Juan Williams and the bigotry of fear

Occasionally I will be engaging in deep, profound thought (of course, deep, profound thought is the only kind of thought I’m capable of engaging in) and a headline will arise about the very topic I’m contemplating. This happened recently while I was musing on the neurological processes related to the emotion of fear. All of a sudden, Juan Williams gets fired from NPR for stating on the Fox television network that Muslims on planes make him nervous. Here’s the exact quote.

“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 the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

This comment has led many to accuse Williams of bigotry. Was he being bigoted? I think it depends on how you unpack his comment.

I’ve loosely touched on the idea in previous posts that we have different kinds of fear reactions. We have what might be called “shock,” which occurs when our limbic system fires off at the barest hint of a threat. We see something in our garden that looks like a snake and we jump. Seconds later, we realize it’s merely a garden hose.

We also have more conscious kinds of fear. When we contemplate crime or cancer we’re experiencing fear on a more cerebral level.

Now, let me state for the record that I don’t consider viewing flying Muslims as a threat to be a “reasonable” response. Yes, it’s possible these particular Muslims are planning to hijack your plane and fly it into a building, but the odds are slim. And, as many have pointed out, Muslims planning such an attack would probably not draw attention to themselves by wearing traditional Muslim garb.

However, it’s also not reasonable to jump at the sight of a garden hose. Primitive fear is not reasonable. More cerebral kinds of fear, like fears of crime or cancer, are reasonable to a degree (as long as they don’t take over your life.)

So was Juan Williams saying that he experiences a shot of primal, limbic fear when he sees Muslims on an airplane, or a more elevated kind of fear? It’s tough to say, but the use of the word “nervous” as well as “anxiety” — which I’ve heard him use in clarifying statements — implies to me that he’s experiencing a gut level, limbic kind of fear. The kind of fear one can’t expect to be reasonable (or non-bigoted.)

On the surface, there’s really nothing wrong with what Williams is saying: he just admitting that he experiences fear at certain kinds of stimuli. If he says he experiences fear whenever he sees men wearing rainbow clown wigs, who were we to tell him he’s not?

Was NPR right to fire Williams? NPR has made clear their reasons for his dismissal.

One reason he was fired, according to Vivian Schiller, NPR’s CEO, is that the company felt he wasn’t performing the role of a news analyst:
“News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation,” said Schiller in an email to NPR member stations, some of which are upset about Williams’ firing.

For the most part, this seems reasonable. If an NPR news analyst announced that he thought the Jews planned 9/11 and that the Jews were now sending an armada of men wearing rainbow clown wigs to get him, we would feel this analyst had undermined his own credibility. And we wouldn’t blame NPR for firing him.

However, Juan Williams has been on Fox for close to a decade (I think), during which time I’m sure he’s taken public positions on more than a few controversial issues. Why fire him now? My suspicion is that NPR has been wanting to axe Williams for some time, and this was the first available opportunity.

The whole controversy has led me to ask myself a question: do I get nervous when I see Muslims on planes? Certainly, I take note of them when I see them. It would be fair to say that their presence does remind me of 9/11. But I don’t recall ever experiencing that “twinge” of fear — I think my rational system has trained my primitive limbic fear system that the odds of being on a plane with terrorists are highly unlikely. On the other hand, if I was, say, flying into Israel, and saw a 28-year-old man in Muslim garb, I might have a little jolt. It’s not rational, but that kind of fear never is.

1 Response to “Juan Williams and the bigotry of fear”

  1. John Saleeby

    You know what makes me nervous? Black guys named Juan. They’re obviously up to something!