I’m Only Afraid That Your Offense Is Fabricated (by a 12-year-old)

One of the perennial memes that crosses my screen goes like this:

When I was a kid, we did X, but now kids can’t do X because people are afraid of offending someone.

There follows the usual “share if you…” blah blah nonsense which is the lifeblood of social media, but that’s an entirely separate issue, so I’ll stop the quote there.

X, of course, changes depending on the specific meme, but since the structure and the sentiment are pretty uniform, and seemingly omnipresent, I decided I should just respond in one place so I can link it and stop wasting time fuming. The other reason for “X” is that, honestly, the problem is never whatever the hell X happens to stand for, it’s with the compounded levels of wrongheaded put together in this sorry excuse for an argument.

The live action The Sound of Music may have scarred us all, but we can still agree that Maria was right in asking us to start at the beginning, so let’s:

When I Was a Kid

I still watch cartoons and collect comics. Hell, I still have my Lion Voltron and a box full of He-Man figures. I absolutely understand holding on to treasured things from when we were kids. There’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly on one’s childhood when possible.

That said, when I was a kid, I thought my Flash underoos could make me run at super speed. I thought you could swing high enough to wrap yourself around the swingset. I thought every guy I was in school with was straight.

All of those are as accurate as the likelihood I can once again fit into a child’s large t-shirt (which I also did “when I was a kid”), so you may see why I’m a bit incredulous of when I was a kid as the primary support for your position.

Let’s also acknowledge that when I was a kid is a way of wrapping nostalgia around a this is how it’s always been and how dare things change argument. To which: people used to believe that heat rose because the top layer of the world was made of fire, that the sun circled the earth, that the uterus was the primary source of mental illness in women, that certain people were property, and that only witches floated in water.

I’m kind of hoping no one reading this is on board with pushing for a return to any of that just because it’s the way things were when someone was a kid.

People Are Afraid

People ascribe motives all the time. Is that guy who cut me off in traffic rushing to the hospital to check on a relative whose health has taken a turn for the worse, or is he just being an asshole? It’s exactly what’s happening with this construction which presumes that the only possible reason for a change in X is fear.

Parents aren’t afraid of their children when they put a bandaid on a scraped elbow and hug them until they stop crying. Or when they lift them to the sink to wash their hands. I’m not afraid of a stranger with an armload of packages when I hold the door for her. Or when I invite someone to sit with me at a party when I notice them wandering a bit aimlessly.

We see people who are hurt, or struggling, or encumbered, or just plain unnoticed, and we reach out. I call that empathy. I think it’s sad as fucking hell if you call it fear, and it says more about you than about “them.”

Also, I hope I’m never running from a serial killer with you around, because it kind of sounds like I can expect to be tripped so you’ll have time to escape.

Offending Someone

The only thing better than ascribing motive is doubling down and ascribing it twice. Because, you see, anyone asking for a change in X is clearly offended.

By the time we get to it, offense loads everything down with a whole lot of ire you can’t for one moment assume. Wanting to exist isn’t offense. Wanting to have a seat at the table, a partner on the dance floor, these aren’t indicative of offense. They’re indicative of longing and attempts at community. And I fail to see why asking for them is by its very nature so aggressive as to be characterized as offense.

Even if there is offense, there seems to be a palpable lack of self-reflection here, since the tone of the whole damn meme makes the poster’s offense palpable, and something which needs to be soothed. For reasons I can’t fathom, however, the offense of others gets an immediate thumbs down.

You’re painting some zombie apocalypse scenario where there are “normal” people, and then some horde of Other: religions, ethnicities, sexualities, levels of ableness, gender identities. All of them, growling and reaching to take a bite out of your tender, pristine flesh.

I think you need to watch a little less Walking Dead, dear heart. Or consider that maybe the mindless, tooth-gnashing horde is on your side of the door.

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Nature vs Nurture vs Numbers

You may or may not have heard about the recent dust up involving Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher, where Affleck was less than pleased with the line of argument Maher and guest Sam Harris started engaging in with regard to Islam. The video below should be the bulk of the exchange, and you’re free to watch all of it, but I’ve cued it up to play the bit I’m most interested in, since it’s about the only bit with any actual data attached. It’s roughly 45 seconds, and mostly skips the uncomfortable argument:

“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted.” It’s a big number, admittedly, but there are two issues I’m going to take with it.

First, the argument Harris is making is about the danger of jihadist dogma among less-than-militant Muslims. Most people remember the Jyllands-Posten scandal because of calls to put cartoonists and publishers to death over the cartoons’ publication. It seems clear to me Harris is using his statistic to try drawing a direct line between “prosecution” and “execution.” The attempt, though, smacks of people using the phrase “card-carrying member” in an attempt to evoke some non-existent connection between Red Scare Communists and the ACLU.

Still, in land-of-the-free world, 78% of folks just wanting fines or jail time for free expression is, understandably, still troubling. So I went looking for the poll. Harris doesn’t cite it on the show, but ye Google would suggest this article is referencing the same poll. It also provides what I think is some enlightening context:

Asked about attitudes towards free speech, there was little support for freedom of speech if it would offend religious sensibilities. 78% of Muslims thought that the publishers of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed should be prosecuted, 68% thought those who insulted Islam should be prosecuted and 62% of people disagree that freedom of speech should be allowed even if it insults and offends religious groups

So, from the poll sample, there’s only a 16% gap between British Muslims who want to prosecute for the Danish cartoons and those who think speech should be prosecuted when it’s insulting to any religious group, not just in the case of offenses to Islam. And here’s where I think something other than religious factors has to come into consideration. The fact of the matter is, UK laws on hate / offensive speech are not nearly as lenient as they are in the US.

In fact, it only took me Wikipedia plus a few clicks to find an example of British prosecution for “religiously offensive” cartoons, this one from five years after the Jyllands-Posten incident Sam Harris is talking about:

It took [the jury] just 15 minutes to find Mr Taylor guilt[y] of “religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress” after viewing the “grossly abusive and insulting” images in court. The cartoons — which had been cut from newspapers, magazines and other mainstream publications — included one showing a smiling Christ on the cross next to an advert for a brand of “no nails” glue. In another, the Pope is shown wearing a condom on his finger. Others featured Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise who are told, “Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.”

The conviction was made using a still-in-force piece of legislation called the Crime and Disorder Act, passed in 1998, which includes provisions against “racially or religiously aggravated harassment.” I’m not here arguing that the law is sound, or that it reflects the whole of society in the UK. Even at the time, people were trying to change it.

However, so far as I can tell, it’s still on the books.

Especially relevant here is that the “religiously offensive” cartoons in this case actually included one of the Danish cartoons (“Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise are told: ‘ Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.'”).

That a jury trial in 2010 actively convicted someone for displaying a cartoon set including at least one of the Danish samples points to at least a moderate social context in support of legal sanction against public religious mockery. Given that, it seems entirely possible that some portion of Muslims in the UK support prosecution not due to a specific religious belief, but because the UK in general is more inclined to prosecute for perceived religious insults by authors. Insisting that the sample is a significant indicator of Muslim thinking without once considering or acknowledging what impact thinking in the UK may play into the results seems irresponsible. Given that the same poll questions weren’t conducted outside Muslim citizens, it’s difficult to make any kind of assertions from a solid statistical base.

There was one other statistic which cropped up in the argument. At one point, Maher says he’s seen a Pew poll of Egyptions Muslims, in which “like 90% of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.”

While the number I found–that 64% of Egyptian Muslims believe leaving Islam should result in death–is well south of Maher’s 90%, it’s still a unarguably disturbing statistic. That those numbers don’t play out across all Muslims, though, again suggests that the issue may be as much national-cultural and it is religious-cultural, or at least that perhaps that’s worth considering.

Does the view persist out to Ablanian Muslims? It does, though there the number is 1%. If I’m being honest, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover at least that many Christians hold similar views about people who perform abortions. I would never consider using that to characterize the core values of the majority of practitioners, though.

Maher regularly gives a kind of hand-wave to Christian extremism and terrorism as a response to his ideas re: Islam. Usually, he makes a crack about how long it’s been since The Crusades. I sort of think that that folks in Northern Ireland, or Utøya, or even Oklahoma City might have some stories to suggest that we aren’t nearly that far away from Judeo-Christians turning to terrorist acts.

But setting that aside, if we’re going to say that the core problem of religious terrorism is that religion over there with a document full of dicta supporting violence in support of faith, I think we have to admit that, short of Thomas Jefferson, there aren’t a whole lot of people excising the violent portions and decrees in The Bible. The core document of Christianity still calls for stoning, just for an easy example.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, except to say that arguments which seem to take the religion of violent factions as the only influential element in said violence seem to be fairly narrow in their view. I don’t think it’s as simple as positing that religion there. That’s the troublemaker. Geopolitical conflict isn’t simple, and it isn’t getting any simpler. Attempts to boil it down into The One Root Cause unfortunately feel, to me, like their premise is just as fantastical as, say, a virgin birth.

Focusing Past a Catchy Title

There are two not-entirely-related reasons why a recent Yahoo article by Quentin Fottrell, on homeowners being less than keen on neighboring renters, caught my attention. Before we start, though: I’m a renter. My best friends own their home. We get along just fine, so I have no interest in starting some kind of owner/renter turf war. Unless there is some Jerome Robbins choreography for me to poorly execute. That might be worth a scuffle.

But honestly, the first thing that has me flummoxed about this article is that I don’t even think it really speaks to its initial premise. Instead, there’s a buried lead/angle:

There has been a marked increase in “residential segregation” by income over the past three decades, according to a 2102 [sic] survey released by Pew Research Center, which cross-referenced household income and “census tracts” by the U.S. Census Bureau. The share of middle class areas in the U.S. is down to 76% in 2010 from 80% in 1980, Pew found, with the share of lower-income neighborhoods rising to 28% from 23%, and upper-income areas doubling to 18% from 9%.

I don’t know. It’s snazzy to have a title about America hating renters; you even have that funny little graphic with one of those Lazy Renters in it. Tee-hee. But, come on, how is the economic disparity this points to, and the divide between economic brackets, not the real story here?

On one hand there’s explicit acknowledgement that there are wide swaths of people who can’t afford–or for whom it would probably be financially inadvisable–to own. Then quotes like “Homeowners are perceived to care more about their property, its appearance, safety of the community and property values” go completely unchallenged.

Seriously, all the pieces are there to put together, to point to the fact that “renter” in this context is clearly less about actually renting and more a shorthand for “poorer,” and the arguments against both smack fantastically of bootstrap theory: if these people really cared about the neighborhood, they’d buy into it like I did! is painfully close to if these people really wanted to support themselves, they’d go get jobs like I did! And it’s about as short-sighted.

Of course, when the article’s stated premise doesn’t even hold through to its own conclusion, I’m not sure how much more we can expect a real examination of the pieces which are strewn about its rambling path. That’s the second thing that hit me: Fottrell starts with “Most Americans know their neighbors by name, new research finds, and might even invite them over occasionally for tea.” Half a dozen paragraphs later, however, “[T]here’s evidence that plenty of people don’t know the first thing about their neighbors: Only 46% of urbanites know their neighbors by name….” So, most Americans know a lot about their neighbors. Except for their names.

I am super-interested for the followup article here which will, I have to assume, suggest that lots of Americans are stalking their neighbors, since that’s the only way I can pair “know a lot about a person” with “never learned the person’s name” in any real-world setting.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my jazz shoes before the rumble.

Uncomfortable Synchronicity and Awkward Metaphors

Maybe there aren’t coincidences, but it certainly seemed an odd bit of synchronicity that two non-linked (in the way of the internet link, that is) things happened nearly on top of each other during my online time wasting t’other day.

First, via Gail Simone’s twitter, came Lily Tsui’s excellent list titled “Signs You’re a Shitty White Ally.” It starts with “reverse racism” and only gets better from there. It’ll take you maybe two minutes to read it, so do yourself a favor and take that time.

Second, a friend posted a link to a Tumblr reblog of a great post calling out blackface Halloweening in 2013, Trayvon Martin gags, and the disparaging a young, African-American girl:

There’s no question that the three of them are racists, but Caitlin disgusted me by taking an unconsented picture of somebody else’s little girl, somebody else’s child, and using them as the target of racism for a facebook status. I’m including that too because how nasty do you have to be? As if the Halloween photos don’t answer that question.

Let me add that this stuff right here, EVERYBODY, is the reason you can’t darken your skin to portray a Black person. Because this is used to dehumanize us. Whether you intend to or not, you are perpetrating Blackface.

IT. IS. RACIST.

I was saddened by the fact that some of the comments on my own friend’s Facebook share turned to the title of the Tumblr which reblogged it: “White People Said What?”1 Namely, assertions that said title was in and of itself racist. This, as you may expect, reminded me of that first list about allies. I thought about trying to comment on Facebook, but I really like using way too many words for anything that could be considered a comment. On the other hand: that’s what blogs are for.

Fair-ish warning: I’m going to get things wrong here for whatever value wrong has in this kind of discussion. I’m going to make someone(s) uncomfortable, or just pissed off. I kind of feel like it’s objectively impossible for that not to happen. First: I kind of think that makes some of the point. Because second: if it were easy to make a happy-fun post and the world would instantly transform, someone already would have done it.

So, then. I can understand some of the defensiveness about that blog title. It’s uncomfortable to be lumped in with individuals who are participating in behavior you find loathsome, which makes your skin crawl and which you would never condone. I imagine it’s a bit like having people assume you’re a criminal based on the color of your skin, though only insofar as having a case of poison ivy is like contracting a flesh-eating virus.

Seriously, if the price of pointing out the kind of offensive mindset which continues to crop up, which is most virulently symptomatic of unrestrained privilege, is that I get lumped in with a few assholes, I think that’s maybe worth having the chance to call out the assholes. I’d rather get a bit of splash back in the pursuit of educating away this kind of thinking than just let it fester in order to keep my own face clean.

To put it another way: we can discuss the efficacy of argument, and putting one’s audience at ease and all, but while we’re doing that we seem to be not spending time talking about the fact there’s still blackface in 2013. Cart and horse; order matters. But that’s kind of how white privilege works, which is why we have to keep talking about it.

The American / Western default is still built from the straight, white male, and moves undeniably downward from there. When I say someone is “a normal person,” most people who are being honest, who aren’t actively attempting to subvert instincts2, picture a white man. Not because white men are more “normal” than other people, or because they’re superior, but because that’s how society is built right now. From there, you can swap out genitalia by adding a gendered pronoun to the phrase, or attach a different ethnic heritage via extra adjectives, but our current boilerplate for modifications is still White Guy.

Intervention analogies aren’t out of place here: admitting the problem has to be the first step. In this case, the problem is white privilege. And it is a long, painful slog to trying to even things out so that it isn’t, especially when otherwise open-minded thinkers and compassionate individuals are still struggling with that first step. I think part of that has to do with the splash back I mentioned before. No one, especially folks who consider themselves open-minded thinkers, wants to feel like a racist, and admitting to white privilege can totally feel like that.

But I believe admitting white privilege exists, and that you (or I, or anyone who does) benefit from it in however small an amount doesn’t instantly make you evil. You didn’t build the society you were born into any more than the people who don’t benefit from innate privilege. Also important: It doesn’t instantly-evil your parents or teachers or any other loved ones, because society is bigger than them. Bigger, by and large, than even everyone you know personally. It’s definitely older than anyone you know personally. It’s a colossal, intimidating mass of time and people with which you can’t possibly have interacted directly, but all of which feeds into our now and the atmosphere we navigate.

Which leads me to geek-metaphor as a closer:

We land the embryonic shuttle craft on a world with a toxic atmosphere. We’ve actually been lucky enough to have been genetically modified to thrive in it, however. But the technology was too expensive to use on everyone. We didn’t get it from merit but from lottery. Remember: there’s an artificial colony behind us, where a whole bunch of people who didn’t win the genetic lottery3 have to try to make due with limited survival suits and costly food processing.

Unless, that is, we get our asses in gear and sweat and toil and do the necessary cultural terraforming that will make this place just as much for them as it is for us. It might not be done in our lifetimes. And the process itself will make our adaptations less and less effective. But others are walking out in their suits and chipping away at the problem. It’s better. They can take their helmets off periodically, and there are strains of flora and fauna which don’t actively attack their intestines. But at the end of the day, they still have to go back to that city in a bottle, so there’s still plenty of work to be done, because the stars at night are completely awesome without that murky dome between us and them, and I want everyone to see them.

1. My link is to the original post, because sources, but I can’t seem to find that particular Tumblr any more. The Google cache has the latest post saying “My blogs have been fixed. I’m not deleting any of them,” but Tumblr won’t let me see it. I don’t know if that means the author subsequently removed it, or if Tumblr did, or if it’s something else of the far more benign variety.
2. Which we should be. Absolutely. Again: that’s part of the point. But we can’t subvert it if we keep trying to pretend it doesn’t exist in the first place.
3. And in case it’s not clear: this doesn’t make the winners objectively better, just better suited for living in a single, less-than-benign environment.

If I Don’t Know How to Do It, How Hard Can It Be?

The title is from an old boss I had, who would pull that phrase out as a half-joke whenever someone would balk at a task. It is, however, a kind of continuation on some of the things I was nattering about yesterday. In this case, I’m not so concerned with time / pay math breakdowns, however, but with the idea that talented persons (people for whom something is easy-as-measured-by-not-them) shouldn’t attach substantial value to their art.

This position stacks a couple of different, problematic assumptions that I don’t think necessarily follow. The first I’ve partially already covered, in that the apparent ease with which an artist … er, arts, is many times due to a lot of energy and effort which was not, at the time, easy. We call that training.

I don’t imagine anyone thinks even the most gifted of surgeons woke up one day and just knew how to work her particular miracles. Just because it isn’t literally brain surgery doesn’t mean that artists didn’t put in the work to get themselves there. At the same job I was talking about before, one of the typesetters had her own response to accusations that software made the work easy: “You aren’t paying me what I make to push a few buttons. You’re paying me because I learned which buttons to push.”

The above doesn’t acknowledge that, yes, people are born with certain innate proclivities. They have natural talents, the honing of which require innately less measurable effort than the sweating and toiling of those not naturally inclined to a given art.

If the narrative you’re pushing indicates that money is the result of effort and labor, then those for whom a task naturally takes less effort are less valuable by the sum of whatever ease “talent” provides. So, hey, if you were born with perfect pitch or able to draw in perspective from the age of 5, it was all easy for you, and why should you get rewarded just for being born?

Except we reward people for applying their natural talents all the time. But no one sits around saying “Yeah, but Einstein was born a big brain. Why should he have gotten a Nobel Prize?” Do I think every piece of art is as immense as the theory of relativity? No. But neither do I think it’s fair to dismiss the value of art because “it’s easy.” The judicious application of talent is, often, anything but. Especially when it comes with an instant de-valuation based on the perception that talent and work are opposite concepts.