See Something. Say Something.

It is right to denounce the many prejudices which lofted President-elect Trump to that alarming perch. But let us stop pulling our punches.

For many ally-inclined liberals, the terms we use to describe bigotry are profound insults. Call the average white, New-Urban-dwelling, M.A.-holding, thirty-something non-profit professional a ‘racist’, and you can expect to spend the next hour or so hearing his social justice resume (“…and I watched all of The Wire – twice!”). It is important to him to not be racist, because the term is deeply meaningful to him.

But for people who are racist — or sexist, ableist, ethnocentric, homophobic, and so on — it makes little difference to be called such things, especially now that they are winning. Over the last few decades, they have learned to dismiss these labels as ‘political correctness’, as such merely subjective — and, what’s more, subjective within a frame of reference which by definition they do not share.

But, you protest, it is objectively ‘racist’ when someone etc. etc. etc. — and, hello, I am in the choir. Now look at the world we live in today and tell me the label ‘racist’ — and so on — is doing any work in changing minds of people who aren’t already inclined to be allies. And then tell me ‘racist’ is the worst thing you can call someone opposed to racial equality.

We use these labels to call out ideas and behaviors which are morally repugnant to us, but it is a mistake to assume that the labels have any valence across the lines they draw. They don’t — not any more.

In fact, I believe these labels — far from being grave insults — began life as euphemisms. That is: terms like ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ (and so on) allowed advocates for racial and gender equality (and so on) to talk about the people opposed to those goals in words polite enough for civil discourse. And for a while, perhaps, that worked. But, again: look at the world we live in, and tell me ‘racism’ — and so on — is doing any work.

These words hid other words too ugly for public debate: hatred, ignorance, fear, and so on. Liberal advocates worried those words might provoke negative reactions — which would probably look a lot like right now, despite our best efforts.

Of the ugly words, I believe fear most explains our current circumstances. Or rather — what a person does when he is afraid most explains our current circumstances.

I have no problem with fear: it is okay to be afraid. It is normal and healthy to be afraid, sometimes. A person, as far as I am concerned, might tremble in fear, scream in fear, whimper and piss his pants in fear and yet not be morally suspect.

But the moment that person allows his fear to harm someone else, he becomes a coward. Cowardice is always morally suspect. And I think it is excessively deferential to flatter as ‘racism’ (and so on) what is only rank cowardice.

We can use ‘coward’ to point out how much morally repugnant behavior on the right is driven by fear, while avoiding counter-claims of political correctness. But to be effective, use of the term must describe concrete instances of cowardice. For example:

  • It is cowardice to fear brown people so much that your only consolation is a brutal policy of deportation and/or an impossible fantasy wall.
  • It is cowardice to fear black people so much that the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ drives you to profanity- and epithet-laden tirades against strangers.
  • It is cowardice to fear Muslims so much that you can’t accept as neighbors a family in flight from the awful violence in the Middle East.
  • It is cowardice to fear trans people so much that you would force them to use the wrong bathroom.
  • It is cowardice to fear your own mortality so much that you would deny healthcare to other people who desperately need it.
  • It is cowardice to fear for your position so much that you deny others their equal and full participation in civic and social life.

To some degree it is unfair to blame people in this country for being afraid. We have been fed a steady diet of fear for fifteen years, so much that fear — far more than any virtue — has become our national habit. (Forget kneeling — I don’t understand how anybody finishes The Star Spangled Banner with a straight face.)

The fact that fear is our prime factor does not excuse gross cowardice. Plenty of people rise above fear, resisting it with courage and hope and faith. So I am disinclined to charity towards anyone so weak in his beliefs that he will not also resist — and still less towards him who feeds his fear a steady diet of hate and paranoia. These people are cowards because they choose their fear over others’ well-being. They choose to be cowards. Let us not promote them to ‘racist’ (and so on).

While the racist may not find ‘racist’ meaningful, he almost certainly finds ‘coward’ meaningful. The sexist may cite some ancient stupidity, or the Islamophobe may point to tragedies real or imagined, and thus each acquit himself of the charge to his own satisfaction — but they cannot so easily excuse cowardice. Why should we then let them off the hook?

It is healthy, I think, that people on the left have a reflexive aversion to calling these people cowards. I share that aversion, and I do not make this suggestion lightly. I too wish for a time when polite language was vital to public debate. But now our politeness is derided as weakness, and the terms we might use to curb bigots instead seem to embolden them.

At this point, bracing honesty may be our only real recourse left. They do not care that they are racists, sexists, and so on — but I think we can make them care that they are cowards.

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