Thank heavens for Mel Gibson. How could we have a conversation about an important social issue in this country without a celebrity?
As everyone who doesn't live on Mars knows by now, a couple of weeks ago, in a drunken rage, Gibson spewed anti-Semitic venom on some Malibu police officers who were arresting him for driving under the influence of alcohol.
He later 1) apologized to the police officers without mentioning his anti-Semitic remarks; 2) then apologized to Jews everywhere for his anti-Semitic remarks; 3) then promised to make amends for his anti-Semitic remarks; and 4) checked himself into rehab. The only question now is whether he will go on Letterman or Leno when he comes out.
During a time when Israeli troops were hammering Lebanese civilians and Hezbollah fighters, when American generals finally used the words "civil war" and "Iraq" in the same sentence, and when Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman lost his Democratic political life as payback for supporting George Bush's war-mongering policies, why should it matter what Gibson thinks about anything?
Because of what his remarks revealed about him: his deep-seated belief in The Other.
For Gibson, The Other is the Jews. "The Jews started every war in the world," is his now-famous quote. (I don't think Hitler annexed Poland just to get at its Jews, though, Mel. The Poles would have gladly handed them all over and kept their country.)
Gibson may be dumb, but he's not much dumber than the guy who recently tried to convince me that my pacifism is misplaced by saying, "The Arabs don't want peace." Obviously he doesn't watch the nightly news, where you can see many, many Arabs who want nothing more than peace - especially if it means they don't have to dig their families out of rubble anymore.
The Arabs. The Jews. The homosexuals. The Mexican immigrants. If you can lump together any group of people - a religion, a nationality, a color, a tribe - and hang on them one epithet, then you can dismiss, dehumanize and possibly start to eliminate them. It's how genocide starts. Just ask a Hutu or a Tutsi.
The Other is a concept as old as mankind.
We know that on every continent, the name of a tribe or group usually translates as "We People." "Hopi," for example, means "peaceful person" or "civilized person." Inuit means "the people." For Tony Hillerman fans, the Navaho's word for themselves, "Dine'e" means "the people." Wampanoag? "Eastern people." It's even true for America. When the founding fathers created this country, the first words they used were "We the people..."
That makes anyone who is not "We the people," into "The Other."
Certainly from the beginning, strangers could be dangerous. They could be part of a raiding party, or loners thrown out of their own tribes for breaking some critical taboo. We probably have in our genes a long-held and deep-seated wariness about The Other.
But over time this has been countered by another human trait, consciousness, and the obvious insight that we are all in this world together. For all our cultural and linguistic differences and personal quirks, people on this planet are pretty much alike. We're all breathing the same air, living under the same sky, and loving our families in the same way. We even share a lot of the same DNA.
The principle "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" has turned out to be not only wise and generous, but self-protective as well.
However, instilling and flaming a fear of The Other is a time-honored way for kings, politicians, religious leaders and others seeking power to control their followers. As Rogers and Hammerstein wrote so long ago, "You've got to be taught/To hate and fear/You've got to be taught/From year to year/It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear/You've got to be carefully taught."
In recent years, especially in this country, hatred has gotten out of control. Who are we being taught to hate? African-American rappers? Abortion doctors? Scientific researchers? College professors? Bloggers? The list goes on and on, and it's being drummed into our dear little ears on a daily basis.
If you are being taught how to hate in any fashion, you should examine your teachers. You will soon see that their motivation has little to do with protecting you and much to do with protecting their own turf.
One of my many fears is that America, inflamed by a nationally sanctioned fear of The Other, will erupt into dismal action. That is how the Germans allowed themselves to be led to the Holocaust, and we are deluded if we don't think it can happen here.
So although he is just a pathetic little man who parlayed his remarkable good looks into a lot of money, we can thank Mel Gibson - a little - for allowing his virulent hatred to erupt into the general consciousness.
Gibson has now been soundly and rightly ridiculed and chastised. When he gets out of Detox Mansion he will be invited to tour a Holocaust museum or two and hold discussions with Jewish leaders. His consciousness might be raised an inch or two.
And along with his, maybe ours.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance writer and columnist in Vermont. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at email@example.com.