The reason given for the termination was a comment Williams made on The O'Reilly Factor earlier this week:
"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
NPR claims that Williams' statements "were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR." Earlier today on that same network, one of their executives also claimed that Williams' spouting his opinion like that on Fox also undermined said "credibility."
Of course, NPR's been paying the man for years to spout his opinion. They also pay scores of other "news analysts" to spout their opinions over the airwaves. I know they try to paint these opinions, these analyses as somehow objective, but there is no way on God's green Earth that opinion can actually ever be objective.
Williams' "credibility" has less to do with his firing than CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) and other groups finding offense in his comment. They assert that Williams' comments were, despite his protestations, bigoted and that these bigoted comments coming from a "mainstream journalist" somehow legitimate others' bigotry. Walter Conkrite should not go all Mel Gibson on our asses. Now, I'm no conservative. I'm not going to tell folks what they can and cannot be offended by. But I gotta tell ya, even taken alone, I just don't see what's so offensive about what Williams said.
What he was talking about was his socialized response to more traditionally-clothed Muslims. Is he alone in this? You're lying to yourself if you actually think so. Since the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, when PLO operatives took Israeli athletes hostage and murdered them, we Americans have been inundated with the image of the Muslim terrorist. Thousands of movies, books, radio and TV shows, news articles, and even comic books have hammered that idea into our heads. For the vast majority of us, this mediated image that's resonated for almost 40 years is the only exposure we've had to Muslims. September 11, this "War on Terror," Iraq, and Afghanistan only further cement this image home. So, it actually comes as no surprise that your average American or even the most PC multiculturalist might share Williams' reaction if they got on a 747 with 12 bin Laden lookalikes chillin' in first class. Why do you think al Qaeda had the 9/11 hijackers dress like "Westerners."
Muslims, of course, are not the only victims of such socialized responses. Put a clean-cut white guy in a business suit, and we have a whole set of these mediated responses. Scruff him up a bit and slap on a Southern accent, and we think another. Wrap an Asian woman in a kimono, what does one think? A Latino in some dirty work clothes? A young black man in some baggy clothes and a baseball cap?
We all possess socialized responses to these images--and tons of others. We are all victims of them. All beneficiaries of them. They are all complex and all-pervasive. Yet, to even admit that fact in the public sphere brings outrage and cries of bigotry.
They are the same cries one can receive at the mere mention of another's race because, to some (mostly white) people to simply mention race is somehow racist. They will say they don't even see race. Threat of death will not get them to open their eyes. Sheer practically will not loose their tongues. I once spent 20 minutes looking for a friend of a white friend's in an overwhelmingly white bar because the 5'2" "brunette" was actually Asian and the 5'9" "guy with long hair" she was looking for was me.
But being "blind to race" does not mean that you actually don't "see" race. It doesn't prove one is not racist. While race is a social construct, melanin levels in one's skin is merely a biological difference. It may not always tell you what "race" someone is, but it is simply a fact--one without any inherent moral value--like hair color. To not "see," not acknowledge, not to even mention another's race leads me to believe that one actually does place a moral value on race--a fairly negative one--like treating me like someone who has suffered a horrible disfigurement. It's something one just does not mention in polite company, which begs the question, "What do you find so objectionable about my black flesh?" After all, when was the last time you heard someone say, "How dare you mention the fact that I'm a brunette?!"
But Juan Williams did see this socialized response in himself and he had the temerity/insanity to mention it on television. And, just as "seeing" race isn't morally wrong, having a socialized response to the "Other" isn't wrong in and of itself. It is what one does with it that dictates its moral value. In fact, if you look at what Williams went on to say that same night, you will see that that was exactly the man's point:
"We don't want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street because they hear rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy."He even went on to say that we don't judge all Christians on the actions of Timothy McVeigh and that "God Hates Fags" church that is now protesting at the funerals of servicemen who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In other words, we have all been trained to have these responses to the "Other." They have been so often repeated, so ingrained in our collective psyche, that they pretty much work on us on a subconscious level. That reaction is bigoted, but it is not as important as the influence that it has on our conscious actions. If we let these responses influence the way we actually treat people, if we allow them to let us deny the "Other's" humanity, that is where the tragedy actually lies. Williams' argument was that, while he does have these initial apprehensions when seeing Muslims, he refuses to let those feelings view them as somehow subhuman.
Unfortunately, that argument is too nuanced in the modern-day shoutfest that American political discourse has become. Personally, I think NPR has fired Williams because he is no longer the comfortable black liberal voice they originally hired him to be. But they and the Left are going to cling to the notion of Williams' assumed biogtry. The Right will make the brother a well-compensated proof of the Left's hypocritical intolerance.
And once again, another opportunity for real dialogue will be shouted down in the public square. Because having a mediated image of any "Other" isn't the real sin. That belongs to the people who have ingrained those images into our brains and who continue to inundate us with them, and what we should really be asking ourselves and them why they continue to do it.