The Ism Theory: Maybe There’s Less Hate Than We Think

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Remember the Titans screenshot
They didn’t like each other. Right up until they became friends. Then, wouldn’t you know it? How they were different didn’t matter at all. (Image from “Remember the Titans”/

ism — a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement.

I had a mild case of homophobia growing up.

Gay people were “weird” and different. Kids threw “gay” around as meaning the same thing as stupid.

I use the term homophobia when I really mean something closer to bigotry. I wasn’t afraid. But I was something akin to intolerant.

But it didn’t matter! Because I didn’t know any gay people!

I also didn’t have any close black friends before college.

I didn’t know anyone who didn’t believe in the Christian God of the bible.

I didn’t know any feminists or really even understand why there was a gender-equality conversation to be had.

I wasn’t exposed to anything except one story about right and wrong growing up. Fortunately, I was raised by kind and decent people, so any ugliness stemming from my core belief system was always rooted in a general love for human beings, rather than having people teach me that certain groups of people were evil and warranted my hate and discrimination, as many less fortunate children are taught.

I was an only child, so I gravitated to my friends, but one of my closest friends was a cousin about my age. At family gatherings for holidays or weddings, he and I were mostly inseparable.

We spent countless hours talking about girls, playing video games and playing basketball.

Years later, I was the best man in his wedding where he married an awesome girl I’m not sure I’ve seen since.

They fairly quickly divorced, and my cousin—one of my lifelong best friends—moved to another state.

Turns out, he’s gay. Which caused a bit of strain in the intimacy department before everything broke.

What was different about my cousin between all of those years he was among my dearest friends, and after coming out?

I thought about that for a bit.

The answer was simple: Nothing.

“For in spite of itself, any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.” ― John Dewey

The Kinda-Racist Old White Guy & the Young Black Kid He Adores

Maybe (if you grew up anything like I did) you remember the old prejudiced guy in your personal circle who predated The Civil Rights Movement.

The guy you could count on to say something super-racist at Thanksgiving dinner or while watching an athlete showboat on TV after a good play. Maybe he even dropped an N-word or two now and then.

And because you KNOW him, you know he’s a pretty good person, if a bit out of touch.

But here’s where it gets interesting:

This lovable old guy (who you’ve NEVER seen mistreat anyone short of using offensive or insensitive language about a group of faceless strangers in private conversation) doesn’t BEHAVE as a racist.

A group of black people who committed a crime on TV might earn a foul label from him, but as he goes through life, he treats the actual individuals he meets with kindness and respect regardless of their skin color.

Maybe he meets a nice kid named Daryl because Daryl is a waiter at the old guy’s favorite breakfast spot, and Daryl is working hard to save money to go to college. Maybe Daryl is also a star on one of the old guy’s favorite local high school teams.

The old racist guy loves Daryl after getting to know him, and you can’t help but notice how he still speaks in (unintentionally) offensive ways about people of different races or cultures, but he sings the praises of Daryl.

Daryl – the hard-working, intelligent, well-mannered, kind kid from the restaurant who always makes sure the old guy’s coffee is full, and who delights the old man when he’s sitting in the stands cheering on Daryl’s team.

“So. Old Guy. I gotta ask: You periodically say things about black people we see on TV which is racist by every known definition and interpretation of the word. But then over here, you’re always raving about Daryl. Daryl has the same skin color and is from similar communities as all of the people you are categorically speaking ill of. It’s inconsistent. What gives?”

And then maybe the old guy responds: “Daryl’s a great kid! He’s not like the others.”

But the real truth is, if he spent the same amount of time with any of those others, getting to know them on an interpersonal level, he’d feel the same fondness for each new person.

If he didn’t? It wouldn’t have anything to do with skin color. It would have everything to do with the same personality conflicts we have with People Like Us.

Did you ever see films like “American History X,” or “Remember the Titans,” or “A Time to Kill,” or “Gran Torino,” or “Crimson Tide,” or “Men of Honor,” or “The Help”?

Do you remember when former vice president Dick Cheney’s daughter came out as being lesbian and he changed his entire tune on homosexuality as a U.S. social issue?

I don’t believe people actually hate one another to the degree the social narrative suggests.

I believe everyone simply hasn’t gotten to know each other yet.

When People Meet and Develop Relationships, It’s Never Skin Color, Gender, Sexual Preference, or Creed That Fosters Dislike

There are clearly notable examples in history where people really do hate as much as they say. They behead innocent people on video, and they violently attack through word and action people who belong to some group they’ve identified as being Different From Themselves.

I think a lot of people subconsciously think (especially when young and unexposed to different cultures): I’m me. I belong to this group. We are good. I am good. Those people over there don’t belong to this group. They are different than me. We have competing interests sometimes. They must be bad.

But when we ACTUALLY spend time around other people with diverse beliefs and backgrounds, we are regularly exposed to the fact that human beings share so many commonalities, and mostly have the same goals.

It’s not a black football player and a white football player. It’s teammates who play for the Titans.

It’s not a black defendant and a white attorney. It’s two fathers who love their daughters and demand justice.

On Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn’t “That stupid idiot Bush fighting his daddy’s war over oil!!!” Or black or white or Hispanic or male or female or Christian or Jew or atheist or gay or straight or New York Yankees fan or Boston Red Sox fan.

It wasn’t even American or “foreigner.”

Because for a moment, it was only about humanity.

When we realized that fiery explosions kill people no matter what tribes they belong to, or what beliefs they have.

When we meet human beings where they are—or when we meet each other where WE are—we work together or play on sports teams together or fight battles together or laugh together or pray together, and then we collectively grow together.

I felt weird about gay people because I didn’t know any.

But then I found out that I did, and there had been nothing weird about it at all.

Every one of us is a minority somewhere.

Every one of us is different in another part of town.

Every one of us has an accent.

Or. Just maybe.

No one is a minority.

All of us have a million things in common.

And underneath all the nonsense, everyone actually speaks the same language: Human.

21 thoughts on “The Ism Theory: Maybe There’s Less Hate Than We Think”

  1. Matt,

    You said: “On Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn’t “That stupid idiot Bush fighting his daddy’s war over oil!!!” Or black or white or Hispanic or male or female or Christian or Jew or atheist or gay or straight or New York Yankees fan or Boston Red Sox fan.

    It wasn’t even American or “foreigner.”

    Because for a moment, it was only about humanity.

    When we realized that fiery explosions kill people no matter what tribes they belong to, or what beliefs they have.”

    But the fiery explosions that killed all those people were caused by actions resulting from the BELIEFS of those who flew the planes into buildings to kill people.

    Beliefs matter. Words matter. Ideas matter. Because they result in attitudes and actions.

    1. I assumed there wouldn’t be any terrorists reading this post. If any do, I hope they agree with the premise.

      I was writing for people who remember how on Sept. 11, everyone put down their swords for a while for a common cause.

      We’re so petty.

      I don’t have time for “petty.”

      The human being on this planet that disagrees with the highest percentage of your beliefs is STILL a person who has more in common with you than she or he has differences.

      We see and hear and taste and speak and fear and cry and laugh and hope and desire and all kinds of other things.

      Even if the triggers are different, the feelings are usually the same.

      Of course beliefs and words and ideas matter.

      That’s why I’ve given a couple thousand hours of my life to sharing mine here.

      If it ever results in attitudes and actions, then maybe I can die believing I once did something that mattered.

      Maybe everyone can.

      1. Matt said, “If it ever results in attitudes and actions, then maybe I can die believing I once did something that mattered.”

        No “if” about it, friend. It already has, dozens of times over. You’v already built more of a legacy than most people do in a lifetime, and you’re probably only less than halfway through yours. Not too shabby.

      2. Ok maybe you and I just look at this thing so differently it makes for frustrating conversations.

        Of course relationships can sometimes help people see others that are “different” as people rather than “others. I agree with you.

        But like I said in the other post. Empathy is necessary but not sufficient. There will always be plenty of dictators and individual bigots who love their children and make the trains run on time but want to exact injustice on whatever group they deem unworthy.

        People that are unmoved by getting to know the nice Jewish lady or the African American or the women coworkers. Because their beliefs override their willingness to see them as equal people.

        1. And I promise I’m on the side of those fighting the fights that need fighting.


          Every day we wake up, we can choose to focus on all of the good (my lungs are working, I have a house, my car started, my fridge is full, etc.) or on all of the bad (I’m behind on laundry, the utility bill is awful, the weather is horrible, my car isn’t as nice as that other person’s.)

          Gratitude is REQUIRED and NECESSARY to feel good about ourselves. To feel the feelings which approximate happiness.

          Whenever possible, I want to focus on the good.

          I choose to highlight the beauty.

          To steal a song title from a semi-new favorite: Hope is the anthem of my soul.

          And I intend to keep it that way.

      3. Matt said: “Gratitude is REQUIRED and NECESSARY to feel good about ourselves.”

        That’s why often times at bedtime after my kids say their prayers, I’ll ask them to go through a list of things they’re grateful for. Come to think of it, that’s a good thing to do for kids of all ages.

    2. “Beliefs matter. Words matter. Ideas matter. Because they result in attitudes and actions”

      Interesting Gottmanfan, because I had the same thought as you did. Matt is awesome of course, nothing wrong with Matt’s post at all, it’s just…something is still missing.

      I absolutely can love the old racist uncle with a good heart or even the guy who has a really bad attitude about women, or gays or just about anyone I can figure out how to empathize with. Just the same, there is also a line in the sand there, there is the way individuals can become radicalized. I don’t know exactly where that line in the sand is, I don’t think anyone does, but I’ve seen it happen. People will confirm their own biases, they’ll use words, ideas, and beliefs to give validity to the darkness within them. It’s actually really frightening because they can flip on you just like that.

      How do you differentiate between the hotheads, loudmouths, and politically incorrect, versus the radicalized? I’m not really sure, but I’m only willing to hold hands and sing kumbaya as long as I know someone is on it, someone is willing to name evil for what it is. I am extremely tolerant, but that is only because I am also surrounded by those willing to stand up and say no when necessary.

  2. It always makes me wonder–if we had the power of telekinesis, if we had the power to truly know and process what lies in the heads and hearts of Our Fellow Man, would we know global peace at last, or would we all reach for the nearest razor blade to slit our wrists? Are we closer to angels or devils and, if the latter, would knowing one another on a deeper, more profound level than we are capable of send us all collectively into the abyss? Is our inherent isolation by way of biology actually the only thing that keeps us collectively sane? Nah, y’all, i promise I’m not smoking anything. Why is everyone looking at me like that?

    1. Lol- Travis :),
      IF I’m looking at you its because I want some of whatever it was you were smoking. :).
      I think I get what you were saying- maybe a little. Flashes of scenes from “Heart of Darkness” crossed my mind.

      But I don’t think we would all flee each other if we really knew what each other were thinking, unfiltered. I really don’t.

      1. I don’t know, man. I know people who refuse to speak to me just because I hate the taste of bacon (“Ooh, look! Dried meat that tastes like workout sweat! Yum!”)

        1. Travis, just to note- Bacon flavored gym sweat may have been what started it, but I have no doubt that is just one thing on a list of many that keeps her around ;).

  3. Thanks Matt, appreciate the post.
    I do believe we’re all more alike than different, but it’s human nature to look for differences.
    When we’re holding tight to beliefs out of fear and when we follow assimilated beliefs without ever questioning where they came from- we don’t see the bigger picture of humanity.

    thanks for sharing your story about you and your cousin. It’s touching to hear the evolution of your experience. There are those things in life that we don’t know until we know and your story is such an honest relay of how we grow and come to know our truest values.
    thank you

    1. Thank you for taking time to check it out and leave the nice note.

      I don’t think I made my point as well as I had wanted to in this post.

      I don’t think it’s naive to believe that MOST people — like, to the tune of 90+ percent — would be friends if it was only logistically possible for everyone to have the opportunity to be in optimum situation that would create the friendship.

      And when I view the world that way, it occurs to me that people wouldn’t “hate” each other at all, and ESPECIALLY not for petty reasons like so many groups do.

      If a person is racist and claims to dislike someone of a particular race, but makes an exception for one member of said race, then it stands to reason that there are more members he or she would make an exception for.

      Carried to it’s logical conclusion, you’d only need to get to 51% of the group for the person to realize it’s mathematically impossible for his or herself to be racist.

      But any reasonably intelligent person would get to Person #5 or #6 and perhaps have the appropriate epiphany:

      “Hmmm. I guess I don’t categorically hate this kind of person. Racism is bullshit.”

      And then the world gets a tiny bit better once again.

    2. Matt said: “I don’t think it’s naive to believe that MOST people — like, to the tune of 90+ percent — would be friends if it was only logistically possible for everyone to have the opportunity to be in optimum situation that would create the friendship.”

      This reminds me of a scene from the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”, which I read in high school.

      The protagonist, a German soldier in WWI, is caught in no man’s land during an artillery bombardment. He jumps into a shell crater for shelter, only to find a French soldier is already there. After a struggle, he ends up stabbing the Frenchman with his bayonet, then has no choice but to stay in the crater with him (too dangerous too leave) while the poor guy bleeds out and dies.

      In a very moving passage, the protagonist realizes (as he watches the Frenchman slowly die) that there is nothing fundamentally different between the two men. And that if it weren’t for the different uniforms they wear, they might be friends. Neither one has ever caused any harm to the other. Yet here they are, dying and killing each other because each of their govt’s has labeled the other “the enemy”.

      Was a very memorable scene.

      1. Yes, just like that! That’s a great story, isn’t it?

        I must admit, Matt has a more optimistic outlook on people than I do. Not saying he’s wrong, I just notice that many men say something similar like, “MOST people — like, to the tune of 90+ percent — would be friends.” I think that’s an overly positive outlook on the nature of people, sweet and charming, but not something I’ve seen much evidence of.

        1. Because those people were responding to conflict and differences, NOT the uniting experience they would have had, had those people survived a bank robbery together, or celebrated a championship of their favorite sports team together, or experienced a loved one being saved by that other person from a burning building or life-threatening injury.

          You see unkindness and ugliness all the time. All of us do. But it’s because so many of us have so many conflicting and competing interests, and we value those interests MORE than the human beings we perceive to be obstacles.

          Well, I don’t.

          I value the human beings more than all the petty bullshit things we’re interested in.

          There IS a scenario for damn near any two different people on this planet you could come up with that would result in the two people being friends.

          Life circumstances simply delivered a different scenario, where a negative experience happened before two random people ever struck up a friendship.

          The nature of people is not to be sweet and charming to perfect strangers.

          The nature of people is to be sweet and charming to people they know, or to people who belong to their tribe.

          But, what if everyone KNEW everyone?

          Mostly, really good things would happen.

          How we frame our stories matters.

  4. Insanitybytes22 – I understand where you are coming from. I often doubt how much fundamental good there is in humanity myself. Rather than let that pull me down – I tend to remind myself – I am the only one I can control – so if I work hard at seeing things from Matt’s point of view and work hard at being part of his 90% and work at raising my kids the same way then I’ve done what I can.

  5. And it’s important for parents to realize you have an obligation to teach your kids not to be a victim. Some gender/age/racial profiling is going to be involved. And you can’t let political correctness stand in the way of that. I know I don’t.

    The world is as it is, not as we would like it to be. Teaching your kids to act like it’s Shangra La can get them mugged, raped, or killed.

    Sad but true.

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