activism, race, racism, social justice, Uncategorized

Why I Support Black Lives Matter

After the Dallas shootings of officers by an unhinged individual (not associated with BLM), I feel that it is important to reiterate support for Black Lives Matter and discuss why so many of the arguments raised against them are fraudulent. Below is an adaptation of an OpiWiki response that I made at http://opi.wiki/discuss/190010/What-is-your-attitude-towards-the-Black-Lives-Matter-movement

Black Lives Matter, by and large, has been a peaceful movement that has raised serious issues that just weren’t being acknowledged prior to their work.

Dave Chappelle had a bit about police brutality in his comedy special, “Killing Them Softly”, focusing on how much white blindness there was on the issue. That was back in 2000. The Rodney King beating was in March 3, 1991. The Wire was discussing police brutality issues in the context of Baltimore back in 2002. When I was in high school and college, police brutality issues got raised by politically-minded people on the left wing.

The black community has dealt with a toxic and moronic war on drugs, the devastation to black communities as a result of neo-liberal investor’s rights globalization, and too many police departments having a siege mentality for decades.

None of it broke into the mainstream or got conservative networks like FOX to even talk about the issue until #BlackLivesMatter.

Even if the only legacy of the movement is that a discussion about the proper role of the police enters the mainstream and remains there, that will be a colossal victory, and one that anyone that is part of that movement can be proud of.

But, of course, there is no reason to believe that #BlackLivesMatter won’t accomplish major objectives beyond that already-titanic success. We’ve already been moving toward legalization of marijuana and a scaling back of the war on drugs, and #BLM arrived at just the right time to push that forward even further. And many police departments are stepping up and recognizing that they need to do something about bias in policing. While Michelle Alexander’s recent AlterNet analysis is an appropriate bit of perspective, I disagree strongly with her that we won’t see huge improvements if law enforcement at a national level takes the challenge of community policing, bias training, sensitivity to the diverse communities they serve, and a real ethos of community improvement to heart. While it’s true that such institutional measures can only go so far, such institutional measures also themselves push forward the deeper structural and cultural changes that need to happen.

There are a few arguments made against Black Lives Matter that need to be addressed, because they are themselves monstrous obstacles to progress and reconciliation.

The notion that Black Lives Matter has to say that every life matters is just imbecilic. It’s a trite statement that no one disagrees with conceptually. There’s simply no need to say that white lives matter, because there is no institutional threat to white lives as white lives. But there is such a threat to people of color, and almost every major social institution, from the media to the criminal justice system, routinely reiterates the notion that black lives in fact are problems to be contained or controlled.

Chainsaw Suit's fantastic strip.

A lack of specificity is the goblin of trite minds and of those who want to cheat you. “All lives matter” is a non-threatening slogan that suggests precisely no course of action. Worse, as Kris Straub points out humorously here, it’s actually misleading and counter-productive to talk about everyone’s problems as if they are all of equal magnitude at all times. We deal with specific problems at specific moments. The reason why all too many people say that #AllLivesMatter is because the status quo is generally fine for them, so dealing with the specific problems that produce the issues BLM is protesting is costly. That’s fine: We’re all stakeholders and we all have legitimate concerns about the consequences and direction of social change. But the notion of #AllLivesMatter is a disingenuous way to shut down conversation instead of starting it.

Even the fact that “All Lives Matter” emerged as a counter to #BlackLivesMatter is, when one thinks about it, so grotesque that it’d be hysterical if the consequences weren’t so real. As Arthur Chu’s fantastic tweet points out, “Do you crash strangers’ funerals shouting I TOO HAVE FELT LOSS”? It’s a funny notion to imagine someone doing that precisely because it’s so absurd, cruel and stupid. A person doing that would have a psychopathic sense of entitlement and a deep, unabiding narcissism. Yet collectively, all too many people of all stripes feel that it’s appropriate to respond to people expressing grief, heartache, rage and, yes, hope for improvement with the idea, “Well, we all have problems”.

And those who offer this tripe are usually being colossal hypocrites as well. Imagine how the right wing would scream if those of us who want to regulate guns responded to gun rights advocates by saying, “Hey, it could be worse, you could live in North Korea” or “Hey, buddy, all rights matter”.

Some have said that they’d rather have the statement be “Black Lives Matter Too”. While I’m sympathetic, once again it’s easy to see why it’s such a toxic suggestion. No one should have to append “too” to a statement that they matter. Rhetorically, the notion that people have to say “black lives matter too” is a statement indicating, “White folks, and cops, matter by definition, first and foremost. You have to append your mattering afterwards. You do matter, sure, but you’re the last people we mention. You’re an afterthought”. The fact that it is so difficult for so many people to just say, without any proviso, that black lives do in fact matter is precisely why BLM chose that slogan.

Similarly, the black-on-black crime argument isn’t just an evasion, it’s actually a colossal act of racism in and of itself.

Again: Imagine if this were used against any common conservative bugaboo. Imagine if the liberal response to the “War on Christmas” allegations weren’t, “You have no special right to have your holiday dominate public spaces” but was instead “Hey, guys, as long as Christians are bombing people and torturing captives, you should expect that you get shut out of public spaces”. Imagine if anyone complaining about affirmative action costing them their job was told, “You know, as long as white collar crime is disproportionately white, you should be glad you have a job”.

It’d be monstrous to say those things. It’s monstrous here.

A whole community cannot be judged by their criminals. The fact that some black individuals are guilty of crime is in fact no justification for naked black teenagers to be shot. There is no collective racial responsibility unless one is in fact not just a racist but the kind of venal racist that assumes that there’s some kind of mystic connection between people who share some genes. Bringing up black-on-black crime in response to complaints of police brutality to the face of grieving mothers and tormented communities tells them, “Until you fix every problem in your neighborhood, I won’t even listen to you”.

Of course, the argument is stupid on many more levels, but just the colossal racism involved in asserting that argument alone should give any reasonable person pause. In reality, police brutality helps cause black-on-black crime. Criminals in minority communities are more able to get away with violence because their victims are much less likely to trust the police or want to cooperate with them. Moreover, when justice is arbitrary and random, actual criminals are able to plausibly claim that they’re just being set up or facing the same injustices that other people have. An “us-versus-them” dynamic is why gangs tend to emerge. Organized crime overwhelmingly tends to come about when people can’t rely on the ostensibly legitimate authorities to protect their turf, honor and respect them, and give them real opportunities. Organized crime acts as a de facto militia, government and underground economy all in one, as destructive as it is. Again, one only need to watch The Wire to see how poor police behavior helps push communities away into the kind of isolation, fear and desperation that breeds crime.

And, of course, men like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama have all harshly criticized gang violence and criminality in black communities and have made many major efforts to try to resolve them. I have not met a single person anywhere in BLM or in groups that sympathize with and ally with BLM who don’t say loudly that black-on-black crime is a serious problem.

Oh, and another niggling little point: We don’t pay the salaries of gang members. There’s no collective social responsibility for the actions of criminals. There is for anyone who we employ as our civil servants. The fact that this tiny distinction has to be repeatedly pointed out shows just how deep the well of denial of racial animosity goes in this country.

But, of course, black-on-black crime is supposed to be something that the black community fixes. The very same people who claim that we’re all in this together as Americans then want to cut their fellow Americans out to dry and not help. The causes of crime everywhere are complex, but we have decades of sociology about those causes, and poverty and community structure are the leading suspects. Crime isn’t a black, white, Hispanic or Asian issue: it’s an American issue. Resolving long-standing issues like failing infrastructure, poor employment prospects, a low minimum wage, segregated and failing schools, etc. is part of the picture of solving crime.

The black community and the white community aren’t monoliths. There are specific neighborhoods, specific people and specific groups. Yes, we are all in this together, and yes, there are shared responsibilities that we all have. I’ve talked extensively about how white communities need to take some responsibility for the poison of racism. A huge part of that is that “With great power comes great responsibility”, of course, but ultimately what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

But no movement toward justice should ever be forestalled because of another tangentially related problem. That’s not how responsibility works.

Let’s conclude by thinking again about Rodney King. Did the man lead police on a drunken car chase? Yes. That was a colossal mistake and a serious crime, and he deserved to be brought to justice and punished to the fullest extent of the law. But he didn’t deserve to be beaten by hotheads. We don’t want police officers cracking the skulls of unarmed men like, say, Henry Davis, a man in Ferguson who got put into jail because of a confusion about his identity.

In a democracy, we should never be afraid of our police. We are paying their paychecks. We should expect that they can execute justice calmly, compassionately and intelligently. If they can’t, they don’t deserve their job. If police are to (reasonably) expect that their sacrifices are honored, then they have to earn our respect with exemplary behavior. If the job matters, it has to be done right.

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activism, changemaking, politics, social justice, Uncategorized

Bill Gates and Technocratic Solutions to Social Problems

Patrick Bond, a really insightful thinker, offers a really good analysis of the limitations of charitable approaches like the ones Bill Gates proposes.

I’ve actually been impressed by how erudite and compassionate Bill can be on issues, recognizing risks ranging from the serious threat of a pandemic to the still-salient specter of nuclear war. But Gates is at his heart an engineer, and he embodies a problem I’ve often discussed before and been disappointed to see in otherwise-decent people: the idea that problems can always be solved by a technical or engineering or technological approach, and indeed that such an approach is always the best. But human beings aren’t machines and societies aren’t computers, and you can’t just hack problems away. It’s always worth it to try for clever solutions and to try to leverage technology and creativity to go for unorthodox approaches, but the problem is that those ways of thinking are usually efforts to try to be apolitical. A political problem doesn’t become less political when you try to pretend it’s just a debugging exercise. Smart technological and scientific solutions to social problems need to occur alongside political, social, economic and cultural change, in conjunction with artists, activists, attorneys, civil servants, social workers, psychologists, and others. Instead, folks like Bill tend to try to skip that part.

We should always try to look for win-win solutions, and we should have optimism in the power of the brain. But we should also have optimism in the power of the heart too, and when we use exclusively technical approaches, we’re actually expressing severe pessimism in human potential.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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