Updated below to address a criticism.
A little while ago, I got into an argument with a friend. In the course of objecting to a joke that disparaged women, I said something snide about religion (in this particular case the religion in question was Christianity, but it was a remark about religion in general). My friend asked whether a Christian might not be just as offended by what I’d said, as a feminist1 would be by the sexist joke. I pointed out that our society privileges Christianity and accords more power and respect to Christians, while it marginalizes women and feminism, and seeks to prevent their access to power, so the ceteris isn’t paribus, but he insisted that how offended someone is, is something that’s determined solely by that person and how they feel about what was said, and doesn’t get scaled according to the person’s social status. My position, he argued, was really that I just cared less whether certain groups were offended, than I did about others.
It was an interesting discussion, and it led me to conclude this:
I actually don’t care whether anyone is offended2. Offense is a vague, amorphous concept, and it is completely subjective, as my friend pointed out. Anyone can claim to be deeply, mortally offended by anything, and it may very well be true; even if it’s not, there’s no way to dispute it. “You don’t really feel what you claim you feel,” is a line of argumentation that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
What I care about is harm. What I ultimately said in this other argument was:
The problem with sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, etc., remarks and “jokes” is not that they’re offensive, but that by relying for their meaning on harmful cultural narratives about privileged and marginalized groups they reinforce those narratives, and the stronger those narratives are, the stronger the implicit biases with which people are indoctrinated are. That’s real harm, not just “offense.”
Now, I think many people who write about and try to fight structural bias are just accustomed to using “offensive” as something of a shorthand for this notion of harmful-because-it-reinforces-pernicious-memes; I know I generally have. But offense is only defined in terms of how the offended person feels, which means it’s an insufficient concept. It actually obscures the real problem. As my friend argued, a Christian may be very genuinely offended if an atheist mocks one tenet or another of their religion, and there’s no way to say that that feeling of offense is less real or less valid than any other. And to mock another person is certainly not a nice thing — or more to the point, not a kind thing — to do, so one can argue that the atheist shouldn’t do it for that reason. People are unkind to each other all the time, however, and it doesn’t always do the same degree of harm. If I make a snide joke which hinges on the scientific impossibility of a dead person returning to life after three days, I don’t cause significant harm. There is not a widespread perception in US society that people who do believe such an event happened once, a couple thousand years ago, are so out of touch with reality that they should never be taken seriously, or should be kept away from positions of power, or are automatically stupid; there is not a long history of atheists oppressing Christians and denying them their basic human rights3.
Mocking the powerful and privileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for according that power and privilege reverses, rather than participating in and reinforcing, the cultural narrative that justifies their privilege (and that in so doing necessarily justifies the marginalization and oppression of the powerless and unprivileged). Mocking the powerless and unprivileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for their marginalization does participate in and reinforce the narratives that justify that marginalization.
These things build up. Over a lifetime, they build up a great deal: these usually-unspoken cultural narratives are precisely the stuff of implicit bias, and we’re soaking in them. It’s a mistake to object to them as merely “offensive” — tacitly accepting that the inherently subjective idea of offense is of primary importance, which enables the privileged in claiming, confident it can’t be disproved or even argued against, that they’re “offended” by challenges to their privilege: or as Fred Clark has it, empowers the cult of offendedness — instead of pointing out that they do real harm. They offend too, to be sure; and it’s unkind to offend on purpose, or to fail to apologize for giving offense. But the much greater harm lies in strengthening, even though it’s only a little bit at a time, the negative stories about marginalized groups that are woven into our society, both in the minds of the privileged, and of the marginalized people themselves.
That’s what I care about.
1 I’m reporting this more or less as he argued it — I remain opposed to the use of terms like “feminist” as nouns.
2 This is not strictly true, of course. All other things being equal, I prefer for people not to offend each other; and I especially prefer that no one offend me or people I care about. Not saying or doing offensive things is a reasonably worthwhile goal, as is pointing out when others say or do offensive things and asking them not to. But prevention and mitigation of harm should always take priority over concern about offense.
3 [Update 2010-01-19]: colormonochrome correctly noted that there is a significant history of oppression against Christians, for example from (speaking very roughly and varying in different parts of the world) about two thousand years ago to, say [note that I am not a historian by trade!] 500-1000 years ago in most of Europe, more recently in some places, and ongoing in others, and I’m sorry that I essentially disregarded that. However, given that in my specific examples I’m talking primarily about US society, I believe my claims hold up in that context. Christians have never been a persecuted or marginalized group in the United States, especially not at the hands of atheists.
Bye-bye, Loud Obbs. Don’t bother to write. And congratulations to CNN on finally deciding that middle “N” might mean something after all.
As folks like the indispensable Dave Neiwert have amply chronicled, CNN’s primetime star Lou Dobbs has long provided a mainstream loudspeaker for radical racist/xenophobic nativism, and contributed to the atmosphere of paranoia about “illegals” that leads to the murder of 9-year-old-girls. His vicious, fact-free anti-immigrant ravings alone should have prevented him from ever being allowed a spot on a major news network.
But now he’s picked an additional target, and a new set of paranoid fantasies: President Obama and the Birther cause. It’s hard to imagine how he could get any farther beyond the pale at this point.
CNN needs to either fire Dobbs, or drop the “News” from their name and give similar amounts of coverage to every equally plausible conspiracy theory: the moon-landing-hoax theory, for example, and the Roswell coverup, and of course the 9/11 Truthers while we’re at it. Maybe throw in a special on how no one really knows for sure whether the Freemasons secretly control all the governments of the world. Rehire Glenn Beck, why not? He’s no crazier than the Birthers.
Dobbs is an embarrassment, CNN. Dump him: your credibility’s on the line.
Yesterday, Eric Holder — the country’s first Black Attorney General — gave a speech to DoJ employees in honor of Black History Month. (AP Story; Text of remarks.) The thing that’s been getting particular attention (though, actually, less than I might have expected; perhaps people are just really too busy paying attention to, you know, the ongoing catastrophic meltdown of the world economy) is mainly this line:
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.
Before I continue to talk about this, I’m going to go off on a tangent for a little bit, because it’s my blog, and I can do that.
It seems to me that “the race speech” is an expected rite of passage for PoC politicians and other public figures in America. The person of color, having unsettled white America by ascending to a position of power, must give a thoughtful, nuanced, and above all eloquent speech on the subject of race, confirming in the minds of those unsettled that he or she is, after all, exceptional (and thus not a genuine threat to the extant social order), and reassuring them that everyone bears a share of the responsibility for ongoing racial problems in America (and thus they, on behalf of white people, aren’t being accused of racism) — which anyway are of course much less bad than they were, and really can be solved by everyone making little, painless adjustments in their everyday behavior.
If it’s not abundantly clear how much is wrong with that, on how many different levels, then I’m not sure how to make it more clear. Let me point out, by the way, that this is not a criticism of the PoC public figures placed in this position, or any kind of claim to know what’s in their minds with respect to these speeches and their effects; nor indeed to suggest that the above is necessarily a reasonable reception for such speeches — only that I think this is how they are generally received by white America.
It is not the responsibility of those who have suffered centuries of oppression at the hands of others, and who continue to be disadvantaged by the social and economic structures and norms that developed during those centuries, to help those who have benefited from oppressing them, and who continue to benefit from those same inequitable social and economic structures and norms to feel better about themselves and their history. So suggest that it is, as the expectation of the race speech implicitly does, is nothing less than insane. (I suppose it also supports Holder’s point: that we are indeed cowardly on this topic.)
All right, back to the subject at hand: AG Holder’s actual speech. I think it’s a good speech, and I think he’s right about a lot of things; though I also think he gives too little attention to ongoing structural problems, I understand the political reasons for treading lightly around those. Perhaps, if enough Americans take this speech seriously and act on it, we will finally begin to be able to approach these issues with more maturity, and honestly own up to the things that are wrong. (After all, if we don’t claim them, they aren’t ours to fix.) But Holder raises a lot of very important, and I think correct, points.
Both Rachel S.’s take at Alas! and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s (which has the MSNBC video of the speech embedded) are worthwhile reading. Coates’s criticisms are intriguing to me (I don’t think I agree with them, though) — in some ways, I’d say the speech’s boringness, its workaday matter-of-factness, is actually a strength. The Attorney General’s delivery serves this purpose well, too. He’s not a fiery, electrifying or inspiring orator like the President is; he’s not exhorting or demanding, he’s just saying how things are and what needs to be done.
I’m going to end here. Ultimately, I don’t know how comfortable I am taking on the role of yet another white guy declaiming about race: white people shouldn’t get to set the terms of this debate. So these are just my first-draft, rough-cut opinions, with some links to thinks I think worth reading, and I’m happy to be disagreed with.
A lot has been written, and I expect a lot more will be written, about Resident Evil 5. IGN published a column insisting that it’s not really racist; Eurogamer wrote that of course it’s racist and gamers and the gaming press need to confront it if we want to have any credibility for our claims that games deserve to be taken seriously as an artistic medium.
Penny Arcade addresses the issue today. As often happens, the comic went up before the news post, and I was very concerned, without the context provided by the latter, that the former was an attempt to, like IGN, deride the criticisms of the game’s imagery. I’m very glad to see, in reading the post, that that isn’t the direction Tycho was going. I could have hoped he’d spend more time seriously engaging the racism and what’s wrong with it, but since I was concerned that he’d join much of the gaming press in simply insisting it was no big deal, I’m happy he is in fact taking it seriously. He links to an interview at MTV’s Multiplayer blog with N’Gai Croal, who writes for Newsweek, which I think is worth your time to read. And I think Tycho’s closing paragraph does a good job articulating the change of perspective I hope the discussion of this game provokes in at least some young gamers:
It’s sort of like those Magic Eye pictures. You can’t see it, you can’t see it, and then bam. All you can see is the genocide.
One final note (as it were) that particularly pleased me about the news post: be sure to mouse over the small, italicized epigraph at the bottom of Tycho’s post.
I thought I was going to have more to say about RE5, when I started writing this post: I didn’t mean it to just be about Penny Arcade’s response. But, it turns out, I find the whole situation — both the fact1 of the game’s racism and the impassioned defense of the game being mounted from many corners of the gaming world: a defense which, given the aforementioned fact, genuinely cannot be perceived as anything but pro-racist — tiring and depressing. RE5 is unabashedly, violently racist, and uncritically, unironically2 portrays the wholesale slaughter of black Africans by a white American as heroic. How there can be any debate over whether it’s a “good game” or whether it’s “worth playing” in the face of that, let alone any debate over whether that’s an accurate characterization, is beyond me.
1 Yes, fact. There really is no room for interpretation here.
2 No, “but, see, it’s ironic!” wouldn’t be any kind of defense; I’m not advocating hipster racism. I just want to highlight the apparent complete lack of awareness on the part of the developers that anyone might find blatantly racist, pro-genocide imagery offensive.