Argumentum Ad Third World: Or, “Think of the Starving Children in Africa” Redux

One way you know you’ve won an argument about social justice is when your opponent says something like, “YEAH WELL you don’t see people in the Third World whining about their preferred pronouns/racist Halloween costumes/the use of the word ‘retard’!”

There is a pervasive idea out there that people in the Third World only have Big Terrible Problems like poverty and genocide, and people in industrialized countries only have Stupid Silly Problems like getting toilet paper stuck on the bottom of their shoe or having to wait in traffic or whatever. There are, apparently, no problems between those two extremes in severity, and no problems are worth talking about besides the Big Terrible Problems.

“I wonder how many people identify as genderqueer in Somalia,” one Tumblr user declaimed. “Oh, wait. I forgot. Those people have actual problems.” Another made a list of “social justice issues that are extremely important” and “social justice issues that Tumblr users think are extremely important.” The former list contained poverty, human trafficking, human rights violations, and genocide. The latter contained white privilege, cultural appropriation, and gender pronouns.

A particularly egregious example of this was a recent cartoon in the Daily Northwestern, which was published in the wake of continuing conversations about racism on our campus:

The argument, of course, is simple: Look at you silly “social justice activists,” bitching about “racism” at Northwestern while people are dying on the South Side of Chicago.

While I will never understand privileged NU students’ utter fascination and obsession with Chicago’s South Side, I do understand where this argument comes from. It comes from the idea that these two types of oppression–poverty and murder versus microaggressions like racist costumes–are different not only quantitatively, but qualitatively. They are not different amounts of oppression; they are different types of oppression.

But really, they’re not. All oppression stems from the idea that some groups of people are worth less than others, that some people deserve fewer rights and less respect than others. All oppression relies on silence and ignorance to continue, and all oppression is based on the notion that the feelings of oppressors are more important than the rights, autonomy, and dignity of the oppressed.

As I mentioned when I wrote about transitioning from conservatism to progressivism, one of the main reasons I have the political ideology that I have is that I believe that psychological, sociological, and political phenomena are all interconnected. There is a connection between the white dude who calls Obama a “dumb n*****” and the bank that refuses to give a loan to a Black family. There is a connection between the person who shudders and crosses to the other side of the street upon seeing a Black man, and the cop who shoots and kills that Black man without provocation. There is a connection between the man who refers to rape victims as “lying bitches” and the man who rapes.

And the connection is this: all of these things continue because our culture prescribes ways for people to “be” and punishes those who don’t follow them, even though these ways to “be” involve factors that we can’t choose, such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. And then, Western societies impose these ways of “being” onto other cultures, whether through media, colonialism, or military interventions.

That doesn’t mean that all forms of oppression are equal, but it does mean that discussing which oppressions are “worse” than others is pretty pointless.  Besides, people in Third World countries definitely have problems that are less severe than poverty and genocide. To suggest that they do not is to suggest that they aren’t fully human, because, guess what–humans have all kinds of problems, whether they’re rich or poor or somewhere in between.

Oh, and by the way–unless you are actively working towards ending poverty, genocide, human trafficking, and so on, you lose all legitimacy when you make this argument. When I hear people who really don’t give a crap about social justice using argumentum ad Third World, I know that they’re not arguing in good faith. They’re just using this well-known derailing tactic.

And, in fact, most writers and activists I know who do work on large, global issues like poverty and genocide are also the ones who are most passionate about fighting microaggressions, because they understand that these things are all interconnected.

After all, even these “big” problems start when people allow themselves to view entire groups of people as “Other.”

There are many different ways to do activism, and they have varying levels of effectiveness depending on who does them and how. Some people are great at raising money. Others want to go build houses, teach, or grow food. Some work within political systems. Others educate their peers about how not to be a complete asshole to people of color, LGBT folks, and other marginalized groups. Some write. Others speak. Others make art. Some want to work in African villages. Others want to work in American cities.

You can argue about the effectiveness of one type of activism over another, but you can’t–at least, not in good faith–sit on your ass and demand that we focus on nothing but poverty and genocide.

Affirmative Action Rant

A few days ago, the Daily Northwestern published a column called “Affirmative Action Dangerously Shortsighted.” It was predictably awful and spawned 269 (mostly dissenting) comments as of now.

Some excerpts:

I oppose the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the workplace and essentially any other setting. I am pleased that Fisher had the courage to revive this discussion, given the almost certainty that our hypersensitive, obsessively-politically-correctsociety would be quick to brand any white person willing to challenge this biased system of admissions as racist. In its effort to remedy the lingering effects of a more racially segregated past where one skin color was preferred over another, affirmative action has become its own insidious form of discrimination where the preference is not for one skin color over another, but for skin color over merit.  And merit be damned as the country continues to self-medicate with affirmative action to relieve its guilt over a history of which most living today were not even a part.

[...]The presumed racism of upper-middle-class white people is drastically misaligned. In fact, today, in terms of direct statements of discrimination and disdain, one is more likely to hear disapproving sneers about “rich white people” than anything derogatory about minorities. There certainly is no shortage of people who identify Mitt Romney and “his people” as disgusting, horrible people who deserve no respect but rather a plethora of unflattering associations.

[...]UT rejected Abigail Fisher based on merit, but she says merit that was racialized – that is, merit categorized by racially motivated academic skews in a way that rejected Abigail in favor of lesser-qualified minority applicants with lower standards to meet.

I won’t try to pick apart all the baseless claims in this article; my friend Mauricio has done that quite well.

Here’s the thing. Nobody likes affirmative action. I would call it a necessary evil except I prefer to save the word “evil” for things like Todd Akin.

I don’t like affirmative action. But you know what I like even less?

That’s right, racism. (Total buzzkill, that.)

Racism has two definitions–the popular one and the academic one. The popular definition is that racism is disliking another person based on their race. By this definition, white people who dislike black people are racists, and black people who dislike white people are racists.

This is the only definition of racism that Zink seems to know.

The academic definition of racism is much more complex. It’s a system of societal inequality based on race, in which non-white people are not afforded the same opportunities for education, employment, housing, justice, or respect as are white people. By this definition, white people are racist if they support this system explicitly or tacitly. People of color, however, cannot be racist under this definition, because there is no structural oppression of white people in this society.

This–not the first definition–is what affirmative action is designed to address.

Although this system of racial inequality intersects with classism, or class-based societal inequality, people of color of any class still face certain disadvantages compared to their white neighbors. For instance, they are more likely to be pulled over (and beaten) by the police for “looking suspicious.” They are more likely to be followed around by store employees who are concerned that they’ll steal something. If they choose to keep their hair in an afro or wear traditional dress from their culture, they may be looked down upon in the workplace. Even their “ethnic-sounding” names can make it more difficult for them to get jobs. If that’s not discrimination, I really don’t know what is.

But where racism intersects with classism, the disadvantages are even more apparent. People of color are much more likely than whites to be poor, which means that they are much less likely to have access to good schools and jobs, be able to afford college, and live in safe neighborhoods. Poverty is thought to contribute to the disproportionately high incarceration rate for African Americans (along, of course, with racial profiling), because it means they’re much less likely to be able to afford legal counsel.

All of these factors–and so many more–make it more difficult for students of color to be accepted into universities, especially top-tier universities. All that stuff I did as a teenager that helped me get into college–extracurriculars, SAT prep classes, gifted summer camps, AP classes, a research internship in Israel–are things that a poor student of color is very unlikely to be able to access and afford.

That’s why we need affirmative action.

People like Zink keep complaining that whenever anyone speaks out against affirmative action, they get labeled either ignorant or racist. Nope. You could, for instance, make the argument that affirmative action should be based solely on class, not on race. I suppose you could even make an intelligent case against affirmative action in its entirety, although I haven’t personally seen one. But that’s not what this Daily column did.

If you make a coherent argument based on actual evidence, people may disagree with you, but they won’t call you ignorant or racist.

However. If you argue that affirmative action is unnecessary because there’s no racism anymore, then you’re ignorant, because racism is demonstrably still an issue.

This broken fire hydrant is the best visual representation of Mitt Romney’s privilege.

And if you argue that affirmative action is wrong because “I had this one friend who was like super qualified but didn’t get the job she applied for and some black chick got it instead,” then you’re racist, because you’re assuming that there’s no possible way “some black chick” could be more qualified than your one friend.

And don’t even get me started on Zink’s ludicrous assertion that people who make “disapproving sneers” about Mitt Romney are somehow being reverse racists. We don’t criticize Romney because he’s rich and white. We criticize him because he spews his privilege around like a broken fire hydrant.

You’re a Racist

And a sexist, and probably a homophobe, too.

But it’s okay, so am I.

In fact, research shows that almost everyone shows signs of prejudiced attitudes. The Implicit Association Test, a psychological test designed to measure the strength of subconscious associations that people have, suggests that even people who openly profess not to be racist or sexist actually are, deep down.

When you take an IAT, you use a computer program to categorize words into two different categories, usually by pressing one of two keys as quickly as possible. For instance, the categories might be “Black” and “White,” and the words you have to categorize might be either pleasant or unpleasant in nature–such as “safe” and “unsafe.” In one round, you’ll be asked to categorize the pleasant words as “black” and the unpleasant words as “white,” and in the next round you’ll do it the other way around. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

The software measures how long it takes you to press the right key to categorize each word, and research shows that people are quicker to categorize unpleasant words as “black” rather than “white.”

IATs are extremely valuable tools for psychological research. They’ve been used to study stereotypes and prejudice in all sorts of categories, including race, gender, weight, and others. The IAT seems to be difficult (if not impossible) to fake or “game” in any way. You can try it here.

There’s other evidence aside from the IAT that suggests that prejudice is shockingly common and deeply ingrained. You know that racist trope about not being able to tell people of another race apart? Well, apparently, that begins at the age of nine months. A recent study shows that while five-month-old babies could still distinguish faces just as well whether they belonged to their own race or to another, by nine months, they had become much better at distinguishing faces of their own race.

I don’t know if effects like these are caused by nature, nurture, or a mix of both (probably the latter). There’s evidence that prejudice is taught to us by society, but there’s also evidence that it’s an inborn trait that we evolved in order to distinguish friends from foes.

However, even if prejudice is completely biological (which I doubt), it doesn’t really matter. In addition to our tendency to sort people into groups, we’ve also evolved brains that can override our basic instincts. We are capable of going on hunger strikes for a cause, resisting the urge to have sex with someone we find attractive, overcome phobias of heights, snakes, and elevators, and ignore our natural revulsion for blood and disease and become doctors.

There’s no reason, then, that we should not also be capable of unlearning prejudice.

Research like this is why I think that we should take some of the stigma away from words like “racist” and “sexist.” Most people don’t want to be branded as bigots, even if they knowingly hold some attitudes that are bigoted. So the response that most people will make when accused of racism or sexism is “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE I’M NOT A RACIST/SEXIST SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK/WOMEN.” The response should really be, “Wow, I guess I haven’t really worked on getting rid of my prejudice.” After all, prejudice is something we all have at least a little bit of.

We should acknowledge that fact rather than pretending otherwise. Even people who write constantly about bigotry and how to end it–such as me–hold subconscious (or even conscious) bigoted attitudes. The difference between people who care about social justice and those who don’t is not that we’re not bigoted at all and they are; it’s that we consciously work on correcting our bigoted views and they do not.

For instance, when I’m walking down the street at night and I see a black man and I involuntarily get scared, I force myself to ask why. And whenever I ask myself that, the answer is always that I’m scared because I’ve been taught to be scared, not because there’s anything to be scared of. And I don’t cross the street to the other side.

So when you realize that your mental image of a scientist is always a man, or that you feel disgusted when you see a fat person on the bus, or that seeing a man holding another man’s hand or wearing a dress (or both!) makes you uncomfortable, don’t just let that feeling be. Don’t assume that your feelings are always true. Question them, and you might be surprised at what you find.

We are all bigots in some ways. But some of us are more bigoted than others.

Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

I’ve got a post up at In Our Words today! Here’s a preview.

A few weeks ago, an organization of conservative LGBT folks and their allies called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Surprise, surprise: a conservative group endorsing a conservative presidential nominee.

Dan Savage, however, was apparently irritated enough by this to comment on it. He tweeted, “The GOP’s house f*****s grab their ankles, right on cue…” with a link to the story, followed by the word “pathetic.” Except that he didn’t use the asterisks.

One could hardly design a more controversial and, in my view, offensive message. First of all, the phrase “house f*****s” is a blatant allusion to another offensive term, one laden with historical meaning: “house Negros” (or “n*****s”). In the antebellum South, slaves were divided between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the plantation owner’s house. The house slaves were typically lighter-skinned and received better clothing and food, and the type of work they did was less physically taxing than that of the field slaves.

A century later, Malcolm X characterized the “house Negro” as a slave who is more likely than a “field Negro” to support—at least tacitly—the institution of slavery, because it has afforded him or her an easier life than it did to the field slave. Similarly, he described African Americans who wanted to quietly live and work among whites as “house Negros,” and himself and his fellow activists as “field Negros.”

[...]This is the complex and painful analogy—which I have probably oversimplified here—that Savage has, for some unknown reason, chosen to invoke. To him, LGBT folks who support conservative politicians are like “house Negros” because they are willing to support a power structure that others (rightfully) consider oppressive.

Read the rest!

Northwestern: Even More Racist than We Thought

Northwestern’s not known for being an oasis of tolerance. (Examples: here, here, and here.)

But a few members of our student body have decided to sink this school to a new low this past weekend by hosting a party/drinking game called the “Beer Olympics.” A student who saw the event described it this way:

[W]hat I saw Saturday afternoon was really just the “Racist Olympics.” In this backyard were at least 50 kids dressed up as some particular ethnic group or nationality. There were 6 teams: Canada, Ireland, Bangladesh, South Africa, Uganda, and Navajo Nation. All teams but Canada and Ireland signified via horribly racist and offensive mock-ups of these cultures. The noise I had heard came from the “Navajo Nation,” although almost every student in this yard participated in the “Indian call.” Moreover, these students are dressed up in headdresses, leather vests and other stereotypical indigenous garb.

Uganda was represented by students wearing tribalized Kony 2012 shirts. Students representing South Africa seemed to take a much simpler approach. In my presence, a passerby asked why the group chose to wear white t-shirts and black jeans. The response: “We’re South Africa! White on top, black on bottom!” Finally, the Bangladesh group simply dressed themselves in beads and painted red dots on their foreheads (the overwhelming majority of the population in Bengaldesh aren’t Hindi, but Muslim). These chants, the minstrelsy aimed at the expense of the dignity of non-Europeans and the sheer ecstasy of the partiers was sickening and traumatizing.

Apparently the group responsible for this has since released a “statement,” which you can read in the letter that I linked to.

Now, first of all. In case there’s any confusion, this is racist. If you don’t know why, here are some resources.

Second, I wish someone could explain to me this: why? Why do this? We all know college students need no excuse to get drunk, and there’s no reason why drinking games would be any less fun without racism involved.

Third, I feel that the Northwestern community needs to know which group was responsible for this. (Several people I’ve been discussing this with on Facebook have an idea of which group it might be, based on the apparent location of the photos and past traditions, but I won’t accidentally libel anybody.) It’s great that they’ve released a statement and have had “meetings” or whatever it is they’ve had, but ultimately, students who would like to avoid groups that hold big racist drinking games should probably be able to do so. (Yup, it’s the ski team.)

Fourth, when people are being drunk and doing shitty things, I often hear the argument that “Yeah well they’re drunk, what do you expect.” Okay, no. Once you’re an adult, you’re responsible for your actions–all of them–regardless of how much you’ve had to drink. This means that you need to either learn how to behave like a decent human being even if you’ve been drinking, or you need to stop drinking.

Finally, before anybody even goes there, yes, this is free speech. All free speech is legal. Not all free speech contributes anything to our society, and some of it actively harms that society. Let’s stop excusing terrible behavior simply because it happens to be legal.

Northwestern’s administration has been holding all sorts of “forums” on racial issues and proposing various “diversity initiatives,” but honestly, I don’t think any of it’s going to help. (Granted, that isn’t an excuse to just do nothing.) No matter how tolerant Northwestern’s environment is, it won’t undo 18 years of living in a society that perpetuates the stereotypes that these students poked fun at, and–even more insidiously–that teaches us that perpetuating these stereotypes is okay.

Unlearning these lessons is much harder than going to a required orientation program about diversity. After the infamous Northwestern blackface incident of 2009, Josh Feigelson, who used to be a rabbi here, wrote this:

I have long imagined a university in which every junior takes a seminar with a handful of others, drawn from diverse backgrounds, and whose common project is to learn to tell their own story and listen to the stories of others. What would it look like for Northwestern, or for other self-proclaimed secular universities, to actually enact the value of diversity–knowledge of oneself and others in a context of community–in not only its approach to student affairs, but into the heart of the curriculum itself?

I don’t know what that would look like. But I’d really like to know. I hope that Northwestern students, staff, and faculty keep talking about it and trying to imagine it. We shouldn’t abandon it just because it’s hard.