Is it possible to shame the intolerant into tolerance?
In diversity class back in the graduate school days, the other students and I at some point concluded the only acceptable intolerance was for the intolerant or for intolerance itself. We abdicated responsibility for listening to bigots of any stripe or for accepting that they might be good people—making them easier to label and dismiss.
King observed that the powerful never make concessions to the public good; we have to go out and wrest concessions from them. In certain advocacy communities, this ethos is embodied in hate for the haters. Racists, sexists, and heterosexists are called out and shamed both publicly and privately for their behavior. When the Westboro Baptist folks march, for example, other folks countermarch, and the clash is sometimes hostile (it is more often relatively peaceful, with people just blocking the object of the Westboro people’s wrath from view). Sometimes we even get reports of the legal authorities illegally detaining the homophobic protesters. In other places in society, where people routinely experience harassment and oppression from people in uniform, police officers are often called “pigs.” Racial epithets are acceptable among some people, especially against Whites. The people who act out hate against you do not seem to deserve any human dignity or respect.
Is this hostility helpful? A friend of mine frequently asks what the point is of the word “homophobe?” The word has some history, and seems to be used to attack people who have what they consider good reasons to oppose things like same-sex marriage. When we say homophobic, we generally don’t mean someone who is scared of people of homosexual orientation; these days we mean those who are actively hostile to people of these orientations. This means attitudes, statements, votes, business practices, and so forth. All of these things are measurable and observable. But perhaps too often this word is tossed around casually to describe people whose ideas we disagree with.
How do people change their minds? In politics, there is a rash of people changing their minds because the people they love reveal things about themselves—such as LGBT orientations or affiliations. For most of us, we become more tolerant through exposure to the hate or fear object. For example, Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiments show how to create and eliminate prejudice in a few easy steps. Working together towards a common goal seems to do away with most sorts of prejudice.
Throwing around hateful names (and any name can be hateful if you say it just right) does not create any situations in which the oppressor and the oppressed are likely to increase their exposure to one another in a productive fashion. It causes both the named and the shouter to desire more time away from one another. And nobody who ever said hateful things to me ever made me like them more. Sometimes, though, this isn’t the goal: sometimes the goal is to reclaim power. Aggressing against the aggressor, even if only verbally, can reduce compliance and conformity to the oppressors in the oppressive environment.
Call me naïve, but I tend to think that people with intolerant views have experienced too much hate already. It might not have been aimed right at them, but might be endemic to their part of the culture towards the people they, too, hate. It is a different trauma to be hated than to witness hate, but to my mind, it is still a trauma. We go along with hate because we don’t have the fortitude to not conform, or because we are too naïve to know we have other options. But only rarely do we go along with hate because we are evil people for whom hate is genuinely the best option.
In most cases, I think the best response to people whose behaviors seem ill is to try to love them well (if we can even accept mental illness as a concept). To the extent that we do not need to label people, I prefer not to—with mental illnesses, racial epithets, or even as bigots or haters. Isn’t it better to provide unconditional positive regard and calmly express how certain words or actions make us feel, and explain how much they hurt others?
— Jason Dias
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