James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

Understanding and overcoming bigotry …

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Henry Ford helped popularize the myth of Jewish control in America in the 1920s.

… a synopsis of some recent correspondence

I have recently been discussing outbursts of bigoted statements in a variety of contexts.  In current events terms, these discussions have sprung from events ranging from the debate over Park51, the misnamed “Ground Zero mosque”, to Rick Sanchez’s comments that Jews run the media, to Juan Williams’ expression of fear about outwardly Muslim airline passengers.

Let me deal with these issues by talking more specifically about Sanchez’s allegations.

Sanchez basically repeated the old antisemitic canard that Jews control the media.  That many people might make such a quick assessment is not that hard to understand – moreso when one considers the cultural background of antisemitism common in most communities.

In Iowa, for example, Jews are only one in 500 people.  Most people either personally know zero Jews or a very tiny number of Jews.  They do, however, turn on their TVs and see a fair number of Jews associated with both the news media and the entertainment industry.  Given the contrast, a quick assessment might indicate either that Jews run the media or substantially dominate it.  That is because the relative concentration of Jews in such context far exceeds the presence of Jews in an Iowan’s day-to-day life.

However, a person employing their intellect can readily overcome such a rush to judgment.  First, while Jews in Iowa are about one in 500, Jews in the US are one in 50.  In media centers like New York and LA, Jews are more like one in ten.  So, even if there is no clustering of Jews in the media (and there might be some of that too), an Iowan should expect to see about 50 times the proportion of Jews in the media as in Iowa.  This is true merely on the basis that Jews in the media are representative of the localities in which they are employed.  That is, however, a shocking difference that is likely to provoke an outsized estimate of Jewish influence.  But, such outsized estimates are easily countered, again, by making informed observation and employing our intellects.  There is much more evidence than this, but we can start with the observation that CNN and Fox are both owned and run by non-Jewish heads.  Even when one looks narrowly to prominent Jews in the media it becomes clear that they have no coordination and little agreement and so the idea of a ubiquitous “Jewish control” is downright ridiculous.

And, this pattern plays out in a wide variety of bias issues. The initial prejudice is easily justified by a simple observed difference between a foreign context and a familiar context.  Human learning is predicated on our ability to generalize, but here such generalizations serve to create an imagined reality that wildly exaggerates true reality.  This can apply to issues like black crime or family malfunction, Jewish control or miserliness, Muslim terrorism or misogyny, gay male illness or sexual predation, female seduction or manipulation, … In order to challenge these stereotypes, we have to understand the different contexts that give rise to them.  The rampant prevalence of prejudice throughout human history clearly demonstrates that this is tied to human nature and that suggests that it cannot be ignored and is not generally self-correcting.

In Sanchez’s case, just a little education probably would have helped him understand why the myth of Jewish control of the media is an antisemitic prejudice.  Williams didn’t need the education and so he followed up quickly with an explanation of how an initial fear should not be employed to give rise to bigotry.  Acknowledging the fact of one’s fears and suspicions, however unreasonable such fears may be, is an important part of legitimizing the more rightful assertions against prejudice provoked by such fears.  We cannot combat bigotry without recognizing its fairly natural and common origins.

That said, if one asks only that we “understand” bigotry, they probably are promoting it.  If one asks for “understanding” that burdens the victims of bigotry with the responsibility to avoid it, they are probably promoting it.  We must understand bigotry, but only because our fight against it will be very difficult if we refuse to understand the natural propensity for humans to develop biases.  The challenge is developing a discourse that allows us to develop the latter understanding without encouraging the bigotry promotion inherent to the former “understandings”.

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Written by JamesEJ

Monday, November 8, 2010 at 2:13 am

Posted in extremism

Tagged with ,

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