We’re All Just Being What We Are

I just posted the following on the WELL, in a conversation about homophobia and racism and other forms of prejudice.

That’s true of a lot of hatreds. They’re complicated and unconscious and hard to pull apart and analyze. They can arise from internal conflicts and denials, or just from unconsciously picking up and imitating attitudes and behaviors from the society around you as you’re growing up, or a combination.

I myself am gay and was raised to be liberal and yet in my thirties I started to realize that I nevertheless had picked up a lot of attitudes from my childhood in Orange County that, though they weren’t homophobic in the clinical sense of projecting my inner fears and self-loathing onto other people, were nevertheless negative ideas about homosexuals I was carrying around without being conscious of it.

That was very hard to, first, admit to myself and, second, do something about. It meant getting rid of some kindly illusions about myself and about other people and about how the society around me worked. Like realizing my own thoughts and behaviors are far more influenced by unconscious habits and far less the product of rational mind than they appear to be; that this was true of other people as well; that those unconscious thoughts and behaviors could be bearers and transmitters of the very same prejudices I was consciously fiercely opposed to; that this also was true of others. It took me a while to accept that and not be furious at others or at myself for it.

So I’m always a little skeptical when someone tells me they aren’t homophobic. Maybe it’s true, but then again maybe it’s the case that they just haven’t realized it, that it’s something unconscious in them that hasn’t been raised yet to the level of self-awareness.

In the first act of the opera The Tales of Hoffmann (which is on my mind because a production in Berkeley of my adaptation of it just finished), a young man falls in love with an automaton (I guess the modern term would be android) that he believes is a living woman, and he doesn’t realize he’s only projecting onto her all his illusions and ideals about what a woman is. On some level I think that’s a metaphor for how all of us are about other people. In the opera, he only discovers his error when the automaton is pulled apart, but if things had progressed otherwise, I can imagine that he’d eventually start to realize she can only say and do the same things over and over again, and he’d come to hate her for being limited in this way, for being less than all these other women he could choose instead. But the hate would be about him and about the illusions and ideals and other baggage about women that he carries around with him; she’s just being what she is. And eventually the young man might come to realize that all the other women are automata, too, at which point maybe he’d stop hating them for not living up to his ideals and start loving them for being very good automata.

And he might even come to realize that he himself is an automaton. I think we’re all something like 95% automaton (conservative estimate), only we’re focused all the time on the 5% within ourselves that is conscious, rational mind, and because of that, we fool ourselves into thinking it’s much much more than 5%. And then we get angry at others for being 95% automaton and not meeting our expectations for the imaginary rational creatures we’ve made up called human beings.

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