Uncivilized Society

I don’t know how many of you have.....

...Gay friends......(laughter)

...Black friends.....(laughter)

...Muslims living in your city....(laughter)

...Spanish-speaking laborers....(laughter)




But I have one, and s/he’s [negative stereotype]...(laughter)

Funny stuff, this bigotry. There’s so much of it in the everyday noise that we get completely anesthetized to it. It’s very easy to ignore, and it’s really hard to know if speaking out against it is worth the effort. Is it really worth debating racial politics with, say, my mechanic when no matter what I say he won’t ever change his mind? I can always just quietly take my car somewhere else, but silence implies collusion with the bigotry.

The unfortunate reality is that speaking up puts you at risk. When personal ethics threaten your in-group status, or even your physical safety, deciding what to do about a bigot can be very difficult. Marginalizing people who are physically and culturally different than you in order to maintain in-group status is an ancient strategy. It is probably evolutionarily adaptive to quickly identify someone who looks or behaves differently as Other. In today’s global human society, where cultural and economic systems are interlaced, tolerating bigotry has stopped working for the betterment of our species. It’s unfortunate that the instinct to turn Other into Enemy still holds such strong sway in modern human thinking.

...Teh Gay....

Bigotry is certainly a distasteful feature of American politics. Witness presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s rhetoric against gay people.  I can’t believe that in 2012 someone who is so profoundly ignorant and hateful is considered a credible candidate for the presidency of the United States. His type of foolishness hurts  real people. I was an ethnographic intern with the Laramie police department when University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed because he was gay. The one thing that still haunts me from that crime scene is the shovel bites of blood-soaked soil missing from the embankment.


A noisy minority of Americans hate-hate brown-skinned people, and President Barack Obama in particular. (See here, here, here, and use Google for about ten-fucktillion more depressingly idiotic and racist examples.) Some political lunatics even publicly pray for the death of our president. This violent rhetoric resonates strongly with the authoritarian Republican base, but it’s appallingly, dangerously, inappropriate in my opinion.

...Swarthy people who are Muslim....

Bigotry against Muslims, another group stereotyped as swarthy, abounds, and often manifests itself in violence.

Growing anti-Muslim bias in America is no secret. Over the past few years, numerous reports have exposed concerted anti-Muslim campaigns that mobilize people to hate their Muslim compatriots. For example, the Center for American Progress meticulously documents seven foundations spending over $40 million to fund anti-Muslim propaganda that has been widely repeated by political leaders, grassroots groups and the media. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an expert on hate groups in America, also reports the apparent surge in anti-Muslim sentiment in America is driven by a small, closely knit cadre of activists. The hate generated by these professional anti-Muslim bigots often leads to violence.

As with bullies everywhere, the victims are often vulnerable women and children. 9/11 bred the fiction that all Muslims are terrorists. This is simply not true. Dangerous lunatics are not limited to any one religion, unfortunately. They come from everywhere.

...More brown-skinned people....

Extreme anti-immigration rhetoric is becoming more mainstream with an attendant increase in violence.

The increase in violence against Hispanics correlates closely with the increasingly heated debate over Comprehensive Immigration Reform and an escalation in the level of anti-immigrant vitriol on radio, television, and the Internet. While reasonable people can and will disagree about the parameters of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, in some instances, the commentary about immigration reform has not been reasonable; it has been inflammatory. Warned an April 2009 assessment from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), "in some cases, anti-Immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent."

Of course, the actual indigenous Americans have dark skin. It’s the Northern Europeans who are the infiltrators. Oh, the humanity!

If you wonder if something is actually racist, check it on this source. The answers are hilarious, and the questions are appalling. You can search for your question or submit it to the author. Spoiler: If you have to ask, the answer is almost always yes.

...People who don’t have penises*....

Men are privileged, and a depressing number of people think that’s as it should be. Below are just a few ways in which sexism undermines social cohesion, productivity, and culture.

My former hometown newspaper printed an article about the state’s appalling wage gap. It is the worst in the nation. From the comments: “Love the cat-fighting going on here with the typical crybabying from the fairer sex.” Yes. “Crybabying” about a fundamental injustice which keeps many women and children in poverty.

According to this source, one out of every six American women has been the victim of a sexual assault. One in six. You know victims. We all do. You just might not know exactly who has been a victim because women don’t talk openly about it. We’re supposed to feel ashamed for being attacked. Some men even believe that girls and women who are impregnated during rape have received a gift from god. I would prefer that god not let any of us, especially children, be raped in the first place.

One in four women has experienced domestic violence. You know victims. We all do. You just might not know exactly who has been a victim because women don’t talk openly about it. We’re supposed to feel ashamed for being attacked.

My own mom died from sexism. In September of 1988 she went to the emergency room with dizziness and a terrible, debilitating headache. The doctor told her she was weak. He accused her of whining and exaggerating the pain. She was terribly embarrassed. The doctor sent her home. Where she died of a ruptured brain aneurysm a few hours later. I would like to think this is an unlikely scenario today, but I’m not so sure it couldn’t happen again.

Even now, in the developed world, circa 2012, bigotry against women thrives. It’s inherent in advertising (link warning: trigger alert and probably NSFW). It’s in the way that society undervalues work in childcare, education, and nursing. It’s in the way people default to male pronouns when talking about CEOs, doctors, justices, soldiers, or world leaders. It’s in the way we automatically assume that teachers, nurses, and waitstaff are women. It’s in the perpetual myth that girls just aren’t as smart as boys. In the fact that standards of beauty are typically about women being fuckable by men. Of course casual sexism just blends into the noise in this environment.

...From externalized hostility to internalized equality...

By marginalizing large swaths of our human capital, we vastly reduce our capacity for technological and intellectual innovation. Tomorrow’s brilliant thinkers may well be women, and/or gay, and/or brown-skinned, or any other variation of our diverse humanity. We need everyone, all of us, working together to solve issues like global warming, to improve our health and extend our lifespans, and to feed, educate, and nurture the children of our species.

It is no longer evolutionarily adaptive to turn Other into Enemy. We can choose to maximize our ability to adapt and evolve, or we can remain mired in our primordial cognitive habits, hastening our own extinction.

Which is why I spoke out last week when I heard a doctor tell a sexist joke in a public lecture hall. This instance seemed like a rare moment when speaking up privately in a non-confrontational way might possibly make a small difference. If nothing else, maybe I saved someone else’s mom.

* I realize that there are myriad variations of gender identity. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m thinking of people whom society labels and treats as “women,” whether or not they have penises.

Originally published on Anthropologist Underground, 2012