Should We Be Nice to Bigots?



Today Roy and I will be doing a semi-live conversation regarding a article that the both of us read called Fight for a More Civilized Bigotry by TJ Brown. Obviously, I suggest you all read it, but the article basically hits on centuries-long issue of understanding the bigot. With the Trayvon Martin case starting the ever-growing Black Lives Matter movement, and of course, a highly divisive presidential election and subsequent presidency, the issue seems to have become more of a hot button topic as of late.

Roy: Yeah I used to feel the same way as this kid, but not anymore.

Cam: I feel this way for sure. There’s a documentary on Netflix that came out last year called Accidental Courtesy about a middle-aged black man named Daryl Davis befriending klan members and causing some of them to quit the klan altogether. He operates under the question “how can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” which I find actually touches on the bigot him or herself and also the opposition to bigotry.

Roy: Being civil is fine, but the whole “be nice to bigots and they’ll come around” strategy works only sometimes and on a very micro scale. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to change. People are always going to be shitty, but hard stances against oppression on the macro level is the only way to keep those stances repressed.

Cam: It’s a tough dynamic and I get why you wouldn’t believe in that now, especially with age. But I feel like right now cynicism is also coupled with the inability to find the right words or the right approach in changing someone else’s mind. And if it’s not just the right words, it could also be the patience that it takes to understand that the process doesn’t happen overnight. I’m not saying that we should “be nice to bigots” and I don’t think that’s what the article was saying either. Rather, I feel like we should understand that no one particular group, including bigots, is a monolith. The same way that a bigot could come to renounce their prior life philosophy by realizing that not all Black people are the same, we can also recognize that not all bigots are the same and understand that we must finesse our approach accordingly.

Roy: I understand the concept. And yes, I believe that you can convert people that way. But, the point I’m making is that it isn’t a cureall. We don’t have enough professional converters and situations where racists are willing to talk to make significant change happen.

One of the reasons I changed my mind was finally getting around to reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and realizing we’ve been making the same “be nice to racists” argument since the 60’s and it rarely works on a macro scale. You have to push concepts that will be met with resistance, before they become normalized as time moves on. 

As far as racists and bigots not coming from a monolith, I think that’s all very well and good as far as realizing oppressive views, like most things, are on a spectrum. With that we all have to come to grips with where we stand on certain issues, where we are solid, and where we can use some improvement. But I believe that once we as a society draw a line, especially as it pertains to basic human rights and decency, it then shifts to the individual to contort to that new standard. As all of us mature and grow older, we all had behaviors in our past that at some point felt uncomfortable to modify. But here we are in the present, hopefully better for it.

Cam: I’m not sure it’s purported as a cureall so much as given that label by people that disagree with it. Often times we just assume people won’t listen instead of actually making the effort.

See when I think about it, I would say that Malcolm was more positive for Black people, but MLK was more positive for everyone. What we really need now is a mixture of both of them and I think that our generation is going to be integral in making that happen, but you never get that mix without being open. Think about it, we will be the most educated generation of black people in his country to date. Some of us, including you and me, grew up surrounded by white people whether it be in school or in our community. Of all people, we should know how to reach more people than ever, and I think within that reach comes our lines for human rights and decency. For example, friends of ours who might’ve seen the Trayvon Martin case in a different light had they not met us and seen us walking down the street with a hood on. Now they might understand why we draw the lines where we do.

Either way, I think we only allow ourselves to grow within the race, but not outside of the race as long as we inhibit our reach or even our willingness to reach. Shaming bigots becomes par for the course.

Roy: I just think that yes, if the situation presents itself, go ahead. But the declaration to everyone not to shame bigots and to instead be nice to them won’t move the larger needle. Also, and this is a very important point, we are asking a lot of the oppressed if they’re required to not only deal with oppression, but also to put themselves in potentially contentious environments in order to convert people. “When they go low, we go high” has become a rallying cry and the onus will logistically be placed on minorities to actually enact change, so imbalance in energy expended in these conflicts are understood. But wow, we sure are letting bigots off the hook for any real measure of effort if somehow it’s only up to “Us”.

Cam: There’s a part in Accidental Courtesy where Daryl Davis talks to young BLM representatives and you get to see how close-minded the “why should I listen to those people?” argument comes across. But at the same time, you can also see Daryl’s shortcomings from a communication standpoint. Little phrases he would say that came off a jabs and eliminated his chance to create a common ground between the opposing viewpoints. We often trust that people will simply listen to us and see the light because it’s obviously the truth, but often times that can be seen as pretentious and get you nowhere. I get the argument that we shouldn’t have to cater what we say, but if we don’t we will most certainly end up at the same square one as assuming that that person won’t listen to you in the first place, so not even trying.

I’m reading a book (Pensées by Blaise Pascal) that basically states the obvious: people are more inclined to change their mind about something if they think they came up with the idea themselves. As difficult as it sounds, we are now educated enough to be able to know how to plant that idea. Like a racial awakening Inception. Make them feel like they convinced themselves to see the light. Often times that takes examples like Daryl Davis to do something that most Black people would shy away from based on the thought that certain people (klansmen) are lost causes.

Roy: Without being too repetitive I’ll try and swing back to a previous point and expand upon that further. This argument boils down to community vs individual responsibility. Much in the ways that politics is a debate between socialism and libertarianism, we have to decide whether or not we as a society should set hard boundaries or leave it up to individuals to see and understand views opposite of which they were  previously uncomfortable. We are educated enough to understand how to sometimes make the oppressive see the error in their ways. The Civil Rights leaders of our past specialized their strategies to accomplish just that. But the truth is that we aren’t all equipped to handle those delicate situations and you won’t always have the necessary time, space or authority over another person to accomplish these righteous acts.  And so, like politics, the answer lies in the middle. We can be a whole lot smarter and nuanced with how we address folks we want to convert. But the boundaries set as a society can be useful a starting place or at least leverage for why folks need to address their shortcomings in the first place.

I’ll let you know when I do get the chance to watch the documentary. In the meantime though, I’m pretty firmly against normalization. And that’s the downside to being nice with racists. They get to have the passive notion that “we disagree politically” when talking about their relationship with you, the minority, but “politics” for their definition is uniquely oppressive towards you.

Cam: All good, man, you get to it when you get to it. This issue isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but you might find the perspective interesting. See I would say that the boundaries set by society will sort of always be arbitrary even as we progress, but that’s why I think on an individual, case-by-case level, a great deal of long term work can be done. But people have to be willing. At some point, the argument against just becomes “I don’t want to play the role of the bigger man”. That’s something I think every human can relate to. It’s swallowing your pride for the greater good, but in this case the greater good feels so much more worth it than allowing people who simply tune you out because you’re taking the same approach they always hear.

I get the your politics are oppressive thing, but I feel similarly politically in that I can’t condone every single person on the planet being liberal just because. That would be forcing them to conform with what I think is best at the moment, which is then automatically assumed to be truth.

Roy: I’m looking forward to the day when the liberal vs. conservative debate is actually what we’re worrying about.

Cam: Will probably not happen in our lifetime. But that being said, all conservatives also aren’t a monolith.


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