August 17, 2019

Juan Williams’ Honesty

Last week’s brouhaha over the firing of National Public Radio and Fox commentator Juan Williams has been a long-time coming. The reluctance of too many to accept honest talk about race relations and its complexity has often led to pious pronouncements that miss the mark—-how we act, not our inner thoughts and fears, is what matters.

According to Williams, he was called by NPR’s head of news and told that he had made a bigoted statement when he appeared on the Bill O’Reilly program and engaged in a colloquy, the initial part of which, has been quoted widely:

JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don’t want to get your ego going. But I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

The rest of Williams’ comments make clear that he was admonishing Bill O’Reilly, his host, to be careful in his rhetoric, “But I’m saying, we don’t want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy. We’ve got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut.”

Despite Williams’ unambiguous admonition to avoid stereotyping and bigotry, the hook on which the NPR honchos fired him was his candid admission that he gets nervous when he gets on a plane and sees passengers in Arab garb.

NPR’s executive decried his “bigotry” (their words) in admitting his anxiety and told him that, “there are people who were offended” by his comments. In a conversation with his boss that, as Williams described it, sounded a bit like a Cultural Revolution re-education session, he was admonished that he was in violation of NPR’s values not only for his editorial commentary but because he showed “no remorse” for his comments.

I have been in the civil rights field for over thirty five years and have learned something about bigotry and stereotyping. Indeed, for ten of those years I helped run a large scale anti-bigotry program for the ADL in Southern California whose main purpose was to train educators on how to teach tolerance and acceptance of differences (training well over 100,000 teachers locally).

To acknowledge that we perceive differences (unlike Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert who “doesn’t see color”) and that we may be put off or uncomfortable with what we see is, generally, simply being honest. Our natural/human inclination is to perceive “in-groups” (those like us) and “out groups.” To deny that reality is to live in a make believe world and run the risk of being piously and obnoxiously self righteous with those who are honest; a position in which NPR has now placed itself.

The only test that really matters is how we manage those natural inclinations. Do we have the cognitive tools to hold our visceral tendencies in check and treat people for who they are and not how they look or worship? How we end up acting, not thinking, is what matters.  We all need to have little Jiminy Crickets on our shoulders reminding us what the right thing to do is—-we don’t need faux shrinks challenging our innermost anxieties and thoughts trying to analyze how genuine we are, even when we “do the right thing”.

Juan Williams is no more a bigot for having been honest about his thoughts than Jimmy Carter was an adulterer (Christine O’Donnell notwithstanding) for having admitted to “lusting” in his heart. Or Rev. Jesse Jackson is a bigot for admitting that when he walks down the street and hears footsteps and starts thinking about robbery, that he’s relieved when he looks around and sees somebody white. Their honesty was unusual and refreshing, as was Williams’.

Speaking openly about difficult issues involving race, religion and similar divisive issues is challenging—-it’s infinitely easier to invoke platitudes and purport to feel and sing kumbaya; punishing someone (as NPR has done) for daring to be honest about his thoughts, and only his thoughts, involving race or religion sets back honest dialogue and is deplorable.