The Mel Gibson business has been good business for those keen on policing thought. There is actually something very odd about the modern, post-Christian need to root out things like “prejudice.” What is it, after all, that they are trying to root out? The human habit to draw general conclusions from specific experiences, or the equally human habit of bearing grudges? They may as well lobotomise us all, for that is what it will take to get rid of these habits–provided that we do not seek a greater spiritual sanity in revealed religion.
It is not in this case a question of changing anyone’s behaviour, because, barring his momentary outburst, Gibson has been a perfectly respectable citizen whose main offense has been to tread on the toes of ridiculous people. It is not really done to prevent those inclined to act violently from taking out their prejudice on someone else, since these are precisely the sorts of people who are uninterested in avoiding the stigmas of polite society anyway. Stigmatising the prejudiced seems to be done to maintain a weird kind of non-religious spiritual or ideological purity. It is, in the woolly language of cultural studies, “boundary maintenance,” defining your identity and setting down what you consider to be legitimate and acceptable: it is something you do to others to make a statement about yourself.We saw this a couple months ago here in Chicago. Ozzie Guillen made a crack about Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti, whom Guillen loathes and who loathes Guillen, saying that Mariotti was a fag. He later insisted that in Venezuela this is simply a slight against someone’s courage (which is true, but it doesn’t get away from why that term is used to refer to those lacking in courage). No one cared whether Guillen had insulted a sports columnist; most people agreed with the sentiment of mocking Mariotti, whose whiny self-importance is equalled only by his precious embrace of PC, but there was a flurry of faux outrage among sportswriters over the use of the term fag, because it was offensive to homosexuals. This is obviously not because ESPN and Major League Baseball are worried about a boycott or because they fear that massive drain of homosexual fans from the stands, but because they want to give the impression that they are just as progressive and up-town as they can be. They wish to remain respectable, and it is to maintain the definition of what respectable is that every two-bit columnist from here to Seattle criticised Guillen on this.
I suppose the term would be offensive: it’s designed to be an insult, though nowadays in this country it is mostly reserved for straight men insulting each other, and it is designed to question someone’s manliness. That’s the whole point. But it is apparently inappropriate to use any kind of language related to manliness or the lack thereof in athletics–we are now too precious for that. In any event, this became a minor controversy in the sports world; there was loose talk of suspending Guillen and maybe even firing him (as if a Chicago team were going to fire the first manager in 90+ years to win the World Series in this town in any case). It was, and remains, a ludicrous controversy. Guillen has managed to survive the storm because his deviation was less severe and the people he offended have far less effective activists to make this into a Big Deal, but the ridiculous principle of policing thought and speech to avoid giving offense remains much the same.
For some reason, modern secular man has made prejudice of various types his bugbear (a word, amusingly enough, that derives from the medieval Bogomil sect, whose legacy to us is nothing more than a rich trove of fun English words: bugger, bogey, etc.), and made its elimination a sort of secular salvation. It is as if modern man needs to be able to categorise and demonise something, he desperately needs to have something that he can unreservedly despise, and if it is not religious error or the passions, it must be some kind of ideological deviationism. When it comes to ideological deviation, being antiwar is almost as bad as being prejudiced in some circles, but being prejudiced is universally loathed to a degree that few other things are.
According to this ideology of anti-prejudice, it seems that you could probably be as prejudiced against any kind of people as you please in practise, provided that you make frequent public confession that you believe prejudice is shameful and wrong. Few people hate Slavs with a kind of pathological hatred as some neocons and interventionists seem to hate them–they give German nationalists a run for their money in their contempt for Slavic cultures; the contempt for Arabs in some circles in this country is hardly a secret–“the only thing these people understand is force” is not very far in spirit from the trope “the only thing these people value is money”; show me a preppy white liberal, and I’ll show you someone who can’t stand Hispanics, but he deeply cares about “the Hispanic community” and “civil rights,” because, you see, he supports mass immigration, opposes English-only laws and likes affirmative action (whether or not any of these policies benefits “the Hispanic community” is another question).
In public the talk is all about liberating our fellow man from the yoke of oppressors, “all men are created equal,” and not-so-subtle hints that if you don’t think everyone is immediately capable of representative constitutional government that you must be a racist, while behind the facade is a barely concealed contempt that informs the idea that it is up to us to fix their problems, because, God knows, those people won’t be able to do anything themselves. And just behind every good liberal multiculturalist’s enthusiasm for diversity is the snide, condescending attitude: “Oh, look at them, aren’t they cute? I think I’ll get one of their pots to decorate my living room.”
It has been with some astonishment that I have watched how many people have felt the need to beat their breasts and lament Gibson’s outburst, decry it with vehemence and demand that he rehabilitate himself. It is a weird mixture of the process of denouncing an “enemy of the people” and a psychiatric, therapeutic mentality invoked to “save” the deviant. Reading some of the wailing about Gibson’s episode, you get a creepy sense of a large-scale show trial unfolding before you in the press. In this show trial, there is no tribunal, not even the pretense of a sham procedure, but simply judgement and denunciation: Mel “Zinoviev” Gibson is a traitor and a counter-revolutionary. Anathema, anathema, anathema!
What has people so exercised was not his reckless or drunk driving, which was actually what was dangerous to other people in this episode, but his outburst. Mel, no doubt heeding the voice of his publicist, has already bowed and scraped before all the people he offended with his comments. No word on whether he will be making a lot of rounds telling people of his first-hand experience of the dangers of alcoholism or drunk driving–that might actually be a useful public service, which is the last thing that all of this denunciation has been aimed at providing. In a more sane world, Mel, being the celebrity that he is, would first be signing up to work with MADD rather than groveling before the ADL. He could arguably do both, but it is a measure of how screwy our society is that we seriously believe that renouncing anti-Semitic comments, which by themselves do relatively little, takes priority over denouncing the irresponsibility of drunk driving, which kills thousands each year.
What is so strange about the whole episode is not that people disapprove of what Gibson said, which is understandable and is something with which I have no real argument, but that they make it seem as if they care so very much about what he said, when it cannot, in truth, really matter to them what Mel Gibson thinks about anyone or any group of people. Okay, you reject it and you find it offensive–that should be the end of it, right? Apparently, that is wrong.
If the “pornography of compassion” is the sensationalisation of other people’s suffering and the sham display of deep concern for people we do not know and will never meet, as Dr. Fleming has described in his book The Morality of Everyday Life, this obsession with other people’s prejudices is derived from a similar spirit directed at the interior lives of other people, a sort of conditioned anger towards wrong-thinking that mirrors the pornography of compassion’s zeal for right-thinking and, more importantly, right-feeling. This response probably reflects nothing so much as our own anxiety that, if put to the test or put in the same situation, we, too, might say something ‘wrong’. This is an anxiety born from years of being taught about the great evils of history, particularly Western history, from which the generous few emancipators have freed us through strife and struggle against all of the normal people like us. When faced with a deviationist, your conditioning tells you that you should be very upset with him and say so; you should scold him with the kind of outrage that is normally reserved for pedophiles and terrorists. There is still hope for him (just barely) if he seeks help now, but he will always be branded as someone who crossed the unforgiveable line of resenting other people and speaking about it.
The whole process has the same structure of condemning a heretic and attempting to reconcile him to the Church, but with none of the serious, spiritual importance that confessing the right faith really has. The media frenzy surrounding Gibson’s outburst has been a weird attempt to inquire into the causes of his deviation, just as the Inquisitors would cross-examine Cathars to understand why they had gone off the rails. The difference is that real, meaningful salvation was at stake with the Inquisition. Today, it is purely and simply about an elite maintaining itself in control of public discourse by imposing the standards of its ideology on everyone, and the more prominent a person you are the more obedient you have to be. The narrower the range of permissible discourse, the more control the elite has over the limited range that remains open, as they are the ones who draw the boundaries and declare things off-limits.
Of course, resentment and hatred are spiritual ills, but their only remedy is a spiritual one and one that begins with the understanding that what people associate with the evils of prejudice is really rooted in the disordered state of the soul. Prejudice itself is neither here nor there, a generally unavoidable consequence of living with other people and other kinds of people (and the more multiethnic and multicultural your society gets, the more prejudiced people will become–that’s a guarantee), but takes on some sort of menacing form when it is coupled with passions of anger or envy or spite. Divorced from these disordered movements of the soul, prejudice is the basis of most of the world’s humour and functions as a normal mechanism for assessing and understanding the world around us.
Yet in the collective condemnation of a prejudiced man–which is so often the projection of our feelings of guilt for some ideological transgression we believe we have committed onto someone else–there is no awareness that disordered passion has anything to do with this or that we gang up on the prejudiced man for the mistake of one night to fill the void left by our culture’s own loss of meaningful moral and spiritual boundaries. With so many individualists despising all other norms and authorities to some degree, people feel the need to cling to any definition of morality they can find. Under this dispensation, we can praise and elect adulterers (will it be McCain or Giuliani in ’08?), apologise for liars (see Bush), promote scoundrels and defend hypocrites, but the one thing we as a society will absolutely not tolerate is an unkind or prejudiced remark at the expense of someone on the basis of their race, religion, creed, nationality, age, sex, or sexual orientation (did that cover them all?). It is a sham morality for a people who have lost all other sense of genuine moral authority; it is a shell of public virtue in place of public virtue itself.