An essential lesson that art can provide is the capacity to see humanity even in the most hostile of human beings. Weeds taught us to empathize with a woman who brings terrible misery upon her sons and herself because she deals marijuana, instead of pursuing a lawful and constructive career. Both The Sopranos and The Godfather challenged viewers to consider the traumatic circumstances that led its main characters to organized crime, rather than depicting them as brutal, two-dimensional villains who everyone simply loves to hate. All in the Family achieved through comedy what The Sopranos accomplished through tragedy. The main characters are presented as deficient in reason rather than undeserving of love. Archie Bunker is not violent, manipulative, or unethical like Tony Soprano. He is, however, given to frequent comments that reveal his bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, sexism, and antisemitism. Viewers are asked to accept the notion that Archie’s prejudice and stereotyping are rooted in a lack of understanding, a limited world view, and a cynical assessment of human nature formed through the harsh realities of the Great Depression and WWII. The other characters in the show, and we the viewers, deplore what Archie says without despising Archie.
Our post-election trauma would benefit greatly from a healthy dose of All in the Family sense of humor. We are led to believe that Archie doesn’t say irrational things because he’s racist. He says racist things because he’s irrational. All human beings are irrational. Social Justice leaders and Diversity Educators are sometimes shocked and embarrassed to see their own results on personal surveys designed to reveal implicit bias. “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish rye.” You don’t have to espouse prejudice to reach prejudiced conclusions. Facebook folk-wisdom teaches, “In the history of calming down, nobody ever calmed down by being told to ‘calm down.’” The same logic holds true in the task of confronting bigotry.
In the history of racism, nobody ever stopped being a racist by being called a racist. Telling the Archie Bunkers of the world how horrible they are will get us nowhere. Archie’s wife, daughter, son-in-law, friends, and neighbors debate their lovable misanthrope without demeaning him. They practice their own Bunker Mentality in dealing with Archie Bunker. We need to do the same with our angry and isolationist fellow citizens. Let us use what educators call “the love and logic approach” to restore reason to those who have demonstrate signs of being unreasonable.
Real racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and xenophobia are rearing their ugly heads, and the power of Neo-Nazis increased during of this last election cycle. We are justifiably fearful of what this may mean for ourselves, our children, and our country. There is legitimate outrage that these voices and agendas are not simply being espoused or tolerated, but are being met with a welcoming and sympathetic ear among those entrusted with political authority and responsibility in our country. We will resist these voices and forces. We will mobilize and work on the issues that matter to us and take steps to make sure that bigotry does not gain any more traction than it already has. There is little chance of a successful intellectual dialogue with those who claim to be inherently superior and worthy than those who differ from them. It might be possible to have a civil debate with such people, but dialogue, a sensitive and serious exchange of ideas, is not likely. Archie Bunker was no David Duke. There are those among us—our neighbors, our family and our friends—who think differently, who even espouse ideas we find reprehensible, but whose integrity and decency should not be called into question every time we disagree. It’s not fair to them. It’s not healthy for us. It’s not conducive to alleviating the crisis unfolding right before our eyes. It is a serious mistake to paint everyone who questions the validity of our values with the same brush. There needs to be a distinction between those who support a bigot precisely because he is a bigot and those who support him despite or dismissive of his bigotry. It’s virtually impossible to have a conversation with someone who refuses to accept your humanity. It’s entirely possible that two people who regard each other as equals can passionately disagree without things getting personal.
The editors of the Women’s Torah Commentary point out that this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, gives us contrasting models of how to handle family conflict. Having robbed his brother and deceived his father, Jacob runs away to Haran to escape the consequences of his selfish choices. Rachel and Leah deal with deceit and disappointment quite differently. Rather than resorting to rage and running away, the sisters find a way to live together. Despite hurt feelings and well-founded mistrust, they find a way to start and sustain a family. Our neighbors and fellow citizens are sometimes given to saying and doing racist things. Let’s try to remember that they are neighbors and fellow citizens nonetheless. The question isn’t whether, or not you accept the notion that we all have to live together. The question is how. The time has come to ask ourselves “What would the Bunkers do?”