Tuesday, October 26, 2010

About Juan Williams and the Risks of Public Discourse

I have always liked Mr. Juan Williams, and I certainly do not agree that he is a bigot by any extent of the imagination.
The problem is that now Mr. Williams is lending himself to the regular criticism of NPR as a very liberal medium, by saying that NPR was looking for a reason to fire him.
I disagree with Mr. Williams’ comment, which is similar to Mr. Jackson saying that he was afraid when he saw a black man on the street (paraphrasing).
I do understand his comment in context, and it may have been more honest than we are ready to admit in public. But I believe there is a very good reason not to admit those kinds of comments in public: they justify and even incite the fear some people (even many people) have of Muslims (or of the “angry black man.”)
As we know, racism or prejudice is harder to extirpate than just our conscious efforts to stop being racists. We are all very familiar with the research showing how we – even us, blacks, or us, women – still harbor unconscious racist or sexist views because, even though our intellect tells us one thing, the influence of society as a whole, the images we see, etc. condition our unconscious beliefs quite strongly. Therefore, we –smart, respectable people such as Mr. Williams - cannot make those comments and give authority and justification to the open expression of racism and prejudice. Or, at the very least, one will have to admit that those comments do lend themselves to justify racism, even if that’s not our intention.
I do believe this issue is extremely complicated, because otherwise we cannot have the open public discourse we want to incite. But pretending that these kinds of comments don’t have any other further incidence is dangerously naïve.