Classification is Human
The firing of Juan Williams over words that reflected cultural profiling raises an interesting study in human perception and stereotyping. For Juan Williams, while fired for admitting he was alarmed when he saw people dressed in Muslim garb, was displaying the same form of mental classification as his critic Ibrahim Hooper when he called NPR a “liberal” network, or by Vivian Schiller, the NPR manager who fired Williams, for asserting that his words indicate he needs a psychiatrist. All three people used stereotypes.
The real question is whether stereotypes, or profiling, can be avoided. To be human involves stereotyping and profiling. The nature of human perception and language is to employ classification as a mechanism of knowledge and communication. If we want to identify a human, we have to say more than “human.” We use words like “woman,” “tall,” “happy,” “fat,” “old,” “Black,” “Muslim,” and a host of other adjectives in identifying a person. The more adjectives we use, the greater clarity and more specificity can be achieved in describing a particular human. Humans form groups, they claim membership in groups, and identify with groups that are described with various adjectives. Each of the above adjectives can be considered to describe a group of people.
Classifications can be descriptive or emotional
Juan Williams, Ibrahim Hooper, and Vivian Schiller all used language that generalized and contained stereotypes about other people. The real problem is that stereotypes, while being methods of classification, also carry with them historical contexts. There is no cultural baggage attached to the descriptions of a “white” or “black” person if you live in Egypt, because there is no history of slavery based on color. And, Egypt has such a wide variety of skin colors that there is no clear way to describe where black ends and white begins. Most people are some mixture. What is problematic is when particular groups become associated with violent and fearful behavior, so that the members of an entire group become associated with the evil behavior of a few. This was the case when white Europeans enslaved black Africans.
Whites enslaved and lynched blacks in the South; the 9/11 terrorist acts were committed by Muslims; some Democrats want to take other people’s money by raising taxes; some Republicans don’t care if people are without health care. All of these actions by a minority within a group raise the ire of those outside the group. Blacks fear whites, Americans fear Muslims, Republicans fear Democrats, Democrats fear Republicans. In all of these cases, neutral descriptive language is, both consciously and subconsciously, turned into hate language by groups suffering historical injustices by groups they classify with various adjectives.
In the case of Juan Williams, he openly admitted of fear of flying on airplanes with Muslims after 9/11. While this is a natural result of Muslims killing lots of people by turning airplanes into bombs, it also causes him to be fearful of the majority of Muslim people that do not have violent intentions. Also, when he talked about his fear on the television, it is likely that he spread such fear to other people.
Ibrahim Hooper, a person who identifies himself as a Muslim positively, was offended because he was on the receiving end of the stereotype he thought was used negatively. Instead of seeking greater clarification from Williams, now viewed as an enemy, wanted him to disappear. Such a reaction is a natural fight or flight animal response that arises when human beings perceive there is an enemy.
Vivian Schiller, concerned about her position and job after listening to Hooper’s disgust, sacked Williams from his job without asking for greater clarification, accepting Hooper’s non-rational response to Williams’ remarks. Then she displayed the same behavioral qualities as Williams, when she considered his behavior as pathological, even though it was a normal human response by defending against threats by profiling.
Free Speech and Dialogue
If classification is an inevitable consequence of being human, is there any way beyond the non-rational fight or flight responses indicated by Williams, Hooper, and Schiller? Of course the answer is “yes,” but it involves more qualities of human maturity than indicated in the superficial rhetoric that caused this incident. The answer lies in a combination of free speech and dialogue. Free speech is a prerequisite, because without it dialogue would be shut down before it ever began. Calling Williams’ speech “hate speech” and censoring it, who prohibit further dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims about the event. It would become politically correct to allow such fears to fester and prevent deeper understandings that are only obtained by delving deeper into dialogue with “the other.”
Moving beyond the superficial classifications of groups requires adding more adjectives, derived from more in-depth experiences. It is obvious that firing Juan Williams or forbidding him to talk about his fear won’t end his fear, it will only drive it underground to fester for a later day. Further, such prohibition prevents both Hooper and Schiller from arriving at anything more than a superficial opinion of Williams. In short, it is a prescription for fear and ignorance. Now I doubt NPR wants to be known as the network producing fear and ignorance, but if it prevents genuine dialogue on these controversial issues, that is indeed what it is producing.
There was an interesting parallel to this process many years ago when a Hollywood production studio, intending to produce a movie about Jesus, discovered that anything concrete they attributed to his nature was a source of offense to someone who believed Jesus differently. By the time the filmmakers tried to eliminate all the objectionable qualities of Jesus, there was not enough of an essence left to make the movie worthwhile. Paradoxically, the work atheist Italian Communist Director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who cast Jesus as a social revolutionary, crossing all kinds of politically incorrect boundaries, won an award from the Vatican for one of the best films on Jesus. It purposely promoted a stereotypical view of Jesus as working-class revolutionary in order to foster dialogue.
The Courage to be Civil
The real issue at stake, in my opinion, is the notion of civility as it existed at the time of the American founding and is required for democracies to function smoothly. This notion allows free speech and assumes that words such as those uttered by Williams will not be the end of dialogue, but the beginning. Political correctness and “hate speech” are labels often used to dismiss language, and by implication “the other” through a form of censorship that masquerades as protection of victims. However, such “protection” only prevents the type of dialogue necessary for true dialogue to take place, where you move beyond a stereotype though dialogue that adds adjectives and nuances so that greater knowledge and objective understanding can take place and groups can begin to see one another as other human beings, rather than as evil others that must be shunned, banned, or kept in their place. In fact those that apply the language of hate speech and cry “foul” on people like Williams belie their cowardice an fear of venturing into the realm of relationship with one perceived as an enemy.
The rights to free speech, free assembly, free press, and freedom of religion imply a level of courage that goes beyond the superficial labeling of fellow human beings. It takes people of a character willing to say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Words can hurt, especially when you don’t know who you are or have confidence to stand up despite them. Many times words are said with malice, but more often we impute malice into classificatory language based on social fears and cultural histories. Democratic society requires the courage to engage one another openly, and according to rules of civil behavior. Unfortunately this courage is frequently lacking and people use tactics, like calling something “hate speech” in an effort to control others rather than seeking to further understand others, engage in constructive dialogue, and genuinely living together with others in a pluralistic society.
Descriptive vs. non-constructive words
Many words like “Muslim,” “liberal,” “Republican,” and “Black” originate as descriptions, but can become a term of pride or predjudice, depending on one’s cultural history. Such terms do not, in themselves, dis-invite dialogue. Rather, they can be further modified by other adjectives to create a more clear and transparent understanding of the other through dialogue.
On the other hand, the most destructive language is when stereotypes are used with consciously negative emotion. Examples of such labels intended to alienate the other and prevent dialogue are “whacko,” “sicko,” “extremist,” “homophobe,” “rat,” “traitor,” “liar,” “bum,” “cultist,” “Chink,” and “bigot.” While such terms might be descriptive in some cases, they are uncivil terms that inherently demean another person, separate them from society, and provide an excuse not to treat them civilly or with respect. Those who use such destructive language are generally viewed as opinionated and beyond discussion by those who hear them.
The American founders realized that allowing people to use harmful language was a necessity of the Constitution, and the First Amendment guarantees this right. It was the role of religion, in the minds of the founders–specifically Franklin and Madison–to produce the civil people necessary to maintain the society. It is unfortunate when the leaders of such institutions of civil society not only fail to educate their descendants about civil behavior, but forthrightly display bad public examples by either using destructive stereotypes, or attempt to eliminate the first amendment in order to alleviate the sting of words used uncivilly. A culturally diverse and free society requires the First Amendment, and it requires cultural and educational institutions that know how to instruct people to live with it.