Bigotry and fear: The chicken and the egg

Lately, the world has seemed caught in the intoxicating mentality of us versus them. There’s nothing new about this. Yet the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has proven a worthy litmus test for the way we experience life. Are these people victims of tragedy or Islamic instigators of terrorism? Do we aid the oppressed or protect our children?

Mark Twain once suggested that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Yes, my dear man, well said. The cure to xenophobia is to see the world—to leave the motherland, to learn a foreign language, or at the very least to become acquainted with “them.” Or is there more to it all? Certainly there are those who pass and surpass this short list of requirements and yet flunk the test of brotherly love. What is it that really makes the difference? How does one come to see the “other” as a fellow member of the human family?

Whatever the answer, fear seems to stand in stark contrast to this goal. But is fear the cause of bigotry or merely its offspring? Chicken or the egg? When confronted with a fear of the “other,” our immediate reaction should be self-reflection. But how can anyone honestly step back and reflect on the root of that fear once it’s found a place in the heart? I think of caring, good, honest people I know—who would not hesitate to help a stranger in need—but who, when confronted with the dark mist of fear, become protective, make unkind generalizations, and may even act in a way that would shame them if they could but step out of themselves for one moment. Are we not all at risk of this fear? Are we not all guilty of it?

And yet, where does one draw the line? At what point does fear become justified, urgent, life-saving? Preventing terrorist attacks is a worthy cause—one worth fighting for. But again, where is the line? Do the ends justify the means? Never? Sometimes? What about now?

The world is awfully smaller than it once was, and I assure you, this is no baseless cliché. What affects people of distant lands can have very real—and often very quick—repercussions in the lives of strangers across the world. So why do we keep pretending like it’s us versus them? This illusion is precisely the opposite of the truth of the human family. It’s a lie born of fear and simultaneously the mother of fear.

This fear has been feeding our political campaigns. What I find most disturbing about Trump isn’t his complete lack of common sense, his pandering to the masses (of idiots), or even his proposed policies that are nothing but racism and hate. It’s his slogan. To be sure, the desire to improve this wonderful Union of States is an admirable goal. What disgust me aren’t the words that make up Trump’s slogan—rather, it’s the narcissistic cancer that comes attached to those words. If his policies were truly aimed at improving life, his slogan really would mean “make America great again.” But this is not what’s implied by suggestions of Muslim registry lists and informants in mosques. Or by the cheers and oblations offered up by rally-goers as they beat Blacks who “should have been roughed up,”  scoff at Latinos, and banish veiled women. Or by campaign ads that depict misidentified “Mexicans” running en masse toward a promised wall of hate. It’s also not what’s implied by all the talk of carpet-bombing civilians in a distant land where all men, women, and children are surely filthy terrorists. What all this implies is that “making America great again” isn’t about making America great at all. It’s about acting as if only America matters. “God bless America, and no one else.”

Trump isn’t directly to blame for this cancer. If anything, he’s more like the diagnostic test that’s made possible a terrible discovery: the malignant tumor has long metathesized. And yes, it has even reached some critical organs. It’s too late for chemo, doc.

Mark Twain’s statement is true, not universally and not because of some intrinsic elixir granted by simply seeing the world. It’s true because of what it says about humanity. As with Trump’s slogan, the words themselves don’t carry the quote’s true meaning, its context does. The words that follow Twain’s quote: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I interpret this cure not as travel in the sense of physical movement, but in the sense of not vegetating—of seeing the world with global eyes. Universal eyes aren’t blind to color, as some may believe—they see differences in culture, they taste it, smell it, hear it. But they also see humanity for what it is: a family of individuals with different backgrounds but the same hopes, trials, dreams, and letdowns—the same life as you and me.

And yes, even racists and close-minded fools are part of this family of ours. And, very much like them, I too am guilty of judging my “other” to be of little worth. Does that not make me a hypocrite? I see Trump’s followers with the same distrustful, fearful eyes with which they see much of the world. I don’t expect to ever agree with them, but why is it so easy to exclude them all from my own human family? Suddenly, “stepping back” and seeing my own fear for what it is becomes nearly impossible. After all, I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s me versus them.