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The roots of bigotry
On finding and imitating the good, rejecting the bad, and figuring out how to triangulate one's way to being a better person
Most people become the heroes of the tales they tell about themselves. This is a natural phenomenon, since almost nobody engages in life deliberately trying to become a villain. But the risk is great that any one of us could become an unwitting monster unless we are careful to check ourselves.
■ Benjamin Franklin once wrote that "There is much difference between imitating a good man, and counterfeiting him." We rely heavily on emulation as human beings. In part, we emulate because we are social creatures who need the influence of others. We also do it because experience can be costly. There is no more efficient substitute for learning painful first-hand lessons than learning them from the experiences of others.
■ But the difference between worthy imitation and despicable counterfeit probably lies in being able to step outside the experience and examine it from another perspective -- triangulating a perspective on one's own behavior. Finding that basis for triangulation requires the ability not just to think about one's self, nor about the standard one may be trying to emulate, but also about the perspective of someone we might not want to be at all.
■ This can be hard to do. It is especially hard for those people who are hardened into thinking that their identities as individuals are derived from their membership in a group. Groupthink can be a powerful force, and the coalition instinct (often better-known as tribalism) is, for many, an easy substitute for critical reflection.
■ Finding that third perspective, though, is essential. And so is having sufficient respect for the ideas that there are, in fact, truths about the world, and that nobody (and no group) has a monopoly on those truths. We all make mistakes, and we all need guidance and advice.
■ The root of all hatreds and all xenophobia is the failure to authentically believe that there are truths to be discovered from those third perspectives. In Federalist Paper No. 40, James Madison offered this wisdom: "The prudent inquiry, in all cases, ought surely to be, not so much from whom the advice comes, as whether the advice be good."
■ Madison had it exactly right. Hatred and bigotry can't really be legislated out of existence. They are diminished only when people voluntarily engage in that "prudent inquiry" -- by assuming that it is more important to find the best available advice about all things in life, wherever that advice originates, than to maintain some imaginary purity of belief that goes unchallenged from the outside. We all have much to gain by imitating good people.