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?