Mirror, Mirror

Of the responses to my blogging for Milo that I have gotten from colleagues over the past few weeks, this exchange is perhaps the most interesting. It comes from a Facebook conversation screen-captured for me by a friend in academia. The three speakers are women. To judge from the photos that I have been able to find, they are all younger than I. I believe they are all in my own discipline of medieval studies. Certainly, they identify as feminists. And they have clearly seen photos of me, whence their conversation.

I shared this conversation with Milo. His response? "This is what winning looks like." Which is to say: They're jealous. I have the handsomest boyfriend on campus, and the other girls can't stand it. Well, maybe not on my campus, since he has not yet brought his tour to the University of Chicago. But on college campuses across the country and, if the Glasgow students vote the right way tomorrow, even back in the U.K.

Except, of course, many of my fellow academics, particularly these three women, do not see him this way. They see him more or less as they see me, as hideous, not beautiful. Horrifying, shit-eating, nasty, and snarky. Nor does it matter which image of him--or me--they see, as the first speaker acknowledges. My behavior (by which I think she means my writing) is "so repugnant" there is no way she can see me as anything other than ugly, regardless of what I look like in the photo. 

Try it yourself. Perhaps not on an image of me (you're my readers, of course I'm beautiful!). Or of Milo (I'm guessing more of you are fans than not). But on somebody else you have cause to have strong feelings about. Barack Obama, say. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Donald Trump.

How did you do? Were you able to look at each image dispassionately? Do you think I chose fairly? I tried to find images that were happy, situationally similar--all three standing in front of an American flag--with each looking friendly and confident. And yet, I'm guessing at least one of the three images strikes you as somewhat sinister, while at least one of them makes you feel happy, even elated.

What's going on? In a word: bigotry. If you cannot look at all three of these photos and see simply a person smiling, yes, you're a bigot. Which is to say: you are judging the person not by what he or she has said or done--in the photos, all they are doing is smiling--but by what you already believe about him or her.

Philosopher Edward Feser has some fascinating things to say about bigotry and how it works. In Feser's words:
The bigot is someone whose attachment to his beliefs is fundamentally emotional rather than rational. He evaluates the evidence in light of his beliefs rather than evaluating his beliefs in light of the evidence. He is reluctant or unwilling to give a fair hearing to opinions other than his own or to arguments against his own. He tends to be hostile to those who hold those different opinions, prefers to avoid them altogether rather than engaging them and their views, and resorts to invective instead of reasoned debate.
As, for example, talking about me behind my back on a Facebook thread rather than contacting me directly to ask me about what I had written. (I know from the same friend that the above conversation went on for some time, getting progressively nastier.)

The opposite of bigotry is the ability to engage in reasoned argument, to listen to the evidence a speaker or writer is presenting without letting preconceptions about the person or his or her ideas override one's ability to hear what is being said. Which does not mean one will necessarily agree with what is said--disagreement as such is not bigotry--only that one will be able to hear or to see what the other person is trying to say or show without prejudice, quite literally, pre-judging.

Wouldn't it be better if we could all listen not out of bigotry, but out of reason? Or even better, out of love? "Love," as the apostle Paul famously put it, "is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." 

Except that love, like hate, is a form of bigotry, insofar as it too is grounded in affect as much as intellect, emotion as much as reason.

I have said I love Milo, which has many of my friends, even friends who like Milo, worried. Can I not see how the things that he has said make many people uncomfortable? Well, yes, I can, but not with the same emotion they feel. It is a purely intellectual exercise for me, trying to imagine myself feeling threatened by his jokes when I am not. He does not mean them to be threatening, only startling, of this I am sure. But then I do not view him with the prejudice that my colleagues do, so how can I know what they see or hear?

Here's the catch, which I am sure you have all already realized. We're all bigots at one time or another. All of us make judgments about other people based on our emotions rather than reason. But here's the rub: we cannot make judgments any other way. The whole point of judging is to make an evaluation about someone's behavior or ideas, and evaluations, however much we might try to reason about them, necessarily come down to our emotional response. 

Notice what Paul does not say. He does not say that love is blind. Love may be patient and kind, but it also does not rejoice at wrong, but only in the right. Love is a kind of judgment just as much as hate is. It is a judgment about the good and the true and the beautiful. But so is hate. We hate the evil and the false and the ugly just as we love the good, the true, and the beautiful--or, as the English say, the lovely. 

Last week I had to watch a training video required by my employer about our campus policies on sexual abuse and harassment. It was a curious experience, having to work through the various multiple choice scenarios, but by far the most curious moment came towards the end, when I was being schooled in the phenomenon of "unconscious bias."

"Still trying to wrap my head around how you can be conscious of an unconscious bias," I quipped on my own Facebook page. But the thing is, I know that it is not that hard. To know your biases, all you have to do is check your emotional response.

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall," the Wicked Stepmother asked. "Who's the fairest of them all?" The mistake is to believe that there is some absolutely objective standard. There isn't--unless you believe (as Milo and I do) in God.

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