Christianity, feminism, gender, media, politics, race, racism, religion, social justice, Uncategorized, white privilege

Why “Politically Correct” Is A Right-Wing Slur Designed to Silence Opposition

I was recently asked about whether “politically correct is correct”. Here is my response.

The term “politically correct” is a right-wing specter. I have never once in my life heard an informed activist for the LGBTQ movement, the civil rights and anti-racist movement, the feminist movement, etc. say to someone “We have to be politically correct”. It doesn’t work, it has a namby-pamby ring to it, it doesn’t express the appropriate outrage, and it is frankly not appropriate for activism.
There are so many problems with the assertions against “PC” (I will now call them “basic courtesy and accuracy”) arguments.

The most major one is that we are never discussing the mere use of a slur in isolation. Even when a comedian breaks decorum in some way that costs them popularity, like when Michael Richards (of Kramer fame) did it, no one was focusing just on the mere use of the n-word. It wasn’t as if Richards said, “Man, isn’t Al Sharpton cool? He’s my ni**a”. Rather, he said “Fifty years ago we’d have you upside-down with a f**king fork up your ass!” and “That’s what happens when you interrupt the white man, don’t you know?” In other words, Richards’ rant was racial terrorism. He evoked some of the horrible atrocities that happened to people who were lynched, including being burnt with blowtorches and having pieces taken off, and he asserted his white supremacy and the degree to which he belonged. Yes, that was all still rhetoric, but it wasn’t just the literal word: it was his aggressiveness against people of color.

Many defended Richards on this front. They defended him as if his opposition was just fetishizing a word, “ni**er”, and giving it magical properties.

Of course, each time I write out that word, that word that has been used with hate, my stomach churns. See, whites have the privilege of viewing that word as just being a word. For blacks and even many other people of color (especially Native Americans, Arabs and Muslims, who have been roped into it by “prairie ni**er” and “sand ni**er”), it evokes five hundred years of history. It evokes hundreds of years where that word was bellowed in an effort to kill, enslave, bomb, hurt, lynch, burn, terrorize, and mangle people. It evokes hundreds of years of fear.
White folks routinely have the privilege of pretending history doesn’t matter and doesn’t echo. Even I, as the son of an immigrant, have to know better than that. I know supremacy has a life and a breath all of its own.

When people on the political left and center-left bring up that we should call people “transgender” and call them by the gender pronoun that matches their new gender identity, we aren’t just saying that as an idle matter of decorum: we are saying it to people who want them to go into a bathroom that they will mentally and in many cases physically not belong, who want to cut their wages or kick them out of their community.

When people on the political left and center-left bring up that we should try to call “Mexicans” Chicana/os, Hispanics or Latina/os, we aren’t just talking to people who insist on calling people from Mexico Mexicans: we are fighting against those who would call them rapists and drug dealers, as if the entire group was just one raping, drug dealing apparatus or entity, some tentacled monster.

When people on the political left and center-left insist that we should use gender-neutral language (“firefighters” rather than “firemen”), we aren’t just fighting the rhetorical obliteration of females doing a job: we’re also fighting those who think women can’t be leaders because of their periods.
Notice how no one really organizes as a movement to say “Don’t call atheists ‘godless heathens'”, and yet they still encounter a widespread sentiment that they are inferior and dangerous.

See, conservatives seem to think, “You’ve won everything! Can’t you just leave the English language alone?”

Oh, no, brother (and it is so often a brother rather than a sister), you have it twisted.

In fact, we have so far to go, from anti-discrimination law to basic tolerance in public spaces to people actually being informed about atheists. We are fighting institutional discrimination, prejudice and bigotry stemming from institutional racism and white supremacy, homophobia and heteronormativity, sexism and male dominance, anti-atheist and agnostic bigotry and Christian hegemony, anti-immigrant and anti-global attitudes and American hegemony, and classism and the dominance of the rich. Notice how, in each case, I listed not just the group that was being targeted but the group that was being elevated. Every time someone says “This is a Christian nation”, it is yet another rhetorical assertion of a dominance that they have come to expect and yet have no right to expect and have not earned because such an endeavor would be impossible. The sacrifices of Christians who came before gives no modern Christian a single claim to institutional supremacy. Their majority status does not either.
Even within the realm of language, we’re not just making individual words taboo. When someone says “Blacks have lower IQ”, they are repeating an essentialist, racist, bigoted, stereotypical notion of people of color as if they’re in a spreadsheet. Even when there is some evidence supporting it, that evidence is never deployed honestly or consistently. And many times, such evidence is just outright false and dishonest. We are fighting people’s racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic ideas of other human beings, arguing that other human beings are on average just as competent, decent, intelligent and kind as they are. And those biases are used to justify present inequities. The logic, even when it isn’t stated out loud, goes, “Well, black people are criminals anyways, so why bother feeding their children?” or “Well, blacks are more likely to commit a homicide anyways, so why bother getting lead off the walls?” Once again, we can’t separate language and cognition from political ideas. Martin Gilens, and researchers working in his vein, have repeatedly found that racist biases are massively deterministic of whether one is willing to support policies like welfare. Policy issues in America are racialized and sexualized. Masculine identity is part of militaristic policies, which in turn influences debates like gays and women in the military.
The second issue is that, even insofar as we’re rectifying language, this is what societies do.
No society within the history of the planet has ever said that all language is equally appropriate in public parlance.

Most societies had very strong rules about what one could say in public. Honor codes, rules about courtesy that governed not just what hand one shook with (often as part of an effort to avoid contamination and the spread of germs even before people knew about the modern germ theory), kosher rules… the idea that there are certain things one does not say and do is common to history. Two of the Ten Commandments concern speech: Not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and honoring one’s mother and father.

One could argue that this was the case of feudal, monarchic and non-democratic societies. But that is emphatically false. Courtesy rules, manners books and so forth still exist. There are numerous 1950s shorts about the proper courtesy and rules for having a family dinner together. These emphatically include ways of talking and not talking: don’t gossip, don’t monopolize speech, don’t put people off their lunch.

What astonishes me so much about this is the political cleavage. Naively, I would have thought that many conservatives, people who are concerned with courtesy and decorum, would naturally and easily come to accept that there are certain ways we should and should not speak as a normative fact. They would come to accept, “Ah, these human beings prefer to be addressed by the opposite gender. How boorish would it be not to accommodate it?” One would think it’d be punk leftists who would spit and say “They’re a dude!”

But of course this is accepting conservative self-image and propaganda. In fact, the right-wing across history, the forces that preserve tradition, have always been perfectly able to be rude, cruel, and decidedly non-courteous. They just pretended otherwise as a thin veneer of civilization.
And challenging the entitlement (not the right but the sense that one should not face consequences) of those used to being afforded unlimited latitude challenges their supremacy. And when their supremacy is challenged, they are willing to get mighty rude.
Now, of course, is there a balance to be struck? Of course. Certain taboos should always be challenged. A transgressive attitude is always healthy at the right time and the right place. If friends are hanging out and talking, and there’s a high degree of trust, then it can be reasonable to say some things one might not say in mixed company. And certainly artists, comedians, etc. need to be granted some leeway to break sacred cows without too much criticism in response.
But remember: So many of the same people who fight the “PC agenda” will loudly support Trump’s support of seditious libel suits against journalists, loudly insist that one shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain, demand that the American flag never be burned or defaced, and insist that one should always “support the troops” no matter one’s disagreements with American foreign policy.
And it is precisely that “high degree of trust” that is not to be taken for granted. When so many people are able to say “I’m not racist, I have a black friend”, or otherwise signal that they’re not “one of the bad ones” and should be given some latitude, they fundamentally misunderstand the trust people. People of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, atheists and agnostics… none of them can trust the rhetorical goodwill of someone they don’t know.
The final point is precisely what the original questioner asked: “Others believe that being politically correct limits opinions, and will restrain them from conversing and interacting with others. Because of this, it will create a barrier between different groups, and do more harm then good”.
In other words, for the need of social lubrication and discussion, once again people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, non-Americans, immigrants… they all must sacrifice their sense of humanity and how they wish people would speak to them for the good of society.
Never once must the dominant group sacrifice their own sense of comfort, even temporarily, in order to learn new language and to (much more importantly) unlearn their toxic, unfair biases.
Every human being has a right to say, “I demand to be treated with respect, and if you don’t, I will not interact with you, I will not speak to you, and I will not do business with you”. There is a bare minimum of treatment we can demand in order to interact with us in commerce and daily life.

Those who demand that people not correct other people’s speech… are correcting other people’s speech.
The anti-PC brigade have a fundamental hypocrisy: They say “I should be able to say anything I want, and you shouldn’t be able to say anything you want”.
To quote Jeremy Sherman’s astute analysis: “By accusing people of being PC we try to persuade people to be less sensitive, less influenced by other people’s opinions, but in declaring PC a universal moral error, we pretend that we could live in a world where no one influences anyone. Usually we do it as a way of claiming our right to try to influence others without being influenced. It’s like the current libertarian craze, motivated by ‘my freedom to say and do what I want, without getting hassled’ If you want your freedom to say and do what you want, expect the same from everyone else. The person who accuses others of being PC has his own PC sensitivities. He’s saying it’s politically incorrect for you to be politically correct. Anti-PC and libertarianism are often rationalizations for dishing it out without having to take it in”.
Either we accept that anything is okay to say or we accept that there should be voluntary rules that we choose, as civilized human beings, as to what we say or do not say. And if anything is okay to say, I get to tell someone else to shut up. If someone else gets to call a friend of mine the “n-word”, I get to call them a monster who shouldn’t show their face in public. If we’re going to make society an endless war of words, then we get every weapon just like you do. Either way, the anti-PC crowd is wrong. Either way, they are demanding “My rules for thee but not for me”.
See, what conservatives want is consequence-free speech, not free speech.
Not only is that not a right, not only is it a logical contradiction, but it is a moral absurdity.
You see, this entire battle is really a battle of entitlement against responsibility.

When we have rights as human beings, that gives us power. And with great power comes great responsibility.

If we have the right to choose how we speak, we have the duty to choose that speech carefully.

Those who argue against those calling on them to have respect and kindness for others are arguing to be moral children. They want the rights without the attendant responsibilities.
That is not good for them. And it must be obliterated as an idea.

activism, Christianity, election, race, racism, republicans, social justice, Uncategorized

“What Edge Do Republicans Have?” My Response

This is my answer to a question at Quora, “Republican Party (U.S.): What traits do the Republicans have that makes them effective in selling their arguments to voters? Which of these traits should Democrats not underestimate?”
I respect the way that this question has been asked deeply. I will try to be as fair as I can to conservatives here, going against my own leanings. But before I begin, I have to get those leanings out of the way. As a person on the far left, I think that the biggest advantages Republicans have include
  1. A media that cannot challenge their mythologies too much without risking threatening deeper interests
  2. A lack of a political culture that remembers politicians’ lies and base pandering, and holds them accountable for hypocrisy
  3. The pre-existing racial
  4. Massive corporate power and wealth that allows them to buy ads
  5. Gerrymandered elections that make the wingnuts stronger
Almost every part of our national dialog is so distorted as to be beyond reason. Republicans can pretend to be the party of small government when they insist on walls, border enforcement, military expenditures, federal or state restrictions on gay marriage, federal or state restrictions on abortion, intelligence agencies able to monitor Americans, the right to use drone strikes on Americans on American soil, etc.
The biggest trait that they have is a coherent worldview, centered in a folk community, that circumscribes who you can empathize with.
The Republicans have managed to cobble together Christianity (no matter what the Gospel says), capitalism (no matter how inconsistently they want it implemented), an idea of personal responsibility and the appeal of a white straight Christian male folk community. Just like with any worldview, the individual facts actually don’t matter that much. It’s actually irrational to ask someone to change their whole way of viewing the world just from a single graph, or a single book.
One of the most insightful arguments that Mead makes in Special Providence is that the four separate traditions that define American life (Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, Jeffersonian and Wilsonian) are each coherent and allegations of inconsistency routinely miss the point. Jacksonian ideas in particular are what Republicans rely on to win at the polls (even when most of them are actually die-hard Hamiltonians).
The Republicans emphasize that there’s a folk community of “good-old folks” that deserve protection. The New York liberals (who may or may not be Jews depending on how much the specific Republican wants to risk coming off as anti-Israel in order to court those of a white supremacist spectrum of opinions), the Hollywood “elites”, the blacks, the gays, improper women… they’re all implicitly or explicitly
Why do you think Republicans can be so (allegedly) anti-crime but give so much backlash against white collar crime enforcement and rape enforcement? Rape victims must be slutty girls who were asking for it, because the patriarchal norms that they operate under insist that male power is beneficent and good. White collar criminals, and corporations who try to go overseas to stash more money, aren’t actually criminals, because they’re part of the folk community of people we like. What’s A Corporate Inversion, And How Is It Screwing Anyone Who Isn’t A Massive Corporation?  shows the hypocrisy here, that corporations are “economic refugees” (who FOX is willing to say should be treated much better than they would ever suggest Syrian refugees should be treated). But the basis of the hypocrisy is this idea of who is “in” and good and who is “out” and bad. It’s okay to discriminate against black people: They actually are more criminal or less hard-working, so no matter what their resume or references might say, that’s all just a smokescreen to cover up their hidden incompetence or malice!
This folk community idea is really easy because it doesn’t require you change your politics or your empathy. It doesn’t require you to have any solidarity. You can use the kind of low-effort thinking that is strongly correlated with conservativism (Shocking New Study Ties Conservatism To ‘Low-Effort’ Thinking). Corporations are good and white: They bring us iPhones! Trump is a good Presidential candidate because he was on TV and he is successful! I don’t like some things I see in America now and I want them to stop, so I will ask for America to be “great again”, ignoring how utterly racist, sexist, classist and homophobic that is!
These people are overwhelmingly decent folks. The Republicans give them an easy way of thinking that matches all of the stereotypes and schema they’ve inherited. These people know that inequality is bad, at the end of the day, but they find it easier to blame black people who abuse welfare or Mexican immigrants or anyone but a corporation.
The 92% of Americans who want our system to be more equitable than they think it is, let alone than it actually is, include a ton of Republicans. They don’t need to be convinced inequality is bad. They need to be convinced that some people are deserving of less inequality. They need their empathy widened to include people that don’t look like them.
It’s vital to understand how the same people can simultaneously have an idea of optimism in American institutions and serious cynicism about those same institutions. They have a belief system that the American institutions were at one point and are at their base good and just, so they must have been perverted by individual bad people or individual trends. Multiculturalism. Muslims. What’s the Matter With White Folks?: Racial Privilege, Electoral Politics and the Limits of Class Populism points out that it’s much easier for a person to wage war against those who want to take away your Christmas than it is your boss.
I mention race here repeatedly because race is one of the most important variables. Why Americans Hate Welfare compellingly argues that one of the best predictors for opposition to welfare is race.
So, Republicans give people an implicit choice: “Do you want to push against the system, including us and the Democrats, for better policies that would really benefit all Americans and honor the rights of all human beings, thereby having to fight corporations and change the basis of our political and economic systems? Or would you rather keep your existing prejudices intact and just make sure that you’re doing okay?”
If you want to sway those people, you have to give them hope that a better alternative is possible. When leftists bash the system and say how awful it is, they’re actually not telling these people anything new. They’re just reinforcing the helplessness that leads to these politics in the first place. A huge number of people who have right-wing viewpoints are terrified of the UN, or believe Bush was behind 9/11, or believe in the Rothschilds. When leftists push against the attitudes of the general populace, you see conspiracy theories like chemtrails start to emerge. It’s the same fearful system that tries to identify individual bad guys instead of systemic problems.
When people are pushed against a wall, they tend to try to protect them and their first. So the solution to beat the Republicans? Get rid of the wall. Give people better alternatives and more hope.

Additional Thoughts on Theodicy

After my recent article about Jehovah’s Witnesses, I found myself imagining a debate with actual Witnesses, out of my shame at not having engaged with those who brought me this wonderfully juvenile little pamphlet in the hope of bringing them a broader way of engaging with their faith.

As a pantheist, I don’t have to worry about the ideas of theodicy that other theists might have to. I believe that there is an intelligence to the universe that is awaiting us awakening, developing into broader beings, conquering our primitive instincts. It can’t aid us and wouldn’t even if it could, because we must grow on our own.

But a proper theist who believes in a God that can miraculously intervene, that actively judges human affairs, has some serious problems.

First, let’s consider the idea of science and Christianity.

Those Christians who want to believe not just in the literal truth of the Bible but an incredibly ignorant literal read run headlong into plate tectonics, evolution, tree rings, DNA evidence, etc. that indicates that their astronomy, history, geology and biology are just laughably wrong.

Okay, so God just basically planted all this disparate evidence, from radiological evidence to tree rings, to mislead people. Fine.

But why do human beings bother asking questions about the cosmos in the first place?

It’s not just that He made us that way. That alone is pretty bad. He made us to be curious, inquisitive, to want to ask questions. Isn’t it pretty unfair to do that then ask us to ignore that curiosity?

But no. It’s that if you’re not curious, you die.

Humanity being curious and scientifically-oriented let us develop tools to survive. It lets us see when there are liars, con artists and frauds. It lets us figure out when we might be being poisoned.

Plenty of religious leaders throughout history used religion to wage wars, to enrich themselves personally, to shore up their own power. Even if Christians can’t admit that some Christian leaders did so, certainly they can recognize that pagan leaders did.

So God made a dangerous world where our curiosity and intellect was how we survived and protected our families… Then he makes a series of illusions to mislead us, acting like Descartes’ demon, and then gives us the answer only in a book that also happens to justify slavery.

Why would someone worship a God like that? What could possibly justify all of the two-faced and deceptive behavior?

But it gets worse when we think about the idea of war.

Okay, so human beings need free will, right? We need to be able to grow, to make choices for ourselves. God lets us make choices and then punishes us if we make bad ones. That’s actually pretty fair. And one can even argue that God gave people a set of precepts to live by… Well, after millennia, He gave several different ones over time, finally clarifying the whole thing by sending His Son… Well, maybe he actually clarified it to some Arab prophet… But, okay, whatever, somewhere there’s a set of rules now.

But God didn’t just make it so we could wage war. He made it so that we wanted to. He made it so that we have aggressive, violent urges. He made it so that we fear each other, and so that we can be whipped up into a frenzy.

Moreover, the Biblical Yahweh proved that it was willing to give people choices then punish them with miracles for making bad ones. Moses warned the Pharaoh over and over again, and the Pharaoh was punished for enslaving the Hebrews. (Of course, Yahweh didn’t stop slavery at any other time in Egypt’s history, but hey).

So in World War II, or Rwanda, or when Americans were killing Native Americans, why didn’t Yahweh send floods and poxes?

Here’s a subtler point, and it goes beyond war. Free will means that one is able to make choices. In a limited universe, free will gives you latitude to decide amongst competing options which are inherently finite. Fine.

What would be the threat to free will if God, or an angel, appeared and warned a person each time they were going to do something morally reprehensible?

That wouldn’t threaten free will. It’d be providing every person with the chance of hearing a divine argument for a better and more conscious position. They would still be perfectly capable of proceeding forward.

See, the idea of Yahweh as limited, as being like other gods in the region with a finite extent to His powers (even if it’s greater than the other gods), which I believe is implicit in the Old Testament, that doesn’t run you into any contradictions. And if you’re a pantheist, you face no problem either. Spinoza and Einstein could accept a God that did not do these things on account of accepting a God that did nothing aside from be everything.

But when you try to take an interventionist God who has proven both willing and able to perform miracles, then graft on the ability to perform those miracles any time and at any place, the “free will” argument no longer cuts it.

Hell, even that whole idea, “Worship me or be sent to hell”, sort of loses steam after millennia where there haven’t been whole nations stricken with the death of the first born child or unexplained bolts of lightning. Surely it wouldn’t hurt the whole faith idea to have God show up on occasion in some unambiguous way, aside from the Bible. After all, in Revelations we see that even as divine punishment rains down that the wicked still scorn God!

Now, the idea that there’s some plan that this is all building to, some better world that could exist as a result of all of this sacrifice and God is with all of the heavy-heartedness in the world waiting (in a timeless sense) for that drama to work itself out for the happy ending is sort of a response to these limitations. Sort of. (But an omnipotent God should be able to create any universe, and Leibniz’s ideas don’t work here because It would be able to create universes we can’t imagine or think of as consistent, and could even full well create an inconsistent universe and keep adjusting it as needed).

See, that’s why I think that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had such facile answers to the idea of war’s ending. To really think about anything but the endgame would sort of ruin the whole enterprise.

Again, my goal is not to bully or pick on Christians or Muslims or anyone else. My hope is for us to think really deeply about tragedies, and always think that our free will means we can do something about it.

Waiting for divine justice has kept us from making the genuine article on our own.