Are We Becoming a Nation of Ideological Bigots?

June 2010

“The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye. The more light you shine on it, the more it will contract.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Bigot: strong word you say? Indeed it is and it may be time to call it what it is and stop this incessant sanctimonious crossfire that dominates our airwaves and, for some, our conversations.

As background, I have been troubled and quite vocal in my newsletter and blog editorials about the growing ideological divide in the U.S. and the negative impact it is having on my country, seemingly precluding any respectful and civil discourse between opposing views in Washington, our media, or even in living rooms around the country. I see this as a major crisis and perhaps the biggest threat to our future as a nation. But my language was still tame and polite, trying to bridge the divide or, at least, curb the widening if possible. Then two things happened that have prompted me to use the term bigot in this context.

One is the vandalizing of progressive rabbi Michael Lerner’s home in Berkeley early last month by right wing extremists. Apparently, Lerner’s views on Israel’s human rights violations had previously generated hate mail and life threatening messages from pro-Israel factions in the U.S. and Israel. Learning all this, for me, was a threshold crossed.

Around the same time, a friend recommended a new blog conversation started by Atlanta-based consultant Daryl Conner. In addressing how consultants can get very attached to their proprietary models and processes, to the point of denigrating those used by their competitors, he names it “methodology bigotry.” Here’s part of what Conner writes:

The solution isn’t to abandon our well-deserved devotion to whatever approaches we have formed attachments to. The last thing we want to do is lose the differentiations [they] offer. Alternative frames of reference …[is] the grist on which creativity depends.

Varying perspectives aren’t a problem unless they become a justification for discounting and disregarding each other’s views. This is when healthy differences cross the line and enter the prejudice-filled world of bigotry. The secret lies in cultivating different frames of reference that pay tribute to each other, not that hold each other in contempt.

Let me pause here and define bigot or bigotry so we are all on the same page. Wikipedia defines a bigot as “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices. The correct use of the term requires the elements of obstinacy, irrationality, and animosity toward those of differing devotion.” defines bigotry as “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own. ”

Conner goes on:

There is nothing inconsistent about being an aficionado of one approach while also being a student of several others….There is no reason to withdraw any of our allegiances. We just need to ensure we remain not only open to but actively in pursuit of ways our separate [ideologies] and tactics for implementation can inform and strengthen each other.

How can we even entertain such questions if some part of us (even a small part) has fallen victim to the shadow side of our commitment to a preferred approach. The only way to manage the potential bigotry in all of us is to shed light on the dark region of our loyalties (note how shadows disappear when exposed to light).

It is only human to have such latent tendencies. The inclinations themselves aren’t problematic. It’s through our denial that such affinities might exist in us that they are given the opportunity to manifest. Our task, our responsibility, is to face the bigot in all of us, regardless of how prominent or concealed, and minimize its chance of becoming any more than a dormant demon we attend to on a regular basis

Dangers Foreseen by the Father of Our Country

“Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.” – Eugene Ionesco (Romanian playwright)

George Washington had a vision of two parties providing better government than one alone. He also feared partisanship would creep into national governance. It would appear Washington’s fear was well-founded for today we have the exact opposite of the positive synergy he foresaw. The township that bears his name sometimes seems incapable of generating anything but the worst each party has to offer. Here are a couple of insights into his thinking as our country was being founded:

In Washington: The Indispensable Man, James Thomas Flexner writes:
He deplored the adversary theory which sees government as a tug of war between the holders of opposite views, one side eventually vanquishing the other. Washington saw the national capital as a place where men came together not to tussle but to reconcile disagreements. This attitude grew out of his entire experience and also from his own genius. Washington’s own greatest mental gift was to be able to bore down through partial arguments to the fundamental principles on which everyone could agree.

In The American Soul, Jacob Needleman writes of Washington:
Historically speaking, there is no question that the two-party system, as we know of it, brought a great measure of order and unity to the young and growing nation. But what Washington and others after him, including Lincoln, feared was not the party system as such, but “the spirit of party” [what we now call partisanship]. By this term he meant the attitude that one’s own faction or part was more important than the whole; or, what came to the same thing, that one’s party’s interests were the same as the Interests of the whole. The “spirit of party” meant the commitment to fight for one’s own interests and to overcome, or even destroy, rather than learn from the opposition. This view, of course, is intimately related to the adversarial structure of our legal system.

Admittedly, bigot is a much stronger term than partisan or the more classical “spirit of the party.” But strong words are needed when such strong terms are being bandied about by cable show hosts, politicians, bloggers and wonks of all varieties. No ideology has an exclusive on this vitriolic and sanctimonious bigotry.

Like Washington, I fear this polarization is tearing us apart as a society. When I look for who is profiting from this growing chasm, I’m offered a clue. As mentioned above, pundits and wonks of all varieties certainly come to mind, along with their media affiliations. Fanning the flame of partisanship, extremism and the ideological divide pays in various ways besides monetarily. There’s fame, ego and celebrity as well.

So, to answer the question I started with, yes, ideological bigotry has become quite widespread here in the United States as it may have all over the world. But I’m more painfully aware of it here, on the public airwaves, in my media, amongst my friends and neighbors. In the words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all get along?”

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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