Friday, June 06, 2014

Changes In Prejudice

I competed in state speech contests in high school, usually "Boys' Humorous Interpretation." The winner in 1970 was Bob Shea, later of local fame as an actor and manager of the Palace Theater.  He did a piece called "Peasletree," which I can still recite, having competed against it so many times. He introduced it with a mention that he was attempting to preserve a vanishing cultural resource: "The Old Negro Storyteller." Slam! Liberal trump card! Judges in sport coats and turtlenecks nodded approvingly.  Bob was good, told it well.  The rest of us were competing for second place.

Peasletree was in heavy in Uncle Remus-style dialect, with its bimebyes and sezees. No one would do it today. So my entertaining Bible story that begins "Well Ol' King David was a king.  An' he was a mighty king.  And one moanin' he wuz..." is no longer remotely welcome.

I mention this because its acceptability in society has not merely changed, it has reversed. It might, might have been unacceptable in 1970 if people had known what the title meant: the confused pronunciation of a poor reader encountering the biblical word psaltry. (And had the judges known that Bob had gotten the piece from an old 78 record instead of from library research, that might have counted against him as well.) Yet even then, I think it would still have attracted admiration.

In the early 1980's we had special trainings at the hospital as AIDS became a worry. Not much of the training was strictly medical.  A lot was mythbusting and political, including wide-eyed cautioning that we must never, never suggest that homosexuals were more likely to have AIDS.  That was demeaning and bigoted.  When a psychologist suggested after initial staffing of a client that we might want to offer him AIDS testing and be cautious about contact and the safety of the other patients - said psychologist having accurately identified him as gay - people got up and walked away from the table in disgust that he should say that.  Yet three years later it was important as part of our social justice mission to side with homosexual men in their efforts to get HIV recognised as a health hazard for them in particular, which was being swept under the rug, ignored, by the Reagan Administration (despite the unprecedented quick ramp-up for research funding).  I was still liberal then.  Perhaps that was one of the pieces in becoming postliberal.

Again, the correct response had not merely changed, it had reversed.

These occurred to me as the Donald Sterling events unfolded.  When Sterling tried to contrast his actions to those of Magic Johnson, he was making an evaluation that well north of 90% of Americans would have agreed with a century ago.  Leave aside the probable truth that Sterling was actually not scandalised by Johnson's sexual promiscuity, but was merely grasping at anything that might get him out from under and allow him to kick back. What Donald Sterling hid behind was a sentiment that would have been unexceptional in 1914, even among black people.  Some would have been irritated, even quietly angry about a powerful white person saying such things in private, but most would have shrugged it off as pretty typical, yet been as scandalised as any white person at Magic's behavior. That Johnson would be considered a role model would have been repugnant to them, believing that it made them all look bad. The morality has not merely shifted, it has reversed.

Every American president from 1900-1945 made racial and ethnic comments that would destroy not only a political career these days, but might destroy one's entire life, no matter how small and unimportant one might be.

Plus there is that in private aspect. There is more variability among Americans on that, but not too many years ago people would have refused to consider any evidence against a person which had been obtained in that way. They would have pretended it did not exist, as jurors are supposed to when a judges orders something struck from the record.

I was about to say it's an advantage to have lived so long, so that I have the benefit of personal observation that the morality applauded or condemned by popular opinion was once different, giving me some perspective and balance.  Yet this is not so.  It is not an advantage.  People change quickly, and become outraged, disgusted, infuriated by things they approved of not long ago.  Pointing that out does not make one popular.

Please remember, even if you have to keep it quiet, when you hear the outrage of the crowd on any topic.  One can't count on the same people being angered by the same act 10 years later.  This isn't new, it is in our nature.

In fact, people outright deny they said the opposite only a few years before.  I have had this happen at work and at church.  Thankfully, I don't think I have experienced it among friends and family.  When people change their minds, they are quite aware of it.

Check that.  I just thought of some examples closer to home.  Best to forget if I can.

We have always been at war with Oceania.


james said...

When in 1972 LRCHS made a movie about the events of 57, I did research for the script. One afternoon in the library I looked at the pictures of the people screaming at the students and realized that most of them were still alive and quite silent about the era. In fact, my eavesdropping on adults that year turned up no hint that anybody was anything less than fully on board with equality, though there was quite a bit of grumbling about the nuisance of busing.

Sometimes the changes are positive. I didn't try to probe into what people had done back then, but I suspect that you're right and most would deny they'd ever held contrary opinions.

The depth of the changes worried me a little back then: what other changes could happen on short time scales? It worries me more now. The Spirit of the Age is a powerful giant.

bs king said...

The worst example of this I remember seeing personally was actually those who said they would never vote for a woman for higher office....until the choice was Obama vs McCain and McCain picked Palin.

When asked if they would vote for a male Democrat vs a female Republican(this was when Elizabeth Dole was in the picture), I remember one teacher saying "God would never let it come to that". Yes, I did specifically check facebook to see who this teacher was rooting for just a decade or so later. Yes it was McCain/Palin.

I do know there were people who held fast and voted third party or didn't vote. I respect that.

I think that one always stuck with me because I remember people being so ADAMANT that you couldn't have a woman lead as Pres/VP. There was scripture upon scripture proving their point. Ah well.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Both excellent examples. Better than mine, actually.

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

It seems odd but perhaps explainable by the mechanism of identification with the aggressor in identity formation; 'Choose a certain identity to avoid shame or gain safety' perhaps put overly simply as occurring. A visiting Russian oncologist in explaining Putin said that the current Russians were 'Soviet people' and the generation would have to change. Maybe something like the Jews leaving the Pharaoh. OTOH sometimes it doesn't take a generation. Perhaps there is thus hope for searing hatred Muslims are depicted as having toward the Jews.

Texan99 said...

There are so few core convictions I've held consistently over the last several decades. I'm afraid I'm very changeable. In fact, this has inspired me to wonder whether I can identify anything I believe very strongly today whose opposite I didn't believe at some point since I was, say, 16.

Retriever said...

About the only unchanging beliefs I've held over the last decades have been in Jesus the Good Shepherd and, also, a Huge God-is-coming-and-is-she-ever-pissed mental picture of YHWH as someone Bigger than the OT who will definitely be more like the God of Liberation Theology thsn the tame lion beloved of my past Anglican and Protestant evangelical congregations. I've always admired missionary Jesuits who serve the poor and stir up the idle rich into lives of service and responsibility. I've flipflopped politically, despise them all now (our American bread and circuses, Congress and pro sports). tho at one time I worked for free for a Senator because of his principled and unpopular stands on human rights (he was a wicked sinner personally, but reformed sinners can do saintly work under some circumstances). I agree w Texan99 basically.