Can a bigot be a good person?

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 24, 2004

He pursued me, but then rejected me because my religion was “wrong.”


Dear Cary,

Do you think someone who is narrow-minded and bigoted can truly lead a happy and fulfilling life? And can this person be considered a “good” person if they are good in other ways?

I went to an art exhibit/talk at a friend’s church. I was standing at the refreshment table and a man approached me and started talking to me. I thought he was just being friendly, but I realized he was quite interested in me and he asked me to sit next to him. He seemed incredibly excited about meeting me. Before he left, he wrote his cell number, home number and home e-mail on his business card and asked me to contact him. He said he hoped I would come back to the church again. I said I surely would, but made sure to let him know I was Jewish.

We went for a walk a week later. He seemed incredibly attracted to me, and I felt the same way about him. We were talking about where we went to college, etc., and I felt it was important to let him know my age, as I thought he might be a few years younger. I am 44, but look much younger. He said he assumed I was 35. He is 38. After a few more encounters, by phone, e-mail and in real life, he came clean and said he had been surprised to learn that I was Jewish and 44 and that those were complicating factors for him (he says he wants to have biological children).

Of course we all need to follow our preferences, desires and needs, particularly when it comes to children, but it is the way he rejected me — not based on my qualities and traits but on my bloodline — that floored me. He said in an e-mail that it was not possible to have a true and fulfilling intimate relationship (he’s never been married; I have been) when there was an underlying feeling that the other’s religion was “wrong.” I wrote back that I certainly didn’t see his religion as “wrong” (he’s Presbyterian, just for the record) but that he must think that of mine, and that, according to that line of thinking, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam would be wrong, too.

I thought we shared the same values; he seemed so kind and thoughtful, and was very intelligent and funny.

I know there are Jews who will only date and marry other Jews, but I’m not one of those people. Most of my friends, of all religions and cultures, seem happy just to have found someone good, regardless of their background.

Who are these people who secretly feel that those of other religions (and one would assume other races) are inferior and wrong? Of course they are everywhere, but this guy seemed so good and kind. Do you think a guy like this will find happiness in a relationship, and in life overall? I am kind of hoping he doesn’t.

Surprised but Shouldn’t Be

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Dear Surprised,

You ask good questions. Before trying to answer them, though, let’s say what happened here: You were hurt by a man who was attractive but thoughtless. After being hurt, you moved from the event itself to a set of sweeping questions and indictments, as a way of trying to understand what happened. That’s OK. I understand what you are saying; I understand the impulse to do that, and I share your outrage and bafflement. I’m also interested in Christian religious doctrine and how individuals can use it, or distort it, in their interpersonal relations. I don’t know if he’s a bigot or just a little careless in how he expresses some struggle he’s undergoing.

But it’s a shame you couldn’t work together to build a relationship, since you had a lot in common. Perhaps the relationship could have gone further if he had been more diplomatic. Instead of being so doctrinaire, he could have asked you what you thought about interfaith marriage, and about adoption, and expressed his reservations about it. He could have told you what sort of struggle he’s undergoing, trying to reconcile his religion with his desire to marry and raise a family with a woman he loves.

It’s possible that he did not want things to go further, for personal reasons not having to do with your different faiths. If that’s true, it’s a shame he had to drag in all that other baggage. On the other hand, if he was truly interested and just did something boneheaded, it’s even more of a shame, and he may regret it. (I sense that you hope he does regret it, but if so, you might think about trying to let go of that anger, as it will not help you to carry it around.)

I know this from personal experience: If we’re nervous, conflicted, insecure or fearful about how someone is going to take something, sometimes we work on it so hard that we end up saying the worst thing possible. Instead of trusting my instincts to guide me in a conversation about it, I will mull it over and over, as if by this magical process of mental refining I will arrive at some essence that is the “truth,” that I can then deliver up in triumph and finality: Here it is. I’ve decided. This is the situation. It becomes like a presentation before the Supreme Court.

I forget that what I really need to do is have a conversation with somebody. It’s comical, because the harder you work on what you think is the problem the farther you get from the problem — because the problem is relationship, and relationship is not something you can do in your head. It takes both people being present.

It sounds like this guy didn’t really have a conversation with you about this, he just announced his decision. I take it that part of what wounded you was the arrogance, the presumption, the way he just announced as if from on high that he had reached a conclusion and you were out. I don’t think that’s the way relationships between equals are supposed to work.

You were perhaps also hurt in ways that you have not fully acknowledged. Being a Jew, how can you not feel the sting of even the slightest suggestion by a Christian that you’re not good enough, that you’re flawed, that you’re not allowed, you’re not the right kind, you’ve got the wrong beliefs, the wrong heritage, that, as you put it rather evocatively, you’ve got the wrong bloodline? How can you not be put in remembrance of atrocities committed against your people?

Was he a bigot? I don’t know. I do think he was thoughtless. His actions were far less than divine. I do not think Jesus would have broken up with you that way.

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Should I marry into a family of bigots?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 28, 2006

His relatives talk about “fags” and say girls in miniskirts deserve to be raped.


Dear Cary,

I have met a lovely guy at last after years of being single or dating disastrous men. I am now happy and secure and this man wants to marry me and we talk about our future children. It’s wonderful! He is very caring and treats me so well I am amazed.

The problem is this: When I attend family functions with his family they say things I find really offensive. For example gays are called “fags” and the men joke about having to “run away or get hit on by the faggots,” then everyone laughs. I don’t find this funny. Then there is the younger brother who, at 16, says that girls who wear short skirts deserve to be raped … and his father backed him up, saying that most magistrates would agree! I have been raped and know the devastation it can cause. Hearing this opinion from a young and ignorant person is hard enough but then hearing the possible future grandfather of my children agree is almost unbearable. I spoke to my boyfriend about it and he said he can’t stand it when they talk like that and doesn’t agree at all. I believe that talk like this is a form of violence and if I had the choice I would choose never to hear it. I want to get along with my boyfriend’s family and I don’t want to offend them but at the same time I don’t want to be exposed to this ignorant and (I feel) dangerous talk. Any suggestions as to how to get them to stop talking like that when I am around, or how to handle it better so that I don’t get so upset at opinions that are different from mine?

Really Offended

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Dear Really Offended,

I don’t blame you for being offended. I too am offended by such speech.

But I must admit that I was not always offended by such speech. I grew up around it. It was not used in my family, but it was common in my childhood neighborhood and in the places where I later lived and went to school and worked. I did not always know that such speech was offensive. I had to be taught that it was offensive and why it was offensive. I had to be taught by people who knew better than I did. Sometimes the ways in which I was taught were unpleasant.

And so if possible I would like to make a point that is somewhat controversial but well meant. It is likely to stir some passions, and that is good. It is a point that cannot possibly be made without being misunderstood to some degree, so I am ready to be misunderstood as well. But I will try to be clear.

My point is that our sensitivity to such speech is the result of hard-won victories by activists, and that this fact has implications for how we should respond to such speech today. We should not respond with arrogance, as if we were superior. Our insights into the nature of rape and homosexuality didn’t happen by magic. We are not born that good. We are not born that fair-minded. We are not born allergic to categorical putdowns. We have learned to be better than we were. We have been taught to be better by people who took risks and made sacrifices so they could teach us to be better. And these people are not necessarily the famous heroes of feminism and civil rights that we hear about in speeches. These are people we knew, perhaps people in our own families, or people who married into our families, who stood up and countered the errant bit of racist nonsense, who caused some uncomfortable moments, who made us think.

My hope is that you would be one of those people, strong, levelheaded, clear-minded, not superior in your views and not dismissive of others but sure that what you have to say deserves to be heard and thought about. For that is how I myself was disabused of some of the notions I picked up along the way. I feel grateful to those people who had the courage to tell me that some of the things I used to say were hurtful nonsense, unworthy of a thinking person. I pay attention to people I know. I think this is how societies change.

We aren’t better than those who spout such trash. We are just lucky. We do not have to become lifetime reformers. But we do have to say what we think. It is our turn.

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