The Juan Williams NPR Debacle


Juan Williams was fired by NPR earlier this week for comments he made on Fox News. The story is everywhere. He was fired, ostensibly, for being a bigot. However from the neuroself standpoint he was fired for having a nervous system, since he was essentially giving a veridical report of what it is like to be capable of associative conditioning and very, very bad logic. Here’s what he said: “I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” From an associative conditioning standpoint, he is saying what Pavlov’s dog would say if dogs could talk. 9/11 and everything after burned into his brain an association between the muslim religion and airplane hijackings. It isn’t clear that this association is moral or immoral; it’s jus the brain doing what it does: learning to connect dots.

But his logic is far more problematic. He implies that people who identify themselves as muslim are far more likely to bomb a plane than people who don’t. This seems unlikely to be true. Tactically, given that so many people think the way Juan Williams does, people intent on bombing a plane are likely to try to disguise themselves as much as possible so as not to draw attention and avoid monitoring before their attack. In a sense, people walking around in muslim clothing – I’m not even sure what he saw – are possibly the least likely to attempt a takeover of the plane. So the whole thing was avoidable if he’d used better reasoning skills. The bigotry charge, however, seems unfair, since he was simply reporting his experience in what seems like a confessional manner. However I’d have to see the segment to know if he was implying that muslims should be barred from planes.

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.