25 January, 2007

Watch My Lips: Tom Cruise is the Beautiful One

I used to have an email pen-pal in the US with whom I got on famously. We exchanged dozens, probably hundreds of emails over a period of a couple of years. But, in the end, I managed to upset her and, these days, we don’t write at all. Haven’t done for many years now.

When I first knew her, she was a struggling writer, doing her first book. Later on, she did a PhD on racism and became an anthropologist. Now she spends her time among the primitive peoples of the South Pacific. (By primitive, I mean people who are not well-educated enough to tell anthropologists to get lost when they turn up with their big smiles and video cameras.)

It was the PhD that was the final straw. We’d already had a small falling out over the idea that ‘big is beautiful’. She used to get involved with various trendy causes and fell in with this bunch of women who had decided that being slim was just another form of oppression and were telling themselves that being fat was beautiful. While I couldn’t help agreeing about the oppression thing, I really could not go along with the idea that being fat was in any way beautiful. Perhaps her fat ladies were beautiful ‘on the inside’ but that isn’t what they were saying. I asked her to check whether they had posters of John Goodman in their bedrooms rather than of Tom Cruise. If not, they were just kidding themselves.

In the end, we agreed to differ. Then she told me her PhD thesis was about how racism is completely learned and not at all innate. With a sigh, I told her she was off her rocker (as politely as I could). I’m sure it is a lovely idea that we could all just be brought up differently and there would be no more racism in the world but I’m afraid it won’t do. If anything, it is tolerance that has to be learned. Racism is as natural as fear and loathing.

There seem to be very strong impulses in all animals to prefer your own group and to be fearful of and antagonistic towards all other groups. There seems to be a natural tendency to fear or be revolted by differences that mark people apart from your own group – differences that might be physical (skin colour or deformities) or behavioural (foreign accents, mental illness, unusual sexual preferences). Of course, you learn as you grow up what your group is – what is normal and safe – but the idea that everyone else should be shunned and kept well away is there in the way our brains are wired.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think that racism, like all kinds of prejudice, is something we’d be better off without. But you don’t get rid of it with wishful thinking. You need to understand what is causing it first. Otherwise whatever steps you take are likely to be the wrong ones.

Sadly, after a brief exchange on the subject, my chum’s emails stopped coming: which was a shame because I’d really enjoyed our correspondence up till then. I read her papers on the Web from time to time but it’s not the same.

She got her PhD of course – so at least a couple of other people must have agreed with her.

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