The power in numbers

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Among the truest truisms are the statements: “there is power in numbers,” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

History offers ample examples. The problem is that those examples may illustrate successes by what we (or others) might consider good or moral causes, as well as successes by what we (or others) might consider bad or immoral causes.

Not so long ago in this country, there were substantial numbers of Americans who shared racist attitudes, propagated ugly beliefs and acted on them.

For years, black, Asian, Catholic and Jewish Americans were kept out of many desirable neighborhoods, private schools and clubs, and workplaces.

Those who were gay were terrified to be known as such, and remained in the closet their whole lives out of fear of losing their jobs and even their friends and family.

Americans have also been persecuted for their political beliefs. Even the barest suggestion that someone was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party was enough to cost them their livelihood and ostracize them from society.

At the time, these were the opinions of the majority, and the majority believed in the rightness of their beliefs.

But when we look back on these times, we rightly feel ashamed that our country could have been so backward, so prejudiced, so caught up in mass hysteria.

We might say to ourselves that we would never have succumbed, even under the most intense peer pressure, to join the lynch mobs, reject friends for their political beliefs, or remain in the country clubs and schools that kept others out due to their ethnicity or their religion.

Some of us would go further and say, were something like this to happen again, we would stand up and fight — with words and possibly even our fists — to defend those who were being so unfairly attacked for their ancestry, their religion or their beliefs.

After all, we might add, America was founded on the principles of tolerance, freedom of speech and religion, and belief in the inherent dignity of all humankind.

Are you with me? If so, you might not realize you’re being set up.

For my intent in this column is not simply to point out how much more enlightened we Americans are today than our ancestors, but also to suggest that perhaps, as the tables have turned, we may actually be reenacting some of the biases, injustices and hypocrisy of our forebears in the name of enlightenment.

While our culture has come a long way since the prejudices I mentioned above were commonly expressed and accepted, let’s take as a given that not everyone has internalized contemporary mores.

Some were raised with prejudicial attitudes and haven’t moved beyond them. Some realize times and attitudes have changed, but aren’t so happy about it. Others have really come to accept current views, but when asked about the past, will admit to having had prejudices in the past. And some are fundamentalist believers who take the Bible at face value, even when that conflicts with modern notions of rights.

When some of these attitudes come to light nowadays, especially when the people are famous or rich or both, the public reaction can be furious, and the result can almost instantly cost people their reputations and their livelihoods.

While I understand the logic of denying prejudiced national figures a bully pulpit, I worry that we are becoming less and less tolerant even of each other within our communities.

It seems to me that a significant number of Americans are developing a reflexive rush to judge, dehumanize and penalize those whose beliefs they consider offensive, and to refuse to accept even penitent apologies.

Are these not the very behaviors of those in the past whom we claim to so despise? We see online lynching of reputations, mass hysteria against, and stereotyping of, groups and political parties based on the behavior of individuals.

We may think we have come a long way from the backwardness of the past, but in some ways, we have just become those we used to hate.

If we truly believe in freedom of thought and freedom of religion, we should be able to live with differences of opinion and belief, as long as everyone’s rights are respected.

And when we think someone’s beliefs are backward, we have the right to try to educate them and change their attitudes. It may take time and effort, and it may, in some cases, not succeed.

But if we believe in human dignity — that of others as well as our own —- we must agree to treat each other with basic respect.