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?

My first, mild exposure to antisemitism was in my teenage years, when an acquaintance used “Jew” as a verb. As I recall, my response was “What?!?”

Even back then my eloquence was, you’ll agree, impressive.

Early in my career, at a table in the company cafeteria, one of my colleagues referred to Blacks as “jungle bunnies.” I forget the context but remember my response … an utterly blank look as I tried to figure out just exactly what to say. I failed, and the moment passed.

I first wrote about bigotry in the workplace seventeen years ago (“The uselessness of race“) in KJR’s predecessor, InfoWorld’s IS Survival Guide. I was shocked when several correspondents wrote to inform me … gently … of my error: Blacks really are, they explained, cognitively inferior to whites.

I’m reading Spymistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II (William Stevenson, 2011). I already knew that colonial England had a level of racism baked into its culture — a country could not practice colonialism without it.

But I was shocked at how profound the English aristocracy’s antisemitism was, rivaling that of Germany’s Nazis … so much so that many British leaders openly endorsed the Nazi program.

Two years ago Charlottesville happened, with its disturbing Tonga torchlight parade and brutal murder by a white supremacist of a counter protester.

Who would have thought that two years later, one fatality would be considered an improvement?

Which, skipping a few steps, brings us to the present, where domestic white supremacists have overtaken radicalized foreign and domestic Muslims as our most significant terrorist threat.

I’m no longer naïve enough to be shocked that racism, mysogeny, antisemitism, and other bigotries are alive and well in the United States of America. I am still absorbing the shock that bigots have joined flat-earthers in their utter lack of embarrassment.

In fact, these no-they-aren’t-just-as-fine folks don’t seem to realize that thinking Blacks and Hispanics are inferior; that Jews belong to a secret cabal plotting to run the world; that women in positions of authority are emasculating … they don’t realize their views are, in fact, outrageously bigoted and have no place here.

What can we do to combat this repulsive trend?

As an individual, if you’re adept at social media, you might consider trolling the most prominent alt-right sites. An adept hacker might plant humiliating content there, too (I’m not advocating this, merely pointing out the possibility).

But as individuals our most important role is to make clear to anyone we hear espousing any form of bigotry that they’re embarrassing themselves and should be embarrassed.

Following this, in a closely run second place, is to echo, wherever and whenever it might be appropriate, Isaac Asimov’s conclusion that “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

Bigots who aren’t violent and don’t incite violence aren’t dangerous. They’re merely annoying.

No, it isn’t particularly profound to observe that we need culture change, and that peer pressure is important in making it happen, but I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of profound to offer on this subject.

Anyway, I write KJR for managers and for those who have to deal with managers. So as a manager, what role you have to play in all of this?

The starting point is recognizing that you do have a role to play. You have a legal responsibility to provide a workplace that’s free from harassment and intimidation. If you observe an employee speaking and acting in a bigoted way, it isn’t okay to ignore it unless and until someone complains.

And a thought for IT: It isn’t just websites featuring erotica that you should block access to. If visits to erotic sites have no business purpose, neither do visits to sites that promote hate and violence.

As a teenager I read The Autobiography of Malcom X. The book as a whole vividly introduced me to the Black American experience. But what stuck in my mind more than anything else was Malcom X’s account of how he met his wife: He explained that really, she was the one in control of it all.

By modern standards this was a mildly sexist account of things. What struck me then was that, in this one respect at least, Malcolm X was just a guy.

In 2010, I attended Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. There, on the national mall, I saw a smiling, relaxed, friendly-looking Pakistani family sitting on lawn chairs, holding a sign that read, “We’re the people you’re supposed to be afraid of.”

Believe me … these aren’t the people you should be afraid of.