By now, everybody knows about Juan Williams' dustup with NPR over his Islamic remarks on the Bill O'Reilly show. I listened carefully to his following interview with Diane Rehm, and was surprised to learn that -- as a news analyst -- he didn't explain himself very well.
He said that he was nervous when passengers garbed in Islamic dress boarded a plane. OK, Juan, you're nervous. So what? What's next, what do you think next? He just left that a big blank page. And that was a mistake.
In my own personal experience, I have had similar situations. I feel uncomfortable, or I come up with a disparaging attitude. That's OK. BUT. But then you need to go on and ask yourself if this is a reasonable reaction. Most of the time, when I think about it, I say, no. It's a throwback to my childhood and a father who was very biased against anyone who wasn't white and Protestant.
I've learned that those reactions were built into my autonomic system. I can't get rid of them. I have to live with them, but I don't have to accept them at face value and I don't have to follow them.
Juan did later in his own interview on the O'Reilly show defend Islam, and that's great. But he left a big hole right after his remarks about being nervous on a plane if passengers garbed in Islamic wear boarded.
There was a recent piece in the NY Times that analyzed where these strong, immediate reactions come from. Back a hundred thousand years or more, when we were hunter gatherers, and there wasn't enough food to eat, we learned to instantly spot someone who wasn't part of our own tribe. And in those days, that meant they would either "eat your lunch" or kill you. And as a result, your reaction was either fight or flight.
Now, good old Darwin has taught us, with his ideas about survival of the fitest, that back in those days, the faster you could recognize a "foreigner" the faster you could kill him or run away to hunt and forage another day. And that meant that your tribe would prosper. So we end up with billions of folks on the planet who instantly react against someone not of their tribe, like Juan, sitting in a plane.
That doesn't make the reaction right. It just makes it real, and something we all need to think about and to deal with. When you get one of those cave-man reactions, you need to turn on your brain and think the situation through. Think of Darwin again. Those hunter-gatherers ultimately prospered because they found out how to use their brains -- and that is a far more potent force -- for good, hopefully, than the ax or arrow.