The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts and Actions

The following conversation took place on Facebook, regarding hate speech:


Actually, language doesn't make you a bigot. Actions make you a bigot. I am unaware of any specific actions (from Mel Gibson). That said, his language suggests a certain disordered thinking that may include actions...or might not. Don't know. I do know that I don't appreciate the language, and the assumption that either blacks are more likely to rape, or that ... it is a deeper shame to have it done by them. Either is...distasteful at the least. I will feel free to vote with my dollars. Such words give aid and comfort to the worst in our society. but I can't say for certain whether the man is a bigot. Evil language doesn't make you evil any more than positive language makes you good.

A reader responded:

That's a very interesting argument-- actions, not language, make one a bigot-- and I'll have to think on that for a while. I tend to think it is beliefs that make one a bigot or racist. Believing, for example, that one race is superior to others and/or that another race is inherently inferior qualifies as racist thinking, in my opinion. I think ... S merely seeing a well dressed black man in a new luxury vehicle and thinking privately that he must be a drug dealer or some sort of criminal is racism whether or not any action or spoken word accompanies the thought. The well dressed man is unaffected by the other's thoughts, of course, but that is precisely the kind of thinking that still poisons our justice system and our children's minds.


I can understand that perspective, but we can't read minds. I have thoughts about lots of things that I never act out. Thinking something brave doesn't make you brave. Thinking about murder doesn't make you a murderer. I think that if we become thought police, every human being is guilty, because our thoughts are never 100% under our control. ... See MoreOur actions, on the other hand, are far more directable. Speech is action, but it is easy to say things in total opposition to our behavior. "I love you, baby," the wife beater says. Which is true? the word or the action?
I think we have to cut ourselves a little more slack than that...or we would all be so consumed with guilt we couldn't move. Or worse...if words and actions are in any way equivalent, why not just do whatever we think? After all, we're damned anyway...

What do YOU think?


Keldrick said...

Wow! Both points have weight to them and I but I'm gonna have to lean on the 'what we do' more than 'what we think/say'. Wasn't it in Minority Report that this was an issue?

Plus, c'mon, Mel can't be racist, look how many times he saved Danny Glover!

Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to think that what people do is very much shaped by what's in their imaginations, so encouraging people to falsely think ill of each other is an act of sorts.

In other words, you may not be responsible for the crap in your imagination, but you're responsible if you choose to spread the crap around.

--Nancy Lebovitz

Shady_Grady said...

Actions ARE more important than words. But if someone TELLS me that he hates me, I'm not going to stick around for him to show me so.

Anonymous said...

I agree that people are allowed to think whatever they want. As long as they do not act on the racist or bigoted thoughts, then perhaps no one is harmed.

However, I do think speaking is an action and if bigoted actions make you a bigot then bigoted speech makes you a bigot. Words are easier to falsify than actions, which makes the truth harder to detect in words. They are also not (usually) as destructive as physical blows. And yet, wasn't there a child who recently committed suicide due to incessant bullying words?

wraith808 said...


Telling you is an action, just as Mel Gibson's words are an action. Are they as bad of an action as a physical action against a person that he has such thoughts against? No. But they are an action. You do have room in your thoughts for whatever. But once thoughts lead to action- whether that action is physical or verbal- it does form a reference for your character for good or bad in those that hear.

Dan Moran said...

I don't think it's binary. There's a continuum from thought to speech to action. Bad thoughts aren't harmless; they seep through. A person who knows his/her thoughts are bad and works to prevent them from seeping through is doing the right thing, but it is genuinely possible to work on not thinking the bad thoughts in the first place. I've done it.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I wouldn't call unexpressed and unacted on thoughts bigotry, if you work to prevent them from seeping through (though I agree with Dan that it's also possible to work on the thoughts). Speech is a continuum.

Mel Gibson's father, for instance, belongs to a sedevacantist sect of Catholicism that split from the larger RC church at the time of Vatican II. That church includes anti-Semitic rhetoric at high levels, for example, their Bishop Williamson. Personally, I suspect that part of the reason for the split was that Vatican II included some mending of Catholic fences with Judaism. And I wouldn't hesitate to consider Bishop Williamson a bigot based on words; words are a bishop's tools of trade, and his promote bigotry toward Jews. It's similar to what I'd think of Mel Gibson if he were actually producing Birth of a Nation type movies. I don't know what sedevacantist views are on racial issues in general, but when it comes to Jews, for that sect, there does seem to be a pattern of tolerating anti-Semitism that would be out of bounds these days in the mainstream RC church.

Mel Gibson, though, isn't Bishop Williamson, even if he was raised in that church, and he isn't his father (who has publically said things that sound a lot like Holocaust denial); he's a man who, independently of any prejudices he may have expressed, appears to be of doubtful mental health, and who has said horribly prejudiced things while possibly drunk or possibly not at the moment in his right mind. That may still be reason not to want to stick around and see what his actions will be (and it sounds as if the mother of his child would be safer away from him), but it makes it a less clear case than the hypothetical Mel Gibson who'd be producing a modern Birth of a Nation.

I'm not sure how far to go with "in vino veritas." Mania, in particular (and Gibson's said to be bipolar) may get rid of the filtering that would tell you when you'd better not say certain thoughts, but it may also get rid of the filtering that lets you check the reality of those thoughts. I've talked with people who have said things while manic that they genuinely don't think they believe when out of episode. "That's my mother's prejudice, not mine," one of them put it, and, when she has the filtering that lets her not accept every bit of crap from her mother than her imagination may throw at her, maybe it really isn't her prejudice. It's not that racism itself is mental illness; lots of people are not mentally ill at all and still racist. But in episode you take whatever your background may give you, be it fear of black people or fear of the CIA, and lose your ability to reality check it. If Gibson is in mania, or if alcohol abuse has sufficiently gotten to his brain, that may be true of him as well, and the things he says in that state may not be what he was really thinking all along.

On the other hand, who knows, just because you're mentally ill doesn't mean you weren't prejudiced all along; maybe he had been believing this stuff all along but just had the sense not to say it.

Either way, of course, anyone he actually makes unsafe with his actions has a right to set boundaries and see to her self-protection, however well or ill Gibson may be.

Marty S said...

Scream FIRE! in a crowded arena. Then watch a bunch of people get trampled. Then see if you still think speech isn'y an action.

Anonymous said...

I think we have to cut ourselves a little more slack than that...or we would all be so consumed with guilt we couldn't move.

I agree that perfectionism (or even high levels of pickiness) about thoughts are disasterous-- and they can lead to paralysis and/or obsessive policing of other people's thoughts.

--Nancy Lebovitz

Steven Barnes said...

Speech is action...but as Dan said, it is on a continuum. I've told my daughter I was going to put her in the garbage disposal. Compare this to actually doing it. People say they're going to do all kinds of wonderful things. I pay little attention until they do it. "Talk is cheap." A Wethead might think there are elephants in the room. Doesn't mean I should stock up on peanuts. If Mel was programmed with the "Jews are evil" meme, he might have spent a lifetime storing up reasons that is false, worked hard to be polite and courteous to Jews, but when his filters are down or damaged, out it comes. Doesn't make him evil. The word "nigger" is just a word--a hateful word in the wrong context, yes. But if I'm in quicksand, and a guy says: "grab the rope, nigger" that is a different guy than the one who says, "I love black people" with a grin as he lynches me. Women who can't differentiate between words and actions end up with abusive husbands who apologize profusely.

Marty S said...

Steve: Yes, there are all levels of seriousness to speech, but remember that speech is heard by different people who maybe influenced either by the speech itself or by the reaction to the speech. A primary concern of mine with this is that a child maybe influenced in an undesirable fashion by a statement an adult would not take seriously. In this case, I am also concerned with the celebrity affect. Some people will take a statement as given because a celebrity says so. Also, if the celebrity is allowed to get away with it it tends to send the message that this kind of speech/behavior is acceptable.

Shady_Grady said...

If someone tells me that he doesn't like me and then proceeds to do all he can to retard my career, I suppose I can respect his consistency if nothing else. Such people are rare.

What's more common is someone who claims to have no personal animus towards someone based on ineradicable physical traits but in times of great stress, drunkeness or total honesty lets how they really feel come out.

I've seen that a lot in my career and if you were stupid enough not to notice the warning signs or actions that only in hindsight become meaningful, the shock can be embarassing and hurtful.

So I try to be pretty sensitive to people's words and actions. It is a continuum and if I think a person's words indicate that she/he means harmful intent, I'm going to remember that and take appropriate steps. An insult is not as harmful as a punch in the face of course, but an insult is still an insult. For some people it's the precursor to more direct actions...

Lis Riba said...

Total nonsequitor, but I'd be interested in reading your thoughts (in a new post) to the Old Spice media blitz portraying Isaiah Mustafa as the pinnacle of manliness.

"Ladies. Look at me. Look at your man. Now back at me again. Now back at your man. Does your man look like me? No. But could your man SMELL like me? Yes."