Judging Judgment for Homophobes and Michael Richards

This post was lost in error due to to a site upgrade. It was originally posted : February 02, 2014 at 09:07 PM EST - retrieved thanks to "The Way Back Machine!"

Recently, I read Zach Howe’s interesting piece on Slate.com entitled Homophobia Is a Real Fear … but of What, Exactly?  I am both appreciative and grateful of his application of some basic questions about our social nature in this context.  But I am left feeling that the lens he uses, the call to open a complexity in our understanding, especially as it relates to the drive of others, is one that we can all apply more broadly than just the question of homophobia.

The same day I discovered the article, a friend of mine was posting about sighting actor Michael Richards on Venice Beach.  The actor appeared to be engaged in a heartwarming moment with a young child.  My friend waxed a bit, as much as one can in a Facebook post, with a hashtag, about being conflicted.  He was trying to reconcile what he was supposed to feel when he saw a man who once callously used the “N” word on stage, with what he actually felt when he saw the large actor in an intimate moment with a small child. 

In his article, Howe comments that a moment of homosexuality automatically erases an entire life of heterosexuality.  In one racist moment, on stage, Richard’s equally erased his history of being a beloved performer to an entire generation.   I was struck at how the core nature of both Howe’s article and my friends struggle to hold onto his moral outrage were, at their core, pointing at the same societal issues. 

Also recently, another friend of mine commented that she has noticed a recent rise of sexism in the workplace, while a different friend commented on noticing a similar rise of racism in her place of employment.  After listening to them, I was surprised that these two very well educated, socially active women, could be so prescriptive about the nature of another’s heart.  And that they could do so based on a few observations that were gathered from a point of view, namely their own. 

There is an old adage that the most logical or simple answer is usually the truth.  But in a society made up of individuals, it is easy to forget that my logic is not your logic.   We quickly lose sight of the fact that we are all lost in a complex internal struggle between what we love, what we fear, and what we desire.  And that struggle—that privileged struggle—assumes that all our most basic needs are met.  It assumes that we are fed, have clothing, and a place to sleep.  When those things are lost, how do we fairly place the mores of those that have on those that do not?

Two decades of politically correct polarization, fed by the POV’s of Fox News and MSNBC have dulled most of us to the most basic of human truths.  At our cores, we are all the same.  We all love, we all fear, we all desire.  And we all face that struggle through our own lenses, whatever they may be.  It is our job in life to balance the needs of those three basic drives.  The truth about this is that we all fear individually, but what society fears most is complexity.  Collectively we fear complexity in all its forms, until the moment it frees us as individuals to be human and to make our own mistakes. 

Let me sum it up this way.  I will never know Michael Richard’s real motives for the use of that word on stage.  He may have been drunk and full of hate.  He also may have been considering using comedy to move the race conversation forward in an edgy way for a period of time, but in a moment of poor judgment, he may have allowed those thoughts to bubble out inappropriately in a drunken performance.  But no matter what lived in his heart, we have allowed reaction, our reaction and the media’s reaction, to define his motives.  And we do this in all aspects of our culture, whether it is a discussion of sex, or sexuality, race and/or religion, politics, or economics (Chris Christie anyone?).  We allow our personal reactions to define the motivations of others.  And we allow the media, unfairly, to feed and drive those reactions toward sensationalist outcomes. 

We like simple stories that provide simple answers.  We like neat packages with pretty bows.  We like broad simple categories like—good or bad, straight or gay, right or wrong.  Sometimes these broad categories fit.  I believe, in most cases, they don’t. 

Usually it would seem the categories serve society more than any person.  They are made to encourage conformity to existing constructs, not for our individual health.  In our individual nature all we want is to balance love, fear, desire and need.

Usually we use these broad categories as labels.  And as we slap on a label, we blind ourselves to the real human that must wear it.  We allow other’s motives to connect with our personal fears and we forget they had to make a series of choices to get to the outcome we are judging.  Many of those choices were probably hard.  We forget that as hard as it is to keep our feet on our own path, the struggles of another are ones that we will never, ever know.  It is the fact that we feel empowered to judge, the need to sort and segregate, that keeps us from achieving real forward motion as a society.  Judgment of those that are different is why history repeats itself.  It’s the mechanism by which hate is taught from generation-to-generation, and it’s why we are all obsessed with reality TV. 

We all forget that while murder and child abuse are both unequivocally wrong, they happen all the time, for reasons.  We cannot ever fully judge the act unless we know the reasons.  Yet we feel we can and should.  Because we live in fear of what will happen if we stop.  But usually, more often than not, it is a similar fear that has motived the horrible thing we feel the need to judge. 


While this complexity may be the truth, it is hard to live with.  It is hard to accept, because in doing so we must stop the act of judging others for nearly anything.  And we like to judge.  Judging and labeling makes us feel safe.  Together they make us feel righteous.  They make us feel empowered.  And those feelings in turn falsely equate to a sense of safety. 

The harder more human truth is that we are all complex, we are all hard to understand.  We are all hungry and afraid.  We are all loving and purposeful.  Labels, and the application of them, can and will drive any one person from acts of love to acts of fear.  The act of demonizing any one human, for any one act, robs us all, on both sides of the equation.  It blinds us to the complex but amazingly beautiful truth of what it means to be human. 

Leslie SmithComment