Recently, at New York Comic Con, prolific author Peter David was asked a question about Romani representation in comics. As he explains on his own blog, the question triggered in him a memory of seeing a deformed child while visiting Romania, and being told that that child was deliberately deformed by the parents. By Peter’s own admission, the painful memory caused him to lose his temper with the questioner. He has apologized, and that apology I know was sincere, because I know Peter.
I’ve known Peter David for almost 30 years. We’re not best friends. We don’t call each other every week, or even make a point of having dinner when we’re at the same con. But we’ve done countless panels together, I’ve acted in plays he’s written, our families hang out together, and, more, we’re part of a very old network of Star Trek fans and creators whose number is shrinking. That’s a kind of family tie for a lot of us. Peter is a talented author, an opinionated curmudgeon, and an obviously loving and committed father and grandfather. The idea of a child being hurt clearly has a powerful impact on him.
I’ve seen video of the incident, and, yeah, Peter screwed up. A representative of RomaPop, a group seeking to improve representation of Romani people in popular culture, asked him a reasonable question, and he lost it, shutting down discussion. It was a shock to the audience, and surely very upsetting to the gentleman asking the question. More, Peter has since learned and admitted, his anger was based on rumor and false accusation. Evidence says that the child he saw in Romania all those years ago was not a victim of deliberate mutilation. Tales of “gypsies” breaking their children’s knees for profit are circulated in Romania (and probably elsewhere), but they are defamatory folklore.
So now some members of comic book fandom are accusing Peter of “hate speech.” I would assert that we should not, in fact I would beg that we would not, use such inflammatory terms. At the root of Peter’s anger was false information and sloppy thinking. “That child was mutilated by his parents,” a false statement, grew to, “Child mutilation is an condoned aspect of Romani culture.”
Drawing a sweeping conclusion from a single or just a few data points is something we all do all the time. See? I just did it there. I certainly can’t prove we that every human being who ever lived has drawn a conclusion based on too little data, but my gut tells me it’s likely. We humans go with our gut, sometimes when we shouldn’t, because our built-in survival instincts teach us to use the data we’ve gathered–even if it’s too little data–to draw conclusions and act. In a state of nature, that “gut feeling” could keep us alive. In civil society, it more often gets us in trouble.
I think we all ascribe the behavior of the few to the many. I reacted recently to a meme which said, “We white people enslaved Africans.” Of course, no living white American participated in this crime, and relatively few white people who were living at the time did. Similarly, Donald Trump’s caveman-like behavior toward women has raised comments like “men need to learn…” A lot of men have already learned the lessons that are going to finish that sentence. A lot of men–and I optimistically believe most men–have already learned that a woman is an equal, and that it’s not okay to grab her or speak of her in a demeaning way. That doesn’t mean the identified problems are not important, it just means we need to be realistic about the scope of them, and not cast guilt upon entire gender or racial groups based on the actions of a few.
Attributing the negative characteristics of one member of a group to all members, or listening to unfounded stories about a group of people without verifying the data, is the root of racism, of prejudice, even of the animosity that exists between Republicans and Democrats in this country. This makes is daunting to consider that that sloppy-thinking behavior may be hard-wired into the human psyche.
Getting people to move past this ingrained-but-undesirable behavior may is not going to be an easy process. It involves each of us working to replace gut response with skeptical, reasoned analysis. It involves correcting mistakes–nicely!–when you hear them. Above all, it involves giving people the benefit of the doubt. On both sides. That young black man blasting rap music in the car next to you may be conforming to a stereotype. That doesn’t mean he is going to rob you at gunpoint. That middle-aged white guy on the panel may have picked up some bad information, and may have reacted to it badly. That doesn’t mean he hates–you or anyone else.
We can only cure hate with understanding. We have to increase our knowledge of each other. We have to take away fear. We won’t do that by being outraged. We don’t do it by shouting “hate speech” when a smart guy makes a dumb assumption, or loses his temper because he once saw something terrible had happened to an innocent child.
Yes, he blamed someone, the wrong someone, for the child’s condition. We do that. We look for someone to blame. Because we want to right the wrongs. Because we want to understand why an allegedly benevolent universe lets bad things happen to innocent people. We do that because we’re human. And there’s a conclusion I can draw from the available data. Until we encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, or develop sentient artificial intelligence, I can safely say that every person reading this and every person I’m talking about is human. Every. Single. One of us.
So could we maybe ease up on the accusations and try to help each other over the rough spots?
Bottom line, I choose to believe Peter reacted the way he did out of compassion for a suffering child, not out of hatred. His compassion led him to make a mistake. He’s even said he’s ashamed of himself for that mistake. I know there are people out there who believe that, when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexuality, mistakes aren’t allowed. But they have to be. We’re human. Mistakes are how we learn. Sometimes those mistakes cause pain, to us, to others. That’s why we have forgiveness.
In a time and place as filled with hatred as America in 2016, we’re going to need all the forgiveness we can get. So please, before you cry “hate speech” at someone whose career has been about anything but, practice a little forgiveness.
Afterward: I absolutely applaud the efforts of RomaPop. Like them, I want to see characters like Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and even Dr. Doom lead us into a deeper understanding of the culture they represent, and not dragged through the mud and turned against their own natures because it makes for a more exciting story. I applaud the diversity of groups like Mark Waid’s Champions, who show us that heroes can belong to any gender or any race. I hope there will be more positive representations of Romani people in popular culture, and that venues like NYCC will give groups that want to address these issues a voice.