Friday, November 13, 2015

Oh, I Definitely Would Have Supported That Civil Rights Movement

One of the more obnoxious white people complaints about what's happening at Mizzou and Yale (and spreading elsewhere!) is that this is all over some petty stuff. But this argument is tricky to make, not because it's empirically wrong (which it is, but that's not what these people are concerned about), but because it has a good chance of making you look like a racist.

And of course you're not a racist, you're a Good Person™. So to prove your bonafides as a Good Person™, you have to point out that you don't disagree with equality, you just think these damn kids are going too far and being too sensitive when they complain about being called racial slurs and threatened with death. So what you do instead is find something some Black person did sometime that you can safely agree with to show how not-racist you are.

I can't count the number of times I've seen denunciations of Mizzou phrased as some version of "the civil rights movement was actually necessary, these kids are just whining about nothing!" Because everyone supports the civil rights movement…now.

But did you know there was a time when MLK and the civil rights movement and all those other now-venerated events and people were not super popular? In fact, it turns out that when the civil rights movement was actually happening, a lot of people didn't think it was necessary. They thought it was a bunch of uppity kids complaining about petty stuff that didn't matter. And it wasn't just Klan members, but self-appointed Good People™who thought this was all a bunch of unnecessary grandstanding by self-important troublemakers.

It might help these people who argue "MLK = good, Mizzou = entitled brats" to go back and read what Good People™ like them were saying at the time these things were actually happening. It turns out white America wasn't super fond of the civil rights movement! Shocking! To hear most white people tell it, everyone supported the obviously-correct civil rights movement. Of course they did! They were Good People™, not racists!

….and yet, for some reason the civil rights movement had to happen. Why, it's almost as if there were a lot of white people who weren't on board. Hell, it almost seems like most white people weren't on board, which is why the civil rights movement was necessary in the first place.

But that can't be, because that would imply that progress can happen against the wishes of white people (who are, of course, Good People™), which wouldn't make any sense, because no white people are actually racist. Hell, to hear them tell it, the civil rights movement was basically their idea and the only people who opposed it were a very tiny number of sheet-wearing terrorists. Why the federal government had to repeatedly intervene is kind of confusing, but we can just leave that aside, I guess.

Anyway, not able to come up with any better ideas, I've been collecting and cataloging screen shots of people making this argument, so that 40 years from now when this period is codified as a universal good that only a very small ignorant minority opposed, but whatever current struggle is happening is just a bunch of spoiled kids, I can pull up all of these to point out that, nope, the white, moderate Good People™always oppose progress. That is, of course, until the progress happens, and then they claim they were on-board the entire time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What's The Big Deal? It's Just Some Mean Words!

Probably the most obnoxious and pernicious derailing tactic in response to the current rebellion on the campus of the University of Missouri is the tone-deaf argument of so many white folks that this all boils down to some kids not being able to handle the fact they were called a mean word.

This is a really dumb argument. Actually, it goes far beyond dumb. It's fucking stupid and racist as hell.

Leaving aside the entire (well researched and empirically-supported) concept of how microaggressions operate and why they're important to understand*, it's still easy to grasp why this goes beyond some mean words. So easy, in fact, that to make the argument these kids "just need thicker skin" and to "ignore their bullies" is an argument so obviously bullshit that I can't even accept it's simply a clueless ignorance of what's going on, but is instead an intentional attempt to minimize an incredibly important issue.

Because the "mean word" in this case is not just any random word. It is "nigger."

This is a word I typically avoid using even in an academic context such as this, but in this case, it's really important to literally spell out the invective being hurled here.

Because "nigger" is not a mean word like any other word. "Nigger" has a very special place in American history, as the word (and much more importantly, what the word represents) has been integral to maintaining America's racial hierarchy for centuries.

"Nigger" is the reason white men were free to rape Black women for centuries. "Nigger" is the reason it was not only acceptable, but obviously natural and even moral, for Black people to be enslaved. "Nigger" is the reason Black men were lynched simply for the sake of being Black men. "Nigger" is the reason a 14 year old kid could be murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman.

And it's not like this stuff is ancient history. "Nigger" is the reason a 12 year old kid playing in the park could be murdered by a police officer and the murder deemed "justifiable" by the courts. "Nigger" is the reason a 17 year old kid could be stalked and murdered by a man with a long history of violent crimes and yet somehow be the one who's actions were most closely scrutinized at trial. "Nigger" is the reason the deadliest hate crime against Black Americans in 75 years happened just a few months ago, not the very distant past. "Nigger" is the reason more unarmed Black Americans have been killed by police this year than were lynched in any year since 1923.

So when a white person calls a Black person "nigger," they're not just saying a mean word. They're invoking literal centuries of horrific crimes against Black people. They're invoking the idea that white people can do whatever they like to Black people with the confidence that no punishment will come to them. They are simply employing a short hand way of saying "Not only do I think you're subhuman, but I could murder you right here and right now for no reason and the majority of this nation would spend their time examining what you did to invite this murder, many of whom would celebrate me as a hero." They're invoking the idea that Black lives truly do not matter to a very large segment of our population.

So if you truly can't wrap your head around why these folks are so upset by a "mean word," in your head just replace "mean word" with "being threatened with murder by someone who will face no consequences for their actions," and then see if you still think it's no big deal.

*But for the record, we shouldn't put that aside! The only reason I'm skipping it here is to avoid this devolving into a discussion of whether or not microaggressions are real (they are), because this is one of those terms asshole white people have picked up on as a marker they need to virulently disagree with whatever point is being made, regardless of its merits.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Trigger Warnings: They're Not That Hard!

Discussions of trigger warnings are everywhere, and man, are some people confused. So confused, a lot of them are angry. A quick google of "Trigger warnings ruining America" returns just shy of three quarters of a million results.

Sure, sometimes some people may go a tad overboard with the concept, but in reality, it's not terribly difficult to figure out. As with most such things, it really just boils down to "Don't Be A Dick." I've written before about discussing rape and sexual assault in class, and again, I pretty much just stick to the edict of not being a dick about things, and it's served me pretty damn well. It hasn't required the insane amounts of stress and negotiation that the critics seem to think; instead, it's just required not actively being a dick.

So if not being a dick is too hard, I've come up with a simple and handy way to understand trigger warnings: they're pretty analogous to allergies. In fact, I think it maps really well. Walk through a hopefully non-tortured analogy with me, won't you?

To being with, much like allergies, there are some obviously well know trigger warnings you should be aware of. So just like any decent restaurant should be sure to warn people if they use a bunch of peanuts, what with the fact that peanut allergies are both serious and well-known, you should take a second and think before you bring up news of some sort of horrible sexual assault, because a lot of people have been sexually assaulted and it's a pretty serious trauma for many of them. Or, for instance, maybe don't share a bunch of graphic photos of war casualties to your buddy who just got home from a deployment.

To stretch the analogy further, there are some allergies that are really obscure. If someone is allergic to, say, oranges (I have no idea if this is a thing), they would probably have to get used to letting people know they shouldn't use oranges around them, because most people are probably not thinking about people with orange allergies (if they exist). Similarly, some people may be triggered by very unusual or obscure things, so they may have to go a bit out of their way to let people know not to discuss certain topics around them.

And finally: yes, sometimes people will make a ridiculous fuss about trigger warnings. Maybe even go well beyond what could be considerable reasonable at all. This doesn't invalidate the concept of trigger warnings! It just means that person might be an asshole. It's similar to all the people who have self-diagnosed a gluten insensitivity -- they're just idiots following a trend. But for many people with actual, diagnosed celiac disease, even a tiny amount of gluten can be incredibly damaging to them. Just because some people use the term incorrectly doesn't mean these people are no longer afflicted with celiac.

So again, it's pretty simple. Just don't be a dick. But if that's too hard, just think of trigger warnings as helping people with allergies. You wouldn't serve peanuts to someone with a deadly peanut allergy, so don't trigger people who have experienced emotional trauma.

Update: Shortly after I finished writing this, I came across a post to this article. It provides a much more detailed and in-depth case for basically exactly what I'm arguing (e.g. that trigger warnings aren't a big deal, they just mean not actively being a dick to people). Here's a great pull quote from the linked piece:

Professors give warnings of all sorts that, when not explicitly entangled in the national politics of political correctness, amount less to coddling than to minimizing chances of disengagement with material. “Block off more time this weekend than you usually do, since the reading for Monday is a particularly long one,” for instance, is a reasonable way of reducing the number of students who show up unprepared by issuing a warning. “Today we’re discussing a poem about rape, so be prepared for some graphic discussion, and come to office hours if you have things to say about the poem that you’re not comfortable expressing in class,” meanwhile, is a similarly reasonable way of relieving the immediate pressure to perform in class, which stresses out so many students.