Big Brother XV and the Holocaust

Posted on August 25, 2013

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Normally in this space, we address two types of issues: Events or publications that are directly connected with Center for White Rose Studies, or matters pertaining to the Holocaust (resistance, survivors, documentaries). Popular culture rarely rates the slightest mention.

But the overt racism, homophobia, misogyny, and ageism that has pervaded this summer’s season of Big Brother has made it impossible not to take a stand, not to speak up. If these hate-filled thoughts were simply limited to a fake house in a studio, perhaps it would be unnecessary to write this post. What these “house guests” are saying and doing, however, is witnessed every day in schools, offices, and Facebook pages across these United States.

When GinaMarie Zimmerman called welfare “N* insurance”, she was not being especially original. She was repeating what she’s heard others say, what many on America’s political fringe (including some who consider themselves not-fringe) say every single day of the year.

When Spencer Clawson liberally throws the C* word at women on the show and demeans females in general, he is not saying something that does not get said repeatedly, actions that play out in boardrooms and human resources departments, actions that continue to widen the pay disparity between men and women in those companies.

When Amanda Zuckerman fills every minute of every day with hate – hate directed at the show’s two African-American contestants, hate directed at the LGBT community, hate directed at women (!), hate directed at anyone who disagrees with her – her bullying demonstrates that that problem does not disappear with middle school. Bullying as a form of terror stays with us, long after puberty passes. Infantile behavior afflicts too many adults and affects the quality of life in our society.

Zuckerman’s behavior is all the more abhorrent because she claims she is not being racist, as she is Jewish. I hope someone in her synagogue (if she even goes to shul) sets her straight. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of hate are not all right, no matter one’s ethnic background, creed, gender, or nationality.

Others have said essentially the same things I have noted above: Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League penned an open letter to CBS Chairman Les Moonves. New York Times reported extensively and accurately regarding the racial slurs the two African-American contestants were subjected to.

And Laura Sesana, a blogger with the very-conservative Washington Times, similarly wrote a long piece about the open racism on BB15. Her article ended with the words, “If Big Brother is indeed a reflection of our society, we need to have a conversation about why this is going on and where we go form (sic) here.”

The two biggest management players in this controversy – Les Moonves and Allison Grodner (the show’s executive producer) – have largely been silent. Moonves issued a terse statement calling the racism “absolutely appalling”, and CBS put a disclaimer on the show stating that the opinions of the contestants do not represent CBS’s views. Grodner continues to justify her actions in permitting the racism to continue (and stopped Tweeting as of July 18).

But. The reason that Big Brother XV deserves special mention in a Center for White Rose Studies post has less to do with the racists themselves, and The Powers That Be who continue to churn profits on the backs of people subjected to unmitigated hate. No, the reason it’s important to us? The hate that has been spoken aloud to the mental and emotional harm of those bullied (no matter the basis for the bullying) has been done with the tacit approval and total silence of the rest of the houseguests.

To date, one single contestant has dared to open her mouth and speak out against the hate. She is the person most people would have deemed least likely to do, since she is the sister of a previous Big Brother winner; as such, viewers probably expected her to do whatever it took to duplicate her sister’s win.

Elissa Reilly Slater has not taken that tack. She will, in fact, almost assuredly lose BB15. She has demonstrated substantial backbone in the face of hate, which has caused her to become the target of hate herself.

Slater is not a perfect person. She quickly became offended when teased about looking at herself in the mirror too much. Occasionally, she adopts a “spacey” persona that can be maddening. And she aligned with one of the house’s worst enablers (although she would let that ally know when she crossed the “hate” line).

By not being perfect, by living sans halo and off the pedestal, Slater reminds us that we must only strive to do what is right. It is not necessary to strive to be perfect. Our humanity itself should be sufficient cause to speak out against injustice.

The rest of the houseguests? They are demonstrating every day how Nazi Germany came to be. I am not accusing them of being Nazis. So far (and I do mean so far), no one has seriously suggested murdering an African-American or a woman.

But – and this is important – the words they speak create the atmosphere that allows truly-murderous actions to come to fruition. Without this sort of behavior, the Shoah and other genocides do not take place. Without this sort of behavior, minorities are not Jim-Crow’d and marginalized. Without this sort of behavior, hate cannot take root.

So yes, Ms. Sesana, we do need to have a conversation about why this exists and where we go from here. It would help if Congress would stop its obstructionist ways and would address matters of consequence. It would help if laws with teeth were passed that penalize employers who discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality. It would help if people would stop pretending that racism is behind us (and if the Voting Rights Act were reinstated to insure justice during elections).

But most of all, most of all, most of all, it would help if each and every one of us stood up and said NONONONONO when bullies enter our lives. If each and every one of us shut down the Amanda Zuckermans of this world, no matter the consequences. If each and every one of us would grow a backbone.

Seventy years ago, the students of the White Rose proved that in the darkest of eras, there are a righteous few who have the courage of their convictions. Elissa Reilly Slater, meet White Rose.

Denise Heap