The Dialogue on Race Has Failed Because Nearly Everyone is Too Busy Trying to Feel Good About Themselves

Freddie deBoer has a series of extremely important posts up, wherein he dissects the motivations driving social liberalism, as well as the effectiveness of tactics in battling systemic racism.  I don't consider myself the greatest of experts on the topic, but I have spent the better part of my life living in the Southern U.S. in areas still de-facto racially segregated, often attempting to bridge the divide, or at least to broaden the horizons of the white conservatives and libertarians (many of whom are family members or acquaintances) living there.  To some extent, I have hands-on experience in efforts to combat both institutionalized and individual examples of racism - something sorely lacking amongst the class of social liberals deBoer describes.  I claim no great victories, but it has given me perspective I might not otherwise have if I had instead lived in predominantly white, upper-middle class areas my entire life.

The recent mess which prompted the posts in question all started because of an edgy tweet (yes, we have reached the point where tweets are the most serious of business) sent out by the fake news network the Onion.  The tweet was meant to satirize funny-man Seth MacFarlane's terrible (sexist, racist, etc) performance at the terrible (celebrity and star worship claptrap) Oscars, but was perceived as "going too far" in its use of language and the name of a 9-year-old girl to make the intended point.  The difference between the MacFarlane's act and the Onion tweet was substantial, which deBoer noted in a separate post:

The Onion's Tweet was based on the fact that its premise was ridiculous and that nobody believes it. McFarlane's jokes were based on the idea that his premises-- that Jews run Hollywood, that women need to starve themselves to be attractive, that the violence against women in Django Unchained is similar to Chris Brown's violence against Rhianna, etc.-- are true, and that we know they are true but are too polite to agree with him publicly.

Whether or not a joke 'works' relies on the audience both understanding it (a problem with the Onion tweet), and also believing its implications to be true.  When you disagree with the statement a joke is making, it becomes unfunny, even offensive.  As an example, I don't find most jokes referencing violence experienced in childhood very funny, because the implication is that corporeal punishment is okay because "I got hit as a kid, and look at me - I turned out just fine."  In that case, I see no truth - only further reinforcement of a dangerous practice which tends to result in a disturbed society.  However, if someone were to parody those jokes themselves, dressing up like Hitler to say that same tired old line "I got hit as a kid, and look at me - I turned out just fine!", well, then I could enjoy it.  It would serve the same purpose as the Onion tweet: to shed light on how ridiculous a particular sentiment is - in this case corporeal punishment, and in the Onion's case the attitude toward women who become celebrities - by using an outlandish premise.

And, as deBoer puts it: so badly misunderstand the basic mechanism within these two very different kinds of humor, or to understand the difference but equate them and their attendant problems anyway, risks lending credence to the stupidest complaints about political correctness: that people scolding The Onion and McFarlane are doing so out of pure joylessness, or that they make no distinctions within their analysis, or that they complain only to assume a stance of righteousness.

Or, that they want to stifle free speech and hide the 'truth' about certain racial or sexual stereotypes.  That is, more than anything, the argument you hear from conservatives and libertarians.  They believe the left is always trying to suppress freedom, preferring instead to force everyone to ignore the Hard Truths in favor of Happy Feelings.  And while that depiction is usually a fantasy of its own, this whole short-sighted focus on a tweet (in the place of the far-more-viewed act MacFarlane put on, or the discrimination inherent in Hollywood in the first place, or the hundreds of more pertinent stories happening at the time) does nothing to suggest otherwise.

This is a great example of why those of us calling for a more human dialogue have lost the argument regarding political correctness.  By latching onto the most trivial of crusades regarding speech and celebrity - which also happen to be the easiest to point out - social liberals only further alienate those who already believe the left is out to restrict speech.  The response from the right is: "well, I'm not racist", or "telling a joke about race doesn't mean you're racist", and thus the divide grows larger.  The fact is, the average white American simply doesn't understand the institutionalization of racism, and has never truly been educated to the nature of the more subtle forces at work.  It's a difficult concept for most to grasp, especially given that it requires them to accept the reality of their own privilege and how it speaks to their current place in society.

And make no mistake, society desperately wants us to buy in.  It celebrates claims like: "I've worked for everything I got in life - no one gave me anything.", while suppressing the facts on the ground which speak to the severe lack of mobility affecting both race and class.  It teaches people to believe their birthright is irrelevant (or at least inconsequential) to the ability to move up in the world, when nothing could be further from the truth.  Capitalism itself can only be considered reasonable when you accept the lie that we all start out on an equal footing - and so that very lie circulates throughout the populace.  Never mind that social mobility is only seen in propagandistic success stories, held up as examples of the great entrepreneurial spirit.  People have a preference for appealing to anecdotal evidence no matter how it flies in the face of detailed analysis (hence the necessity of this entire discussion).  They'll buy it.

They have to, after all.  The alternative is simply too difficult to bear.  Once you've worked your way through the system to a certain degree, once you've achieved a certain status, you're much less willing to accept ideas which - no matter how true - call into question the veracity of what you believe you've 'earned'.  This is why when President Obama said "you didn't build that", what should have been a simple truthful observation about the complex nature of society turned into a gaffe for conservatives across America to run wild with.  Giving thought to the idea that they might have achieved what they have in life through factors other than just hard work, discipline, and perseverance would have turned the entire free market world upside down.  So, conservatives and libertarians held fast to the lie they've been repeating all their lives.  A Happy Feeling, not a Hard Truth.

Social liberals, too, seem more concerned about maintaining their position over others than actually working for racial equality.  While they don't buy into society to the extent the far-right does, they do believe that we should work within the framework it presents us with.  So they may hold, say, your average social worker in a greater light than your average business leader, but the reason they do so is less a result of weighing the impact each has on society, and more a need to hold the moral high ground.  

Never is this more clear than when liberals take to bashing conservatives and libertarians - referring to them as barbarians who are living in the past, and the like - wholly in order to feel better about themselves.  They've taken what were once expressions of frustration, and turned them into full-time policy.  Having completely given up on persuading anyone, they now use every chance to show outrage and offense as a way to prove their own greatness.  It's but a more sophisticated form of dick-waving.  Rather than leaving their comfort zone to discuss real solutions, they take to the echo-chambers where they measure the length of their moral fortitude.  They are, as deBoer notes, "more interested in being right than in doing right", and both "endlessly self-congratulatory and aggressive, in a way that expels precisely the people who need to be educated".

The end result is that productive debate becomes nearly impossible, with nearly every side of the debate posturing in order to avoid tackling the hard issues.  This effect is only nurtured by the Democratic and Republican parties, both eager to set the people against each other and skim a bit off the top while no one's looking.  Divide and conquer, they say.

deBoer continues:

This Jamelle Bouie piece on the sickening wealth gap between black and white Americans demonstrates plainly: our race problems are structural and material and are not problems of mind. Yet our discourse on race suggests the opposite. An offensive Tweet got vastly more attention that a sitting federal prosecutor asserting in court that the mere presence of racial minorities and money is indicative of illegality. That's exactly the problem.

People say to me, hey, you can do both. You can complain about unfunny jokes at the Oscars and complain about the host of hideous racial inequalities in our country. And, yeah. You can complain about both. My point is not that one thing is not important or that only one can be addressed. My point is that the way in which we address demonstrations of racist or sexist ideas makes addressing racism and sexism harder, not easier.

Specifically, the focus on racists and sexists - rather than racism and sexism - has not only warped, but almost entirely destroyed the push for equality.  Conventional wisdom says that racists are responsible for racism, and sexists are responsible for sexism, but it's much more the other way around.  Institutionalized racism and sexism give undue weight to racist and sexist stereotypes, and for more of history than otherwise, those considered inferior were demonized due to their position rather than through some objective analysis.  First, man could bend woman to his will, so she was inferior.  Then, whites could bend blacks to their will, so blacks were inferior.  The positions of both were low, and purposefully kept low, their inferiority a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Each new generation saw (and was taught to accept) these social positions, and thus discrimination became a product of the system rather than the individual.  The problem continued even when the oppressed finally gained full rights under the law, because new generations still see (and are still taught to accept) the very same social positions.  Judgments are still made based on those positions:  There are less women in the sciences and in business, therefore women are not very good analytical thinkers.  Blacks drop out of school and end up in jail more often than whites, therefore they must be less intelligent and more prone to criminal behavior.   People are taught to be social darwinists without even knowing it.

In one of deBoer's posts, he mentions that many of the undergraduate students he works with are hostile to organized anti-racism and feminism, but receptive to the underlying ideas.  Their perception of those movements is that of being talked down to, due in no small part to the fact the loudest voices are those more concerned with lecturing people on how they should act, and less with solving the structural problems which end up affecting lives in a far more material way.

Even staunch conservatives and libertarians who regularly employ racist and sexist stereotypes are receptive to debate on the core issues - at least once you advance the rhetoric past anecdotes and hypotheticals.  If, rather than focus on blasphemous tweets and slur-laden tirades, those supposedly on the left would dispute the deeper points of contention, there could be some sort of tangible progress.

Centering the discussion on class, and describing how capitalism is abused by the wealthy to their benefit - and our detriment - actually gets you places with most free market advocates.  I don't mean to say get up and start shouting 'class warfare!'.  Try to use facts and figures, not the standard rhetoric and talking points (no matter how truthful they may be).  Show them how broken the system is, and how individual willpower alone is insufficient to rise to the top.  Appeal to history.  Explain how people have never entered the market on equal footing, and how as time goes on, wealth accumulates in certain power sectors.  They may still disagree on solutions, but at the very least they'll come out of it with a better perspective on race and gender than if you just told them they were a bigot because they said X.

Again, I have to side with deBoer: "If the way we've been doing things worked, it would have worked a long time ago. If generating personal outrage at bad feelings and bad thoughts worked, things would be far better than they are now. This way is not working."

This is another battle we're losing, due not to a lack of bleeding hearts and good intentions, but to awful tactics which end up more self-serving than substantive.  The presidency of Barack Obama, thanks to its historic nature, has only furthered the idea that the problem is not racism but racists.  Similarly, in a few years time, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton will again further the idea that the problem is not sexism but sexists.  Worst of all, though, the underlying assumption in both is that we're actually winning the battle against the forces of oppression.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If anything, the fact that a black man, or a woman, could now become president lends a dangerous air of credibility to myopic arguments referencing equality under the law, economic freedom, and 'personal responsibility' - all of which threaten to cement into place, or even increase the systemic oppression so many face on a daily basis.

No comments:

Post a Comment