Friday, March 16, 2012

A failure to discriminate

I have a theory that, somewhere in America, there’s a giant freezer containing a bag full of heads. Our heads. We certainly seem to have lost them.

The point of the billboard below was that quoting the Bible to justify American law is wrong, because we tend to leave out the inexcusable bits. The sign was vandalized and taken down the next day — not because people objected to its church-and-state message, but because they thought it was racist.

This reflects very poorly on both the group who created it, and those who objected to its content. And that’s frustrating, because both groups are absolutely right about their respective issues. I’m totally with those who argue the Bible (like any religious text) is rife with ambiguous, conflicting, archaic and straight-up sick passages, rendering it unsuitable for the basis of a democracy. I also consider myself sensitive to racial issues, which are still alive and slithering in the U.S.

But there are times when even the most well-intentioned groups just need to find that freezer.

Atheists can be as annoying as religious fanatics — both tend to share an absolute certainty in their views, and both favor the harsh, “You’re an idiot who’s wrong” approach to persuasion. I won’t defend their particular approach to this billboard, because I would have done it differently.

To suggest that the spot is racist against African-Americans, however, is a stretch. I don’t blame anyone for thinking that on first glance. But the sign is making the point that the Bible condones (or at least accepts) institutions that Americans abhor. To perpetuate the incorrect first impression is to do a disservice to the real prejudice that minorities face. Non-issues like this give ammo to those who dismiss good groups like the NAACP (and the ACLU, et al.) as ambulance chasers.

Unfortunately, Americans are not especially receptive to nuanced arguments. We’re so fond of killing the messenger that it could be a natural bridge between the First and Second Amendments. In grad school, I wrote an essay titled, “I Am Woman, Hear Me Whimper,” wherein I argued that a male author had little respect for his female characters. Many of those who read the essay got the idea that I agreed with his sentiments — probably from the title, which I coined at the height of my “sling provocation and see what sticks” phase — and accused me of sexism. That same year, I was also accused of racism for writing a column recounting some of the depths to which a KKK public-access show had plunged. Few things in life sting worse than being vilified for being something you go out of your way not to be. I’ll bet the people behind the billboard don’t have a racist bone among them.

That said, slavery was not the best way to make this point. Slavery in the Bible has a different demographic and historical context than the black servitude of America’s early days; a picture of a Jewish slave would have been more accurate. But why depict any slave at all? The quote is the point, but its underlying message (which has nothing to do with race or slavery) is now lost in the brouhaha over its clunky delivery. The billboard could have made the same point about the Bible by choosing from a myriad of ignored passages. Citing the prohibition on double-blend fabrics, for example, is not only eye-opening and funny, but has the benefit of not being potentially misconstrued.

This could work too.
Maybe then we could focus our outrage on things that are really racist, like this:

I'm sure it's just a spelling issue.

1 comment:

Jason said...

But Ian, just ask any Tea Party member. It's not about race. It's about his policy...lulz.