I Am Nothing But A Fool
I Am Nothing But A Fool©
March 19, 2012
I have been lucky enough to have every stereotype I knew to be true about other people proven wrong.What a wondrous thing to know that I was a fool and to have the knowledge that I will continue to be ignorant. A reasonable person might believe that the opening two sentences of this article are a rather strange public proclamation to make.Most people are not proud of the fact that they are ignorant, but that is my claim and it has served me well.
The reason for this apparent outrageous statement is not that complicated.Once a point of ignorance has been identified it allows the opportunity to make an informational course correction.In my case, the basic foundation of my knowledge set comes from the experiences I had growing up in three smalls North Dakota towns.The summer after my 17th birthday, I left the area for Fort Leonard Wood Missouri to attend Army basic training (June 1980).Prior to that there were several trips to Montana, Minnesota, and South Dakota, additionally there a fishing trip to Canada, a family vacation to Seattle and there was even a trip to Pennsylvania to attend the National Boy Scout Jamboree.My early travels did not provide for a large quantity of first hand contact with people, who were culturally different, I primarily interacted with people who were a reflection of myself.
Fast forward to June 1998, shortly after being promoted (or demoted depending on your point of view) from a Master Sergeant (E-7) to Second Lieutenant (O-1), an opportunity for a short term (3 months) assignment to North Dakota and South Dakota appeared.The assignment was to act as cultural liaison officer between the Air Force Reserve Command and the Native American population on several reservations in the area.I was excited and ready to start the assignment, however there was enough self awareness to see the logic the selecting officer used was flawed, she figured a Military Equal Opportunity officer who was a native of the region, had the tools, experience, and the knowledge to help make the overall mission successful.
The first location on the schedule was the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota, near the Canadian border.Upon arrival, the first action was to pay a visit to the local museum.I introduced myself to the woman at the front desk.Our conversation included who I was, the reason for my presence on the reservation and why I was selected for the job.Then I had a confession for her, I knew next to nothing about the people called the Chippewa, in fact many of the stereotypes of Native Americans I grew up with were negative.Until this assignment I was unaware of how ignorant I was, up until then there was no event that would cause me to question my existing knowledge.Even though I grew up less than four hours away, had no in depth first in hand knowledge.In high school I played in a basketball tournament against the local team.That was only one brief encounter with very little dialog. The textbooks the schools were mandated to use severely misrepresented this segment of the state’s population.She took the time speak with me and supplied me with the names of other people who could help fill in the gaps in my personal database. Her contacts in turn gave me the names of people on other the other reservations to talk to.In a short period of time I had an extensive network of people to interact with.With the help of the people I spoke with the summer was very successful.Evan though I learned a great deal that summer, I knew that I was not an expert on the Native American population.The experience opened the door for further learning.
The ability to expend the breath of knowledge I had two things had to exists.First there had to admit to myself and then to others I did not know.Philosophers have been arguing about what is knowledge since Socrates.In the Theaetetus, Plato describes a conversation between Socrates, Theodorus, and Theaetetus which goes on for pages and pages trying to discover the essence of knowledge in which a very high standard was set before anyone could claim they had knowledge.For this piece the threshold for someone to claim they have knowledge is lower.To know something simply means that the person is comfortable, that the information they have is correct and does not need to be questioned.People are often reluctant to admit that they do not know something.The lack of unknowing creates a feeling of uneasiness. Admitting they do not know creates a fear that they are placing their belief system in jeopardy.If there is not a compelling reason, few people will actively look to challenge what they “know” and their bias is safely hidden away from inspection.
At the start of the assignment I did not know what I did not know, I just knew that I did not know something.Socrates thought this knowledge of not knowing was his greatest asset.He explained his logic in the Apology, where he was on trial for his life for corrupting the youth.A part of his defense was to explain why he was wiser then most men in Athens.The evidence for this claim started with a question his friend Chaerephon presented the oracle at Delphi, “he asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. ……When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great.” (Plato) When he could not find anyone with knowledge he concluded, “I am better off than he is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.” (Plato) Socrates knew that he did not know everything that was his motivation to keep questioning his beliefs, which continuously lead to new discoveries. Understanding that you do not know leads to the discovery of a prejudice that they were unaware that they had.Once the gap is found then action to fill it needs to happen or the existing prejudice will continue to fester.
The second criteria that had to exist, was the willingness of someone to help fill in the gaps and open a dialog with me. Both sides had to push a side their prejudices, to have an effective conversation we had to put aside what we “knew” about the other, to leave ourselves open to listen. She could have rejected my request for learning, but that would have served only to further my ignorance.Several times that summer people, for what ever reason, did not want to engage in the conversation, but one negative or positive interaction is not enough information to claim any knowledge about a people, nation, or religion.
This unwillingness to honestly interact and allowing prejudice to take control has a devastating impact when it is applied on a societal scale.In the United States extreme manifestations include the attempted genocide of Native Americans, Slavery and Jim Crow Laws for African Americans and the unlawful internment of Japanese Americans, the list is very extensive.The latest group to suffer the repercussion of unchallenged ignorance is the Muslims community, as if you could not be American if you are a Muslim.At a dinner party one night, a good friend of mine was chastising Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) about his belief in Islam, she felt Yusruf’s claim that Islam was a religion of peace, was hypocritical because to her they are terrorists.Another friend added that he not sure how to handle the Muslims, because they are so violent and relatively new to this country.
Both of my friends have never had any contact with anyone of the Muslim faith, or at least they were not aware of any interaction.So where did they get this “knowledge” about Muslims?The book, Stranger to these Shores, helps define the role media plays in shaping our national perception “As a reflector of society’s values, the media have a tremendous impact on the shaping of our personal and group identities.Radio, television, films, newspapers, magazines, and comic can convey the rich textures of a pluralistic society or they can, directly or indirectly (by omission and distortion), alter our perception of other ethnic groups and reinforce our defensiveness and ambivalence about our own cultural background.” (Parrillo. Page 78) Without any active challenge to the way the group is portrayed, whether based on fact or fiction becomes the national identity.
A person does not have to look too far to see the excessive negative campaign against the Muslim faith.Republican Presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, was reported using the negative image to challenge the President’s foreign and domestic policies.“In Georgia Tuesday, he called Obama “so pro-Islamic that [he] can’t even tell the truth about the people who are trying to kill us,” the latest in a series of recent attacks on the White House as excessively friendly to Muslims.” (Weiner)
In New York City the Police Department and Mayor were criticized for using training material that was based on stereotypes and not the facts.“As his administration faces a firestorm over a video shown to hundreds of police officers that depicted Muslims as extremists, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg conceded on Thursday that the episode had damaged relations between the city’s Islamic community and the Police Department.” (Grynbaum) Even though the film starts with a disclaimer, "This is not a film about Islam. It is about the threat of radical Islam. Only a small percentage of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are radical" (Gross) the portrayal in the film is being used to whip up hysteria about Muslims.
The group Family Association of Florida has taken this hysteria to new lows.In their fight against The Learning Channel show, All American Muslims the group is claiming that the Muslims being portrayed in the program are not the norm.“Many situations were profiled in the show from a Muslim tolerant perspective while avoiding the perspective that would have created Muslim conflict thereby contradicting The Learning Channel’s agenda to inaccurately portray Muslims in America.” (Family Association of Florida) With this constant bombardment of negative press this feeds into the superstition that all Muslims are terrorists.
There are a few facts that need to be taken into consideration.Muslims have been an active part of the American landscape long before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.Some were forcible transplanted to this continent through slavery.While others immigrated to this country of their own free will.There is even some academic research speculates Muslims reached the new world as early as 1291.(Mroueh) The fact is the people of the Islamic faith have been and continue to be a positive part of the American mosaic.
The second fact is all Muslims are not terrorists and all terrorists are not Muslim.Terrorists come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and religious denominations.There are terrorists who are Muslim, just like there are terrorists who are Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish, almost all religions have violent radical sect to it. According to the U.S. Census in 2008 there were an estimated 2.6 million Americans that identified themselves as Muslim.While the vast majority of Muslims are law abiding citizens, they are the latest group to be dehumanized into the boogie man.To use as a base a perception of a person solely on the off chance that they may, at some future date associate with a radical sect of their religion is no less ridiculous then subjecting all Christians to unrelenting ridicule because of the actions of an extremist group who believes that “My racial beliefs are based on Scriptural teachings….Without them, how could I possibly justify supremacy?” (Barnes. Page 40) The manipulation of religious text to support violence has always been the challenge of any sectarian order.What is interesting is the ease in which people, who belong to a demographic group that have been and still, are subjected to the effects of stereotyping, can, apply the same tactic to others.
Most people will not be able to internalize these facts without open first hand contact.The information that they are receiving from the media and other sources has been securely internalized as reality.Just like my old image of Native American was initially shaped by the media and the lack of contact.It was not until I asked questions to the people whom I knew nothing, did the opportunity to learn present itself.There are many means for people to educate themselves, but before that can happen a life event occur which causes the individual to admit to themselves that they do not know.
 Chaffee, Arthur, and Ellendale; Ellendale was the largest of the three with a population of 2,000
 This was also true about the people of the other reservations I was going to work on that summer.
 The meaning of prejudice can be traced back to the Latin word praejudicium which means prejudgment..
 Neither of the friends who made these comments were white males
Barnes, Myra, Bushart, Howard, and Craig, John R., Soldiers of God; White supremacists and their Holy War for America. Pinnacle Books. 1998
Family Association of Florida. Defending American Values. http://floridafamily.org/full_article.php?article_no=108. (Accessed March 3, 2012)
Gross, Batsheva PRNewswire. Documentary recently pulled from NYPD counterterrorism training; Times articles filled with innuendo and inaccuracies. NEW YORK, January 25, 2012. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-third-jihad-producers-reply-to-new-york-times-articles-138068738.html. (Accessed March 11, 2012)
Grynbaum, Michael M. Mayor Defends Kelly, but Says Anti-Muslim Film Caused Damage. New York Times. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/mayor-defends-kelly-but-says-anti-muslim-film-caused-damage/. January 26, 2012, 6:38 pm. (Accessed March 2, 2012)
Mroueh, Youssef Dr. . PRE-COLUMBIAN MUSLIMS IN THE AMERICAS. www.pupr.edu/hkettani/precolumb.pdf. A(accessed March 12, 2012)
Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Apology. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html. (accessed March 13, 2012)
Parrillo, Vincent N. Stranger to These Shores: Race and Ethnic Relations in the Unites States 6th Edition. Allyn and Bacon. 2000. Page 78
Weiner,Rachel. Newt Gingrich ramping up rhetoric on Islam. New York Times. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/post/newt-gingrich-ramping-up-islam-rhetoric/2012/02/29/gIQAWJ0IiR_blog.html?wprss=rss_campaigns. February 29, 2012, 11:11 am. (Accessed March 2, 2012)
U.S. Census. 75 - Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/population/religion.html. (Accessed March 11, 2012)
© 2012 Mark Monroe