Zootopia taught us constructive responses to bigotry

Sep 10, JDN 2457642

Zootopia wasn’t just a good movie; Zootopia was a great movie. I’m not just talking about its grosses (over $1 billion worldwide), or its ratings, 8.1 on IMDB, 98% from critics and 93% from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, 78 from critics and 8.8 from users on Metacritic. No, I’m talking about its impact on the world. This movie isn’t just a fun and adorable children’s movie (though it is that). This movie is a work of art that could have profound positive effects on our society.

Why? Because Zootopia is about bigotry—and more than that, it doesn’t just say “bigotry is bad, bigots are bad”; it provides us with a constructive response to bigotry, and forces us to confront the possibility that sometimes the bigots are us.

Indeed, it may be no exaggeration (though I’m sure I’ll get heat on the Internet for suggesting it) to say that Zootopia has done more to fight bigotry than most social justice activists will achieve in their entire lives. Don’t get me wrong, some social justice activists have done great things; and indeed, I may have to count myself in this “most activists” category, since I can’t point to any major accomplishments I’ve yet made in social justice.

But one of the biggest problems I see in the social justice community is the tendency to exclude and denigrate (in sociology jargon, “other” as a verb) people for acts of bigotry, even quite mild ones. Make one vaguely sexist joke, and you may as well be a rapist. Use racially insensitive language by accident, and clearly you are a KKK member. Say something ignorant about homosexuality, and you may as well be Rick Santorum. It becomes less about actually moving the world forward, and more about reaffirming our tribal unity as social justice activists. We are the pure ones. We never do wrong. All the rest of you are broken, and the only way to fix yourself is to become one of us in every way.

In the process of fighting tribal bigotry, we form our own tribe and become our own bigots.

Zootopia offers us another way. If you haven’t seen it, go rent it on DVD or stream it on Netflix right now. Seriously, this blog post will be here when you get back. I’m not going to play any more games with “spoilers!” though. It is definitely worth seeing, and from this point forward I’m going to presume you have.

The brilliance of Zootopia lies in the fact that it made bigotry what it is—not some evil force that infests us from outside, nor something that only cruel, evil individuals would ever partake in, but thoughts and attitudes that we all may have from time to time, that come naturally, and even in some cases might be based on a kernel of statistical truth. Judy Hopps is prey, she grew up in a rural town surrounded by others of her own species (with a population the size of New York City according to the sign, because this is still sometimes a silly Disney movie). She only knew a handful of predators growing up, yet when she moves to Zootopia suddenly she’s confronted with thousands of them, all around her. She doesn’t know what most predators are like, or how best to deal with them.

What she does know is that her ancestors were terrorized, murdered, and quite literally eaten by the ancestors of predators. Her instinctual fear of predators isn’t something utterly arbitrary; it was written into the fabric of her DNA by her ancestral struggle for survival. She has a reason to hate and fear predators that, on its face, actually seems to make sense.

And when there is a spree of murders, all committed by predators, it feels natural to us that Judy would fall back on her old prejudices; indeed, the brilliance of it is that they don’t immediately feel like prejudices. It takes us a moment to let her off-the-cuff comments at the press conference sink in (and Nick’s shocked reaction surely helps), before we realize that was really bigoted. Our adorable, innocent, idealistic, beloved protagonist is a bigot!

Or rather, she has done something bigoted. Because she is such a sympathetic character, we avoid the implication that she is a bigot, that this is something permanent and irredeemable about her. We have already seen the good in her, so we know that this bigotry isn’t what defines who she is. And in the end, she realizes where she went wrong and learns to do better. Indeed, it is ultimately revealed that the murders were orchestrated by someone whose goal was specifically to trigger those ancient ancestral feuds, and Judy reveals that plot and ultimately ends up falling in love with a predator herself.

What Zootopia is really trying to tell us is that we are all Judy Hopps. Every one of us most likely harbors some prejudiced attitude toward someone. If it’s not Black people or women or Muslims or gays, well, how about rednecks? Or Republicans? Or (perhaps the hardest for me) Trump supporters? If you are honest with yourself, there is probably some group of people on this planet that you harbor attitudes of disdain or hatred toward that nonetheless contains a great many good people who do not deserve your disdain.

And conversely, all bigots are Judy Hopps too, or at least the vast majority of them. People don’t wake up in the morning concocting evil schemes for the sake of being evil like cartoon supervillains. (Indeed, perhaps the greatest thing about Zootopia is that it is a cartoon in the sense of being animated, but it is not a cartoon in the sense of being morally simplistic. Compare Captain Planet, wherein polluters aren’t hardworking coal miners with no better options or even corrupt CEOs out to make an extra dollar to go with their other billion; no, they pollute on purpose, for no reason, because they are simply evil. Now that is a cartoon.) Normal human beings don’t plan to make the world a worse place. A handful of psychopaths might, but even then I think it’s more that they don’t care; they aren’t trying to make the world worse, they just don’t particularly mind if they do, as long as they get what they want. Robert Mugabe and Kim-Jong Un are despicable human beings with the blood of millions on their hands, but even they aren’t trying to make the world worse.

And thus, if your theory of bigotry requires that bigots are inhuman monsters who harm others by their sheer sadistic evil, that theory is plainly wrong. Actually I think when stated outright, hardly anyone would agree with that theory; but the important thing is that we often act as if we do. When someone does something bigoted, we shun them, deride them, push them as far as we can to the fringes of our own social group or even our whole society. We don’t say that your statement was racist; we say you are racist. We don’t say your joke was sexist; we say you are sexist. We don’t say your decision was homophobic; we say you are homophobic. We define bigotry as part of your identity, something as innate and ineradicable as your race or sex or sexual orientation itself.

I think I know why we do this: It is to protect ourselves from the possibility that we ourselves might sometimes do bigoted things. Because only bigots do bigoted things, and we know that we are not bigots.

We laugh at this when someone else does it: “But some of my best friends are Black!” “Happy #CincoDeMayo; I love Hispanics!” But that is the very same psychological defense mechanism we’re using ourselves, albeit in a more extreme application. When we commit an act that is accused of being bigoted, we begin searching for contextual evidence outside that act to show that we are not bigoted. The truth we must ultimately confront is that this is irrelevant: The act can still be bigoted even if we are not overall bigots—for we are all Judy Hopps.

This seems like terrible news, even when delivered by animated animals (or fuzzy muppets in Avenue Q), because we tend to hear it as “We are all bigots.” We hear this as saying that bigotry is inevitable, inescapable, literally written into the fabric of our DNA. At that point, we may as well give up, right? It’s hopeless!

But that much we know can’t be true. It could be (indeed, likely is) true that some amount of bigotry is inevitable, just as no country has ever managed to reach zero homicide or zero disease. But just as rates of homicide and disease have precipitously declined with the advancement of human civilization (starting around industrial capitalism, as I pointed out in a previous post!), so indeed have rates of bigotry, at least in recent times.

For goodness’ sake, it used to be a legal, regulated industry to buy and sell other human beings in the United States! This was seen as normal; indeed many argued that it was economically indispensable.

Is 1865 too far back for you? How about racially segregated schools, which were only eliminated from US law in 1954, a time where my parents were both alive? (To be fair, only barely; my father was a month old.) Yes, even today the racial composition of our schools is far from evenly mixed; but it used to be a matter of law that Black children could not go to school with White children.

Women were only granted the right to vote in the US in 1920. My parents weren’t alive yet, but there definitely are people still alive today who were children when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

Same-sex marriage was not legalized across the United States until last year. My own life plans were suddenly and directly affected by this change.

We have made enormous progress against bigotry, in a remarkably short period of time. It has been argued that social change progresses by the death of previous generations; but that simply can’t be true, because we are moving much too fast for that! Attitudes toward LGBT people have improved dramatically in just the last decade.

Instead, it must be that we are actually changing people’s minds. Not everyone’s, to be sure; and often not as quickly as we’d like. But bit by bit, we tear bigotry down, like people tearing off tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It is important to understand what we are doing here. We are not getting rid of bigots; we are getting rid of bigotry. We want to convince people, “convert” them if you like, not shun them or eradicate them. And we want to strive to improve our own behavior, because we know it will not always be perfect. By forgiving others for their mistakes, we can learn to forgive ourselves for our own.

It is only by talking about bigoted actions and bigoted ideas, rather than bigoted people, that we can hope to make this progress. Someone can’t change who they are, but they can change what they believe and what they do. And along those same lines, it’s important to be clear about detailed, specific actions that people can take to make themselves and the world better.

Don’t just say “Check your privilege!” which at this point is basically a meaningless Applause Light. Instead say “Here are some articles I think you should read on police brutality, including this one from The American Conservative. And there’s a Black Lives Matter protest next weekend, would you like to join me there to see what we do?” Don’t just say “Stop being so racist toward immigrants!”; say “Did you know that about a third of undocumented immigrants are college students on overstayed visas? If we deport all these people, won’t that break up families?” Don’t try to score points. Don’t try to show that you’re the better person. Try to understand, inform, and persuade. You are talking to Judy Hopps, for we are all Judy Hopps.

And when you find false beliefs or bigoted attitudes in yourself, don’t deny them, don’t suppress them, don’t make excuses for them—but also don’t hate yourself for having them. Forgive yourself for your mistake, and then endeavor to correct it. For we are all Judy Hopps.

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