Sunday, August 19, 2012

How to Penetrate a Bubble

As part of the fallout from the tragic mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a few weeks ago, the media spotlight has been turned on the white supremacist subculture.  It's been fascinating reading some of the coverage in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, such as a feature on a former white supremacist, and an article about and chat with an academic who spent time several years ago with the shooter.

I've always had a hard time comprehending how anyone could become an active white supremacist.  It's certainly not surprising that anyone would develop racist attitudes (of varying degrees), given the prevalent human practice of "othering."  But I've got to think that an even stronger influence on behavior would be peer pressure.  Racism may not be illegal per se, but expression of overtly racist ideas is likely to call down a level of disapprobation that few other positions invite.

This is where the article on Arno Michaelis, the former skinhead, is instructive.  He describes a subculture that seals itself into a bubble. Everything outside of that bubble is regarded with not only suspicion, but without outright fear: 
"I was terrified of the world around me every day," Michaelis said. "Everywhere I looked I saw the work of the enemy. Everyone who wasn't white was the enemy. Everything that was on television was my enemy. They were all out to wipe out my people."
Given a worldview that presupposes persecution, the threat of public disapproval is not the potentially powerful force that it is for most of us. Quite the opposite, it actually (to them) substantiates the paranoia that they feel.  But Michaelis gives an inspiring testimonial about how he was able to escape this vicious cycle:
A friend of his mother's, a Jewish man, hired him to work at his factory making T-shirts. The man insisted Michaelis basically was a good kid despite the swastika-adorned clothing he wore to work. There were the Latino co-workers who were kind to him. There was the black co-worker who once called to him when he was broke and hungry: Hey skinhead, you want a sandwich? "It got harder and harder to deny this truth that was all around me, that anyone could be kind, anyone had that capacity," he said.
No reasonable person would blame a Jewish man for firing an employee wearing a swastika.  No reasonable person would blame a black man for letting a skinhead co-worker go hungry.  But it just might be that the only way to combat unreasoning hatred is with unreasoning kindness.


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