Juan Williams, NPR, and the Nature of Bigotry
Amidst the furor that has erupted over NPR’s termination of Juan Williams’s contract, supposedly due to remarks he made in an interview with Bill O’Reilly about Muslims, Williams himself is no doubt weeping all the way to the bank. Faster than one can say “fair and balanced” FoxNews offered Williams a three-year, $2 million contract. Oh, please don’t throw me in the briar patch!
Much is and will be debated about whether Williams’s comments — that he gets “nervous” when passengers in “Muslim garb” board his plane — rise (or sink) to the level of bigotry and, if so, if NPR was right to let him go. Apparently NPR has had issues, both philosophical and contractual, with Williams prior to this incident. Williams has made injudicious decisions and offensive comments before — he defended Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s accusations and he described Michelle Obama as “Stokley Carmichael in a designer dress” (if Williams worked for me, I’d have fired his ass for that one). But is he a bigot?
Williams has defended his comments by saying he was expressing feelings, not opinion. His contention that he can’t be a bigot because he’s written books about the civil rights movement is laughable, but in the interview, he did go on to note that the actions of the few should not taint the character of the many — such as attributing the Oklahoma City bombing to “Christians.”
Most of us are aware that flying is statistically safer than driving on the interstate but it doesn’t feel that way, probably because when we’re in a car we have the illusion of control. A lot of things about airplanes scare me: middle seats, shrieking babies, seatmates who snore loudly or cough wetly, turbulence. And yes, I’m afraid of being in the wrong little metal cylinder at the wrong time, of becoming a random victim of terrorism.
Those this-can’t-be-happening images of the second plane crashing into the second tower are seared in my memory bank as are the photos of the hijackers’ faces. Say the word “hijacker” to me and I don’t immediately envision someone trying to get to Cuba. I see those 19 specific Muslim faces. Say “terrorist” and the image that comes to my mind is not that of someone in the IRA. I wish I didn’t have these visceral associations — I loathe them. I make sure I never forget that the second most horrific terrorist attack in the United States was carried out by someone who looked like “Paramilitary Ken.” Our instinctive knee-jerk responses to people, places and events arise from emotional experience, and for me, as I’m sure for many others, the coverage of 9/11 invoked deep feelings — it became an emotional reality. Does that make me a bigot?
It’s not possible to perceive every human being we encounter as a unique individual — we group, categorize and make unconscious assumptions based on a host of visual and verbal cues and the spectrum of our experiences. Often our first response is to react rather than act; if bigotry is defined by those instinctive reactions, then we’re all bigots.
Bigotry is intolerance toward people who hold different views, especially on matters of politics, religion or ethnicity — and the point is, it’s not instinctive. Bigotry is a function of consciousness, of choice and action. I admit it, I’m intolerant of Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell and Michele Bachmann — damn straight. I’m judgmental about a lot of things: people who abuse children or animals, BP executives, men in thongs. Those prejudices are deliberate on my part, visceral feeling refined by rationality. They are my choices — I own them.
My instinctive, instant responses don’t define who I am but what I am: a human animal with a part of my brain in full reptilian mode, constantly vigilant for danger and ready to command me to run or fight. If I’m walking home late at night and a young Hispanic man approaches me, I might very well feel a frisson of fear (in spite of the fact that, in my neighborhood, he’s more like to be a member of the MIT Computer Club than La Mara Salvatrucha). If somebody who looks like Mohammed Atta is sitting across the aisle, I might very well experience a momentary qualm. Doesn’t mean I have to credit that response. Doesn’t mean I can’t put my heart and mind in gear and dismiss those feelings for what they are and understand them for what they are not.
Is Juan Williams a bigot? Maybe he is but I don’t think we can know that based on the comment that got him fired. Could NPR have handled the situation with more finesse? Absolutely. And certainly this incident raises serious questions about Williams’s judgment: prefacing his admission with “I’m not a bigot” is questionable at the very least. And supposing that he could have any kind of reasonable, thoughtful conversation with Bill O’Reilly is just plain stupid.
This incident raises many questions beyond whether Williams was wrongfully terminated. It raises questions about the role of commentators in the media, about the difference between personal and informed opinion, about the degree that political correctness drives our national debate about critical, and critically sensitive subjects. It asks when free speech becomes offensive speech, and when so, what, if anything, should be done.
Don’t cry for Juan Williams. Obviously he has landed on his feet (and in a cushy spot where his “liberal” voice can help FoxNews perpetuate its cant of unbias). If you must cry, cry that there are people out there who will heed Bill O’Reilly’s call for NPR’s federal funding to be slashed (hey, Bill, what about the tax-deductible Chamber of Commerce acting to influence the upcoming election?). Cry for the fact that we cannot seem to have a compassionate, reasoned national conversation about anything. Cry about the complicated, maddening, horrible and beautiful nature of being human. But don’t cry for Mr. Williams.