A short time ago, I received an e-mail from a family member. For the sake of family harmony, I must add that the relative is on my side. I'll call him "Dave".
The email was a forwarded screed written against a faith–not, needless to say, Dave's. I was disgusted and astonished he'd endorse what I considered hate literature. He had also sent it to friends, as well as his wife and adult children.
My response was to ask him to also send the message to his friends of that faith, and I'd do the same, and see what they thought of its "truth".
The upshot was a terse e-mail from Dave: "Stick with your friends; sorry for the exchange". I received a series of e-mails and links from my friend, countering some of the distortions. He wondered why Dave felt as he did, asking, "Has Dave had any difficult or hostile encounters with (us)?"
Though I haven't see Dave for years, I'd guess not. He likely has no friends of that faith, either– which I admit I figured. I was making a point: how easy it is to hold enemy images when we know not a single one of "them". I'm not naive to the deep conflicts of
the world, especially those with religious agendas. But the e-mail was not focused on the extremist element, it was, at its conclusion, a diatribe against all of "them".
I sat up late into the night ranting to myself. But Dave had sent me a gift wrapped in that disturbing message: the opportunity to examine my own prejudice.
Have you ever played the Stereotyping Game, where someone identifies a group (blondes, Slavs, poodles, architects) and you complete the sentence "All ...
are..."? I used it in a social psychology class I taught; it elicited whoops of embarrassed laughter but led to intense discussion: What is bigotry; what is conviction? How do we know "what 'they' are like?
How easily those stereotypes came to mind, how
readily we seek confirmation and reject contrary evidence. We
become dumber, less responsive to complex problems and dilemmas. It's a
seductive form of stupidity.
I began to view Dave through the lenses of various stereotypes: his nationality, age, profession, class. In a matter of hours, Dave had passed from kindly, distant relative to major jerk. The rift opened to an uncrossable chasm.
I decided, Done with him.
After a night's sleep I had another thought: Oh no. I have to keep talking to him. Ignoring him is a form of apathy, even cowardice.
I recalled a version–several have been used at various sites–of a well-known statement (often presented as a poem) by the Protestant
minister, Martin Niemöller, ca. 1946. His words reminded me, as they have many, that silence is nearly always interpreted as assent.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.