As if we needed more evidence of America’s political polarization, last week Juan Williams gave the nation a Rorschach test. Williams said he gets scared when people in “Muslim garb” board a plane he’s on, and he promptly got (a) fired by NPR and (b) rewarded by Fox News with a big contract.
Suppose Williams had said something hurtful to gay people instead of to Muslims. Suppose he had said gay men give him the creeps because he fears they’ll make sexual advances. NPR might well have fired him, but would Fox News have chosen that moment to give him a $2-million pat on the back?
I don’t think so. Playing the homophobia card is costlier than playing the Islamophobia card. Or at least, the costs are more evenly spread across the political spectrum. In 2007, when Ann Coulter used a gay slur, she was denounced on the right as well as the left, and her stock dropped. Notably, her current self-promotion campaign stresses her newfound passion for gay rights.
Coulter’s comeuppance reflected sustained progress on the gay rights front. Only a few decades ago, you could tell an anti-gay joke on the Johnny Carson show — with Carson’s active participation — and no one would complain. (See postscript below for details.) The current “it gets better” campaign, designed to reassure gay teenagers that adulthood will be less oppressive than adolescence, amounts to a kind of double entrendre: things get better not just over an individual’s life but over the nation’s life.
When we move from homophobia to Islamophobia, the trendline seems to be pointing in the opposite direction. This isn’t shocking, given 9/11 and the human tendency to magnify certain kinds of risk. (Note to Juan Williams: Over the past nine years about 90 million flights have taken off from American airports, and not one has been brought down by a Muslim terrorist. Even in 2001, no flights were brought down by people in “Muslim garb.”)
Still, however “natural” this irrational fear, it’s dangerous. As Islamophobia grows, it alienates Muslims, raising the risk of homegrown terrorism — and homegrown terrorism heightens the Islamophobia, which alienates more Muslims, and so on: a vicious circle that could carry America into the abyss. So it’s worth taking a look at why homophobia is fading; maybe the underlying dynamic is transplantable to the realm of inter-ethnic prejudice.
Theories differ as to what it takes for people to build bonds across social divides, and some theories offer more hope than others.
One of the less encouraging theories grows out of the fact that both homophobia and Islamophobia draw particular strength from fundamentalist Christians. Maybe, this argument goes, part of the problem is a kind of “scriptural determinism.” If religious texts say that homosexuality is bad, or that people of other faiths are bad, then true believers will toe that line.
If scripture is indeed this powerful, we’re in trouble, because scripture is invoked by intolerant people of all Abrahamic faiths — including the Muslim terrorists who plant the seeds of Islamophobia. And, judging by the past millennium or two, God won’t be issuing a revised version of the Bible or the Koran anytime soon.
Happily, there’s a new book that casts doubt on the power of intolerant scripture: “American Grace,” by the social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell.
Three decades ago, according to one of the many graphs in this data-rich book, slightly less than half of America’s frequent churchgoers were fine with gay people freely expressing their views on gayness. Today that number is over 70 percent — and no biblical verse bearing on homosexuality has magically changed in the meanwhile. And these numbers actually understate the progress; over those three decades, church attendance was dropping for mainline Protestant churches and liberal Catholics, so the “frequent churchgoers” category consisted increasingly of evangelicals and conservative Catholics.
So why have conservative Christians gotten less homophobic? Putnam and Campbell favor the “bridging” model. The idea is that tolerance is largely a question of getting to know people. If, say, your work brings you in touch with gay people or Muslims — and especially if your relationship with them is collaborative — this can brighten your attitude toward the whole tribe they’re part of. And if this broader tolerance requires ignoring or reinterpreting certain scriptures, so be it; the meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations.
The bridging model explains how attitudes toward gays could have made such rapid progress. A few decades ago, people all over America knew and liked gay people — they just didn’t realize these people were gay. So by the time gays started coming out of the closet, the bridge had already been built.
And once straight Americans followed the bridge’s logic — once they, having already accepted people who turned out to be gay, accepted gayness itself — more gay people felt comfortable coming out. And the more openly gay people there were, the more straight people there were who realized they had gay friends, and so on: a virtuous circle.
So could bridging work with Islamophobia? Could getting to know Muslims have the healing effect that knowing gay people has had?
The good news is that bridging does seem to work across religious divides. Putnam and Campbell did surveys with the same pool of people over consecutive years and found, for example, that gaining evangelical friends leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals (by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer” per friend gained, if you must know).
And what about Muslims? Did Christians warm to Islam as they got to know Muslims — and did Muslims return the favor?
That’s the bad news. The population of Muslims is so small, and so concentrated in distinct regions, that there weren’t enough such encounters to yield statistically significant data. And, as Putnam and Campbell note, this is a recipe for prejudice. Being a small and geographically concentrated group makes it hard for many people to know you, so not much bridging naturally happens. That would explain why Buddhists and Mormons, along with Muslims, get low feeling-thermometer ratings in America.
In retrospect, the situation of gays a few decades ago was almost uniquely conducive to rapid progress. The gay population, though not huge, was finely interspersed across the country, with representatives in virtually every high school, college and sizeable workplace. And straights had gotten to know them without even seeing the border they were crossing in the process.
So the engineering challenge in building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims will be big. Still, at least we grasp the nuts and bolts of the situation. It’s a matter of bringing people into contact with the “other” in a benign context. And it’s a matter of doing it fast, before the vicious circle takes hold, spawning appreciable homegrown terrorism and making fear of Muslims less irrational.
After 9/11, philanthropic foundations spent a lot of money arranging confabs whose participants spanned the divide between “Islam” and “the West.” Meaningful friendships did form across this border, and that’s good. It’s great that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a cosmopolitan, progressive Muslim, got to know lots of equally cosmopolitan Christians and Jews.
But as we saw when he decided to build an Islamic Community Center near ground zero, this sort of high-level networking — bridging among elites whose attitudes aren’t really the problem in the first place — isn’t enough. Philanthropists need to figure out how you build lots of little bridges at the grass roots level. And they need to do it fast.
Postscript: As for the Johnny Carson episode: I don’t like to rely on my memory alone for decades-old anecdotes, but in this case I’m 99.8 percent sure that I remember the basics accurately. Carson’s guest was the drummer Buddy Rich. In a supposedly spontaneous but obviously pre-arranged exchange, Rich said something like, “People often ask me, What is Johnny Carson really like?” Carson looked at Rich warily and said, “And how do you respond to this query?” But he paused between “this” and “query,” theatrically ratcheting up the wariness by an increment or two, and then pronounced the word “query” as “queery.” Rich immediately replied, “Like that.” Obviously, there are worse anti-gay jokes than this. Still, the premise was that being gay was something to be ashamed of. That Googling doesn’t turn up any record of this episode suggests that it didn’t enter the national conversation or the national memory. I don’t think that would be the case today. And of course, anecdotes aside, there is lots of polling data showing the extraordinary progress made since the Johnny Carson era on such issues as gay marriage and on gay rights in general.
Robert Wright, New York Times