Friday, April 8, 2016

Rare Breed

One day, several years ago, I was at a social event at a bar in Seattle. I was scoping out the place, near a small knot of people when I heard one of them say the word "miscegenation" in a sentence. While I'd heard the word, and knew what it meant, I have never before in my life actually use the word in conversation and in context.

As you may have guessed, that sparked my attention, and as a result, I spent nearly an hour in conversation with a self-proclaimed White Supremacist. And it was the most pleasant conversations I have ever had with a random stranger about differences in worldview in my life. And that's because, despite the fact that this guy was openly racist, he was comfortable enough with what he believed, that he didn't feel the need to try to threaten the views of people who saw things differently. He marshaled his evidence, made his points, listened to objections and at no point did he ever resort to name calling, blind accusations of lying or being dismissive.

I used to explain this as a facet of living in the Seattle area - "Even the White Supremacists are moderates," I would say. But that really doesn't give this guy credit for something that we don't see enough of - a real commitment to not being a jerk. And even in Seattle, a lot of people are jerks.

And what I really took away from that evening is that I don't have a problem with people who strike me as racists simply because they strike me as racists. It's because they strike me as jerks. And I have problems with people who strike me as jerks even when we're otherwise on the same side.

It's more or less impossible to hang around more than a dozen intensely politically-minded people without meeting several who will say something along the lines of: "When people hold obviously wrong beliefs, it's okay to ridicule them as a means of getting them to rethink their worldviews," or some variation thereupon. Sometimes, when people make that point to me, I ask them to perform one simple task. "Introduce me to one person who has come around to your way of thinking as a result of you ridiculing them for their previous beliefs." I've asked this of a number of people, and thus far the number of people who have stepped up to profess that they were ridiculed into seeing the light stands at zero. Which is not to say that it doesn't happen. But it seems rare enough that holding up as an effective means of making friends and influencing people seems dubious.

And that's what stood out for me about the guy in the bar. For all that he thought that I was an inferior specimen of humanity, worth less than Whites, entitled to fewer public resources than Whites and someone who should be prepared to accept that as the objective way of the world, he honestly wanted me to see him as a possible friend - and perhaps just as importantly - to know that he saw me as a possible friend. He wasn't going to hold positive regard of me hostage to my bowing to his belief system. That's a rarer thing in this world that it should be.

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