Compassion Fatigue and Charleston

The shootings in Charleston have captured a nation’s attention.

There have been some pretty laudable discussions emerging from this tragedy. I have seen three narratives emerge: A discussion about mental health, a discussion about guns, and a discussion about race.

Let’s be clear: This issue is first and foremost about race. Dylann Storm Roof does not seem to be a lunatic, or a spree killer motivated by a psychological break. His manifesto clearly paints him as an intentional white supremacist, motivated by hatred against people of color. As Paul Street has pointed out, any other social problem that we view as being connected to this tragedy is secondary.

But, that having been said, it does make sense that, if guns were better regulated, perhaps skinheads wouldn’t get them as often. And it does make sense that, if we had better mental health treatment, some very angry people might be able to talk about the real source of their problems and anger.

I, of course, look at Dylann Storm Roof and see a very consistent pattern, which is common in violence. He’s male. He’s white. He’s 21 years old, young and angry and full of spittle. He’s a skinhead, responding to what he views (correctly enough) as a huge ethnic change in Charleston. We can see how angry people, who feel like they or the people like them were once in charge and had power but have had that power taken away from them,

Just today, I read an article about fanatic violence in America, and this is what came up: “The primary character structure of who’s involved in fanatic violence are shown here to be people who were raised in authoritarian-oriented backgrounds, who find themselves marginal, and “unnecessary” persons in postmodern American society.”

That seems to be a terrifyingly accurate picture of Dylann Storm Roof.

But here’s where I find myself very much alienated from the present cultural proceedings.

In fact, ironically, I found myself agreeing most with the Economist’s analysis. Their cynical tone is grotesque, and they are utterly wrong to think that it is impossible for Americans to civilize their society, but I too saw this shooting as just part of a pattern: A pattern of compassion fatigue, of highly localized atrocities causing all of us to pour out wonderfully human responses like anger at injustice, compassion for the victims, and tears at the violence in the world. But so many of us will spend those emotions, outpouring our heart to these tragedies, and then be too exhausted to make sure that residential segregation isn’t a problem in our own neighborhoods, or that the banks in our communities are not systematically screwing over people of color. The cycle of outrage exhausts our mental and emotional resources, leading us to focus on problems we can’t do anything about. I am sure so many of you have heard people talk about how afraid they are about a world full of terror attacks and shootings, which they can’t stop or protect their family from. I have a friend who reacted to the shooting with fear that it’d spark renewed racial conflict and anger. In the social media era, we participate in a myopic, short-term cycle of bursts of outrage. It’s not just the big media institutions doing this to us anymore: We are participating in the flagellation.

The reforms that we are hearing discussed include removing the Confederate flag, having better mental health infrastructure, regulating firearms… A lot of them make sense. In particular, if we would improve our social infrastructure, from foster care to mental health screenings, millions of people would be better off.

The problem with the entire discussion is that Dylann Storm Roof, with his name that evokes the idea of quaint Southern hillbillies to many of us outside of the South, is that you can’t take very much from what he did as indicative of broader culture and broader social problems.

White liberals, and even many progressives and leftists who really should know better, have a big problem: We always like to think about the problem of racism as the KKK, as skinheads, as racist rants by comedians.

We get on our high horse and become incensed by the “N-word”, while we say little about the lack of a full employment policy that keeps quite a lot of people, people of color especially, perpetually out of work.

The compassion fatigue cycle that our media, social and traditional, lock all of us into is not conducive to changing these things.

No one can do anything about Dylann’s actions. They are now another part of our tragic racial history.

Perhaps someone can do something about Mr. Storm Roof himself. Perhaps outreach from the right people could lead him to abandon hate. (Given where he is likely to be going in the near future, this is a long shot).

But the vast majority of us getting up in arms can do very little. People in the South can have another iteration of the symbolic debate to eliminate the Confederate flag. And those of us in the North can… try to push through gun legislation, I guess?

People ride wave after wave of crises like these and iteratively lose hope. And all of us, left and right, allow it to keep happening.

How many white liberals posted something to their Facebook walls about this tragedy but have said nothing for years while the segregated schools in their communities are named Martin Luther King Jr. High?

How many of us have remained quiet while our coworkers said racist jokes, because “They’re just kidding around”?

How many of us have turned a blind eye to a homeless person, or to a person emitting that telltale aura of deep depression, instead of trying to do something about it?

Most of us are not Dylann Storm Roof. Most of us are not members of Stormfront. But every one of us has grown up in a society that has had racial and class divisions.

The average American is not as angry as Dylann Storm Roof, but they will have subconscious biases. For example: When you inform the average white American of the huge disproportions in terms of incarceration in the criminal justice system, many actually react positively, increasing their support for more brutal policies! See, they assume, logically enough without some kind of narrative that explains why the assumption is ignorant and racist, that the disproportionate incarceration must mean that black people are disproportionately dangerous. Then we have the fact that, “Between 1976 and 2011, the percentage of young whites who said they never worried about race relations nearly tripled”. Given how ignorant so many white people, even very well-educated young whites, are about privilege, can we really be so surprised that people like Roof might well think that blacks are not disenfranchised but actually an incredible danger to them?

The average mentally ill person in the United States will not shoot up a church or a movie theater. They will quietly suffer, trying to keep the chasm of their depression or their anxiety from engulfing the people close to them. They will keep coworkers and friends at bay from their pain.

And people like Dylann come from a real place. They have real anger. They see crime in their neighborhood. The statistics may be distorted, the presentation of the crime may be racialized, and the media may be overhyping the bad and underplaying the good, but there are real threats in some communities. They see that it is harder and harder for people like them to get a job. They are afraid of threats from terrorists, afraid of not being able to provide for their family. And too many people will lecture them for being racists instead of asking, “Why are you so angry?”

Because, in fact, the threats that Dylann and people like him really face aren’t from people of color by and large.  The poverty and the lack of opportunity that we all face, especially the millennial generation, are a result of policies pushed forward by a very small elite, who are mostly white straight males. But the corporate media will not discuss that to any real degree, being owned by mostly white straight males. And even with parallel communication networks and parallel media being possible as a result of the Internet and modern technology, we on the left side of the spectrum have not been able to give people a coherent alternative worldview that might let them let go of their anger and put it toward something better than just lashing out and hurting.

That’s something we can actually do something about.

Those of us outside Charleston are not likely to be able to do much to help that community heal. But we can all make sure our own communities’ wounds are better salved. Every single one of us can learn more about the cultures that we live with. We can listen when we are told about segregation and discrimination. We can make sure local businesses are hiring fairly, local banks are lending fairly, local apartment complexes are renting fairly. We can raise consciousness about the anger and hopelessness so many of us feel.

activism, social justice

Trolling is a Privilege

Trolling is a privilege.

Recently, I was debating on a friend’s Facebook page about the minimum wage. The argument came about become someone claimed that fast food workers striking for $15 an hour was inappropriate as long as EMTs made that much. Of course, everyone with half a brain replied, “Then pay everyone better”. I began to point out that, in fact, if wages had tracked productivity since the 1970s, even fast food workers likely would be making $15.

The issue turned, as it often does, to discussing gender and race. After all, given that women on average make seventy-six cents on the dollar compared to men (an issue we’ll return to) and that people of color have seen their income gaps vis-à-vis whites increase since the recession, the minimum wage issue is one that is directly relevant to the lives of a lot of women and people of color.

As it turned that direction, one participant in the discussion, who had up until that point basically said “Yes, the system is completely unfair, but stop whining about it” asked, “Where is my white privilege?”

This is after this participant’s brother had pointed out that he had lived with their parents. I pointed out that that is an option that not everyone has, but that even fewer people of color are likely to have the option of taking in their children and supporting them than whites on average.

He said, effectively, “I was having fun trolling, but now it got serious”.

That is when it got serious?

When his family got involved?

This is why I say trolling is a privilege.

Anyone who discusses gender, race and inequality online, of course, gets trolls: People who say something to the effect of, “How can a woman be earning seventy-six cents on the dollar in the kitchen?!” or what not.

Of course, a lot of this trolling is just racist and sexist intimidation. It’s people lashing out, hoping that they can just be nasty enough to get the people saying things they don’t like to go away.

But then, routinely, they’ll start getting mad, and dropping the pretense that they’re trolling, when you call them out directly. They start to get stung when you bring them, or their family, into it.

And I’ve noticed that most of this trolling is done by white males.

Men have the privilege of pretending that the seventy-six cent wage gap between men and women is an intellectual game. They’re not the ones who see their paychecks stay low, who work hard in a profession that matters and yet don’t make as much money as their male counterparts.

They have the privilege of pretending that anyone complaining about that wage gap is just some feminist who’s stirring up trouble for no good reason.

I was in high school debate, specifically policy debate. I didn’t do that well in it. I won some trophies, did well in some tournaments, but I never had it in me to argue that nuclear war would be a good thing because it would shock the world.

I never felt that it was acceptable to give false witness to my real beliefs.

I never felt that it was acceptable to treat war and death like it was a game.

In high school debate, it is wholly common for someone to propose that maybe we should give victims of sexual trauma rape counseling and for someone else to argue, with feigned sincerity, that doing so will risk nuclear war. After all, what’s worse than nuclear war? The idea that maybe we shouldn’t live on a planet where people wake up screaming with nightmares every night, that maybe we should try to do something about our neighbors against all fear and against all odds, is a risky argument. Better to claim that, for some convoluted reason, rape counseling would prevent nuclear war and indeed would be the only thing to do so!

Online debates routinely fall to this level, or way, way below it. Sure, people have different opinions, and these are tough issues where people can get angry. But it is that idea that it’s somehow in the zip code of appropriate behavior to show up to a debate about rape or a debate about inequality and just have a little fun that is especially repellent.

The people who “troll” about sexual assault statistics and rape culture, or gender gaps, or wage inequality… They are treating poverty, starvation, and the systematic denial of people’s dreams as a game.

Sometimes, we who fight for social justice are to blame. We use words like “opportunity”.

An “opportunity” to go to T.G.I. Friday’s and try the new Slammin’ Salmon special is not the same as an “opportunity” to be paid a fair wage, or to be able to work hard to earn employment at one’s dream job without having to prove that one is, against all contrary appearances being a woman, competent at her job.

“Opportunities” are dreams.

When we talk about the “glass ceiling”, we are talking about millions of female attorneys, activists, politicians, Professors and other professionals who have every reason to believe that they will never be able to achieve the highest ranks in their profession, or will have to work five times as hard as anyone else to.

When we talk about how welfare programs are being cut or limited (like the ongoing attempts to require yet more intrusive drug testing on top of the other demeaning and dehumanizing aspects of trying to get welfare), we are talking about single mothers who are dreaming of being able to feed their children three square meals a day and may not be able to achieve that dream.

The privilege to treat poverty, discrimination, or sexual assault like it’s some intellectual game is one that some of us have.

It’s the privilege of blindness. It’s the ability to know no victims who were abducted while they were jogging and held captive by sadists, no single mothers struggling with drug problems because of an abusive ex that she’s managed to clear herself from. It’s the ability to be distant from specific kinds of suffering, and to therefore be able to somehow pretend that other people online must just be making a fuss about something, as if it were just some new social media trending topic like Kim and Kanye’s wedding.

This blindness, callousness and arrogance about the circumstances of other peoples’ lives extends beyond the troll.

See, I recently responded to an Internet satirist who wrote an article about how the twenty-four cent wage gap between women and men is mythical. After all, women work in different professions, and have different levels of experience, right? I replied with the point that routinely seems to fly over the heads of people defending inequalities like this: That whether we’re talking about the “mommy track”, or the amount of experience that women have in a given field, or the kind of jobs women choose, those factors aren’t independent of sexism either.

His defenders came out in droves. A lot trolled. But then there were those who tried to make arguments.

One person said that a woman who is being sexually harassed had a right to leave that company.

He couldn’t be bothered to say that sexual harassment is evil and that the people who sexually harass others, male or female, should stop. He couldn’t be bothered to say that management should fire those people.

This lack of empathy, of course, went along with an absolute lack of concern for the ultimate impact of his position. Because, see, if women have to keep leaving workforces because men keep treating them like pigs, then their resumes are going to keep having apparently unexplained gaps, and they will not be building their skills. So sexual harassment would indeed help explain why women struggle in the workforce.

But it’s not the minutiae of these arguments that matter.

It’s the fact that so many people decided to come to a debate like this, with real implications, and speak when they had no real experience in the issue.

They would offer ideas like, “Discrimination can’t happen in a free market”, not realizing that the ability to say that and not suffer the consequences if one happens to be wrong is itself a privilege. Maybe a true free market would be the best thing for women and minorities. But if, as all the evidence seems to indicate, it just wouldn’t be and would worsen inequalities instead of rectifying them, the people who commonly offer this argument usually won’t be the people who will suffer as a result.

And when real women would tell this collection of misogynists, men’s rights activists and angry people, “I had to leave my profession because I kept facing barriers to advancement and I had to make a realistic career choice” or “I keep being demeaned every day because people think that I’m not capable”, they couldn’t be bothered even apologizing for the fact that that had happened, or expressing any sympathy.

A valid response would be, “Look, I don’t know about your specific case, and I’m sorry that that happened to you, if it did (because I can’t trust you entirely since I don’t know you). But I’m not saying discrimination never happens, I’m saying that it’s not as widespread as is often claimed and isn’t the reason why women make less”. That would be a fine claim. I would of course disagree with the claim and argue that in fact sexism and discrimination do explain all of the wage gap between men and women, and in a just society there would not be such inequalities, but at least this would be acknowledging others’ experiences.

But, see, men can truly think they know better about women’s experiences than women do. They can keep thinking that against all the evidence, no matter how many studies are cited against them, no matter how carefully women explain otherwise. And they can think so to such a degree that, when a woman says something about her own experiences that they disagree with the broader implications of, they think it’s okay to treat the whole debate as a game, so irrational she must obviously be.

Trolling is a privilege.

Arguing is a privilege.

Debate is a privilege.

One of the most insightful things I’ve heard recently was from someone replying to a men’s rights advocate, who pointed out (to paraphrase), “If you feel like have to debate intellectually or try to ‘raise points’ against a woman who has been assaulted, for real, don’t. Shut up. Listen”.

All of us have to realize that these issues actually matter, for real human beings. They are not math exercises, or abstract political science debates out of a textbook. A person who comes along and says, “I can’t feed my family because I can’t get a job” should be treated with the respect that is appropriate for someone who has the courage to say something like that in public, admit that kind of weakness and express that kind of problem.

As a white male, I recognize that sometimes my duty is to listen and sometimes it is to speak. But it’s always to have empathy, always to treat these important issues like there’s gravitas.

We don’t have to be humorless when talking about real issues. We can insert some levity and humor. But it is not thin-skinned to demand that people who want to speak about these issues say something defensible. Demanding that a post about a new study regarding the glass ceiling not be filled with jokes about women in the kitchen is not to be joyless.

It’s to take as a maxim that people matter.


TPP and Stakeholders

So luckily the Democrats defeated the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement fast track authority today. The treaty is being staunchly opposed by damn near everyone left of Rush Limbaugh. I’ve gotten messages from the Feminist Majority Foundation, Noam Chomsky views it as a neo-liberal assault

I’ve been asked by a few people to explain TPP, and the various positions of supporters and the opposition. This is honestly a daunting challenge.


The full text hasn’t been revealed.

The US Trade Representative claims, in order, that the TPP eliminates tariffs on U.S. products and other trade barriers, that it protects TPP countries’ trade in textiles while also monitoring to make sure non-TPP countries don’t get to benefit from it, that it promotes investment by allowing “liberalized access” and creating methods for arbitration, that it protects labor under ILO standards, that it protects the environment including “New provisions that will address wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, and illegal fishing practices”, etc. etc.

Yet the USTR makes all these claims without citing any actual language in the treaty that might make those claims.

Meanwhile, Jane Kelsey notes that the environmental section has some crippling failures, particularly that there’s no actual enforcement. There’s “arbitration”, but no actual ability to force the result of the arbitration. Of course, this article is from 2014. Who knows if there may have been drafting changes since then?

You can review some of the leaked text and some responses to it here . Frankly, it seems pretty clear to me that the USTR’s defense of the environment provision knows full well that it’s toothless: They talk about “strong and enforceable environment obligations”, but don’t actually say what that enforcement is and note that there’s “commitments” in the treaty, which in international relations speech is indistinguishable from “empty promises”.

So I can cite you authority after authority saying that it will harm women, or hurt wages, or impede unionization, or whatever you’d like. Like this article from The Hill about how it will almost definitely harm everyone but the richest earners. And this article from Pete Dolack, which is very careful even if it is leaning left (as far left as I do, for the record).

But at this point, the only thing we can really do for the vast majority of the treaty is just guess.

However, just think for a moment. What would you think if someone told you about something that they insisted would benefit you, but wouldn’t allow you to do any independent research and told you that it had to be signed right now?

You’d think it was a con job.

Even if I had access to the full text of the TPP, it’s a huge treaty. So are most other treaties that are signed constantly, and bills we want to debate. The average citizen can’t possibly keep up with all of it. Even most Senators can’t.

When we’re talking about a huge trade deal between numerous countries that obviously has implications for every single person in those countries, and a lot of people outside of those countries, the democratic thing to do is to slow down, discuss, try to make sure the treaty is at least tolerable.

The undemocratic thing to do is to try to ram it through as fast as possible.

What the President and Congress have repeatedly proven throughout this entire debacle is that they really don’t give two craps about the democratic system. They don’t care about democratic values. This isn’t a Democratic or a Republican problem anymore. It’s an American problem. We’ve come to just accept that the government can only be this distant and unaccountable thing, and our options are to quietly complain or to secede and make empty threats about revolution.

But I can prove to you, quite easily, that the TPP is almost guaranteed to be a nightmare for everyone but a small set of incredibly powerful corporate interests.

How many of you have tried to plan a dinner party without, for whatever reason, consulting even half of the guests?

It’s a nightmare, right?

Even with the best of intentions, it’s just staggeringly difficult to try to figure out what to serve people, when to schedule everything, what entertainment to have, without actually having people being able to discuss.

Even if you can consult every person individually, it can actually be better if you can get people with different opinions to compromise. The guy who wants shrimp cocktail may be willing to compromise on a different hors d’oeuvre if the main course was shrimp scampi.

In political science and economics, we talk about “stakeholders”. Any issue has different people who are impacted by it in different ways, sometimes in multiple different ways at the same time. A black woman working as a maid with an asthmatic son is going to be very concerned about the TPP on at least four different levels: As a black person, as a woman, as a working-class service-providing employee, and as a person with concern about air quality and environmental standards.

When people at WikiLeaks have to offer actual bounties for information about the TPP, can we honestly believe that every person would have been consulted?

Even if the big corporate and governmental interests that overwhelmingly drafted the TPP and formed its negotiation were completely sincere in wanting to provide the best treaty for everyone, how could they?

We are allowing overwhelmingly rich and powerful people, and at least in the United States white and male people to boot, to speak for environmental advocates, labor unions and labor advocates, the working class, women, people of color, economists with varying opinions ad values, and virtually everyone else.

Can anyone honestly claim that this treaty is going to benefit anyone besides the people who wrote it and had all of the input? Can we honestly pretend that corporate lawyers, Prime Ministers and Presidents know a damn thing about what McDonald’s employees and housewives need? Of course not. There’s no way that they could possibly consider what those groups actually want, value and need. Compromise could be possible, if people were at the bargaining table.

No, what the TPP is doing is not creating free trade or prosperity. It’s protecting the rights of investors and corporations. And sure, they may have some rights. But so do the rest of us, and they’ve never been a priority when it comes to treaties like this. Corporations have gotten more and more protections of their intellectual property, their ability to engage in transfer pricing, to move goods around. Consumers, workers, women, people of color.. they’ve all gotten pretty much nada ever since NAFTA.

And even those who may look at the TPP and find that it is in the balance best for America should be appalled by the undemocratic nature of the debate around it. A better treaty could be made for all of us, one which had a real compromise that got all the stakeholders involved. Instead, corporations are going to undercut their own long-term profitability and the survival of the human species.