Among the many, many things that worry me about America’s contemporary tribalism is a concern about the conduct of our overdue arguments over inclusion and diversity. I worry because those conversations have displayed a tendency to become “either/or”–you are either pure in word and deed or you are a bigot beyond the pale–and as a result, we risk losing our ability to see shades of gray, to distinguish between the genuinely offensive and the merely tone-deaf.
There is a very significant difference between Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken, to cite just one example, and blurring that distinction actually inhibits efforts to combat misogyny and sexual assaults.
Every so often, I’m reminded of a joke incorporating a cautionary lesson that my mother used to tell. There used to be a radio station on the top floor of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. There also used to be people who were elevator operators (you incredulous young people can google it). One day, a man entered one of the elevators and the operator asked which floor; the man–stuttering badly–said “t-t-the r-r-radio station.” They were the only two on the elevator, and the man further offered that he was “a-a-applying f-f-for a j-job as an on-air radio an-an-announcer.”
As luck would have it, the same operator had the same passenger about an hour later, and once again they were alone in the elevator. The operator couldn’t resist asking how the interview had gone, and the stutterer replied “T-t-terrible. T-t-they hate Jews.”
The (obvious) moral of the story is that not everyone who dislikes me is an anti-Semite (I clearly have other qualities that can put folks off…) and not every thoughtless or stupid remark signals racism or homophobia. Not every female professor denied tenure was the victim of sexism (although some clearly were). Etcetera.
I thought about the lesson embedded in my mother’s joke recently, when a friend of mine resigned her position after being accused by her co-workers of homophobia. The media account I read didn’t include a description of the incident or incidents that triggered that accusation, but I know that her best friend of many years is an out and proud gay man, and in the years I’ve known her, I’ve never heard her utter a disparaging word about LGBTQ people–or for that matter, about any minority.
These days, such accusations are flourishing and damaging, and although many are well-founded, others are not, and telling the difference is important.
If we are going to root out genuinely toxic and bigoted attitudes, we need to recognize that we all see life through the “lenses” we’ve developed during our unique experiences, and we need to take care that those experiences don’t distort our perspectives. Another friend of mine–herself a member of a minority group–once opined that humanity was a lot like a pecan pie–the nuts are pretty well distributed throughout. Every group–every slice of the human pie– contains exemplars of the group’s most hurtful stereotypes, and every group contains wonderful, caring, talented people.
I’m not saying it is always easy to tell the difference between bigotry and cluelessness. If you are a member of a marginalized group–especially if your own “lens” has been formed by personal experiences of bigotry–a negative reaction (or over-reaction) to a hurtful remark or unfair rejection is very understandable. I’m not counseling silence in such situations, but I am cautioning that painting with a too-broad brush ends up trivializing precisely the behaviors we need to condemn–and can push away people who might otherwise be valuable allies.
We absolutely need to call out bigoted and hurtful behaviors, especially in the workplace. But when we fail to distinguish between truly reprehensible attitudes and behaviors and occasional unthinking reflections of social attitudes that are–thankfully–now being examined and rejected, we retard, rather than encourage, social progress.
We lose the Al Frankens.