Towards A Better Conversation About Mental Illness

This is my latest for the Daily Dot, about how we can discuss mental illness more accurately, productively, and compassionately, particularly in the wake of tragedies like Robin Williams’ suicide.

After comedian Robin Williams committed suicide two weeks ago, fans took to the Internet to express their grief, as well as their admiration for his work. Whenever a beloved celebrity passes away, regardless of the cause, social media temporarily becomes a sort of memorial to that person, a chronicle of the ways in which they changed lives.

However, when the cause is suicide, a celebrity’s death also brings out lots of dismissive, inaccurate, or even hateful statements about people with mental illnesses. According to some, Williams was “cowardly” and “selfish” for committing suicide. Last week, Musician Henry Rollins wrote an op-ed for L.A. Weekly (for which he apologized over the weekend) in which he said that he views people who commit suicide with “disdain,” claiming that Williams traumatized his children. There was plenty of rhetoric about suicide being a “choice,” the implication being that it’s the wrong choice.

Comments like these not only misinform people about the nature of mental illness, but they are also extremely hurtful to those who struggle with it. As the Internet continues to respond to Robin Williams’ death, here are some suggestions for a better conversation about mental illness and suicide.

1) Do your research.

We all have a “folk” understanding of psychology, which means that we experience our own thoughts and feelings, interact with other people, and thus form our opinions on psychology. Obviously, noticing things about ourselves and the people around us can be an important source of knowledge about how humans work.

But it’s not enough. If you haven’t had a mental illness, you can’t really understand what it’s like to have one—unless you do your research. Depression isn’t like feeling really sad. Anxiety isn’t like feeling worried. Eating disorders aren’t like being concerned about how many calories you consume. Your own experiences may not be enough.

Before you form strong opinions about mental illness and suicide, you need to know what mental illnesses are actually like, what their symptoms are, what treatment is like, what sorts of difficulties people may have in accessing treatment or making it work for them. If you can make tweets and Facebook statuses about a celebrity’s suicide, you can also do a Google search. Wikipedia, for all its drawbacks, is a great place to start. So are books like The Noonday Demon and Listening to Prozac.

2) Never engage in armchair diagnosis.

Now that you have a good idea of what different mental illnesses look like, you should try to figure out who has which ones, right?

No, please don’t. Armchair diagnosis, which is when people who are not trained to administer psychiatric diagnoses try to do so anyway, is harmful for all sorts of reasons that Daily Dot contributor s.e. smith describes in a piece for smith’s personal blog:

The thing about armchair diagnosis is that it mutates. First it’s a ‘friend’ deciding that someone must have bipolar disorder because of some event or another. Over time, that’s mutated into an ‘actual’ diagnosis, repeated as fact and accepted. Everyone tiptoes around or gives someone sidelong glances and makes sure to tell other people. Meanwhile, someone is completely puzzled that other people are treating her like she’s, well. Crazy.

Whether the person you’re talking about is a celebrity or not, it is up to them whether or not to make public any information about their health. Mental health is part of health. While having a mental illness should never be stigmatized, unfortunately, it still is. People deserve to decide for themselves whether or not they are willing to disclose any mental illnesses they may have.

Even if someone commits suicide, that doesn’t mean we can come to any conclusions on which mental illness they had or didn’t have. First of all, not everyone who commits suicide could have been diagnosed with any mental illness just prior to it. Second, various mental illnesses may lead to suicide. Many online commentators, including journalists, simply assumed that Williams had depression. However, he may have also had bipolar disorder, in which depressive episodes are interspersed with manic ones. Williams himself never stated which diagnoses he had, so it’s best not to assume. Whatever he had or didn’t have, it is clear that he was suffering.

Read the rest here.

Why “Hipster Sexism” Fails

[Content note: sexual harassment & domestic violence]

My new post at the Daily Dot is about “hipster sexism/racism” in fashion.

It doesn’t surprise me at all when CEOs of major clothing retailers or famous celebrity photographers turn out to be harassing, intimidating, assaulting, or abusing women, because the same thing happens everywhere else: politicstech companies, sports, evenscience journalism. It happens everywhere a few select people are given excessive power and social capital, and those people are usually (but not always) men.

What the fashion industry does have, however, is a trend of “hipster sexism,” which can be defined roughly as people who hold nominally liberal views on things “pretending” to be sexist “ironically,” because sexism is totally over and so now it’s funny. The New Republic‘s Eleanor Margolis writes of Charney and Richardson:

The two men are emblematic of a hipster veneer that’s so often used to cover up the mistreatment of women… With their 1970s porn star aesthetic seems to come this notion that they’re only subjugating women ironically: we’ll carry on buying clothes from people who look like the result of Ron Jeremy humping a copy of Vice. Misogyny is OK, as long as it pastiches a bygone era of kitsch female subjugation; as long as it’s retro. These bizarre double standards are only serving to blur the lines…between sexism and chicness.

Margolis doesn’t note the fact that the hipster sexism in fashion also has a racist corollary, which Racialicious Thea Kim discusses at length. If you’ve stepped inside an Urban Outfitters or attended a music festival lately, you’re probably familiar with the trappings of hipster racism—that unmistakable “look at me I’m so over racism” chic that affluent young white folks are presumably going for when they wear blackface to a Halloween party or don a Native headdress to a concert.

Why do “ironic”/”hipster” sexism and racism hold such appeal for slightly left-leaning, “fashionable” young people? There’s an optimistic possibility and a cynical one. The optimistic one is that it allows people to perpetuate the comforting idea that inequality is now so passe that pretending at it is hilariously ludicrous. The cynical one is that it allows people to safely express the actual sexist and racist beliefs that they still hold while maintaining plausible deniability: ”No, you don’t understand, I was wearing that blackface ironically!”

Regardless, sexism and racism aren’t over; it’s only some of their most visible and iconic components that have mostly disappeared from our society. When a dude jokes “ironically” about hitting women, he might think that nowadays domestic violence is Very Rare and taken Very Seriously and the police will immediately come and arrest the offending man (perhaps even on a false accusation, which are now “common”). I, on the other hand, might think that many of my female friends are survivors of domestic violence, psychological abuse, or sexual assault, and few of them were taken very seriously at all when they tried to do something about it. So I won’t see anything “ironically” sexist about the joke. To me, it’ll just be plain ol’ boring sexism.

Much of hipster bigotry rests on the assumption that the person wearing the shirt or making the joke is a Really Good Person who would never actually believe such horrible things, so isn’t it hilarious that they’d pretend they do, ha-ha? But making this assumption requires knowing the person quite well, and given how pervasive sexism and racism still are, assuming that a random dude (or a random CEO of a fashion company, per se) is Totally Not Sexist Or Racist isn’t really a reasonable assumption to make.

Read the rest here.

Masculinity, Violence, and Bandaid Solutions

[Content note: violence, guns, mass shootings, misogyny]

We’re all familiar with the pattern now: a solitary young white man goes on a shooting rampage. People die. The media describes him as “crazy,” “disturbed,” “troubled,” “insane.” Everyone collectively bemoans the failings of our mental healthcare system, presuming that its failure is relevant here. People with mental illnesses cringe at the reminder of what our society thinks of them. A few people advocate stricter restrictions on guns. The victims are buried and memorialized, the killer’s parents shunned or comforted, and the killer gradually forgotten.

And it happens over. And over. And over. Again.

Whatever depth there is in this analysis is limited to the parts of the internet where I live. You won’t see the anchors and talk show hosts on CNN or MSNBC or, obviously, Fox News, wondering what it is about white men that produces so relatively many mass shooters–relative to other gender/racial groups and relative to other countries. They will talk about one of two things, mostly depending on their party affiliation: gun control or mental healthcare.

And it’s so difficult to ask them to talk about something else because we should be talking about gun control and mental healthcare. More and better gun control and more and better mental healthcare would vastly improve quality of life in the United States, and maybe in the right combination, could even prevent many of these shootings.

But wouldn’t it be better to fight the ideas and beliefs that lead to violence?

There’s plenty of evidence that Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old white man who murdered six people and injured seven more in Santa Barbara yesterday, felt entitled to sex with women and hated them for denying it to him. In a YouTube video uploaded just a day before the mass shooting, Rodger said:

You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime because I don’t know what you don’t see in me, I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman. I will punish all of you for it. [laughs]

On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house at UCSB and I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see inside there. All those girls I’ve desired so much. They have all rejected me and looked down on me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance toward them, while they throw themselves at these obnoxious brutes.

I take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male. [laughs]

If this weren’t terrifying enough, OllieGarkey at Daily Kos points out that the YouTube channels to which Rodger has been subscribed included well-known men’s rights activists. According to David Futrelle, he was also a commenter at PUAHate, a misogynistic forum that has been down since the shooting. On one forum post, Rodger wrote:

Women have control over which men get sex and which men don’t, thus having control over which men breed and which men don’t. Feminism gave women the power over the future of the human species. Feminism is evil.

Rodger’s various online postings have all the language of sexual entitlement and misogyny: “get sex,” “breed,” “alpha male,” “slut,” “not fair.” I’ve heard this from many men who have assaulted or abused me or others. It is not uncommon.

I’m going to say something that should be obvious: a minority of men think about women in quite this violent and hateful a way. An even smaller minority act on that violence so brazenly. But many men violate women’s boundaries and autonomy constantly, and all men are socialized to think about themselves, about sex, and about women in similar ways.

In the coming days you will hear all about mental illness. (This is because most people only talk about mental illness when they get to blame an act of violence on it, and not when millions of people are merely suffering in silence.) You will hear about how the mental healthcare system failed Rodger, how mental healthcare is too expensive, how there aren’t enough mental healthcare professionals, how insurance coverage is fucked up, how medication doesn’t work or doesn’t work well enough or works too well, how irresponsible parents don’t get their children mental healthcare quickly enough.

You will not hear that, while 2 percent of violent acts can be attributed to people with mental illnesses, people with mental illnesses are four times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than people without mental illnesses. You will not hear about the ways in which people with mental illnesses are discriminated against for many reasons, one of which is that they’re believed to be inherently violent, partially because of how the media focuses on mental illness in the wake of every single mass shooting. You will not hear that Black people who commit violent acts are never presumed to be mentally ill; they’re just presumed to be Black. You will not hear about how it’s only “terrorism” if a brown person does it; the fact that it’s politically motivated and intended to terrorize a particular group of people is not, apparently, enough. You will hear a lot about “not all men,” but you will not hear that misandry irritates and misogyny kills.

You will not hear that boys and men are taught to believe that they are entitled to women’s bodies in uncountable ways, every day, in every setting, by their parents and by the media and by everyone else. You will not hear again about the boy who stabbed a girl to death for refusing to go to prom with him, or about this entire list of women being hurt or killed for ignoring or rebuffing men’s sexual interests, or the constant daily acts of violence to which women are subjected for exercising their right to autonomy.

And before you call Rodger “crazy”: it is not actually “crazy” to believe stuff that’s been shoved down your throat from birth.

I wish it were. It’d be nice if humans reasoned rationally by default, that if you grow up with people telling you things that don’t make sense, like religion or that sex is dirty or that women owe you anything at all, you’d just go, “Well, that makes no sense!” and refuse to ever believe it.

But we didn’t evolve that way, at least not yet. Unless we work very hard at it, we’ll inevitably believe what we’re taught so incessantly, as sexism is taught to all of us. Yet we are all capable of rational thought if we work at it, which is why I hold Rodger and all other men who believe in their conditioning and subject women to violence fully accountable for their actions.

A very good therapist could have helped Rodger with this process. Maybe. But when mass shootings happen and everyone bemoans the fact that the shooter didn’t go to (or wasn’t helped by) therapy, they never seem to ask themselves what this therapy would entail. You don’t go to therapy or go on medication and suddenly become happy. What you have to do is unlearn the maladaptive and harmful ways in which you’ve learned (or been taught to) think. For someone like me, this means learning not to be so afraid and not to treat every minor setback as the end of the world. In Rodger’s case, this might’ve meant learning how to be okay with not having sex with women for a while, learning the social skills to eventually find and keep a partner, and, most importantly, learning that women do not owe him a single damn thing. With that realization might’ve come freedom.

In other words, the way to help Rodger would have been to help him unlearn what he never should have learned in the first place. And there’s no guarantee that even the best of therapists could succeed at this; everyone in the field knows that sometimes clients are just beyond help (at least by a given therapist) and that it’s tragic and sad and don’t we wish we could’ve caught them earlier?

What if our culture had never taught Rodger these horrible beliefs?

What if our culture didn’t still treat women as possessions?

What if our culture didn’t emphasize hypermasculinity and getting laid at all costs?

What if, what if, what if.

So everyone’s going to blame our faulty mental healthcare system now. But let’s do a thought experiment.

A child is born in an area with terrible preventative healthcare. They don’t receive a single vaccine, and they are never taught about healthy eating, hygiene, and exercise. Nobody models good health for them, nobody teaches them in early childhood about the importance of washing your hands. Getting medical check-ups and physicals isn’t even an option. They have no idea what a healthy blood pressure or heart rate might look like. As far as this child knows, a doctor is where you go when you’re so sick you’re dying.

At 22 years of age, this person is now so sick that they’re dying. They have had a horrible diet for their entire life, and they have never treated their body well. They have suffered from increasingly worsening symptoms for weeks, but didn’t realize that they needed to see a doctor. The disease they have is one that they never received the vaccine for. Finally, at 22 years of age, this person goes to the hospital, and the doctors do their best but are unable to save them. The person dies.

Do you blame the doctors who tried but failed to keep this person alive? Or do you blame the entire system, the fact that there was never any preventative healthcare, the fact that they were not given a vaccine and they were not taught the skills to make contracting diseases less likely?

The type of masculinity that young boys are taught is not compatible with mental health and with ethical behavior. Full stop. We’re fortunate that so relatively few will take it to the lengths that Rodger did, but I don’t know a single man who doesn’t suffer as a direct consequence of it. I know few who have never made others suffer as a direct consequence of it. We need to inoculate boys against this harmful and maladaptive thinking rather than teach it to them.

Improving and reforming and revolutionizing mental healthcare is important, but it’s too important to discuss only in the few days after a mass shooting has happened. If this is something you care about, join me in discussing it all the damn time.

Remember this: by the time someone is in their early twenties and spewing hatred and bitterness, it may very well be too late. It’s never too late, however, to work harder at unlearning the lies we are taught about gender.

Individualized Feminism

Public scrutiny of individual women’s choices is a spectator sport in our society. Women’s aesthetic, sartorial, professional, parental, sexual, social, and health decisions are debated passionately whether these women are entertainers, politicians, business executives, relatives, neighbors, or fellow PTA moms. These decisions are presumed to reflect strongly on who these women are as mothers, daughters, friends, girlfriends, wives, and employees, much more than they reflect on the context in which they are being made.

This is not surprising when you consider how individualistic American culture is–much more so than other cultures that fall on that end of the individualistic-collectivistic spectrum. It seems to be difficult for many people raised in such a culture to think about other people in ways besides the individual. If we believe that everyone’s ultimately on their own and gets to make their own decisions without much influence from other people or from the surrounding society, then it makes sense to believe that how someone raises their children or which career they choose says a lot about who they really are deep down, and does not say very much about anything else.

For societies with a high value of individualism and a high value of sexism, a particular love of scrutinizing individual women’s actions to determine how Good At Being Women they are especially makes sense.

Feminist theory and practice replicate the biases and prejudices found mainstream culture. That’s the reason feminism has such a storied history of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other bigotries. We keep realizing that the rabbit hole of bad thinking and the oppression that results from it goes so much deeper than we thought.

Another (much less harmful but still counterproductive) way in which feminism as I often see it practiced here in the U.S. carries on preexisting cultural trends is a myopic focus on individual choices. Should women stop shaving? Should women wear their hair short? Is this a feminist thing to do? Is that a feminist thing to do? Can you be a feminist and love football? Can you be a feminist and wear feminine clothes? Can you be a feminist and a stay-at-home mom? Can you be a feminist and let the guy pay for dinner? Can you be a feminist and wear makeup? Can you be a feminist and _____?

Consequently, it seems that no major feminist website is free from frequent articles to the tune of “Why I Shave My Pubic Hair” or “Why I Gave In And Married The Guy I Love” or “Why I Stopped Shaving My Legs” and so on.

First of all, I do recognize the value of women speaking and writing about their experiences as women, especially in a society that often treats these narratives as “inappropriate” or “silly” or “gross” or what have you. This is the case not only for stories of sexual assault or harassment and such, but also for stories of these everyday choices and decisions that are influenced by our socialization as women, and then further impacted intersectionally by factors like race, class, and so on.

especially recognize the value of these types of articles when they’re coming from voices that we don’t hear very often within the feminist movement or anywhere else: women of color, gender-nonconforming folks, women from impoverished backgrounds, and so on. At that point, these articles are vital because people need to hear these stories and try to understand these perspectives. 

But yet another article from an able-bodied thin white woman about her decision to shave her legs despite her feminist ideals isn’t the same thing. Or rather, it is precisely the same thing as we’ve all read a dozen times before.

It seems that the constant production of these narratives and their eager consumption by readers speaks to two problems with the way many people understand feminism: 1) that to be a feminist is to perform a certain series of actions and make a particular set of choices, and 2) that if you identify as a feminist but stray from these actions and choices, you have to justify yourself by writing an article to explain how you can be a feminist and still love football/love men/get married/shave your legs/shave your pubic area/wear feminine clothes/wear makeup/stay at home with the kids/choose a traditionally feminine profession/”lean out”/etc.

It’s no wonder I’m constantly having to explain to men that who pays for the damn date is not the be-all end-all of feminist discourse.

As feminists, we all presumably understand that society puts a lot of pressure on women to act a certain way, and that women who ignore this pressure face backlash. So nobody should be particularly surprised that a women who identifies strongly as a feminist may nevertheless do certain things that she doesn’t really want to, or that don’t feel entirely genuine, but that are prescribed by her feminine role.

But it’s also quite possible to be a fierce feminist and to also genuinely want to stay at home with the kids or wear high heels or whatever. In fact, it’s probably impossible to pick apart what is “genuine” and what is not, because we all grow up hearing certain messages about how we should live and many of those become internalized and therefore start to feel authentic and good and meaningful.

Men, too, face a lot of pressure to act in line with the masculine gender role. Yet I don’t see a preponderance of articles about whether or not you can be a male feminist who also works in the tech sector, who prefers having lots of facial hair, who plays sports, who wants to advance to the top of the career ladder, or whatever. I find this interesting.

The pressure that many feminist women feel to refrain from doing traditionally feminine things may stem from the belief that if everyone just started ignoring gender roles and doing whatever the hell they want, they would just go away. While the particular gender roles being flouted might subside if a critical mass of people started to ignore them (which would probably require a LOT more people than currently identify as feminists, anyway), new ones would probably emerge to take their place. For instance, some have noted that advertisements for children’s toys (and, therefore, the toys that end up being bought for children) have become more gendered, not less, over the past few decades. How could this be? Women’s rights have made so much progress!

Because we keep looking at it as a matter of individual lifestyle choices rather than as an entire system in which the only two recognized genders are strictly divided, and one is considered more powerful, agentic, and strong, while the other is considered more sexually attractive, gentle, and pure.

(And also because fucking profit motive.)

Sexism would still exist even if every single woman stopped shaving her legs, and feminism is not being held back by every single woman who has not stopped shaving her legs. While these individual choices can be (and often are) politicized, focusing on them myopically at the expense of the bigger picture means much less time spent discussing the rigid gender binary itself or the glorification of physical beauty or the double bind that women find themselves in at the workplace.

It’s not surprising to me that the sort of feminism that focuses so intently on individual choices is also the sort that often fails so badly at intersectionality. When you make it all about individual choices and not about the context in which those choices are made, you miss the fact that, for example, a woman of color might not view staying at home with the kids while the husband works as “traditional” because women of color have not traditionally had that option. A trans woman might not view cutting her hair short as “edgy” or “political” because all it means is that she doesn’t pass anymore. A woman who grew up poor might not see anything “liberating” or “radical” about growing her own vegetables in a cute little balcony garden because her family had to do that to survive.

I get that it’s easier to talk about personal lifestyle choices that everyone makes and understands than it is to talk about all the sociological structural shit, but it’s not getting very much done. As far as I’m concerned, the only individual choice that is “not feminist” is the choice to restrict other women’s rights and freedoms. That’s why, no matter how you try to spin it, you cannot be a pro-life feminist. You can be a feminist who personally feels that abortion is morally wrong but that others deserve to make that decision for themselves, but you cannot be a feminist who advocates for reduced (or no) access to abortion and contraception.

Otherwise, any negative impact you have on the dismantling of the patriarchy by continuing to shave your legs can only be so minuscule as to be irrelevant.

And I can only hope that I never have to hear “I know this makes me a bad feminist but–” ever again.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

Surprise Weddings are Nonconsensual and Icky

Okay, I promise I’ll actually write something for this blog soon, but for now I have another Daily Dot piece, this time about “surprise weddings.” (It’s as icky as it sounds.) Here’s an excerpt:

It’s incredibly ironic that an event meant to celebrate the joining of two people in marriage would be so one-sided, and that consent would be deemed so irrelevant. Relationships aren’t—or shouldn’t be—about one person deciding and creating things for another. They should be about two people building a life together.

In case my reference to “consent” doesn’t make sense, consider this: expressing a desire to have sex with someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how the sex will happen. Agreeing to marry someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how you’ll get married and who the guests will be and what music you’ll have and what types of hors d’oevres will be served. Unless, of course, you tell your partner that you don’t really care about these details and they’re free to do whatever they want with the wedding planning.

Weddings, like the marriages they are meant to celebrate, should be collaborative. That collaboration can mean “We make all the decisions together,” or it can mean “I don’t care, it’s all up to you!”, or it can mean anything in between. Personally, if someone sprung a wedding on me like that, I’d have to have a serious conversation with them about why they don’t think my own wedding preferences matter enough to be taken into account.

You can read the rest here.

One thing I didn’t really have space to get into in the article was the romanticization of surprise itself, and why it is that people find surprises so romantic. I think part of it is just how many people find it fun to be surprised, so it’s nice when a partner surprises them. It also implies a certain amount of effort; secrecy can be hard, and doing things without your partner’s suggestions can be especially hard (such as planning a birthday party they’d like with the friends they’d want to see or buying them a gift they’ll love without asking them what they want).

On the other hand, surprising your partner also means–you guessed it–not having to communicate with them about their desires and preferences. It means being let off the hook if they don’t like it so much because, well, how were you supposed to know! Communication can be fun and exciting, but it can also be difficult and not very exciting. Especially communication about wedding planning.

Against Role Models

Whenever a famous person does something of which the general public disapproves, much is often made of that person’s status as a “role model” and how it influences the public’s judgment of their behavior, and whether or not it is time to revoke that status.

It seems that celebrities cannot escape being seen as “role models” no matter what made them famous. We expect an athlete or a singer or an actor to be good at not just sports or singing or acting, but at upstanding, ethical behavior, too. The assumption is that children should look up to these figures not just because they represent talent and achievement that (supposedly) comes from lots of hard work and sacrifice, but because their behavior in the rest of their lives is something to emulate, too.

This makes sense to an extent. We know that children learn by modeling the behavior of adults, and we want them to have adults whose behavior they can model. While a parent is normally the one expected to serve that function, most parents hope for their children to achieve more than they (the parents) have been able to in their own lives. Choosing and fixating upon a random successful but unknown doctor or lawyer or scientist or writer seems odd, but famous people already serve the role of entertaining the public simply by existing. So, perhaps some parents hope that celebrities can be good role models for their children and inspire them to both professional and personal success.

In fact, there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable. There’s no reason why being a great actor means you keep your promises to your partners and respect the law. There’s no reason why being in a famous band means you are very careful about your health and avoid dangerous drugs. Expecting celebrities to be able to model these types of “good behavior” makes no sense.

And even when we try to see someone as a role model in a specific domain only, it never seems to quite work. We fall victim to black-and-white thinking–people are either “good” or “bad,” and if a talented, successful athlete cheats on his wife, he goes from “good” to “bad” very quickly. Even though many people cheat, and even though occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a “bad person.”

The expectation of being a role model places undue pressures on celebrities, especially women. Tracy Moore writes:

Critiquing famous (or any) women’s behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It’s exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don’t want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I’m not disputing that teens copy famous people’s behavior too (and yes I’m staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.

What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

Moore notes that female celebrities seem to bear a greater burden for Making Sure Our Children Turn Out Okay than male ones do, and male celebrities do seem to have an easier time recovering from Scandals with their popularity mostly intact (see: Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, R. Kelly).

And what about non-celebrities? What happens when they’re expected to be role models?

I don’t know how this plays out in other professions or contexts, but within social work and mental healthcare, there is an immense amount of pressure put on professionals to be role models. We’ve talked about this in my social work classes.

People look to social workers and mental health professionals for more than just “help me fix my brain bugs.” They also look to them as examples of how to live well, and they often expect them to be wearing the same professional “face” even if they encounter them randomly outside of the office.

Our professors ask us what we would do if we encountered a client, say, at a bar or on public transit or even at a party. How would we manage their expectations of us with our desire to behave as we usually would at a bar or on the subway or at a party? Would it harm our relationships with our clients if they saw us acting like, well, normal people?

It’s true that if our clients think that we’re always the way we are in a session–calm, empathic, curious, mature, “wise”–it might disturb them to see us drinking at a bar or kissing a significant other in public or dancing at a party. They might wonder if we’re “faking” when we’re in a session with them. They might wonder who we “really” are.

For some professionals, this seems to be enough of a reason to significantly alter their behavior if they see a client out in public, or leave a bar or party where a client happens to be. They might even consider whether or not doing things like going to bars and parties after hours is even compatible with who they are as professionals.

When we discussed this in class, I was glad that most of my classmates reacted with minor indignation. Why should we be expected to be professional 24/7? Why does everyone else get to take off their work persona when they leave the office, but we don’t? Why is it our fault if our clients judge us as immature or irresponsible just because we go to bars on the weekends?

I think there are two reasons why expecting therapists to act like therapists 24/7 is harmful. One is that, on the individual level, it’s stressful and takes a toll on one’s mental health and freedom to live life the way they want to. Deciding to be a therapist should not be a life sentence to never behave like a normal person outside of work again. That’s too much of a burden for someone whose work is already very stressful and difficult.

Second, part of our role as mental health professionals is encouraging clients to think rationally, accurately, and adaptively about other people and their relationships with them. “This person is drinking at a bar therefore they are immature and I can’t trust them as my therapist” is not a rational, accurate, or adaptive thought. (Well, it could be accurate, but you’d need more evidence to come to that conclusion.) Neither is, “This person is behaving differently after hours than they are at work, and therefore the way they behave at work is totally fake and they’re just lying to me.”

But speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of that relationship, I have to say that we are really, really patronizing our clients if we think that they are incapable of realizing that we have selves outside of the office. We are treating them like children if we presume that they need to be carefully prevented from seeing any part of our non-therapist persona, including kissing a partner in public or getting tipsy at a bar.

But it’s possible that some clients might be confused or bothered by seeing a therapist acting non-therapisty out in public. I think that the best course of action then is to discuss that in therapy, not laboriously alter one’s public behavior so that such an issue never comes up to begin with.

Because our classes are mostly discussion-based and there’s little in the social work code of ethics about situations like this (dual relationships, though, are a different matter), my professor never gave a definitive answer on whether or not we should endeavor to be role models to our clients no matter where we encounter them. His intent, I think, was mostly to spark discussion and let us know that this is something to consider.

The examples of celebrities and mental health professionals are two very different examples, but my conclusion is largely the same for each: being expected to be a “role model” in every context, at work and outside of it, in one’s chosen domain (be it sports or entertaining or counseling) and in every other domain in which it’s possible to judge a person’s behavior, is too much.

A final reason holding people up as “role models” is harmful: the criteria by which we judge them are largely based on social norms, which can be a very poor barometer for determining how ethical an action is. That’s why, when Miley Cyrus was vilified for her performance at the VMAs and reprimanded by many commentators for not being a good enough “role model,” the focus of most of the criticism was not the racism inherent in her performance, but the fact that she dressed revealingly and shook her ass. And she shook it…at a married man! How dare she. The married man, by the way, made a clear show of enjoying it, and he’s the one who’s married. And the one who sings a song about “blurred lines.”

It’s also why, when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (to whom she was not married) with Rupert Sanders (who is married), it was Stewart on whom the majority of the public opprobrium fell, and who was finally compelled to publicly apologize. (A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: I think breaking a promise to a partner is wrong, but I also wish people didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep in the first place, and I don’t think cheating is the worst thing a person could do and I don’t think a person who cheats owes an apology to anyone but the person they cheated on.)

And women of color in particular are held to impossibly high standards as “role models,” as public reactions to Beyonce and Rihanna attest.

Sometimes the intersections between the expectation of role model behavior and various types of prejudice affect people’s livelihoods in really crappy ways. To return to the example of therapists, I’ve been reading this blog by a woman who is studying to be a therapist and also works as a stripper. The faculty of her program are pressuring her to either quit sex work or leave the program, because doing both is necessarily an ethical violation. They also told her that being a stripper “contributes to further injustice in the world,”  and is therefore incompatible with her other role as a therapist.

That’s a slightly different type of role model that she’s being expected to perform, but that demand that therapists be perfect in every aspect of their lives is still there. The role of therapist is supposed to take precedence over everything else she may want to do in her life, including making enough money to get by and finish her education. And in this case, these expectations are intersecting with stigma and prejudice against sex workers.

So, whether you’re a celebrity or just a regular person trying to make the world better, it’s rarely a neutral expectation that one be a “role model.” Like all social expectations do, it comes along with lots of baggage. And it’s incredible how often, for women, being a “role model” means having no sexuality.

Children may need adults to look up to and clients may need therapists to learn from, but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to expect or demand perfection from people.

I think a more realistic view is that almost everyone can teach us something, and almost everyone has done things we probably shouldn’t emulate*.

~~~

*And to be clear, wearing revealing clothing and/or being a sex worker are not the sorts of things I’m particularly desperate to discourage.

Strawmanning Rape Culture (Part One)

[Content note: sexual assault]

Rape culture is a very difficult concept for many people to understand, perhaps because, like many sociological constructs, it works in such a way as to make itself invisible. Understanding rape culture, especially if you are someone who isn’t affected by it very much, requires a keen attention to detail and a willingness to examine your own complicity in things you’d rather not believe that you’re complicit in.

For a great introduction to rape culture, read the Wikipedia page and this Shakesville piece. If you’re not familiar with it, read these things before you read this post, because this is not a 101-level post. Here’s another definition, from the book Transforming a Rape Culture, that may be useful (although you’ll notice that I’ll expand on it a bit later):

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

Many people hear about rape culture briefly, perhaps online or in a text assigned in a sociology or gender studies class, and don’t really read about or grasp the nuances of it. This makes it very easy to strawman the rape culture argument, to reduce it to clearly absurd and obviously inaccurate claims that are easy to strike down–and, crucially, that nobody who claims that rape culture exists ever made to begin with.

Here are some common strawman versions of rape culture, and why they are inaccurate.

“So you’re saying that people think rape is okay.”

When many people hear “rape culture,” they assume this is supposed to imply that we live in a society where people actually think rape is okay and/or good. That’s an easily falsifiable claim. After all, rape is illegal. We do, in some cases, punish people for committing it. If someone is known to be a rapist, that person’s reputation often takes a huge nosedive. We teach nowadays that “no means no.” People obviously resist being identified as rapists, and they wouldn’t resist it if it weren’t generally considered a bad thing to be.

So how could we really have a rape culture? More to the point, if people who say we live in a rape culture are not claiming that people literally think rape is okay, what exactly are we claiming?

One way rape gets shrugged off and thus accepted in our culture is by constantly shifting the goalposts of what rape is. If you flirted with someone, it’s not rape. If you had an orgasm, it’s not rape. If you dressed sluttily, it’s not rape. If you’re a sex worker, it’s not rape. If it was with your partner or spouse, it’s not rape. If you’re a prisoner, it’s not rape. If you’re fat or unattractive, it’s not rape (because you must’ve wanted it). If no penis was involved, it’s not rape. If you were unconscious, it’s not rape. The fact that we have politicians debating what is and is not “legitimate rape” is evidence that we do not consider all rape to be legitimate. And, unsurprisingly, studies show that people will admit to having committed sexual assault provided it’s not called “sexual assault” in the survey.

Another way rape gets excused is through victim blaming, which I’ll discuss a bit later. Even when we admit that what happened to someone is rape, we still often blame them for it, thus implying that, in some cases, rape isn’t really so wrong because the victim was “asking for it.”

One more related way in which rape gets excused is through claims that rapists (male rapists, generally) “can’t help themselves.” By framing rape as the inevitable result of masculinity, hormones, sexual tension, and so on, we’re implying that rape is a normal part of our society that we’re not going to do anything about. The hypocrisy of a society that pays lip service to the idea that rape is bad while also suggesting that in some cases it’s not “really” rape and in some cases it’s just what you’d expect and ultimately it’s inevitable anyway is emblematic of rape culture.

Remember, though, that some people do actually think rape is good and/or okay. Some men do openly admit to wanting to rape women, and even if they’re attempting to make a so-called “joke,” their choice of joke says a lot about their beliefs about rape.

“So you’re saying that without rape culture, there would be no more rape.”

People also misinterpret the rape culture argument as a claim that all rape is caused directly by rape culture. While some people probably do believe that there would be no rape in a society free from rape culture, I don’t. I think that rape culture drastically increases the prevalence of rape by encouraging attitudes that lead to it, reducing penalties for rapists, and making it more difficult for victims to speak out and seek justice.

Strawmanning the rape culture argument in this way makes it seem patently ridiculous. After all, we don’t claim that there’s a “car theft culture,” but people steal plenty of cars. We don’t wring our hands over “identity theft culture,” but lots and lots of people fall victim to identity theft. Same, unfortunately, with murder. So if you think we’re saying that rape culture is the entire reason rape exists as a phenomenon at all, it’s easy to refute that claim by pointing to other crimes, and also by pointing out that people often commit crimes because it gives them some sort of advantage.

If rape culture did not exist, rape would still exist, but things would look very different. Rape would be much rarer. When there is enough evidence to show that someone committed rape, that person will go to jail. Although there may still a bit of stigma surrounding being a rape victim, that stigma will not be any greater than it is for being the victim of any other crime (right now, it’s much greater). Rape would not constantly be threatened and used as “punishment” for being queer, for being a woman who speaks out, and so on. There will still be researchers trying to understand what causes people to become rapists and activists trying to stop them from doing so, but the key difference will be that when someone gets raped, we’ll ask more questions about the person who raped them than about the person who was raped. We’ll ask what led the rapist to do such a thing, not what led the victim to be so careless.

“So you’re saying that the fact that a given crime exists means that ‘[crime] culture’ exists. Why isn’t there a murder culture, then, huh?!”

Closely related to the previous one. The existence of a given type of crime is not sufficient to show that a “culture” exists that encourages and excuses that crime. The reason there is a rape culture but not a murder culture is because, overall, our culture does not claim that murder is acceptable, okay, inevitable, or even commendable in certain cases. Are there individual people who believe this about murder? Certainly. But for the most part, these people lack institutional backing. Police officers and judges and jury members are not constantly going on record saying that, well, it wasn’t really murder in this case, or the victim’s past behavior suggests they have a tendency to lie about these things

It’s still absolutely reasonable to say that we have a problem with murder or theft or [other crime] in our society without having to make the claim that a [crime] culture exists. These crimes do have sociological causes, not just individual ones. Economic inequality, for instance, tends to contribute a lot to these types of crimes; they are not simply personal failings as we often dismiss them to be.

Culturally, however, rape gets a lot more support and excuses than theft or murder do. Victims of rape are blamed to a greater extent than victims of any other crime; and not only that, but that blame is used by people in positions of authority to avoid finding, trying, and sentencing the rapist.

The second half of this post will be up tomorrow. If you have more strawmans to add in the comments, try to hold on to them until that post comes out and you see the rest of them.

[guest post] Dictionary Arguments, and Why They Suck

CaitieCat, a frequent and awesome commenter around here, has a guest postI

It’s not news to any activist for any cause that people just love to whip out dictionary definitions as ostensibly authoritative guides to what words mean. Even so august a person as a fellow whose name may or may not rhyme with Shmichard Shmawkins has been known to whip out (pun intended) the old Oxford English when he doesn’t like someone else’s usage being different from the one he learned.

What’s disappointing about it is that it’s really just a common logical fallacy: the appeal to authority.

Now, I hear the defenders of that fellow who may or may not have that rhyming name leaping to their feet, cursing at me and their screens and the perfidy of anyone (especially a much-despiséd FEMINIST OMFFSM!) who’d dare to suggest the emperor would turn out to be naked commit a logical fallacy, but let me (the irony should delight you) tell you as a linguist why it’s exactly that.

First, it’s perhaps valuable to look at what a dictionary actually is. A dictionary is a compilation of language-objects (usually words, sometimes other related entities) – and this is the important bit – compiled by humans at a particular time.

Yes, they’re genuine experts in their field, and yes, they work by consensus, sort of. See, they only work by consensus within the field of dictionary writers who use the same language variety as they do. We tend to view a dictionary as a collection of objective facts: word X means meaning Y (and possibly Z, J, F, and Q). In fact, though, any dictionary is bounded by several biases which we tend not to think about when citing them as major authorities.

First, it is bounded in time. The date of publication provides an absolute limit for when the meanings are considered definitely valid; for proof, consider trying to use Mr. Johnson’s original dictionary for your English assignment today. That we can see this in Mr. Johnson’s 1709 effort, but not in the 2000 Oxford Online, has to do with our monkey-brained habit of filtering out the everyday, in order to make best use of the meat-computer we come pre-installed with.The instant it is sent to print, a dictionary is already badly out of date: words can change their meaning significantly in a very short time, as the quill flies/pixel pulses.

The filters have to do with more than time, though. There is also to be considered the makeup of the editorial board – does it accurately reflect the state of the whole of English, with different sociolects, dialects, jargons, cants, argots? There is a known demographic issue in academia generally, as well as most parts of academia, for the majority of tenured positions currently to be held by white able-bodied middle- or upper-class cis men. Are they always going to catch all possible meanings of a given word, all the nuances, when they aren’t users of a given word themselves? More diversity in such an endeavour would be evidently useful in making the dictionary more accurately reflect the true state of the language, if that were a goal of the project. It’s not: the OED is an attempt at defining what the prestige version of the language is.

Consider the privilege in dictionary-making accorded to written (i.e., “documentable”) usages, and in fact only certain types of documentable usages, which predominantly exclude those who stand outside the power-structure in today’s society. Emails between people, chat usage, comic books, zines, samizdat generally, erotic fiction/pornography, fan fiction, maledicta, rap lyrics, acronyms, and languages for the Deaf, among many other types of language usage, tend to be recorded only in the most conservative ways, and often ignored entirely, dismissed as vulgar ephemera, unworthy of inclusion in the Pantheon of English Wordhood.

Verbal usages are ignored almost entirely, as being “undocumentable”. Yet written language is only ever at its very best a vague approximation of the true richness and beauty of the spoken/signed language; great numbers of expressions and words will never make it into any dictionary, despite their usage in the millions of times daily all over the world, because they’re never written down in “acceptable” documentation. And yet we’re accumulating a humanity-wide store of thousands of hours of video of native and non-native speakers using their languages every day; there’s no particular reason to privilege written communication over spoken any more, now that the data are more readily available. Yes, it would cause a lot more work, but that’s only because we’ve only been doing half the job up til now, not a good argument for not doing it.

The primary problem, of course, is that these nominally objective (but in actuality, wildly subjective) works are cited as prescriptive authorities: they purport to describe the language as it ought to be spoken. I’m hoping that with the paragraphs above, I don’t need to describe the ways in which that view of language is of a tiny window on a huge, living phenomenon: it’s like carefully describing every pitch and swing of a baseball at-bat, and claiming that only that one at-bat, by one player, at one time, counts as a real at-bat, and that all at-bats are like that one, or aren’t real at-bats at all1.

There are real and invisible-to-us biases we all bear, having been raised in societies which are basically giant machines for inculcating invisible-to-us bias: the privilege of having a background such that one speaks the very high-prestige Received Pronunciation (the so-called “Queen’s English”) might lead one to assume that, since the OED agrees exactly with one’s internal definitions, then it must necessarily be a valid and unshakeable authority. Call it the oligoanthropic principle: “all the highly-educated Oxbridge graduates I know agree with the OED, and nobody I consider important disagrees, therefore it is an inerrant objective compilation of facts.”

But this requires not noticing that there are a lot of people in the world speaking English as their main language, and every single one of them has as much claim to say that their version is “the real one” as any Oxbridge-trained-mouthful-of-marbles has.

Like any compilation of subjective human knowledge, then, a dictionary definition is a poor premise to base an argument upon: it is too easily falsified by the simple act of noting that there are a noticeable number of people in the world using those words differently. As a linguist, I lean naturally toward a descriptive approach to language: to me, language is what the people who speak it want it to be. Language changes, as we adapt it – like any tool, as the good tool-using primates we are – to the needs we’re facing with it today. Insistence on some apocryphal golden-age idea that a given dictionary definition is a universally valid, and objectively and eternally true, premise reveals only a weak ability to recognize the numerous bounds and biases which make it at best subjective, and at worst revealing only a small part of the meaning a given language-object might carry to other people.

And that means, I’m afraid, that showing that your dictionary has a famous person’s or institution’s name on it doesn’t make it any more important or objective an arbiter of language than any random two speakers of that dictionary’s language: thus, the fallacy of appeal to authority.

Sorry, rhymes-with-Shmawkins fans: the emperor’s butt’s hanging out2.

For the turquoise ungulate crowd:

FALLIBLE PEOPLE WRITE DICTIONARIES THAT ARE SUBJECTIVE PRODUCTS OF THEIR PHYSICAL AND TEMPORAL CONTEXT.

FALLIBLE PEOPLE WRITE HOLY BOOKS THAT ARE SUBJECTIVE PRODUCTS OF THEIR PHYSICAL AND TEMPORAL CONTEXT.

WHY DO WE REVERE ONE AND DENIGRATE THE OTHER?

1 Wow, that’s a crap analogy. Anyone got a better one?

2 Big thanks to Miri the Amazing Professional Fun-Ruiner of Awesomeness for the opportunity to guest-post. :)

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism

[Update 10/22/13: If you've found this post through a racist hate forum, don't bother commenting. Your comment's going straight to the trash and nobody will ever read it. :)]

Richard Dawkins, whose Twitter feed never fails to amuse, has lately been discussing racism–specifically, against white people:

[Here's the link in case you can't see this]

 

Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light. Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.

It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people. If you define racism this way, then it is true that the person who dismissed Dawkins’ opinion at the beginning was being racist. If you define racism this way, then it is true that a white person who is treated rudely by a Black person is a victim of racism, and it is true that, strictly speaking, affirmative action is racist.

But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power. When you’re not white, it does. Because then it’s not just a random asshole who doesn’t like your skin color.

I have had a person of color express prejudice towards me because I’m white exactly once in my life. Once. (And for what it’s worth, it was a stranger on the train who apparently just felt like yelling at people that day.) I have never been denied a job because I’m white. I have never been followed around or stopped and frisked by the police because I’m white. I’ve never been told I’m ugly because I’m white. I have never been told I’m stupid because I’m white, and I’ve never been told that I’m unusually intelligent for a white person.

Disliking someone based on their skin color is not enough for it to be racism. In fact, it’s not even a necessary condition. You can like people of color a lot while still maintaining that they’re just different from white people or that they need protection or that they’re perhaps better suited by nature for servile roles (this was an attitude commonly expressed during slavery). Likewise, you can just loooooove women while still supporting patriarchal laws and cultural norms, which is why I have to laugh when someone’s all like “But how can I be sexist? I LOOOOVE women! ;)”

As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals. Basically, tons of substances are chemicals, including water. Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.” You see products being advertised as “chemical-free,” a laughable concept, and people talking about how “chemicals” are bad for you.

So yes, it’s important to recognize that many people use the word “chemical” in a particular way that conflicts with the definition used by chemists. But that doesn’t suddenly mean that this lay definition becomes the “real” definition and the chemists are suddenly “wrong.” And if you want to rant about the dangers of chemicals with your friends (I’d advise you not to, but whatever), it doesn’t matter if you use the lay definition.

But the way the lay public uses the word “chemical” is essentially meaningless, because they basically use it to mean “substances that may or may not be dangerous but we don’t really know we just know that we can’t pronounce them.” It doesn’t even necessarily refer to synthetic substances, because most people would probably say that cyanide is a chemical, it’s naturally occurring (in fact, it’s produced in certain fruit seeds). So if you want to discuss chemicals with a chemist, you’d better use the actual definition, because the terms used by chemists are more precise and useful.

Of course, when it comes to race it’s not quite as benign as people taking chemistry terms and using them haphazardly. It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists. It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism this way. It’s painful and guilt-inducing to acknowledge that you (as a white person) have benefited from unearned privileges at the expense of people of color. It’s awkward to admit that affirmative action is not “bias in favor of people of color”; it’s an attempt to correct for the fact that college admissions and hiring practices are actually prejudiced in favor of whites, and this has been shown by controlled studies over and over again.

What’s significantly more comfortable is claiming that “everyone can be racist” and “Blacks can be racist too” and “some Blacks are even more racist toward whites than whites are toward them.” That is a definition of racism that white folks can deal with. But that doesn’t make it useful for actually talking about the things that matter.

 

 

 

Richwine and the Inherent Goodness of Intelligence

[Content note: racism]

In news that should surprise absolutely no one, conservatives have once again embarrassed themselves by attempting to “prove” with “science” that people of color are stupider than white people. Yup, again.

You’ve probably read this story elsewhere so I’ll make my recap brief: It has come to light that Jason Richwine (I’m not making this name up, folks), the lead author of a study on immigration from the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote his 2009 PhD dissertation on…why Hispanics are genetically stupider than whites and will therefore continue to have children who are stupider than whites:

Richwine’s dissertation asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it’s clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics — ‘the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ’ — he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason. He writes, ‘No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.

In case you’re wondering at which podunk school Richwine wrote such a dissertation, well, it was Harvard.

(Awkwardly, the very next day after WaPo broke this story, a Pew Research Center report was released that showed that Hispanic students’ rate of college enrollment is now greater than whites’. LOLZ. [However, note that Hispanic =/= Latino.])

Why are conservatives so goddamn obsessed with trying to “prove” that people of color are stupid? Zack Beauchamp at ThinkProgress has a great analysis:

These spats don’t generally endear conservatism to the general public, so it’s not like this is a political move. So why is it that the right-of-center intelligentsia keeps coming back to this topic? I’d suggest two reasons: first, a link between race and IQ moots the moral imperative for public policy aimed at addressing systemic poverty; second, it allows conservatives to take up the mantle of disinterested, dispassionate intellectual they so love.

One mistake that all of these people make–aside from the glaring one of being racist, that is–is that they treat the distinction between “IQ” and “intelligence” as completely irrelevant. Scrupulous research psychologists are quick to acknowledge that the measures they use are imperfect and can only provide an approximation of the actual abstractions they are trying to assess. So if you score higher on a scale of depression, we don’t say you are “more depressed”; we say that you “scored higher on the Such-and-Such Depression Scale.” If you score higher on a scale of extroversion, we don’t say that you are “more extroverted”; we say that you “scored higher on the Blah-Blah-Blah Extroversion-Introversion Scale.” At least, that’s what careful, conscientious psychologists do.

Many believe that intelligence is a much more concrete (and therefore measurable) quality than extroversion or how depressed you are. They may be right; I’m not a cognitive psychologist so this is not my specialty. However, serious criticism of IQ as a measure of intelligence has been made–and by “Real Scientists,” too, not just by Bleeding-Heart-Tree-Hugging-I’m-Mixing-Metaphors Liberals. And in terms of race, some researchers have suggested that IQ tests are biased against Mexican Americans because the tests contain “cultural influences” that reduce the validity of the test when assessing these students’ cognitive ability.

Back to Beauchamp’s analysis of conservatives and why they’re so obsessed with race and IQ:

This vein of argument was pioneered by Richwine’s mentor, Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Murray’s research focused more on the purported unintelligence of African-Americans, but his conclusions about its role in sustaining poverty were similar. Murray has taken this conclusion and used it to argue against everything from affirmative action to essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality. It’s easy to see how this argument works — if some people are less intelligent than others, as a consequence of either genetics or “underclass culture,” then government programs aren’t likely to help equalize society — creating an economically more level playing field will only cause the most talented to rise to the top again. Inequality is thus natural and ineradicable; poverty might be helped at the margins, but helping the unintelligent will be fraught with unintended consequences.

Moreover, this framing allows conservatives to explain the obviously racial character of American poverty without having to concede the continued relevance of racism to American public life. If it’s really the case that people with certain backgrounds simply aren’t as smart as others, then it makes sense that they’d be less successful as a group. What strikes progressives as offensively racial inequality thus becomes naturalized for conservatives in the same way that inequality and poverty writ large do.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? People of color are disproportionately likely to be poor compared to white people. People of color are stupider than white people. Ergo, there’s no need to try to alleviate poverty and economic inequality because it’s natural.

Hopefully you noticed the big honkin’ naturalistic fallacy in that argument. Even if it’s natural for people of color to be poor (because they’re stupid and therefore can’t get off the couch and get a job), that doesn’t mean that this is a good way for society to be. It does not follow that we should just allow things to continue this way.

The other big flaw is that these conservatives are also succumbing–as, to be fair, most people do–to the notion that people with higher IQs/more intelligence are inherently better than people with lower IQs/less intelligence. It is okay that people with little intelligence should struggle just to get by, should be unable to give their children a better life (whether those children have low IQs or not), should be unable to afford basic healthcare, should have to eat cheap, unhealthy food, should have to choose between dangerous, dehumanizing, low-pay work (or none at all) and breaking the law to make money, should have to live as second-class citizens. All because they are “less intelligent,” which is supposedly mostly genetic and therefore not something they chose.

I wish liberals talked about this more. I wish that when conservatives started trotting out these reprehensible arguments, that liberals would, rather than simply emphasizing that there is no proof that people of color are “naturally” dumber than white people and that this is a racist argument, also ask why it is that intelligence should determine whether or not you have access to food, shelter, and healthcare.

There are, of course, many other important things to discuss here. We could talk about how there are so many different types of intelligence and IQ tests only measure a certain type. We could talk about how growing up in poverty drastically reduces one’s opportunities for intellectual enrichment and growth. We could talk about how you don’t necessarily need to be “smart” to contribute to society; we do need service-sector workers and types of unskilled laborers and they should be able to live on what they make, too.

But I think we need to talk about this idea that having a lot of “intelligence” (whatever that even means) makes you better than those who do not have a lot of it. So much better, in fact, those without sufficient “intelligence” do not deserve to live above the poverty line.

~~~

Edit: Not quite related to the main point of this article, but the conservative response to this controversy and Richwine’s subsequent firing/resignation from the Heritage Foundation is veeery interesting. I won’t link to any because you can Google it yourself, but it’s all about Richwine’s “crucifixion” and how liberals are trying to “destroy” him and so on.

Conservatives have this interesting theory in which, when someone does something wrong, it is the fault of the person who calls attention to it that the wrong-doer experiences negative consequences. It’s not that Richwine did something wrong, it’s that the meanie liberals are trying to destroy him. Similarly, when someone accuses someone–say, up-and-coming football players–of sexual assault, many conservatives accuse the victims of “ruining” their rapists’ lives by bringing what they did to light.

The fact that people’s reputation suffers when they do something terrifically stupid or harmful is not a bad thing. That is, indeed, society working as it should. It is a feature, not a bug.