I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
If ever one needed proof that misconceptions and prejudices die hard, one needn’t look very far for verification of that fact. Opponents of Barack Obama say they are against him, not because of his race, but because of his liberal ideas and failed economic policies. But I wonder. Prejudice is still alive in many forms: against blacks, Jews, Muslims, gays, immigrants, the homeless, the mentally ill. In 2011, a homeless and mentally ill man in Orange County, CA was beaten to death by police. I know a Jewish woman who claims that a Middle Eastern man backed away from her and would not shake her hand when he saw the Star of David hanging on a chain around her neck. I know a lesbian couple whose cars have been vandalized while parked outside their home and this incident persuaded them to install a security camera outside their house. Was it a “hate crime?” When questioned, those with deep seated prejudices are unable, at times, to even articulate why they feel the way they do. The best they can muster is “it’s just plain wrong.”
Social mores evolve. Most of us would say this is a good thing. Women can vote and own property. This seems normal and just, but wasn’t always so. Women used to marry out of financial necessity because they had no legal means or recourse to support themselves. Now they have options. Blacks are free, able to vote and own property and live in the same neighborhoods as whites. Schools and universities are integrated. Sports teams not only allow blacks, but many black athletes are highly prized and actively solicited for their skills. Yet some forms of integration are still controversial, in some geographical areas more than others. I visited Mississippi a few years ago, and while in Columbus touring the area around Mississippi University for Women (MUW or “the W”), learned that a local country club had closed recently. There had been efforts to integrate the club, open to whites only. The members objected strongly and refused to give in to pressures to integrate. Instead, they reacted by closing the place down. I thought at the time of the phrase “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
So, in our “enlightened time” (as I would like to think it is), I was amazed and astounded at the hue and cry of the social clamorers when President Obama announced in the past few days that he supports same sex marriage. Some call him a flip-flopper and some say he is doing this for political reasons. CNN devoted hours and hours of coverage to this and interviewed dozens of pundits. Well, I can’t know for sure, nor can any of us, about Obama’s motives. There are always questions where politicians are concerned. But I’d like to think that this is evidence of an open mind and an evolving perspective, even if there are some political benefits attached. One of the hallmarks of an open-minded individual is the willingness to change one’s perspective or privately held beliefs when new evidence comes to light. Even George Wallace changed his stance on segregation; again one wonders how politically motivated he was when he said: “I did stand, with a majority of the white people, for the separation of the schools. But that was wrong, and that will never come back again.” And one wonders about his being shot and subsequently confined to a wheel chair: that is a powerful change in his reality and a motivator that can cause re-examination of conscience where privately held beliefs are involved. And perhaps some guilt could creep in too.
Every time one of these “human rights” issues is argued in the media, I think of the quote (cited above) from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The citation, the lines, the utterance by Shylock is classic because at its roots it is about human behavior and the human condition. Behind all the rhetoric there are people involved, with feelings, egos, and self esteem (perhaps greater or lesser depending on how much they’ve been beaten, bullied, maligned or maltreated). Some individuals treat their pets better than they treat some of their fellow human beings. Have we learned nothing from the US Civil War, from the racial conflicts of the 1960s, from the Holocaust? I once had an uncle, a priest (now deceased), who grew up in Kansas in an atmosphere of prejudice and Jim Crow laws. As an older adult, assigned to a poor black parish in Alabama, he came to believe that the best way to end prejudice would be for all races to intermarry and interbreed on a large scale, so that in time there would be no more “race,” per se. Rather, the pool of human soup would become a mix of various shades of tan, beige, brown, ochre and ecru. And maybe that would end the racial strife once and for all. It was a radical concept, an enlightened perspective, or pure folly, depending on one’s point of view. My mother, his sister, thought about it and talked about it often for many years after he expressed his sentiments. I was never quite sure if she was proud of his viewpoint or still trying to convince herself that it had merit.
There is a huge movement on at present for the ethical treatment of animals. PETA and other organizations, including faith-based groups, stage protests and many in their ranks advocate veganism. Suddenly, markets are labeling their poultry as “free range” and their eggs as coming from “cage free” chickens. I even found, in my local Target store, chicken-flavored pet treats labeled as “free range.” I’m all for the ethical treatment of animals. They shouldn’t be kept in battery cages and hobbled so they can’t move. Conditions in factory farms are horrendous. There is cruelty in slaughterhouses. Meanwhile, some of the very people who have developed social consciences where animals are concerned still don’t treat their fellow human beings with the dignity they advocate for animals. I think we’d do well to re-examine our priorities and properly align our values on an ongoing basis. I think we have to regularly fight against our human weaknesses that unwittingly lead us into bad, even sad, behavior. Sometimes enlightenment doesn’t dawn because we have evolved, necessarily, but because we are willing to commit to some difficult soul-work.