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Five Mean White Men in a Room
May 31, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Meanness, Racism, and Sexism Differentiated

Consider a room, an office room, where five mean white men come to work each day. They are mean to each other in various ways. They make crude jokes and cruel statements about each other, sabotage each other's work, perhaps even physically hurt each other. They do get enough work done to keep from getting fired. Perhaps there are bonuses for the most productive worker driving the rivalries. Not a pleasant place to work, but each person machos up and has a strategy to get through the days.

Finally one of the men dies or is fired or finds another job. It is a new era, and Management is under social pressure, so Management tries hiring someone who is not a mean white man: a man who presents as non-white, or even a woman.

Start by considering a white woman entering this office. Practically from the moment she walks in the other workers are mean to her in various ways. They don't show her the ropes because they want her to fail. They sabotage her because they want her to fail. They are mean to her because it is fun or at least a habit. They throw in some attacks on female nature for good measure.

Likely this female worker will quickly come to believe she is being harassed because she is female. She may complain to management, or fight back as best she can, or file a sex-discrimination lawsuit. [Unless she is mean enough herself to fight back effectively.] In all fairness, say as a juror in a lawsuit, is she being discriminated against for being female? If being treated badly, if you are a woman, gives you the right to sue, do the men who treated each other badly have a right to sue and get compensation? Where on the spectrum between general meanness and specifically sex-based meanness can you draw a line?

The same would be true, in a slightly different way, if a black man is hired. The insults hurled might be different, but the general character of the office would be the same. A black man might accuse the white men of being racist. But what if they are not specifically racists, what if they avoid making racist comments? I would guess that in most cases the new guy would assume the meanness he experienced was a result of racism.

You could argue that it does not make a difference why a woman, or a black man, or a black woman, or a homosexual, or a disabled person is treated badly by co-workers. But it is fair to ask why we feel there is more injustice in how a member of such a group is treated, when they are treated exactly like a white male worker would be treated. If the four mean white male workers, being office workers, are from the middle class, and the new white male worker is from a working class family, and they make fun of his working class habits (or lack of middle-class knowledge), is this class discrimination?

I think racism and sexism (and anti-gay bias and etc.) are complex cultural attributes, but if I had to reduce them to one variable, I would say it is meanness (or cruelness). I don't know what makes some people mean, but I suppose it is some combination of genes and the environment. Most mean people know it is a negative trait, and so try to keep it in check. They like any opportunity to unleash themselves.

Racism and sexism provide cover for mean behavior. I noticed this growing up in the segregated (by race) society of the southern United States, and by reading about racism, southern culture, and racist history. It works much like nationalist or religious hatred, or a feud between two families or villages or clans. Behavior that is frowned upon within one's own group is cheered when applied to an enemy or rival group.

Growing up, I saw a practically perfect correlation between how mean a person was and how much of a racist they were (this was in the 1960s). The people who were generally kind might not have broken the barriers of segregation, or argued with racists, but they were as kind as the system allowed when thinking about or interacting with Black southerners. The open, blow-hard racists tended to be generally mean. I specifically include here mean white racist women like my own mother.

Some people mature out of childhood meanness. Some institutions encourage meanness. Some religions or philosophies encourage meanness, while other encourage kindness. I think society can encourage kindness. There are probably situations where too much kindness has some sort of negative feedback effect, but generally kindness is the best first option.

White men are certainly not the only mean people in our society. Of course most white men are not mean, or racist, and at least in younger generations are not too likely to be sexist. I think it would help if victims of meanness would not over-generalize about their situations. But until society can consistently identify and cure mean people, we are just going to need to cope with them as best we can. Hopefully if you find yourself surrounded by mean people, you can find an escape route.

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