Friday, April 10, 2009

Exceptional thinking we shouldn't accept.

Adolph Hitler once complained that even the good Nazis would come to him and make special pleadings for one particular Jew who they would insist was a “good Jew,” who didn’t fit the bigoted stereotype that the Nazi party (and many Marxists) had promulgated. Hitler found this sort of exceptional bigotry disturbing. Nazis could hate Jews in general but then made exceptions for specific Jews they knew.

While Hitler bitched about this tendency he did the same thing. When Hitler’s mother, Klara, was dying of cancer, she was cared for by a Jewish physician, whose kindness and concern made a deep impression on the young Hitler. Young Adolph was deeply grateful to the man. Before his rise to power Hitler sent the man a Christmas card every year—apparently never thinking that sendingv Christmas card to a Jew was odd. When the Nazis gained control of Austria the Fuhrer guietly issued orders that this one Jew was to be spared any harassment and/or arrest. The physician, Edward Bloch, and his wife, were left alone by the Nazis right up until the day they emigrated to the United States.

One of the great oddities of South Africa was that even the most racist advocate of apartheid tended to have black workers. There were gardeners for the outside and maids for the inside. Some had more than one maid. Often there was a cook and a nanny as well. Many times the one woman performed all such functions. Many of the worst racists were literally raised by black woman who worked in their homes. These bigots often would say things like: “She was like a mother to me.” They would express deep affection for these particular black women while screaming about the “bloody kaffirs” in general.

I was reading a columnist, Mike Alvear, at Huffington Post yesterday. He told how he bordered a plane and a grandmotherly Jewish woman sat down next to him. She started making conversation. She revealed she was off to meet with a Christian fundamentalist group to discuss common ground on moral issues. He cringed but said nothing. She started prying into his life. He deflected her questions. She didn’t stop. She wanted to know if he was married. He said he wasn’t. She would have none of it. She kept insisting that she wanted to know why he wasn’t married. He said: “I would if I could. I’m gay.”

The woman went silent and became testy. She demanded to know: “Why do you people constantly flaunt your homosexuality?” He was rather astonished, as he had just spent a considerable amount of time trying to stop her from prying into his private life. He said: “What do you mean ‘flaunt.’ I’ve been trying to keep my private life private but you’ve been badgering me about it for the last 15 minutes. What do you want me to do—lie?” She said, “Yes.”
I stared straight ahead for a few seconds then turned to the woman. "You wanted me to pretend I'm something I'm not so that you wouldn't feel uncomfortable." "Yes." "So honesty is a virtue, unless it makes people uncomfortable?" Now it was her turn to change the subject. Unfortunately, she turned it to every defamatory and derogatory distortion about gay people.
She kept up the demanding conversation. Having had a Jewish grandmother himself, he knew the personality type and simply tried to talk with her patiently and calmly, knowing she would not let the matter drop. When the flight was over she told him: “You didn’t change my mind about the subject. But you changed my mind about you.”

In the film Milk there is a scene where Harvey Milk is speaking to his future assassin Dan White. White tells Milk that he’s not like the average homosexual. Milk asks: “Do you know many homosexuals, Dan?” Clearly White didn’t.

One of the justices of the Supreme Court, who upheld sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick, told a clerk of his that he had never even met a homosexual. The clerk in question was gay, as were numerous other clerks who had worked for the justice previously. Apparently the justice never considered that any of them could be gay. I suggest the reason was that none of them lived up to his image of what a gay person was like. So therefore they were not gay.

Bigots have problems with their theories. Bigots will argue that the targets of their hatred share some collective trait that makes them bad in some way thus justifying their own hatreds. They will rant about “Kikes,” “Niggers,” “Faggots,” etc. Yet, they are plagued by the “exceptions” that they have to make to their hatred. Blacks are bad news, except for the blacks they know. Gays are evil, except for a few friends ,or family members they don’t want to talk about. Jews are an evil conspiracy except for the nice Jewish doctor who cared for mother.

A small band of hard-core fanatical bigots will, of course, make no exceptions. But the average, run-of-the-mill bigot constantly finds exceptions to his stereotype. Yet he seems capable of compartmentalizing his irrational bigotry to take this into account. He tells himself that the collective he hates is evil and that the individual he likes is the exception. Amazingly bigots around the world happen to find these “exceptions” in their lives. All the others are evil, just not the ones they know.

It reminds of surveys of health care that I’ve seen. People, for the most part, say they get good medical care and are happy. But they will insist everyone else is getting bad care. The majority of people will say their care is good but that the care of the majority is bad. It’s just not possible.

The majority of people will often say that where they live is great but that everywhere else has major problems. Of course, the people “everywhere else” are saying the same thing.

This “exceptional” sort of thinking underlies a lot of false assumptions about the world. The reality is often that the “exceptions” are typical and the “stereotype” is the atypical. Bigoted minds have trouble comprehending that. This is true about groups that are targeted for hatred and it is true for political issues as well. Often the general assumptions we make are false and the “exceptions” we acknowledge are not actually exceptions at all. This is true of people and it is true of issues also.

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