Currently the most posted story in my Facebook feed is this excellent NY Times op-ed from Ta-Nehisi Coates, entitled “The Good, Racist People.” Coates uses the recent frisking of Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker as an opportunity to analyze the racism of “good” people:
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”
The same principle applies to homophobia. There are “good” people who argue that their homophobia isn’t really bigotry because they’re not actually afraid of gay people, plus their reasons for wanting to prevent gay people from marrying aren’t anything objectionable–they’re deeply held religious beliefs! Besides, these good people know and are polite to gay people when forced to interact with them. They manage to have entire conversations where they never once tell a gay person that they think she’s both symptom and cause of our society’s moral decay and destined for hell. These people are too good to deserve a label reserved for bad people–you know, bigots. Plus, they’re right. God told them they’re right. That means they’re automatically not bigots, because what they’re expressing is not a human prejudice–it’s god’s will!
The same principle applies to sexism and misogyny. There are “good” people who argue that their misogyny isn’t really bigotry because they don’t actually hate women–they are a woman, or they married one, or they’re related to a bunch! They just have deeply held religious beliefs that tell them that women are, by divine decree, ordained to hold a somehow subordinate-but-equal status to men in every human social group from the nuclear family to the local church congregation to God’s supposedly world-wide organization for caring for his children’s needs on earth. They just have deeply held religious beliefs that entitle them to tell women what they are allowed to do with their bodies and how they must dress, what types of goals they are allowed to have. These people are too good to deserve a label reserved for bad people–you know, bigots. Plus, they’re right. God told them they’re right. That means they’re automatically not bigots, because what they’re expressing is not a human prejudice–it’s god’s will!
Here’s the thing: If you try to deny another group of people rights you claim for yourself–the right to buy a sandwich without getting frisked, the right to marry another consenting adult, the right to preside–then you’re a bigot, and you deserve to be called one. You might have a great sense of humor and many people, me included, might have laughed at your jokes. You might be admired for the generosity you show your family and respected for your intelligence, by all sorts of people, including me. But just as you deserve to be recognized for the way you have chosen to develop the traits of humor, generosity and intelligence, you deserve to be recognized for the way you have chosen to the develop the trait of bigotry.
Obviously, I’m discussing current defenses of Mormon homophobia and misogyny. Obviously, not all Mormons are bigots. Obviously, some Mormons are. For some Mormons, it is their faith–their belief in the universal availability of God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice–that makes them oppose bigotry in all its forms, even and especially within the church. For some Mormons, it is their faith–their belief in racist doctrines from the church’s past, their trust in homophobic beliefs and political agendas of current leaders, their reliance on well-entrenched but still unjustified gender assumptions–that makes them bigots who defend the church’s continued bigotry.
South Pacific, the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, had an agenda. In particular, it tackled racism. There’s a song called “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” that goes
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Bigoted Mormon adults pass their bigotry on their children, very, very early. Consider this guest post at the Cultural Hall from Marie Brian, the amazing Cotton Floozy:
My daughter is nine years old. ‘Why haven’t you been baptized?’ the kids asked her. ‘Don’t you know that you will go to hell unless you get baptized?’
And so now my daughter goes to church with her grandparents. She is doing better now that she fits in — now that they won’t tease her for being different.
Sister Floozy concludes with some pretty sound advice:
I didn’t stop going to church because of the whole murky history thing. I stopped going because I felt that the church stopped teaching the Doctrine of Love…
As long as we teach that feminism, gayness, and intellectualism is a sin, I cannot be a part of such an institution. As long as we condone exclusivity over inclusivity, I cannot raise my hand in sustaining. As long as we teach our children that being gay is bad and only church-approved socially-constructed ideas of a perfect family are good, I cannot send my daughter to church without stressing the eff out….
If the church would make its buildings reverberate with tolerance, acceptance, and love, they wouldn’t have to worry about the members who are leaving the church in droves. They would keep the members, because people would instinctively love to attend, to bask in the warmth of a Jesus-like atmosphere, to share the pews with anyone and everyone — those pants-wearing ladies, the gay couples, and the transsexual children of God. That is the kind of church I want. Maybe, this is wishful thinking. I hope not.
If the church would make its buildings reverberate with tolerance, “good” Mormons wouldn’t have to defend themselves against the charge that they are bigots, because they very likely wouldn’t be bigots.
And before anyone gets all “Yeah, well, you’re being bigoted against bigots!” on this post, let me use Coates’ example to point out that there’s a big difference between saying, “You treated my friend like a criminal when he tried to patronize your business, so I’m not going to patronize it anymore” and saying, “Hey, you’re trying to shop while black! I don’t trust you!” Let me use Marie’s example to point out that there’s a big difference between saying, “You’re pretty much a mean jerk who says awful things about people I love when we hang out, so I don’t want to hang out with you anymore” and saying, “I don’t approve of how you spend your Sundays, so I’m going to be mean to you during the week.”
Removing yourself from someone’s company and explaining why you don’t want to keep that company is not the same thing as treating someone badly when you are forced to interact. Allowing people to do their own thing and doing your own thing away from them is not the same thing as trying to deny someone the right to do their own thing because you don’t think they deserve a right you claim so readily.
And those two essays explain, in case you wondered, why so many people conclude that they are “tired of good people, that [they've] had all the good people [they] could take.”