Sunday, March 19, 2017

Radical claim: It's wrong to make sweeping claims about any subgroup

I'm going to list some statements, and for each one, I want you to consider whether you find that statement acceptable.

Muslims are terrorists. I hate Muslims.
Women talk about their feelings too much. I hate women.
Gay men are too effeminate. I hate gay men.
Jews own all the media companies and the banks. I hate Jews.
Men are always raping women. I hate men.
Russians are drunken assholes. I hate Russians.
Christians are sanctimonious assholes. I hate Christians.
Black people are criminals. I hate black people.
White people don't give a shit about the problems of the oppressed. I hate white people.
Asians are nerdy superior assholes who all play violin. I hate Asians.
Mexicans are drug smugglers. I hate Mexicans.

For a lot of people, some of these statements are outrageous. and others are perfectly acceptable. Personally, I feel the basic expressive form of "this subgroup does this thing, therefore I hate people of this subgroup" is inherently bad. But among a lot of my friends, two of these statements are perfectly okay. It's okay to say you hate men or white people. All the other statements are horrific, but those two are fine. And I think that is problematic.

Now, if you're one of those people who thinks those statements are fine, you're probably thinking, right now, oh look, white male fragility. This privileged asshole wants people to cry for his fucking oppression.

This is the risk of talking about an issue that affects you personally. If I talk about how it's terrible that people claim Islam is an inherently evil religion that encourages violence in a way other religions don't, and say that's bullshit, no one will say, "oh, you're just saying that because you're Muslim." Because I'm not.  If I say white people shouldn't wear blackface, no one will say, "oh you're just saying that because you're black." Because I'm not. But the moment I say anything suggesting white men shouldn't necessarily be grossly stereotyped and trashed, I am a #notallmen-hashtagging asshole.

There's no real way out of that. If people want to dismiss your arguments by attacking your motives, well, that's what people do. If I claim that for me this is, like a lot of what I am concerned about, a matter of logic, reason, and civility, well, I can go fuck myself, because clearly, I'm just one of them.

I will say this, though. I am not hurt when someone says, "white men suck." First off, it's absurdly hyperbolic, because everyone I've ever heard say this has white male friends. Secondly, it can't do me any harm. The attitude will not cause me any problems in my life. I'm not crying about it.

You can believe me or not, but my objections to saying all white men suck are akin to my objections to saying all Muslims are terrorists. Both are damaging to civil discourse and reasoned discussion. Both cause harm to the fragile fabric of civilization.


The Geneva Convention is an agreement between nations that requires signatories to treat captured soldiers and civilians halfway decently. The countries who signed on did not do so, for the most part, because they were moral people who wanted decency in war. The goal was, rather, to protect each nation's own people.

If the U.S. tortures Iranian POWs, they are de facto endorsing torturing POWs in general. It's a simple statement that it is okay to torture soldiers if they are captured. Which means if some Iranians start torturing U.S. soldiers, the U.S. can't say much about it. "Torture is wrong" is a powerful argument; "torture is wrong when you do it but fine when I do it" doesn't have the same ring.

Anytime someone uses the form, "this subgroup does this thing, therefore I hate people of this subgroup," they are endorsing this as an appropriate way to look at things. They are saying that they believe, thoroughly and completely, that it is acceptable to take the behaviors of some people in a subgroup, claim those behaviors represent the group as a whole, and then write off that entire group as in some way inferior or dangerous or subhuman.

They are saying that incivility and sweeping judgments are okay. They are agreeing to a certain set of rules, and they're only argument is, "it's okay when I do it, but not when you do it."

Of course, there is a simple argument as to why the rules are different when it comes to white men; it's because society's rules are different for white men. This is what is referred to as privilege, and it means that white people and male people have certain inherent advantages. And if society is going to treat white men better, what is wrong with evening things out just a tiny bit by treating them like odious, subhuman monsters. It doesn't do them any real harm, and it feels so good to trash a subgroup; no wonder it's so popular!

I don't say this is entirely unreasonable. I do think there's a difference between saying shit about Muslims and saying shit about white people. White people are not going to get jailed by our oppressive, white-run government. Men are not going to be prohibited from certain medical procedures because of angry Christians. Talk all the shit you want about the groups in power; their privilege will protect them from all of it.

But I still it's inadvisable. Both because, as I say, you are giving sanction to the idea that subgroups can be stereotyped and dismissed, and because you are creating enemies out of potential allies.

Recently someone I know on Facebook complained about people telling her she needed to give potential allies some slack. Why, she asked, should she be gentle to these privileged assholes? They should do what's right because it's the right thing to do, not because she is mollycoddling them. Or as is often said when white people claim to have done something to make the world a better place, "what do you want, a cookie?"

First off, only a small number of people who do anything are motivated entirely by altruism. The people who fight hardest for a cause are those who have a personal stake in it. Gay people fought hardest for marriage equality. Black people fought hardest for an end to Jim Crow laws. Women fight hardest for equal treatment in the workplace. This is natural and understandable. I think there's something admirable about those who fight for a cause because of moral conviction rather than because of personal interest, and honestly, I don't think there's anything monstrous about wanting credit for doing the right thing. Everyone wants a cookie now and again.

But I believe that most people do, in general, want to do the right thing, even if their reasons can be complex and self-interest is always in the equation. And a lot of people will be inclined to help you, are at least not actively act against you, if you are pleasant to them.

For example, let's say you're going into a dangerous country full of savage beasts with a group of people you don't know very well. Let's imagine that some of them are very experienced with savage beasts, some are carrying guns or swords, and some are bigger and stronger than you.

So, as you walk across the border into this dangerous country, you can say to your fellow travelers, "I just want you all to know that I think you're fucking pieces of shit, and if you let me die then you are monsters, and if you help me survive, well, I give you no credit, because that's what people should do for other people."

Or you can say, "you guys are terrific, I think it's great you're so prepared and I think by all working together we have a really good chance of making it through this crazy place. I want you to know I have your back and I know you have mine."

Even if you really hate most of these people, don't you think the second option is more advisable?

Yes, some of your companions will fight just as hard to keep you alive either way. Some people are good, and noble, and understand your anger and don't take it personally. But some would rather help their friends than their foes, so why not be their friends, at least for now?

I mean, if some of your companions are punching you in the head repeatedly, go ahead and kick them in the crotch. But don't just say, "hey, these people are punching me in the head so you're all fucking assholes, even those of you who are trying to stop the people from punching me in the head. You can all go fuck yourselves."

White men have a lot of privilege and a lot of power. That makes people with less privilege understandably angry and mistrustful. But it also means that there are white men who can help or hurt oppressed groups a lot if motivated to do so. It may not be fair, but that's the situation. You can rail against that situation, or you can use it to your advantage.

There are bad people and good people. They cannot be neatly divided by race or sex or wealth or sexual preference. You can hate them by category if you like, but I will always prefer to hate people individually rather than by group, because I have yet to find a subgroup that doesn't have awful people in it, and I have yet to find a subgroup that doesn't have good people in it.

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