Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Fear of Becoming the Other

Lots of talk on the blogosphere about the historic parallels between the current struggle for the recognition of gay marriage and changing attitudes in recent years about interracial relationships. Many hope that history will again be on the side of equality as it has trended for the last couple centuries, and one wonders if, years from now, religious texts will proclaim that there's nothing wrong with gay marriage the way some currently point out that there's nothing in the Bible prohibiting interracial marriage. "We have also seen that God's plan of salvation includes drawing his people from every nation, tribe, people and language. May we have this same desire, eschewing all forms of racism and ungodly prejudice." Amen to that.

So I've been thinking about what fuels this ungodly prejudice, what makes so many people cling so desperately to known quantities even when those situations defy justice and logic. Ignorance, habit, tradition, sure, but of course there's also fear. And I don't think it's so much fear of the mysterious or different or new in others as much as it is the fear of discovering something new within oneself. As a neophobe myself I know how much easier it is to cope with familiar surroundings, even when those surroundings (job, home, etc.) are less than ideal, than to take steps towards bettering one's circumstances. After all, I know what I'm up against in this leaky tinderbox where the doors and cabinets don't close; only a humongous and unreasonable rent increase is forcing me elsewhere. (Robin was probably ready to leave this apartment two years ago, but as he's managed to move himself across an entire ocean and into a new culture, and I've only ever lived in NY and NJ my whole life, I'd say he's a bit less neophobic on the whole.) I can sort of handle a work situation that frequently has me on an emotional roller coaster, because I know the people operating that coaster, and who knows but that the next job I'd get wouldn't be a chamber of horrors?

I believe that prejudice against the Other isn't so much a hatred of what They are, but a fear of what we might become if we embrace Otherness (even if that Otherness only touches us as stories in the news). We'd be different than we are now, and we're comfortable with what we are now even if we're not entirely happy with ourselves. So we'll make an uneasy truce with our prejudices before we'll accept not having any idea of what a more open mind will turn us into.

I say this not to condone prejudice as much as try to explain and analyze and understand it. I think part of our purpose on this Earth is to overcome that primal fear of becoming something else as a result of accepting new ideas and circumstances, of having our egos torn down and rearranged every time we accept that Everything We Know Is Wrong, but I also believe it's one of the hardest things a human being can do. Our inbred instincts rebel against it, and for many of us so do our upbringing and environment. So I'm trying not to come down too harshly against bigots or homophobes or conservatives. They're not bad people. They're not all that different from more tolerant folks. Way I see it, they just haven't made as many neo-leaps yet.