Bethany Mandel on Moral Suasion

Monday, August 28, 2017

I have never seen a title perched so perfectly on the edge of provocative and off-putting as Bethany Mandel's recent editorial: "We Need To Start Befriending Neo Nazis." I was on the side of being put off, but today's blogging alternatives were so disgusting to me that I decided I had nothing to lose. These were: Republicans -- Including Ted Cruz! -- wanting government oversight of Internet companies, a political screed that sounded so much like a bigot's stereotype I had to check its source to believe a black person wrote it, and something I'll just call an "antifada." It can be easy to forget, with all this news of people so eager to shut down any semblance of independent thought or discussion, to forget that there are people open to rational persuasion out there.

So I read the piece, and recommend doing so. (In part because it shows that there is hope even for some of those among the dregs making all the headlines.) It relates several stories, including one from the author's own experience, of people demolishing stereotypes by treating a bigot like a human being, and in the process, helping the bigot to see past a stereotype to the valuable human being.

Mandel starts with her own childhood example:

Riding the bus one afternoon, a girl in another grade began loudly complaining about our health class teacher. This teacher was the only other Jewish person in our rural Upstate New York school besides me, and pretty soon, the insults about the instructor turned anti-Semitic. I decided to toy with the girl a bit, so I played along and volleyed some anti-Semitic epithets of my own. The drama culminated in a dramatic reveal: as my stop approached, I dramatically informed her that the name Horowitz (my maiden name) is Jewish, and so was I.

Over the years, as children are particularly good at doing, I forgave the girl and we became friends. Even now, we are still friends, even though we've never discussed what we said that day on the bus after school. We never felt the need. She got to know me as a human being, not just a Jewish person, and whatever hatred she had been taught by someone in her family melted away, because she saw that Jewish people aren't the evil subhumans she was led to believe. [bold added]
Mandel goes on to mention a black man who goes out of his way to befriend white supremacists, so far getting a couple of hundred to renounce their views over the years. These are rare, powerful, and hopeful stories for this day and age, but there is a point I want to respectfully disagree with the author about. Mandel starts out by saying, "... I'm not sure I have the moral fortitude to actually carry [this] out in my own adult life."

Yes, simply by writing this piece, Mandel shows a degree of courage she may not fully realize she has. But that's not my issue. Rather, it's this: This is brave, and I think it is among a set of rational ways for dealing with the bigotry that is sprouting up from every direction today. But doing exactly this is optional. We all have a selfish interest in making the world a place where we can flourish, including improving the culture, a process that the abolition movement shows us can only be done one mind at a time. There are many ways to do this (such as by writing a column informing us of an option we may not have thought of), some of which we may feel more comfortable, be better at, or have more opportunities for doing. More important, one should not do this if it is in any way self-sacrificial. It is up to each of us to weigh what we hope to achieve when attempting any form of persuasion, against any personal risks, be it in cognizance of anything from wasted time to personal safety. In short, one can admire a man like Daryl Davis without feeling guilty or morally deficient for not doing exactly the same thing. The fight for individual rights is big enough without us weighing ourselves down with the unearned guilt of unrealistic expectations or altruism.

I thank Bethany Mandel for her column: If enough of her readers do something like this even once, it will have made a big difference.

-- CAV

P.S. This article raises another interesting point: The examples here are not of attempts to put forth an explicit ideological stand, such as individualism. That said, they implicitly rely on some degree of self-interest, resting as they do on helping someone see how his own very base ideology is cutting him off from real values, such as friendship.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "something I'll just call an 'antifada.'" Putting it that way, I'm one.

(Portuguese joke: fada means 'fairy.' Interestingly, in Breakfast at Tiffany's--the book, not the movie--at one point Holly Golightly is being courted by a Brazilian diplomat, so she immerses herself, as much as a flighty girl like that can, in Lusitanian culture. I assume it was intentional on Capote's part that she offers to sing a fada to the narrator. You sing a fado, hopefully well; you swat fadas with heavy books or spray powerful pesticides to get rid of them.)

Dinwar said...

These sorts of victories don't actually take much effort. I recall an incident in college....I was holding a door for a woman, as I do. She was apparently a Feminist with a capital F, and took the opportunity to berate me for believing women were less able then men, that women needed men to do the simplest things, how I was just perpetuating the patriarchy, and all the rest. I quietly let her rant and rave, watching a man who was holding several boxes walking up to us. When he got near the door I opened it for him. The woman stopped mid-sentence and said "You hold the door for everyone, not just women, don't you?" I explained that yes, when I'm not in a hurry/don't have my hands full, I consider it good manners to wait the extra second or two and hold the door for people, regardless of race, sex, creed, or whatever.

I don't know if she went on to forget the lesson she learned, or if she actually started considering whether those preaching hate to her may be wrong. In isolation, such events have little power--one can always explain away the outliers. But enough small gestures can change a culture.

That's not to say we should do so as a form of duty. I'm just saying that while grand gestures make headlines, even small acts can, given time and sufficient number, have powerful effects.

Gus Van Horn said...


Good of you to explain that that was a Portuguese joke.


That's a good example. I am also a door-holder, although I haven't had the opportunity you have had as of yet, brought on by indiscriminate hostility.