Once upon a time not long ago, you could make a prejudiced statement like “the male sex is intrinsically better equipped to handle problems of analytical nature, while women are woefully lacking in such facility” and not only be listened to with a straight face, but easily find people who would agree with you and praise you for your astute observation. It was taken for granted that Asians could not possibly understand the fine elements of classical Western music, or play it with much competence, let alone compose one. Many educated people supported the idea that Africans occupied a lower rung in the evolutionary ladder and discussed their “scientific” theories earnestly. Critics questioned how a Jew could possibly have the required sensibilities of a serious painter (though few questioned their competence as art dealers) and nobody laughed at their ideas.
Prejudice still persists. Women will continue to suffer disadvantage and disrespect from men. But it is not likely for somebody today to openly say “men are smarter than women” with a straight face and still be taken seriously. Even thought prejudice persists, it shifts and changes shape with time. Hopefully, it becomes more subtle, and perhaps more mild.
Mark Twain wrote:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
He clearly was, and saw himself as, much more enlightened and less prejudiced than most of his contemporaries. But he did name one of his characters “Nigger Jim” and used words and descriptions that, today, would be considered vehemently racist. By the standards of his time, however, he may not have been one. What you had to do in order to be considered racist in those days is rather hard to imagine.
“The rule of thumb” allegedly derives its name from a law that states that a man may beat his wife as long as the rod he uses is no thicker than his thumb. Although no such law actually existed in England at any time, this “precedent” was sometimes cited as a justification for spousal abuse. In the 1874 case State v. Oliver (North Carolina Reports, Vol. 70, Sec. 60, p. 44) states: “We assume that the old doctrine that a husband had the right to whip his wife, provided that he used a switch no larger than his thumb, is not the law in North Carolina” implying that the “old doctrine” was applicable elsewhere. Under such a doctrine, you were not a real wife beater unless you used a stick of potentially lethal proportions.
From today’s perspective, prejudices of the past are so out of proportion that they seem comical. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen used this to brilliant effect in his incarnation as Borat Sagdiyev, the over-the-top anti-Semitic journalist from Kazakhstan. Kazuo Ishiguro gave prejudice a less zany turn, but added a wry twist in The Remains of the Day:
It is sometimes said that butlers only truly exist in England. Other countries, whatever title is actually used, have only manservants. I tend to believe this is true. Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of. Continentals – and by and large the Celts, as you will no doubt agree – are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of a strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least challenging of situations. If I may return to my earlier metaphor – you will excuse my putting it so coarsely – they are like a man who will, at the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and his shirt and run about screaming. In a word, “dignity” is beyond such persons. We English have an important advantage over foreigners in this respect and it is for this reason that when you think of a great butler, he is bound, almost by definition, to be an Englishman.
When the book was published in 1989, much was made of the fact that the above passage was written by a man born in Nagasaki, and nobody, apparently, saw the double irony. (Yes, it is ironic that a Japanese author is writing from a point of view of an English bigot, but focusing on the fact that the author is Japanese compounds the irony.)
Prejudice erodes over time and takes on new meanings. The mismatch between the past and the present provides an opportunity for metaphor, irony, and humor. This detachment, the ability to see and project the comedy in the prejudice, will serve as the bulwark against the resurgence of seemingly dead bigotry. Angry activism may serve as the machete that cuts open the path, but it is the tides of culture that will pave the road. And in that sense, taking the view from a step back, observing obsolete attitudes with aloof mockery may indeed be a noble thing for a writer to do. Conversely, taking the machete to today’s current problems is not the job of the novelist. A novelist works in the clarity of settled dust. He enters the scene not in the confusion of the fray, but after the nuggets of the issues had been sifted from the sand.
An activist cuts open the trail. A story writer paves the roads to ensure that the jungle vegetation will not encroach on the passage way. Bigotry of the past should be carefully mocked. Care should be taken to calibrate the mockery for best effect. Do not criticize the people of today, not directly, but only through reflection of the people from the past. Current problems will only deflect your reader’s attention from the story. Insert too much opinion, and your book will seize to be a work of fiction and become a manifesto. Manifestos have a way of provoking the readers to make up their minds about the subject matter before they are done reading it. So do not insert your opinions into your work of fiction, but do insert the prejudice. Bigots make good villains.
Bigotry per se is not funny, but I believe it is okay to laugh about it. Our sense of humor is the best bulwark against its resurgence.