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Commentary: Bigotry must not be ignored

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2009 - Recent events have made me wonder why we, as a nation, continue to treat bigotry like the unstable relative at a family gathering - we know it's there, try to ignore it, act somewhat surprised when it acts up and think not talking about it will lessen the impact while hoping (with one eye open) that it has disappeared.

What come to mind are the acts of James Von Brunn, the alleged gunman from the Holocaust museum fatal shooting, and Scott Roeder, the suspected shooter of Dr. George Tiller. In addition and on a less fatal note, I read about the latest email blunder . An administrative aide to a Tennessee state senator accidentally sent a picture depicting President Barack Obama in a racially stereotypical and demeaning way. Her defense was that she sent it "to the wrong list of people" rather than acknowledging the problematic portrayal.

No doubt, I am excluding other examples, but these events share a common root in bigotry, intolerance, prejudice. Certainly someone will say that an email shouldn't be compared to a murder. I am not attempting to equate the events. I am highlighting the common fuel. Someone believes their way of seeing things is the proper way and subsequently feels permission to ridicule others for being different or judge others for holding differing views.

I thought I might be being overly sensitive, but then I heard a Fresh Air episode on NPR where Chip Berlet, a senior analyst for Political Research Associates was interviewed. He has followed conspiracy theories for decades and wrote an article entitled "Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating ." I was not alone in linking such events.

Even the Department of Homeland Security highlighted in an April report the "resurgence in radicalization and recruitment" and likened this time to that of the early '90s (i.e. Oklahoma City bombing). Berlet warns that rather than calling something generically "radical," since most paradigm shifts have occurred due to radical thoughts and actions, we should call out what is problematic (e.g. anti-Semitism, white supremacy, xenophobia).

What was most compelling to me was that he urged public discourse. What I took from this is that rather than pointing the finger at left-wing or right-wing pundits, we should question how we are contributing to the scapegoating of groups and creating "us" and "them" categories. If each of us were more willing to hear another point of view and have a discussion rather than quickly put each other in boxes (boxes that should be removed), perhaps the extreme pundits would have less of a following.

I think part of what is so compelling about conspiracies or extreme rhetoric is that we lack a mainstream or complex intellectual public conversation. People might be drawn to the curt, dichotomous thinking so often put forward, because we lack a discourse that honestly and respectfully considers multiple points of view.

Call me an optimist, but I think increasing public discourse without labeling people or pushing them to the margins would go a long way to dampen the hold of divisive extremism. We might be less able, or willing, to label a person as "that crazy relative" or "radical" and more willing to examine where a person is coming from regardless of whether we agree.

Engaging in dialogue does not mean condoning prejudice even though a great deal might be exposed. Ultimately, calling out bigotry can be difficult and volatile. However, if we do not support an alternative dialogue, we cannot be surprised when it wreaks havoc.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.