Contrary to what many sheltered millennials seem to think, bigotry and prejudice were not simply given a free pass in the bad old days of my youth. The way we dealt with them was just different and, arguably, better.
For instance, at one time, if someone said something offensive about a particular class of people, there was a quick and efficient way to deal with it and one that did more to eliminate the problem than the kind of agitation we see today. Back then, if some jerk made a disparaging comment about homosexuals, I could just say, “Well, I happen to be gay. You got a problem with that?” And this worked whether you were in the class of folks being disparaged or not. It worked just as well to say, “My husband is Puerto Rican,” or, “My sister-in-law is Jewish,” or “My best friend is handicapped.” (Yes, that is the “horrible” word we used back then.)
This approach had several excellent virtues:
- First, it dealt with the problem acutely. It confronted bigotry when and where it actually occurred; none of this nonsense about institutional racism or unconscious bias or imperceptible microaggressions. That promoted clarity. Individual people committed a transgression and individual people were held accountable.
- Second, it made the problem about the bigot, rather than about your victimhood in some identity-centric universe occupied with endless navel-gazing. It presumed that we each make our own choices. The notion of unconscious bias perversely lets the bigot off the hook by claiming that our (unchosen) race or gender or abled-ness is at fault, rather than our ideas or opinions. If we are all just stuck in our intersectional identities, as well as in our biases, then our status in the moral pecking order is assigned to us rather than being a conscious choice. The older approach was based on individual responsibility.
- Third, it asked a question, rather than hurling an accusation. And for the most part that question was answered with a “No,” since the majority of bigots will fold when challenged, in person, to defend their narrow-mindedness. Someone could deflect the charge by saying something like, “I don’t have a problem with Asians, I just don’t like…. [whomever].” But in changing his line of argument, he was forced to acknowledge that, in principle, prejudice is wrong. In contrast, the command to “check your privilege,” forecloses both speech and thought. It’s a display of moral superiority based on something (such as race or class) the accuser didn’t even earn. By demanding silence, rather than a response, the new approach creates resentment. Further, it does not demand any acknowledgement of the principles at stake, namely human equality and dignity. Unlike the old approach, today’s “intersectional shakedown” (a wonderful phrase invented by Eric Weinstein) doesn’t even seem interested in changing people’s minds. It’s a pose adopted by those who luxuriate in and gain power from being offended. The old approach called for accountability.
- And finally, when a bigot is was forced to answer the question, “You got a problem with that?” it addressed the problem immediately and squarely. After an awkward pause, the conversation could either resume along different lines, or people just went their separate ways. In any event, this painful splash of iodine treated the wound and then allowed everyone involved to get on with their lives. To stick with the metaphor, today’s approach promotes infections: it confuses the issue, pushes bad ideas and attitudes below the surface, emphasizes our separate identities rather than affirming our shared humanity, and encourages everyone to fester in their grievances. The old approach relied on the potent antiseptic of honesty.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that like every “solution” to difficult human problems, the challenging question method wasn’t perfect.
For one thing, it required a boldness and a bluntness that is difficult for many people. It could also entail risk. At certain points in history, especially in certain places, African-Americans who used this approach in a room full of white men could be exposing themselves to real harm.
But even where the threat of physical violence was absent or minimal, someone in the complacent majority could quite easily ignore this appeal to decency. Social confrontations were, and are, no substitute for laws guaranteeing the equal rights of all citizens. And thanks in part to the Civil Rights Act of 1964—both in its legal force and its moral authority—blatant discrimination of the type described above has been greatly diminished.
One of the paradoxes noted by Alexis de Tocqueville is that the closer a democratic society gets to perfect equality, the more intolerable any remaining inequalities become. This inflation of expectations is what often explains what Tocqueville described as “the singular melancholy that the inhabitants of democratic lands often display amid their abundance, and the disgust with life that sometimes seizes them in the midst of an easy and tranquil existence.” Is that not an uncanny description of how upper-middle-class students at elite universities become nearly hysterical in demanding protection from mere words or opinions? Rather than feed this “insatiable desire,” as Tocqueville called it, we would do better to resist it.
To the degree that society falls short of utopia, and that ugly opinions and insulting stereotypes persist, the old way of dealing with them—the approach that emphasized clarity, individual responsibility, accountability, and honesty—has much to recommend it. That’s how it seems to me, at least. Anyone got a problem with that?