February 15, 2017

Facing the World as It Is

No sexism racism homophobia
No sexism racism homophobia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The world we have is different from the world I would like to have in more ways than I can count. If I could design my perfect world, it would bear little resemblance to this one. But of course, I cannot do this. And that is probably a good thing since my perfect world would almost certainly have little in common with your perfect world.

It has become increasingly clear to me that one of the ways in which I differ from many of the people I encounter on the political left is that I aim to face the world as it is rather than as I wish it would be. That is not to say that there aren't things I'd like to change and even things that I am willing to work to change. Facing the world as it is does not require me to abandon activism. In fact, I suspect it might be an essential prerequisite for effective activism. It is tough to come up with effective solutions to a problem when one does not understand the nature of the problem due to denial, wishful thinking, or whatever else.

If racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry exist, I want to know about them. If there are people out there who hold views that could reasonably be characterized as racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted, I want them to be free to express these views so I will know they exist. I don't want these views to be suppressed through the application of state power or social pressure because I recognize that this will drive them underground. Driving such views underground does not diminish their power. To the contrary, I suspect that suppressing such views may actually increase their power and make them less amenable to change.

The sort of change I'm after is the genuine change of mind that leads a former racist, sexist, or other type of bigot to renounce hate and move in a positive direction. Yes, I believe this is possible and that there are former bigots who have managed to do what I am describing. As much as I would prefer a world without racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, suppressing their expression is not the solution. By encountering these things, understanding them, criticizing them, and working to change minds through education, I believe we can accomplish the sort of meaningful change many of us say we want.

In the course of my lifetime, I have witnessed dramatic changes in attitudes toward LGBT persons. Yes, anti-LGBT bigotry still exists. There are concentrated pockets of it that just so happen to be closely linked to fundamentalist religions. LGBT persons still lack some basic legal rights, and hate crimes directed at LGBT persons continue. And yet, I think it is safe to say that the widespread sort of bigotry that was so common many of us regarded it as normal during my childhood is viewed differently today. Young people who have not been subjected to fundamentalist religious indoctrination today probably have a difficult time comprehending what it would have been like to be LGBT in the 70s. I have certainly heard young people say things like, "I don't understand why people would have hated someone just for being gay."

I believe that this progress happened largely through education, normalization, increased exposure, and other factors that successfully changed minds and not through political correctness or punitive measures. I don't think that we see less bigotry directed at LGBT persons today because we made people afraid to express their true feelings; I think that many minds changed. And yes, I'm not denying for a second that we do not still have a long way to go or that this sort of bigotry is not still a problem.

Racism, sexism, and all the other forms of bigotry are not going to magically disappear anytime soon. I do not want to pretend otherwise. I also do not want to drive these things underground, pretend that we've gotten rid of them, and then feign surprise when they inevitably bubble up again. If we want to change the world, we need to change minds. And if we want to change minds, stifling the expression of viewpoints we find objectionable is the last thing we should be doing.
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