No one wants to be called a bigot, and most people who behave in bigoted ways would probably never classify themselves this way.
When I picture a “bigot” I imagine the main character from the classic television show “All in The Family”—Archie Bunker—cantankerous, freely using racial epithets, proudly anti-gay.
I think that’s what the majority of us imagine, but when I watched former President Bill Clinton’s interview with Trevor Noah on the September 15th episode of The Daily Show, I began to consider a different, perhaps even more insidious form of bigotry: the intolerance of differing ideas and opinions. We all do that.
“America’s come so far. We’re less racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-specific religions than we used to be, but we have one remaining bigotry—we don’t want to be around anybody that disagrees with us.” ~ Bill Clinton
President Clinton is right. As a culture, we’ve made enormous progress in the past 50 years. Don’t believe me? When my mother was a child in the 1960s African Americans (who were certainly not given the dignity of being called African or American) were not allowed to use the same bathrooms, drinking fountains, or lunch counters as she was.
She recounts never even knowing of the existence of homosexuality until she was an adult. When my stepfather immigrated to America in 1967 he was made fun of for not knowing English and placed in a class for students with severe disabilities for no other reason than not knowing the language. He taught himself English through television and radio. Trust me, things are a lot better now.
That does not, however, mean that everything is fixed. Far from it. Our society still has a long way to go in terms of compassion, inclusion, fairness, and healing.
I’m sure that everyone reading this article right now is agreeing with me that there is still progress to be made, but I’d also bet that everyone reading this is also saying to themselves, “But obviously this isn’t talking about me. I’m an inclusive, tolerant, multi-ethnic, non-racist, yoga-practicing, activist, vegan, politically-correct, pan-sexual, spiritual but not religious, non-body-shamer who has never offended anyone with my speech or actions. Bill Clinton means those awful rednecks we see at rallies on the news, those terrible people who hate us.”
President Clinton is talking about everyone.
Everyone includes you and me, our families, our neighbors, people at work, people we meet on the street, the people we see at rallies on the news spouting off reprehensible rhetoric, those from our own political parties, and members not just of that “other” religion, but also the ones who share our same spiritual beliefs or lack thereof. All of us.
With one short quote, Bill Clinton summed up one of our society’s biggest problems. It’s the issue that will continue to prevent more progress and necessary change unless we can begin to look at ourselves objectively, and then learn to interact and listen to others without reacting with hostility and retreating back into a self-imposed, “safer” segregation with like-minded people.
It’s easier to stick with our own kind. Life’s far more pleasant when we aren’t challenged, when we can separate ourselves from different ideologies and opposing worldviews, and only surround ourselves with those who tell us we’re right. Human beings are designed to be clannish, so in a way, we can’t help doing this to some extent, but we aren’t nomads struggling to survive in an Ice Age wasteland anymore, so it’s time to branch out a little.
Big problems don’t get solved when the only way we experience different ideas is through the protective barrier of an electronic screen. Stay informed, of course. Watch the news, read the articles in your newsfeed that your friends post, use the apps on your smartphone to stay up to date on current events and conversations, but also understand that the information we receive is going to be largely curated to our existing biases.
So mindfully seek out new ideas, even if they are terrifying and wrong.
Then go out and interact with real human beings who are nothing like you, even those who are deplorable.
Real changes in societies rarely, if ever, are sudden and sweeping. Unfortunately, no one can wave a magic wand and immediately create a Utopia. Change is slow and begins on a tiny scale, one individual at a time, and it happens through meaningful interaction with other human beings. It happens when we humanize each other. It comes from people listening, even when that is hard and what we are hearing makes us sick. It comes from one-half of a conversation taking the high road and setting a good example for the other half. Be the side that takes the high road.
Change happens when we can see and own our own faults and prejudices, and when we can stop perceiving others as evil (even when their beliefs might very well be) and extend them the compassion and benefit of the doubt that we’d like to be given. People will begin to listen and open their minds if they are validated as human beings, if they think they are being heard, and if they feel they are being treated fairly.
Throughout the millennia, none of our great spiritual leaders have ever separated themselves from the cultures and societies they lived in (groups that isolate themselves are cults). They interacted with everyone. Jesus is a particularly vivid example of this in the way that he continually sought out the undesirables and “sinners” from all walks of life. This is what he meant by loving our enemies, an idea that is an integral teaching of all of the world’s major religions.
It takes a tremendous amount of hard work, emotional detachment, self-discipline, and patience to forge any kind of relationship with a person whose worldview is different, or possibly even reprehensible. But just because something is difficult or unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s impossible. This kind of work is necessary if we truly seek real changes in the world. It is the only way to solve national and global emergencies, and it begins with each of us.
It is time to reach out and get uncomfortable.
President Bill Clinton with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show:
The full thing is worth watching: some really sweet, powerful moments.
Author: Victoria Fedden
Image: Youtube Still
Editor: Sara Kärpänen