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The Groucho Conundrum

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Can you win?

When I was growing up (or at least older), many conversations fell into the category of Battle o’ Wits, although in the cruel light of accurate remembrance, Battle o’ Half-wits was probably the more accurate description.

Which is why, asked which threesome was funniest, my kindred spirits and I would unhesitatingly choose the Marx Brothers over the Three Stooges. Given a choice between becoming the next Groucho and the next Chuck Morris, we’d have chosen Groucho in a heartbeat.

But … Marx and Morris had this in common: It was always, for them and for us, about winning. Groucho’s “The next time I see you, remind not to talk to you,” was, psychologically, exactly equivalent to Chuck breaking an opponent’s nose.

What brought this to mind was an interchange in the Comments to last week’s column in response to my having said, “Bigots who aren’t violent and don’t incite violence aren’t dangerous. They’re merely annoying.”

The commenter’s points are that (1) verbal bigotry can do direct damage to its targets and (2) it can encourage discrimination even when it falls well short of incitement.

They’re points that deserve attention.

And so …

First and foremost, before anything else, in case this wasn’t entirely clear last week, the workplace has no place for any expression of bigotry of any kind. If you think this represents a triumph of political correctness, go ahead and think it.

But if you want to gripe about it … in the workplace … all you’re doing is announcing that you want to say something bigoted and would if you were allowed to. Which isn’t very different from saying the bigoted thing in the first place, except that you’re making us guess who you’re bigoted against.

This includes, by the way, bias against White Supremacists, a group I personally find detestable, but whose perspectives are just as legitimate and important to its devotees as my own are to me. In the workplace I’m just as responsible for keeping my views about them to myself as they are for keeping their views to themselves about … well, statistically speaking, most of this planet’s inhabitants.

Outside the workplace is another matter, where, faced with someone spouting off about one or more of the usual targets, we each have to decide how to deal with the situation.

If I’m the target, I maintain now what I maintained last week: Non-violent bigotry, and I include all bigotry that doesn’t incite, is a mere annoyance. It has to be, because if I give it any more significance than that, I’m giving the bigot power over me.

The bigot wins, and as a Groucho-ist in good standing, that would be just plain unacceptable.

That leads to the next, more uncomfortable question: Does the bigot have to lose the encounter, or is their not winning a satisfactory outcome?

Here’s where it gets complicated.

If it’s just the two of us, a Groucho-grade put-down might be personally satisfying, but it isn’t likely to cause the bigot to break down and beg me not to nail him with another one.

Quite the opposite, all I’d have accomplished is to escalate the situation. Worse, the less-verbally-skilled my opponent might be, the more likely escalation to physical violence would be, and I have nothing in common with Chuck Norris.

If the two of us have an audience, I have to weigh the possibility that humiliating my opponent could win the audience over to my side against the equally likely possibility that they’re already on my opponent’s side, at which point escalation would likely be quite unfortunate.

Here’s where I am, personally. Your mileage may vary:

Neither you nor I will persuade a single white supremacist to change his or her worldview, any more than you’ll persuade a dedicated Waterfall-oriented project manager that really, anyone who hasn’t gone full DevOps is a dinosaur who should be put out to pasture … a herbivorous dinosaur, that is, because as any Jurassic Park-goer knows, Tyrannosaurs and velociraptors don’t remain pasture-bound.

Persuasion won’t get us anywhere. Lecturing won’t get us anywhere. Neither will self-righteous indignation. What will?

Opinion: The Blues Brothers and Blazing Saddles did more to combat bigotry than all the speeches in the world. They did so by ridiculing the whole system of beliefs and its vocal proponents, making the whole business socially unacceptable.

Ridicule. We need more ridicule.

Groucho, where are you when we need you?

Comments (7)

  • Unfortunately, yours was a highly pertinent column today.

    As a black man, I generally agree with your views on dealing with racist words directed against me, in private, which has only happened to me a handful of times in my life. In public is another matter.

    To me, the truly significant question is how do we hold the space for targets prejudice not of our own group?

    I regretfully have come to the conclusion that we are living at a pivotal time requiring the quick action of our inner warriors to interrupt words used to legitimize violence or the occasion of violence against targeted groups.

    Verbally, I am not skilled enough to effectively ridicule the verbal miscreant. But, I can, and do, expose his/her means and tactics, often using the principals of the Golden Rule to question the correctness of their assertions.

    Other verbal methods work better for other people. There are many ways up the mountain, but now, silence cannot be one of them. When there is an audience observing and being influenced, you must trust your inner warriors to guide your actions, no matter how out of character it may feel to you, at that time.

    Or else, you may find yourself regretting your inaction, as I have, at many, many later times.

  • I try not to engage a bigot. First is the possibility of violence. “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”. I also remember a statement made to me. “An engineer should never get into a battle of wits with a lawyer unless he is armed.”. Bigots are rarely armed.

  • I tend not to argue with folks, but I do confront them. I just say I only have facts and logic at my disposal which is why I’m not going to waste breath “talking” or “arguing” with them. It makes about as much sense as yelling at the doofi you watch on television.

    I do _know_ tribal supremacy of any sort will fail over the long term due to evolution. If eugenics or budding was better than shuffling the deck completely for each generation, evolution would have “figured” it out by now. Fact #1–the future is unknown. Consequences include not focusing all your genetic energy on solving the problems of yesteryear.

  • We need more Groucho-like ridicule – SO right!! (Unfortunately most of us lack that ability- much more common are the childish chants we see and hear at certain rallies and press conferences.

  • “Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them–and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon–laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution–these can lift at a colossal humbug,–push it a little– crowd it a little–weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”

    Mark Twain in The Mysterious Stranger.

  • Great column. You mentioned Chuck Norris three times, the first two times you refer to him as Morris.

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