April 21, 2016

I Don't Want To Drive Bigotry Underground

Anti-Racist Action banner from Art Against Racism
Anti-Racist Action banner from Art Against Racism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If someone hated you - I mean truly hated you - wouldn't you want to know about it? For your own safety, wouldn't this be relevant information to have? Suppose that this person hated you just because of the color of your skin. Wouldn't you rather know how he or she felt than risk being harmed because you were unaware of their hate? If this person hated you due to your beliefs about whichever god(s) they prefer, wouldn't it be better to see them coming and know what they were capable of than to be caught off guard because you didn't know how they felt about you?

The answer to these questions seems obvious to me. When we try to drive the expression of ideas we do not like underground, things might indeed feel more civil and tolerant. It makes sense that we would like things to feel more civil and tolerant. But I have to wonder whether we are really changing hearts and minds by doing this or whether we might be placing ourselves in even more dangerous situations. If we drive speech we consider bigoted, including "hate speech," underground, might it not have the potential to do even more damage from its concealed position?

I watched part of a movie the other night. I can't even recall what it was now, but it was set in the South during the 1960s. It dealt with racism, and the racial slurs were flying. The Whites were quite willing to tell the Blacks what they thought of them. Honestly, it became hard to hear rather quickly. I found myself thinking about how glad I was that I don't have to hear those words today. Well, I do hear them but not nearly as often as the characters depicted in the movie did. This seems like progress, doesn't it?

But is it really progress? On one hand, I don't enjoy hearing these slurs and so the fact that I don't have to hear them as often seems positive. On the other hand, it isn't like the attitudes that underlie those words aren't still present. They are just harder to spot and easier to conceal. And when they do rise to the surface, many seem shocked by their presence. Might it not be better to know where they are?

Clearly, there has been some progress in attitude change. To the degree that we hear fewer racial slurs because fewer people hold racist attitudes, this is certainly progress. No question about that. If hearing less bigoted speech means that people are genuinely less bigoted, great. But I suspect that some of the reason we hear fewer racial slurs and other bigoted statements has little to do with changes in racist attitudes. Some of the reason for this is that we have driven the expression of such sentiments underground.

When it comes to expressions of hate bigotry, I don't really want to drive them underground. I want to know who hates me for being an atheist or for whatever other reasons they may be inclined to hate me. I want to know this not so I can call them out on Twitter but so I can see them coming. I want to know this not so I can try to get them fired or publicly shame them; I want to know as a matter of safety and because it is often helpful to be able to accurately assess progress toward equality.

Wouldn't I prefer that people didn't hold such bigoted attitudes in the first place? Absolutely! But as long as they do hold such attitudes, I'd much rather know about it.
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