On the Indiscriminate Nature of Discrimination

What would you think if you discovered swastikas painted on your door—but you’re not Jewish?

That was the experience of a dear friend of mine years ago, whom I shall call “Joan” to retain her anonymity. Joan was at university, getting her doctorate at a large, well-known school in the United States, and lived alone in an off-campus apartment. After finding those hateful swastikas scrawled on her door, Joan—who had a French last name and was of Huguenot heritage—phoned her parents, and naturally, they were horrified. Who would have done such a thing? To this day, it remains unclear, though Joan suspects it was not the university staff, but rather employees of the hospital nearby, who had a rowdy reputation, though they didn’t know she wasn’t Jewish … not that it would have mattered. The incident bothers her to this day.

In my opinion, Joan’s traumatic experience speaks to the idiocy of bigotry. Not only is it inherently stupid owing to the vast generalizations made about people that are intrinsic to its existence, but it also calls attention to the fact that it’s often arbitrarily directed—in Joan’s case, toward a Christian woman with no connection whatsoever to anything swastikas represent … unless one counts her stance against hatred, which the symbol has come to mean the opposite of. This vile incident reminds me of a great scene in Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 film Europa Europa, in which the young, strikingly handsome Jewish youth Solomon Perel (ably played by Marco Hofschneider), masquerading as a Nazi to avoid capture during the Holocaust, is brought up in class by his teacher as a model of Aryan physical features. It’s a wonderful sequence, as it shows the profoundly sophistic problems of racism; the idea that the worth of a person can be determined by how he or she looks is monstrously absurd.

Yet many people subscribe to such a notion, and they won’t be told otherwise.

There are a couple of photos circulating on Facebook among the anti-Semitic set that mean to show Jews in a negative light by focusing on their appearance. One features a presumably Hasidic youth with a visage scrunched up in what can be interpreted as hatred. Another features a grinning, large-nosed individual with a scruffy appearance and crooked teeth. Whether these are photos of actual Jews is irrelevant; their purpose is to tell people how awful the Hebrews are—because they look awful. And if you think that’s a specious, shallow way to think, you’re right … but bear in mind that the popularity of these images indicates a great many people believe in this nonsense, and that presents a challenge for the cause of anti-bigotry. How can one stop such a prevalent view, one that can only be chalked up to indoctrination and ignorance? Where can one start?

Well, we can’t administer a Ludovico-type treatment akin to the one Malcolm McDowell’s Alex undergoes in A Clockwork Orange (1971)—one that trains people to be disgusted at reprehensible behaviors forcefully. Instead, we must stem such hatred through education early on … perhaps a tall order, given the inadequacies of such systems in the United States (and, quite possibly, elsewhere), but not an impossible one. Many of the people on Facebook who disseminate and approve of the aforementioned anti-Semitic images are middle-aged or older, stuck in certain mindsets and unable to extricate themselves. They cannot change, and they don’t want to. They are happy the way they are.

But I don’t think they naturally gravitate toward bigotry. It’s something that was taught to them. And if we can teach folks how to be sensitive toward others and understanding of their beliefs in school, we’ll have a lot more success in our efforts to create a society where prejudice is minimized. We’ll have more chances to gauge the worth of a person through his or her actions rather than appearance. We’ll have more of an opportunity to see what an ideal world is like, a genuine utopia … or at least one that comes closest to resembling it.

It’s likely that those who painted the swastikas on Joan’s door will never be found. They, like so much anger and abuse over the course of history, will remain anonymous for the rest of time. Yet we can learn from the evil behind this incident, inform our children that actions such as this are not right. Only then will be able to live in a society whose members aren’t judged before they’re seen. Only then will we be able to lessen the impact of bigotry on this Earth—and bolster the creation of dialogue, conversation and understanding.

Let’s start doing this right now. Surely it’s not too late.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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