We also believe that bigotry only really expresses itself through large differences in people, like race or religion or sexual orientation, but we would be mistaken. Bigotry is any form of intolerance of prejudice or discrimination; it is the manifest extension of an ancient survival instinct, which tells us to be cautious around, or frightened of, anything or anyone that is superficially different than us. This instinct, millions of years in the making, resident in the corridors of our primitive brain, still holds sway, a siren call to the cerebral cortex, reminding it to remain cautious and exaggerating the differences between people to make discrimination easier. In its best form, it makes us wary in situations where we are unfamiliar; in its worst form, it creates paranoia.
Of course, bigotry is a matter of degrees. The overt type we are used to is easy to condemn; it is waved at us, shoved in our face, and we react immediately to it. It may raise our hackles, cause us to seethe, make our hands reflexively clench into fists, or even want to take a swing at someone. It overrides those imperatives that allow us to keep our emotions tightly sealed. All these effects trigger in us – hopefully – a greater sense of the need for control, and keep us from allowing such abject ignorance to lower our intellect to its level.
More insidious is the subtle form of bigotry, self-effacing, close to the vest, shrouded in the midst of earnest discussion. Its appearance is fleeting; one would not notice it at first, save that it would plant a nagging thought in our brain, a thought that would be the mental equivalent of something stuck in our teeth. Cloying, annoying, we would turn it over in our mind, and suddenly it would dawn on us what we heard and what it meant.
Such a moment occurred mere days ago. Juan William, brilliant and erudite reporter and analyst for NPR, was making one of his many appearances on Fox News, discussing with Bill O'Reilly the host's recent appearance on The View, and the storm of controversy it engendered. He made a comment which, for all intents-and-purposes, seems benign on the surface:
"Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. ...You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. ... But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
Given the events that occurred on September 11th, one might be forgiven for the sentiment. Nineteen Islamic extremists committed a heinous act, killed almost three thousand people, and shook a nation, if only briefly. Their intent was to strike a blow for their misguided and mistaken views on America's role in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War; cloaking themselves in a perversion of Islam, they justified their actions as a strike against imperialism and America's “war against Islam.”
Make note, however, of what I said: “Nineteen Islamic extremists.” Nineteen individuals, from a fringe sect of Islam headed by Osama bin Laden, committed those acts, not the majority of the Islamic faith. True, some Muslims did applaud and celebrate what transpired, but the vast majority were stunned and angered. Their faith was being dragged through the mud by extremists, and they knew, inherently, what they would be subject to thanks to this attack. They would once more be the bane of the Judaeo-Christian portion of the world, the target of undisguised and misplaced anger, and subject to closer scrutiny in everything they did.
So while we might want to say that this off-the-cuff remark by Mr. Williams was harmless and not the result of bigotry on his part, it is not so simple. He is a public figure, well-known and well-regarded by both people in his field and the population at large. His words carry power. What he says is meant to influence people, to get them to understand and to believe his point of view. To sit there and admit that he gets worried at the sight of people he takes to be followers of Islam, is emblematic of the subtle bigotry of the educated mind. That he felt the need to preface his remark by claiming not to be a bigot, he indicated that he knew full well his remarks would be inflammatory, and worse, that they carried the taint of prejudice, a taint he perhaps believed would not be attributed to him because of his race. He cannot be denigrated for having the feeling; he can be chastised for being foolish enough to let note of it escape his lips.
National Public Radio had a decision to make, and perhaps it was not the most straightforward decision, but it had to be made, and the deed had to be done. NPR is the voice of the people, funded mainly by the contributions of its listeners, and has a duty to represent the world as fairly and impartially as possible. To have a noted contributor to their network profess the indiscretion of prejudice against Muslims, even to this seemingly minor degree, would be to admit that they condoned the sentiment, even only peripherally. In the end, severing ties was more important, and I would agree. Though it certainly feels wrong somehow, the greater good must be served by this. It must never be acceptable for those we entrust with the dissemination of accurate information to show us their nonsensical fears and deeper prejudices – leave that to the Bill O'Reillys of the world.