In my younger days, I flirted with some ideas which I am ashamed of. This piece is not a cathartic admission of guilt, nor a self satisfied account of my moral enlightenment. The intent is to point out how such views can be overcome through the use of the most clear case study I have to hand – my own thought process. Although my own journey is by no means complete, and the views I came to reject were by no means extreme; I stand as a living, breathing example of how these techniques can work.
Some specifics are clearly in order. I was brought up as a Christian, not devout in any sense, but practising. In the 2010s, I was one of many who turned away from religion, inspired by the work of ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. As far as I know, there was no real underlying motive for this change, I was simply not aware that ‘becoming’ an atheist was possible until I discovered these individuals’ work.
I congratulated myself on my intellectual rigour and my ability to change so fundamental a view when faced with challenging evidence. This was of course, false. I had taken all of the new atheists at their word (on faith?) and had never spent hours considering the works of Christian scholars or stayed up until the early hours watching pro religious YouTube videos. My decision to abandon an already weak faith was not based on intellectual consideration.
I prided myself that this new worldview was racially neutral. In my mind, I had subjected all faiths to the same scrutiny and had found them all wanting. This too, was false. Islam always faced the most robust criticism in my mind. I was also a party to the ridiculous assertion that Islamophobia can’t be racist because Islam isn’t a race (I even kidded myself that I had come up with this argument independently).
My thoughts on women were no less objectionable.
While believing that I was a champion of women’s rights as a challenger of religious discrimination against women, I would strongly argue that feminism was a device for oppressing men. I would dismiss the views of famous women (even scholars) as hysterical or overly emotional – when they disagreed with me of course. I was also a regular visitor to certain men’s rights forums and facebook groups. I never mustered up the gall to post myself and contented myself with reading and agreeing with others’ views.Subconsciously I must have known that this was wrong, both morally and empirically.
I disagreed with homosexuality. I believed it was a lifestyle choice and that it was unnatural. It also ran counter to the view that the strongest should be the ones who succeed in the world. Of course, the notion that LGBT people could be strong – physically, mentally or intellectually – was absent from this thought process.
The purpose here is to tell you what made me change my mind. I am sorry to inform you that it was not rational argument. I never read or watched anything which challenged my worldview, although I kidded myself that the BBC constituted the ‘other side of the argument’.
What changed my mind was two things: comedy and art.
Watching comedy by people such as Al Murray, Ed Byrne, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring (i.e. white men) made me laugh. But there was a nagging sense that I was the butt of the joke. Watching Herring comment on the fact that many far right individuals watch Murray without irony and without realising that he was mocking them made me realise that I was one such individual. The rapturous laughter at this observation was obviously directed at me.
The fact that these comedians were white men gave their observations legitimacy in my ignorant mind, but a more diverse set of comedians cemented the notion that I was being laughed at. Victoria Wood, Stephen Fry, Stephen K. Amos and Chris Rock would mercilessly mock sexists, homophobes and racists to the delight of man and woman, gay and straight, white and black alike.
Art challenged me in a different way.
Much of the music that I loved expressed the feeling of being an ‘othered’ person in a way that written or spoken words simply cannot do. Living Colour, Rage Against the Machine, Akala, Elton John, Alanis Morissette. All explained the inexplicable and made feelings of discrimination tangible to one who had never really experienced it. Art exhibitions, photography and literature brought to life the experiences of people who I had no hope of relating to otherwise.
As a white, heterosexual, able bodied man, I experience no discrimination. It is an experience that I have no hope of understanding in any real sense. So the advice I can give as someone who momentarily succumbed to the darker thought process which privilege allows is this: mock us as only you can, and explain to us as only you can.
Legislation, policy and official solutions to bigotry are doomed to failure. The only hope is social pressure. And nothing exerts stronger pressure than the feeling of being joked about. Take every opportunity to make jokes at the expense of racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise exclusionary world views. Go one further and joke at the expense of individuals who hold these views. Take my word for it, someone will hear, and will realise that they are the butt of the joke.
Secondly, use your talent. Use your music, your painting, your photography to tell others about your experience. This is the only way that those of us who can’t relate can hope to understand. Art is subversive to all divisive regimes and societies and this is why they always try to ban or discredit it. This is the root of the far right’s hostility to ‘luvvies’.
As I said, I stand as living proof that this method works. I have no hope of being completely rid of a thought process which is a product of a privileged experience, but I can say that I am now aware of such a thing. I will never be fully able to solve these problems, even in my own mind, but this experience at least forced me to try.