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We overreact to prejudice instead of airing it out

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By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, October 24, 2010

Juan Williams has learned an important lesson: Beware the M-word.

The former NPR analyst, fired from his radio job for an offhand remark he made about Muslims on the Fox News network, has become the latest victim of the thought police.

What did he say? That he gets a little nervous when he sees people on airplanes in "Muslim garb." Bzzzzzt. Off with his lips! And so Williams is no longer affiliated with NPR, though he did pick up a nice gig at Fox as compensation -- a three-year contract worth $2 million or so.

Williams's ouster followed closely on the heels of Bill O'Reilly's own public drumming on "The View," the girl show where women of different decades discuss current events in various octaves that cannot be perceived by heterosexual males. There. How many people did I manage to offend with that facetious but true-ish description?

O'Reilly had the effrontery to say that Muslims attacked us on Sept. 11. Bzzzzzt. Amid much screeching and fluster (female bluster), Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar stalked off the stage in protest. O'Reilly somehow managed to keep his job despite having said something true. But not completely true.

What we have is a failure to qualify. In O'Reilly's case, clearly he should have said "extremist Muslims" or "Muslim terrorists," not simply Muslims, as he subsequently clarified. We've managed to evolve far enough in this country to understand that not all Muslims are guilty of attacking us and that the other 1.6 billion neighborly Muslims shouldn't be smeared along with the 19 evildoers who hijacked airplanes. (Thanks be to George W. Bush for giving us permission to use the word "evildoers" anytime we feel like it.)

Both Williams and O'Reilly may have failed to sufficiently qualify their statements in the moment, but neither deserved the outrage. The Sept. 11 attacks obviously were carried out by men who claimed to be committing mass murder/suicide for Allah. And guess what? Lots of Americans suffer an involuntary free-associative moment when boarding an airplane alongside someone whose attire says, "Oh, by the way, I'm a serious enough Muslim to dress in the way Allah commands," but no worries.

Perhaps we shouldn't entertain those thoughts, but we do. Is it better that we air our fears and address them, or should we repress them and keep our prayers to ourselves? Wait. Let me rephrase that. Let's do keep our prayers to ourselves, but let's also speak openly about our fears.

I'd happily wager that Williams said nothing that 99 percent of Americans haven't thought to themselves. What might have followed that statement -- far more useful than a sanctimonious public flogging -- was the conversation we're now having. Or at least that I'm having. Hello?

That conversation might include asking the following questions: Why are we afraid of people in Muslim attire? Is that rational? What can we do about it? How do we move beyond subconscious profiling?

It is tough for mere humans to move beyond their natural -- and sometimes logic-based -- fears and prejudices. Sometimes fear keeps us alive; sometimes it creates unfair assumptions. Let's talk about that. Let's figure out how not to fear and smear people who are not like us, but with whom we must share the planet -- and the plane.

NPR officials had the right to fire Williams, but they clearly overreacted. But then, NPR (where I have many friends!) is the axis of sensitivity. People routinely sit at their desks in the lotus position and invariably get offended if you ask why they talk "that way." Note: No stereotypes, no humor.

O'Reilly's statement was brasher and less sensitive than Williams's -- no surprise there -- and the ladies' foot-stomping tantrum was a bully's fantasy: Oh, yes, please get really, really mad and stomp away and swear you'll never speak to me again, especially when I'm on the phone with my banker.

As Barbara Walters, the mature voice on the show, intoned: This was exactly what shouldn't happen.

Moral of the stories: We'll get nowhere fast in our commendable search for equilibrium and tolerance by suppressing the expression of honest thoughts. Muslims didn't attack us on Sept. 11 (see above); and most Americans struggle with fears that, though not irrational, do need to be reviewed with dispassion.

If we suppress speech, we risk missing the great ideas that might emerge from the chaos of our less careful thoughts.

kathleenparker@washpost.com


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