Terrified Tabetic is getting a bit cynical, it seems. Commenting on PZ Myers’ commenting on Making Light’s commenting on Boing Boing’s commenting on Peter Watts’ experience at the U.S.-Canadian border:
I am completely unsurprised that border guards would rough someone up and treat them disrespectfully. I am also unsurprised that another arrogant white dude seems shocked that people are mistreated by law enforcement officials.
The ennui, it burns.
TT, you’re not shocked by the treatment Dr. Watts received. I’m not shocked by it. PZ’s not shocked by it. Nobody who’s paying any attention to the world around them is shocked. Some of us are still outraged, as we’ve been outraged all along.
Isis, on the other hand, is amused.
Many of us in the blogosphere quietly chuckled because this thing that happened to Watts, horrible and unjustifiable as it is, happens to brown people all the time. And it generates no outrage.
Now, as someone who wrote about Dr. Watts’ situation last week, I’ve got a couple things to say on the situation. First, my reaction to the news was not shock. The only surprise for me in the story was that the U.S. border patrol was stopping people leaving the country.
That didn’t stop me from using the story to draw attention to the problem. This is a pervasive problem, not just at the border, not just for white (although I just had to look that up to be sure), Canadian science fiction writers with doctoral degrees in marine mammal biology. In fact, like any pervasive problem, I’m well aware that it’s going to have a disproportionate impact on the “invisible” people–ethnic and religious minorities, the poor, the uneducated, people with mental and physical disabilities, people with unpopular political views.
However, because I have close ties to the online science fiction community (and Dr. Watts participated in last year’s run-up to ScienceOnline), this was the opportunity that got pushed across my screen. I grabbed it, hoping to push it into another sphere and make people who haven’t been paying attention as outraged as I am. And yes, I looked at it and chuckled to myself, “Yeah. Just try to do your oh-they-must-have-been-asking-for-it-cause-they’re-somehow-scary dance on this one, jerks. Time to face up to the fact that this problem can bite you too.”
I don’t like the fact that the vast majority of people are empathy-challenged. I’m doing what I can to change that, to get people to understand that different doesn’t equal wrong doesn’t equal not entitled to the same basic rights. I want a world in which no one needs, as Isis said, “some white patrons to show them to the majority culture.”
That is my goal, but in the meantime, I’m not a purist. If somebody hands me a political sledgehammer for use on one of those pervasive issues, I’m going to use it, because the vast majority of people can’t be moved to political action by anything short of that. I’m going to use it even if it exploits something in society that I hate, because it is still a “real injustice” and because, even if the sledgehammer is of the majority culture, that doesn’t change the fact that most of the injustice happens to minorities.
Zuska compared PZ’s post to the news coverage for a missing white woman, but I don’t think that’s quite the right analogy. Ryan White was the face of AIDS research. Gay men largely stopped dying from the disease. Minority homeless people benefit from the snow-white appeals for Christmas donations to shelters. Who stands to benefit from the enforcement of due process and a curb on the arbitrary exercise of nonexistent police authority? Everybody who isn’t already too powerful to have to worry about it. It’s cynical as hell, but it’s doing something.
That brings me to my second point. Terrified Tabetic noted that he had a friend, Mohammed, who experienced similar problems. I asked (responding to cynicism with the same, I’m afraid), why this was the first time he was telling me about it. Isis talks about brown injustices being shunted aside, but she doesn’t provide any stories.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that either TT or Isis isn’t walking the talk. They both do. But what they’re both doing in this situation is responding to white-guy story with minority-inclusion critique, and critique just isn’t as powerful as story.
Dr. Watts is a science fiction writer. That means that unless he’s very, very good–in terms of sales, not writing–he’s squeaking along moneywise. For a pasty guy, he’s not very powerful. There’s no good reason for his story to be noticed over any other pasty guy’s. In fact, the press was entirely uninterested.
However, Dr. Watts knows Cory Doctorow, otherwise known as Boing Boing (yes, I’m simplifying slightly). Doctorow wrote a short narrative piece on Dr. Watts’ ordeal. Boing Boing made sure that plenty of people saw the story, and it stuck and spread. It spread successfully, in part, because the people passing it on were also storytellers and because Dr. Watts’ own version of the story is short, bitter and shows why his work is award-nominated.
Story works. Story matters. Story is remembered in a way that arguments and reasoning aren’t. Without story, we wouldn’t have so damned many teenaged (of whatever chronological age) libertarians running around. Story is what I do all over this blog, whether I’m talking about science or politics or art–even when I’m making a logical argument–and that’s what gives this tiny blog an influence entirely disproportional to its small readership (and by the way, I love you guys).
To bring this back to the topic at hand, Isis has a point about repackaging. Some experiences do get repackaged. However, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I took “Carrie’s” parents’ Facebook status updates–pure worried experience–and repackaged them and my knowledge that portion of the anti-vaccine movement that isn’t motivated by profit into a story about the consequences of non-vaccination. I did the same thing with another friend’s outrage on Twitter over not being able to get health insurance for his daughter. These aren’t my experiences–I’m not even a parent–but I translated them into stories aimed at particular audiences, and the people whose experience I used thanked me for it. I got them heard.
Dr. Watts is not a brown person repackaged. He’s an individual who had an all-too-common experience. If brown people’s stories need to be repackaged, from personal conversations or as excerpts from blog posts or whatever, in order to be heard (and yes, they do), the situation isn’t that different than that with the political sledgehammer. The need may be distasteful but it still exists. We can do that. It doesn’t subtract anything from the original story to add more stories. And those of us privileged enough to be heard by the majority can tell those stories even as we work to eliminate the need for repackaging.