Sunday, June 19, 2016

Grumpy Thoughts About Weird Political Thinking. Or Down The Rabbit Hole.

Writing about general politics, women's issues and gender politics can be terribly grating*, as if one's skin slowly becomes perforated and all the viciousness and the acid and the hatred seeps in.  That's when I go all grumpy and mean-spirited.

Here are a few of my not-so-nice grumpy thoughts, in no particular order of importance.  They are about the various ways we can fall down the rabbit hole.

1.  Nobody becomes an expert in, say, the UK politics simply by assuming that it all works exactly the same as US politics.  I see far too much American Internet commentary where the assumption is that total understanding of the situation in some European country can be established through an American filter.  That is just not true.  There are similarities, sure, but the details matter, differences in political systems and demographics matter, different histories and cultures matter, and nothing makes local knowledge unimportant.

2.  Europe is not one country with one major language and one shared history.  Americans shouldn't treat Europe that way, or assume that all countries in Europe participated in the genocide of Jews or in colonizing other parts of the world.  Or that all European countries are, say, places where gender equality is far advanced and the social safety net strong and firm.

Both of the above points apply even more strongly to countries elsewhere on this planet.  I chose to focus on Europe because the superficial similarities between, say, the UK and the US can be deceptive, leading many not-so-informed Americans to believe that they know more about the events in Europe than they actually do.  The reverse also applies:  Many Europeans have views about the US which are largely based on television series and movies and various stereotypes.

3.  Nuance.  In general.  Oh how I wish it were back in fashion.  Not because I would be a cucumber-sandwiches-and-tea type of goddess, but because reality truly is nuanced.  For example, the motives of the Orlando butcher can be many.  We don't have to insist on finding one single motive for what he did.

And while I'm criticizing the quality of political Internet debates, I also want to notice that snark** isn't really the same as refuting someone's arguments.  It can be fun and it can be deserved, but it's not a refutation. Reasoned arguments take effort, and following (and checking) them can also be hard work.  But the results from them can be greater information and better solutions.

4.  There's a tremendous (and invisible) bias in much of political writing of treating one side in a conflict as being without any agency at all.  It's strongest in political propaganda which wishes to paint some group or country as the evil one and so focuses on the deeds of only those 'demonic' forces, but it's also common in more balanced articles.

For instance, victims are often treated as passive objects of the horrible things which happen to them.  Sometimes this is just the truth, as in drone strikes or terrorist attacks,  but more generally even victims may have some agency, some way of resisting, some way of expressing what they think or believe.  That this is frequently ignored is because it doesn't go with the unconscious plot the writer has in her or his mind or with the way which maximizes the impact of the piece.  I have done that myself, so I know.

But it's lamentable because it twists reality, even if the intention behind that is good.

5.  Linked to that grumbling is this one:  People to whom bad things happen are not necessarily all saints, people who are oppressed may themselves also be oppressors in different relationships or would love that opportunity, and yet we should criticize the bad things which have happened to them.  In short, the goals and desires of various oppressed groups are not necessarily in alignment.  Sometimes those groups fight for the same crumbs off the table of the powerful.  And no, not all powerful people are evil just because they are powerful.

6.  What I wrote in 5. can result in the most exquisite contortions for those social justice activists (say, feminists) who base their activism on supporting the simultaneous total rights of many groups and suddenly find that one of those groups might not support the rights of another one of those groups***.

What to do? I've seen some people just cover their eyes and ears and refuse to engage with the dilemma, though some take sides, ranking one group as the more deserving one, even if it's the  group deemed overall most deserving which happens to be violating some progressive values.  Hence the contortions.

These are avoidable.  The way one does that is by holding onto those progressive values in each case, never mind who violates them, while not dropping the support of equal rights of the violating group to all the other good things.  And to be fair, many writers and activists do exactly this.

For an example of what I'm writing about, consider this:

Some (or many) white working class people in the US**** might be racist, and when they are their behavior should be condemned.  But this doesn't mean that they wouldn't be suffering because of their lower social class and because of the increasing income inequality in the US.  When it comes to those aspects their case should be supported.

It's like blowing bubbles with the chewing gum while riding the tricycle.  Doable, right?  At least if we start from the principles-end and not the victim-end.

7.  Something doesn't have to be true just because it is re-tweeted a thousand times.  I've seen two recent Twitter examples of joyful mass dissemination of terrible data.  Lies, in fact, though not intentional lies in either case, just seriously bad interpretations of the sources the initial tweeters used.  A bit like thinking that the page number in a book has something quantitative to say about what's written on the page it refers to.

Always verify.  That is my motto and I follow it 98 times out of each hundred.  The other two times I get caught by you, my very erudite readers.

And that verification is even more urgent if what is asserted pleases your political side.  That's when you might re-tweet something inane and end up with egg on your face.

Most folks will not verify, sadly, and so the lie still careens around the world while the truth tries to figure out a way to refute it in 140 characters and without getting squished in a Twitter war.

That's an oversimplification, of course.  There are cases where the truth isn't that clear, but that's no excuse for not trying for maximal truthfulness in our political communications.

*  As in "make America grate again," which misquotes Donald Trump.  But he certainly has raised the level of viciousness in Internet commentary.

**  And neither is hate speech.  That should go without saying.

***  Two fairly recent examples of the kinds of conflicts which might cause those contortions, but don't have to:

1.   African-Americans, especially African-American Protestants, are less likely to support gay and Lesbian rights than white Americans.  In 2016, 57% of whites and 42% of African-Americans support same sex marriage. This average (though shrinking) difference in opinions affected the passing of California's Proposition 8 in 2008, which banned same-sex marriage in California.  The proposition was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States, but the majority of both African-Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics, voted for it:

African American voters, who were overwhelmingly in favor of banning same sex marriage (70 percent supported Proposition 8) even as they supported Obama even more heavily (94 percent).  And, to a lesser degree, Hispanic voters followed that same trend -- backing Prop. 8 by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin while giving President Obama 74 percent.

2.    Last New Year's eve's mass sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany,  by men of mostly North African origin, many of them asylum seekers, put quite a few feminists writers between the rock and the hard place:  How does one write about a form of sexual assault which truly is a new one in Europe and which is almost impossible for women to defend themselves against, without inciting more anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and racist bigotry?

It looked to me as if several writers felt that they had to choose which group to support, in some overall sense.  Thus I read, repeatedly, that there was nothing new  in these assaults (not true), and that there's something very fishy when suddenly the European right wing is concerned about sexual assaults and women's rights (exceedingly true). 

That the events in Cologne were used by the right-wing nationalists and racists (a group which is not exactly known for its feminism) for their own purposes counted more in the final feminist scale of things for some writers (not necessarily those I linked to above) than what happened to hundreds of women in Cologne.

Yet it should have been possible to note that the vast majority of refugees or migrants in Europe did not participate in these assaults or others of the same type,  that, indeed sexual harassment and assaults are not exactly unknown in European countries, but that it still is very important to nip mass sexual harassment in its bud.  And none of this matters at all when it comes to defending the general rights and welfare of refugees in Europe or when it comes to fighting against racism in general.

I'm sure there are many other similar examples, even recent ones, but those two are the ones I had jotted down in some detail.

More generally, being a feminist, say, doesn't preclude the possibility that one is also a racist or bigoted about trans-people.

People who do anti-racists work can be sexists (by, say, treating African-American women as invisible while focusing on the treatment of African-American men or just by being the ordinary type of sexists) and a few trans people believe in gender-essentialist arguments (about which types of behaviors should go with which gender identities) which in my opinion are sexist.

Progressives can be bigoted about poor whites in the US South.   In all these cases the trick is to disapprove of the bad behavior and to interrogate any iffy arguments, but not to drop some group from those who are deemed good enough to deserve fair treatment overall.  We all deserve fair treatment.

I'm not exploring these examples from some high-and-mighty pure goddess perch, by the way.  I identify lots of unpleasant bottom mud in my own thinking, including the fact that when I took the Implicit Associations Test my results suggested slight sexism in my own views!  How's that for something to think about? 

Though the associations actually measure stuff we are accustomed to quickly correlating with some other stuff, not necessarily our agreement with those associations.  But still.  All the various -isms are in the air we breathe, in our upbringing, in the religious values we are being taught.  So we should have some small amount of compassion mixed with the stern condemnation when we find others failing the value tests.

****  I picked this example and not one about the white middle class people who can also be racist, because I want the group in my example to be low on the totem pole in some other respect.