over and over again? We get scared so bad--about the communist menace or illegal immigration or AIDS or pornography or violent crime, some damn scary thing--that we hurt ourselves. We take the odd notion that the only way to protect ourselves is to give up some of our freedom--just trim a little, hedge a bit, and we'll all be safe after all."
Yep, it still holds up.
I don't want to hurt myself. I don't want to be like the parents I met at Love Won Out (Focus on the Family's traveling anti-gay conference) who caused themselves unnecessary pain at the discovery that their child was one of *THEM*. I don't want to be like my racist grandparents, aunts, and uncles, whose faces got red, twisted, and ugly at the mention of black people. (And my cousins see that some of our relatives' faces get that way over gay people, too.)
And that's why I thought about it, and want to make sure I stay on the right side of that fine line between rational self-protective behavior and irrational fear. Sometimes I need help with that.