A Primer on Bigotry

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(Please see two updates at the end.)
This is a tussle I never imagined I would get into, as I pointed out the first time. But I've gotten a variety of messages and seen a variety of online response that together make me think I should go one more round.

The starting point was whether there was anything objectionable about a mainstream magazine's editor-in-chief, who is about to have a fellowship named in his honor at the world's most famous university, writing on that magazine's site, "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap."

I suggested that if such a person were any less well-connected, or if the sentiment had been about any other religious or racial group, he would be taking much more heat. (See: Marge Schott, Al Campanis, Trent Lott, Mel Gibson, Pat Buchanan, Dinesh D'Souza, Helen Thomas, etc. Think even of the flap over Lawrence Summers's comments about gender differences in math-and-science skills, or James Watson or William Shockley on racial differences in IQ. Try to find in one of these cases something approaching "Group X's life is cheap.") The question was all the more salient because, when called on this claim by Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times column, the editor doubled down and said that "Muslim life is cheap" was "a statement of fact."

The dissenting mail I've gotten has fallen into two main categories. Category one: He's right! Islam is a culture of violence, and Muslim life really is cheap! Category two: That was an unfortunate statement, but he's a great guy with a big heart.

I want to consider these together, because they combine to illustrate what I consider an important point. This takes a little space and comes after the jump.

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Let's start with a sample "darn tootin'!" message, from the first category. A reader writes:

>>Islam is a belief system- religious but also political- that demands the violent suppression against non-adherents. Muslims are people who in general, apart from those who don't want to follow it but fear being killed if they openly renounce it, voluntarily adhere to this belief system. I'm against both the belief system and its followers as being a personal threat to me and a threat to Western civilization. You can go ahead and call me a bigot or whatever other names you want.<<

I won't call you a bigot, but I'll say that you are ignorant. Rather, I'll say that this person and others like him know about "Islam" as an abstract menace but, I will bet, know precious few actual Muslims. Which leads me to a Main Philosophical Point:

I think that all of life is on a spectrum of individual idiosyncracies and large group traits. We're each our own person, but we're all marked to some degree by the categories that contain us. Yes, I am a unique and special and independent thinker! But I'm also an American, a male, a white person, a dreaded Baby Boomer, a member of the dreaded and doomed media, a parent, a rich person compared with most of the world, etc. 

Along this spectrum, one obvious truth is that the more populous the category, the less it tells you about any individual within it. Yes, "men" are all a certain way. But there are three billion of us, and Kim Jong-Il doesn't have that much in common with Lance Armstrong -- or either of them with Benedict XVI or Stephen Hawking or Lil Wayne. Another obvious truth is that the less contact you have with individuals, the more you necessarily rely on group traits -- or stereotypes - for your images.

These two truths combine with pernicious effect when it comes to mainstream American views of what "Muslims" are like. I put the term in quotes because it's preposterously over-broad. It is just as possible to say what typifies "Muslims" as it is to say what typifies all Indians, or all Chinese, or all of the world's Christians. Each of these is a grouping of roughly a billion people, and each has some similarities but far more dramatic internal differences. (James Earl Ray, Desmond Tutu: both Christians. Discuss.) Most Americans know that about "Christians," and may have some growing awareness when it comes to "Chinese" or "Indians." But a lot of Americans lack the individual awareness of the variety within Islam -- and think that the violent, hateful, dangerous parts define "the Muslims" as a whole.

They don't. A homely analogy: I grew up in a town with a very large Latino population. So whenever I hear some statement about "the Mexicans," I listen about possible group traits but I also know my friends Chris, Hank, Yolanda, etc in their individuality. I also grew up with many gay friends --but wasn't aware until years later that I had done so. It was only from college age onward that I had lots of friends who were out as gays, which inevitably affected my view of "the gays" and made me wince in recalling the standard thoughtlessly cruel high school jokes about "the fags." One reason opposition to same-sex marriage is sure to disappear is that straight Americans born after about 1980 have always been aware of having gay friends and can barely fathom the "threat" posed by their right to marry. (For proof, see here.)

Of course, close contact between different groups doesn't always build amity. (See: history of Northern Ireland, West Side Story, etc.) But the real secret of American inclusion through the generations is that when you grow up with, work with, live next to, intermarry with, and in all other ways get to know people from different categories, you have less patience for generalizations about "the blacks" or "the Irish" or "the Jews" or "the gays" or "trailer trash" etc.

By chance, like the (Hindu) reader I quoted yesterday, I've had a lot of Muslim friends over the years. They're from outside the country, thanks to our years of living in (Muslim-majority) Malaysia, where our house was near a mosque, and visits to my wife's parents when they lived in (overwhelmingly Muslim) Indonesia. They're from inside the country -- mainly immigrants or children of immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Xinjiang/China, and elsewhere. They have as much in common with Osama bin Laden as I do. So when I hear that "Muslims worship violence" or "Muslim life is cheap," I think this is either ignorance or bigotry, and it's claptrap in either case.

This brings us to the second category of response: that the person in question, Martin Peretz of the New Republic, is actually a great guy in other ways. In consummate quadruple-backflip contrarian style, Jack Shafer makes that case in Slate (while also noting Peretz's "irrational hatred of all things Arab -- and by extension Muslim"). In a more heartfelt way, even suggesting that we are seeing a "war on Marty," so do my colleagues Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg.

Fine! Andrew has worked with him, as I never have, and both he and Jeff Goldberg know him in the round, as I do not. They can put bigoted comments in perspective, hating the sin (I hope!) but loving the sinner.

But this really is the point: Because they know him, they extend an "in the round" view to him -- the very view that this "Muslim life is cheap" would deny to a billion of the world's people, including many millions of Americans. We all deserve to be seen in the round. Even "the Muslims."

veritas_logo.jpgAbout the honor at Harvard? It's a big, varied, disorderly place itself. But it would be odd for the occasion to pass without the honoree explaining how "Muslim life is cheap" really matches the spirt of "Veritas" -- or, alternatively, whether on reflection he regrets those words.

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UPDATE: On the New York Times site, my friend Robert Wright makes the case about the huge variability and contradiction within large groups like "Muslims" or "Christians," and inside holy texts like the Koran and the Bible, in a far more erudite way than I am doing here.

Also: In the Daily Beast, Benjy Sarlin reports on Peretz's answer to critics of his Harvard honor: "Reached by phone, Peretz offered the following response to [critical] comments before hanging up: 'The notion that after teaching 45 years at Harvard and people giving money in my honor that I have to defend myself--please.' "  

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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