Are You Now or
Once upon a rather scary time, those words were about as socially and politically provocative as they came. Not in a verbally vulgar way, mind you. At least not in the early 1950s.
Back then, “decent, upstanding society” took a pretty hard line approach to dirty talk, meaning that a simple “Oh, fudge!” could easily have gotten a kid labeled a “potty mouth” and sent to bed without supper.
If you’re a civics buff, though — or just a person of, shall we say, a certain age [...as I’m sure you Greatest Generation and Baby Boom readers love being described...], you might remember a widely-headlined series of government investigations from which the odious column title above oozed into America’s public discourse.
Historically, it’s come to be known as “The Red Scare.” And thanks to the incendiary histrionics of Wisconsin’s then U.S. Senator, Joe McCarthy, our post-World War/pre-Cold War country was thrust into the throes of a national obsession with rooting out and purging “Soviet spies and sympathizers” alleged to have infiltrated our government.
Detecting the I-can-only-assume-rancid scent of an issue he could exploit for political gain, McCarthy opportunistically latched onto the specter of Communism by infamously summoning all manner of U.S. citizens — from low-level State Department functionaries to A-list Hollywood luminaries — to testify before his Senate subcommittee.
But even after weeks of hearings that generated O.J. trial-style media buzz, little evidence emerged supporting McCarthy’s fanatical belief that embedded “Commies” and disloyal domestic collaborators were subversively influencing national policy.
The grandstanding, glory-hungry Senator’s seditionist witch hunt, however, did leave two lasting if painful impressions on America’s political consciousness.
The first was having his name ignominiously enshrined forever in the term “McCarthyism,” a political tactic that brazenly blended reckless and unsubstantiated accusations of treason with demagogic personal attacks on the character and patriotism of one’s ideological opponents [...something today’s politicians wouldn’t dream of doing. Right?]
The other was the ever-so-requotable hearing question with which he and his partisan henchmen battered witness after witness. Posed in a tone clearly intended to intimidate, it would begin with the interrogator coldly asking “Are you now, or have you ever been, ___________?”
The McCarthyites’ go-to for filling in that blank was, of course, “a member of the Communist party?” And tragically, the consequential impact on the lives and careers of many of those questioned was devastating and lasting.
But as much as I’d love to say right here that “That was then,” sadly, I cannot. Because like McCarthyism — the regrettably fade-resistant appeal of which makes it the Timex wristwatch of intolerance, some things just keep on ticking, ugly as they may be.
It’s been nearly 75 years since the U.S. House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee began stirring the public’s fears that our Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union, was wooing U.S. citizens to their socialist agenda. [Wow. Time certainly does fly when you’re enjoying unequalled freedom, doesn’t it?]
So you’d think that by now more of us would’ve caught on to the simple reality that they don’t have so much to fear from the rest of us. And yet we continue to be afraid. Of what?
Well, we probably could’ve spared ourselves a whole lot of national angst if we’d just stayed focused on Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 proposition that the only thing we should really fear was fear. [But then, Americans have never been known for doing things the easy way, have we?]
Which is why the shortest and most candid answer to “afraid of what?” would have to be “each other” — especially if that “other” is different from us. The problem with that is that — let’s face it — we’re all different from somebody.
Lots of somebodies, in fact — in lots of different ways. So many, it seems, that the only problem we have that’s bigger than dealing with our fear of people who aren’t like us is identifying the ones who are “different” and deciding just how afraid of them we need to be. [Honestly, it can get pretty exhausting.]
So, we label them — a practice I can understand you might see as benign or even helpful. After all, there are warning labels on all kinds of things — from household cleaners to prescription drugs to cigarette packages. And [...assuming anyone looks at them...] they help save lives. And that’s a good thing.
But the labels we attach to people don’t passively sit there on the surface, waiting to be read. We announce them, repeatedly — broadcasting them to the world. Even more significantly, we formulate laws and public policies based on them — effectively weaving them into the fabric of the social garments we all wear.
And we do all of this to satisfy our innate need to “differentiate.” Not that differentiating is inherently a bad thing. We certainly can’t respect differences that we don’t see, can we? But what about when drawing distinctions goes too far?
Utilizing stereotypes in profiling invites the infliction of stigmas. Making socioeconomic status assumptions can lead to culturally-judgmental conclusions. And just about any label assessing problems or potential can evolve into a self-fulfilling prophecy faster than you can say “But I was just trying to help.”
I don’t know. It may well be futile to fight it. Maybe our need to “otherize” others is just too deeply ingrained in our nature. Then again, perhaps we could turn that urge to our advantage.
Picture this. We give every man, woman and child their own personal DYMO label gun and tell them to “Go nuts” and label everyone in sight. [Yeah. I know that may sound a little crazy, but just hear me out.]
Sure. At first, people might take being “labeled” a little personally. But just imagine how enlightening — even liberating — everybody labeling everybody could be.
Because labels aren’t an objective description of who you actually are but a totally subjective expression of what other people think you are.
Take, for example, that guy that’s always struck you as just a little too “Conservative.” Don’t be surprised if there’s someone else who can’t wait to pin a “Radical Lefty” sticker on him. [You can only imagine what you look like to the two of them.]
And think of running into the neighbor with both “Tree Hugger” and “Headbanger” tags stuck to her all-natural fiber Metallica serape. [Chatting with the “Hipster/Pothead/Gun Lover” triple threat is strictly up to you.]
Maybe once we’ve all walked around for a while covered with other people’s judgments of who and what we are, we’ll finally realize that labeling isn’t the answer.
Besides, the only one that really matters is the one we give when we’re asked “Are you now or have you ever been... a human being?”
Our responses to that question, of course, should be fairly obvious, not to mention identical. Answering the follow-up, however — “...and what are you prepared to do to prove it? — may take just a little more thought.