Way back when, at a different time in my life, I was having a conversation with a close family member, “Marie,” and her friend “Louise,” an individual who also, at one point, was her supervisor and commanded much respect. She seemed like a pleasant person (this was my first meeting with her), and we initially got along well. Then the discussion shifted to serious matters, and we started talking about issues that bothered us. I said something innocuous. So did Marie. Louise spoke up.
“Well, I’m tired of hearing about the Holocaust,” she exclaimed.
I swiveled my head. This comment came out of nowhere; we didn’t say anything offensive previously. And Louise, apparently, didn’t know I was Jewish — Marie was not, and hadn’t informed her of my faith. Neither did she say anything in my defense or provide an explanation as to why such a remark would be offensive. Instead, Marie just sat there on the couch, her expression blank, unable to act.
I knew why she behaved the way she did, too. She was afraid — afraid to speak up and say: “Hey, that comment is hurtful; Simon’s Jewish. Don’t you realize how that makes him feel? You should apologize.” She didn’t because she was in a difficult position; she couldn’t question her superior, and I understand that. Yet I still would’ve appreciated a little backup. Some support. Why couldn’t she have provided a bit … faced her fear?
The reason: Fear is powerful, persuasive. It precludes people from doing things they ought to do. And that shouldn’t be the case — especially when it comes to anti-Semitism or, for that matter, any kind of hate speech. We should all defend those who encounter such bigotry, regardless of the situation. And if the repercussions mean a stern look from one’s boss, humiliation or worse, c’est la vie. We can’t sit still on the couch and just watch. We have to provide responses to hatred that mitigate its effects.
I admit, I’m not the bravest individual. Actually, I’m quite the Cowardly Lion. After Louise uttered her remark, I didn’t contest it — in part because I knew it would put Marie in a tricky situation. But in retrospect, I believe I should have said something…politely, but sternly, stressing the need to be more sensitive. Nowadays, I would have responded in that vein, and though I chastise myself for not doing it then, I’ve learned that going forward, we can all become better.
Coming to people’s aid against hate speech is a good way to achieve that goal.
We shouldn’t relegate this duty just to people we know, either. It’s up to us to combat prejudice against everyone — all over the world. We can do it by supporting organizations that fight bias with education. We can do it by voting for politicians that discourage xenophobia. We can do it by notifying people who post hate speech on the Internet that their actions are harmful… and explaining to them why.
We’re not observers in this world of open communication anymore. We’re actors. And there’s no reason why we should shut our mouths when offense is given.
I didn’t tell Louise that I knew people who survived the Holocaust, that I interviewed two individuals who were interned in Auschwitz and never forgot their testimony. That testimony is now up on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website for all to listen to, and I wish Louise would take advantage of that. For she could learn as much as I have over the years — she may have done so already, I hope, but if not, there’s always time, there’s always an opportunity to see others’ perspectives and understand why certain statements can wound painfully and deeply. I’m not angry at her. I’m not angry at Marie, either. I know, however, that there’s more we can all do, and we shouldn’t wait too long. Everyone can play a part in consigning hate speech to extinction. We just have to back each other up…and rush to the rescue of those in need.
Come 2016, I have no doubt that we’ll be able to make that happen. Come 2016, I have no doubt that we’ll be able to improve our conversation for good.