The Oberlin Hate Crimes Are Not “Just Trolling”

This past year, Oberlin College, generally known for being liberal and inclusive, had a series of bias incidents–or, more specifically, hate crimes. Notes with swastikas were left in mailboxes, flyers advertising minority groups were defaced, signs were put up with ethnic slurs on them, and several students were physically assaulted or chased by people making derogatory ethnic comments. It all culminated when someone was seen on campus wearing, I kid you not, a KKK costume.

Recently, it’s come to light that the two students who did it were supposedly quite liberal. One worked on the Obama campaign and was apparently involved with some local anti-racist group. Some conservatives have seized on this as evidence that the bias incidents were just “a hoax.” Angus Johnson writes:

The Daily Caller cites Bleier’s support for Obama and his membership in an anti-racism organization as evidence that the hate crimes were false-flag hoaxes, but the student allegedly told campus police that he was simply trolling — that he performed the acts as “a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.”

He concludes:

A sustained campaign of bigoted vandalism that has the intent and effect of provoking fear and panic among the members of your community may be a hoax, but it’s also something else.

It’s a bias crime.

Oberlin’s official response to the speculation about the perpetrators’ motives is excellent:

These actions were real. The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real. While Oberlin College takes great pride in its historic and ongoing commitment to diversity, inclusion, and respectful discussion of ideas, we draw the line at threats and harassment of any kind.

We will not tolerate acts of hatred and threats of violence regardless of motivation. We are proud of the way our community came together to respond to these incidents with education, discussion, and reflection. As Oberlin’s people have since our founding in 1833, we will continue striving to make the world better for all through education and discourse based on reason, facts, and respect.

At first, I was a little surprised that people think it matters whether or not the perpetrators were “joking” or “trolling.” The harm was done, right? But then I wasn’t surprised anymore, because I realized something.

These “trolls,” and everyone who complains about “political correctness,” are misunderstanding what we mean when we talk about hate speech. They think we’re trying to tell them that certain words are Just Bad, the way social conservatives think that premarital sex or masturbation are Just Bad. They think we’re operating from a framework of moral absolutism, in which anything that isn’t “politically correct” is Just Bad regardless of its consequences or the intentions behind it.

They think that we believe that shouting the n-word in a forest where nobody hears it as just as bad as shouting the n-word in the lobby of the Black Student Union.

What they’re missing is the fact that there are actual humans who feel hurt, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped, or even afraid for their safety when they encounter hate speech that targets them.

We had a bunch of racist incidents at my undergrad school while I was there. Nothing quite as serious as the Oberlin incidents, but enough to rile the campus up and provoke administrative response. I saw the toll that it took on my classmates who were targeted. I watched them go from feeling like a part of the campus community to feeling like nobody wanted them there. I watched as their peaceful, powerful demonstrations against campus racism were deemed “divisive,” while wearing blackface (yes, that happened) to a Halloween party was apparently not “divisive.”

Hate speech is ethically wrong because it hurts people needlessly and accomplishes no good, not because the words are Bad and you just shouldn’t use them.

Likewise, as funny as you might think it is when university administrations respond strongly to hate speech (and as ineffective as their methods might be, which is a worthwhile aspect to critique), they’re not doing it because they’re Holier Than Thou Liberals; they’re doing it because it’s their job to ensure that they have a campus where everyone feels safe and welcome, and where everyone can devote their attention to learning and enjoying themselves and not to scrubbing racist graffiti off their doors.

That’s why it doesn’t matter why the students who blanketed their campus with hate speech did it. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were trying to make some Brilliant Point About the Human Condition. It doesn’t matter that they seem to have contributed to progressive causes in the past, or that they were trying to make fun of the administration rather than harass their fellow students.

It doesn’t matter, because you don’t know why someone wrote “No N*****s” on your bathroom door. It doesn’t matter, because no matter what the intent was, you and your identity have been used without your consent to make a joke or a statement. You have become a football lobbed by bored white boys at a university administration that they take issue with but can’t be bothered to address in a responsible, mature way.

Your painful history–the enslavement and abuse of your ancestors, or their internment and murder in concentration camps–are just a prop in a skit that you never auditioned to act in. The words that were invented specifically to make people like you seem less than human are now used to make some sort of grand statement about how we “overreact” to things.

When it comes to hate speech, I really don’t care how you feel in your heart of hearts. Maybe you really, really love women and Blacks and gays and Jews but just think it’s soooo funny when everyone gets up in arms about a swastika in a professor’s mailbox.

I’d encourage you, then, to find a way to indulge your idiosyncratic taste for humor in some way that doesn’t involve hurting and terrorizing others.

[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:




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.




How To Not Be An Asshole To Immigrants

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the suburban Midwest is weird. I was often the only person my classmates knew who had been born in another country, who didn’t have American citizenship, who spoke a language other than English or Spanish fluently, who wasn’t a Christian. I think people often unintentionally treated me as the Official Ambassador of Israel/Russia/Communism/Judaism to the City of Beavercreek, Ohio.

I was lucky in that I was very rarely bullied or harassed outright (and when I was, it usually wasn’t directed at my various ethnic/religious/national statuses, so I couldn’t really tell if that was motivating the extra attention or not).

However, my status as an immigrant played a huge role in my childhood and adolescence–probably bigger than any other part of my identity. It was what people noticed the most and latched onto, and also what people conveniently ignored when they wanted to hold me accountable for failing to follow their norms.

Because of that, how we treat immigrants has been something I’ve thought about literally since I was old enough to think about things like that, which is why I wanted to write about how we can be better at it.

Note: As immigrants go I am extremely privileged. I’m white/European, able-bodied, and middle-class, and my parents are both highly educated (which played a huge part in the fact that we were able to immigrate in the first place). I also immigrated at a pretty young age–old enough to understand what was happening and miss my home country like hell, but young enough to adjust sort of well and learn the language quickly. I am also an immigrant to the United States.

This means that my experience as an immigrant is very different from many other people’s experiences as immigrants, and the content of this post reflects that. I’m not going to try and write about immigrant experiences that are not my own, but you should definitely share yours in the comments if they address issues that I’m unable to speak about (well, and even if they don’t).

Second note: Yeah, this is mostly a post of “don’ts” and not of “do’s.” There are two possible reasons for this that you can pick from: 1) I’m a nasty and negative person, or 2) including lots of “do’s” on this list is kind of silly, because the “do’s” of how to treat someone who’s an immigrant are basically the same as the do’s of how to treat anyone else: be kind and honest, assume good intentions, respect boundaries.

So here we go.

1. Don’t make fun of their pronunciation or be an asshole about how you correct it.

For most of my childhood, I heard the following sort of thing on a regular basis: “HAHA did you just say SAL-mon? Don’t you know it’s pronounced SAAAAAAAA-mon? DUH.”

There are basically three appropriate responses when someone mispronounces something. One is to politely say something like, “Hey, just so you know, that’s pronounced SAH-mon.” Another is to say nothing but use the word yourself and pronounce it correctly. The third is to realize that you do, in fact, have the option of just letting it slide and not playing English Police. They’ll learn eventually; you don’t need to be their personal savior.

This sort of thing got much better once I was no longer a child (suggestion: talk about this with your kids!) but you’d be surprised how many adults likewise don’t understand that this sort of thing is extremely rude.

2. Don’t make fun of them for not getting your cultural references.

There’s an xkcd that makes this point really well:
Saying 'what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano' is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.

I love this because it shows how silly and small-minded it is to make fun of someone for not knowing something you think they should know. It’s especially true with pop culture stuff.

Even if someone immigrates to the U.S. as a child, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be very aware of (or necessarily interested in) American pop culture. I wasn’t until late adolescence, partially because I always sort of did my own thing and partially because my parents didn’t expose me to it at home. They showed me the Russian cartoons they loved as children and played the Russian music they’d listened to their whole lives. The food we ate was mostly Russian and Israeli; the movies we watched were older foreign films of all sorts.

So when I express ignorance about some piece of American culture and my friends are all like “AHAHAHAHAHA you don’t know who KURT COBAIN IS/what the PRINCESS DIARIES ARE were you born under a rock or what?!”, that is unhelpful. No, I wasn’t born under a rock. Just in another country.

This, unlike the pronunciation thing, hasn’t really gotten much better as I’ve gotten older. Maybe people assume that because I did spend most of my childhood here, I somehow developed a taste for this stuff, I don’t know. Or they assume that I’m somehow “required” to learn about famous American TV shows/movies/musicians by virtue of living here. But I haven’t and I’m not.

3. Don’t act all amazed at how good their English is.

Yeah, yeah, I know, sometimes this is totally fine and sometimes people won’t be offended. If you know someone pretty well and have actually witnessed their English improving, go ahead and compliment them on it. But otherwise, acting like it’s so amazing that the person has indeed managed to learn English is kind of condescending, especially since they might’ve been in the country for quite some time.

4. Don’t assume they’re here by choice or that they want to Become A Real American Now or that they need to assimilate.

Although Americans tend to act like their country is The Best In The World and that everyone else agrees, this isn’t necessarily the case. My family, for instance, came here mostly out of economic necessity–the Israeli economy was basically in the toilet in the mid-90s–and also because, well, Israel is a little bit dangerous. But we miss it all the time, and for me, it will always be home in some sense.

New immigrants are often encouraged to assimilate rapidly to American culture and shrug off their ethnic identity. Historically this was often done to them against their will–for instance, Ellis Island officials would change foreign-sounding names to more American-sounding ones without permission. However, this is still going on to a distressing degree, such as the continuing battles over whether or not Latino/Latina children should be allowed to learn about their own culture and history in schools.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that American culture > other cultures. There is no reason to expect or pressure immigrants to Become Americans. Sometimes you move to a new place and that place becomes home for you. But sometimes, it doesn’t.

5. This is probably obvious, but bears repeating: don’t literally ask them if they fit the stereotypes you have assigned to their country/culture of origin.

If I got a dime every time someone said “Oh you’re Russian? You must be an alcoholic then ahahaha hahaha vodka babushka nuclear weapons Putin Stalin.” That’s all. (Here are some things Russians are tired of you saying to them.)

6. Don’t ask questions like you already know the answer.

This relates closely to the previous point, but it doesn’t necessarily involve stereotypes. People’s questions often contain a latent assumption that they already know the answer (i.e. “So your mom must make borsht all the time, right?”), which forces me to contradict them (i.e. “Well, actually, we eat a mix of Russian, Israeli, and Jewish foods so borsht is really only a small part…”)

Or they’ll be like “Oh so your parents must give you vodka all the time, right?” and I have to be like, “Well, actually, in Russian culture vodka is sort of considered a drink for men, and when my family has dinner parties the vodka is typically only poured for men unless a woman specifically asks for it.” (Fun fact: I have never actually drank vodka with my parents even though it flows freely at all of our social events.)

Questions phrased like you already know the answer makes it seem like you’re just awkwardly trying to show off your supposed knowledge of other cultures. Which just makes me feel awkward because I feel somehow expected to validate you and express surprise and gratitude that you know so much about my culture. (Which you don’t, necessarily.)

If people asked things like “What kind of food do you eat at home?”, that would be much better. That gives me space to actually answer the question and give them the information they’re curious about without feeling like I’m being asked to make someone feel good for knowing what borsht is.

And for goodness’ sake, quit asking about the damn vodka already.

Preliminary comment moderation note: Posts like these tend to bring out the Freeze Peach Patrol en masse. Unfortunately for the Freeze Peach Patrol, however, I have no interest in entertaining their flimsy arguments for the hundredth time. So, if you want to participate in the discussion, please contribute something more substantial than “YEAH WELL THE FIRST AMENDMENT SAYS YOU CAN BE AN ASSHOLE TO IMMIGRANTS.” Yes, you have the constitutional right to ignore all of my advice and be a huge asshole. We’ve established that now. Okay? Okay.

The Supposed Virtue of Not Being Offended


I often encounter people who are Not Offended by bigotry or microaggressions and are very proud of that fact. In fact, because they’re Not Offended, they think that nobody else should be offended by the thing they’re Not Offended by, either.

It’s difficult for me to criticize those people because, often, they’ve been through a lot. They’re survivors of sexual assault who don’t see a problem with rape jokes. They’re people with mental illnesses who don’t care if you tell them to “just snap out of it.” They’re women who don’t care if they get catcalled on the street. They’re gay men who don’t care if you call them “f****t.”

Sometimes the way people cope is by growing a thicker skin. While that’s not something I’ve ever really been capable of, it’s none of my business how other people cope. It’s also none of my business what other people are and are not offended by.

When it becomes my business, though, it when such people start implying that because they’re not offended, nobody else should be, either. That’s when they lose me. It seems like some people haven’t really learned that 1) everyone is entitled to their feelings, whether those feelings are “rational” and “logical” or not, and 2) your feelings don’t have to be everyone else’s feelings too.

The other issue with this is the sense of superiority that such people often have. Being Not Offended becomes somehow morally better, or a sign of strength or “maturity” or “perspective.” It’s also assumed to be the “healthier” option, because being offended means you’re “holding a grudge” or something equally ridiculous.

Of course, even if being Not Offended were healthier, that wouldn’t really matter because it’s not a choice. While we can choose whether and how to act upon our feelings, we can rarely choose which ones to have. It’s not really your choice whether to be upset by something or not, and I believe the technical term for considering yourself superior to others because of things they can’t control is Being A Dick. (If you’d like to change the feelings that you automatically have in response to things, you could try therapy, but that’s not available to everyone and the stigma associated with it is still significant. So at best you’re shaming people for not going to therapy.)

To some people, being offended also means you’re wasting your time nitpicking people’s language as opposed to working on Real Issues, which is an argument I often come across but have yet to see proof for. Is there actually an activist out there who does nothing but police people’s jokes and language? If you run across someone who criticizes your jokes or language, how do you know they don’t do anything but that with their life? You don’t.

None of this means that you have to be offended by something just because others are. For instance, I have no problem with casual usage of the word “crazy,” but many other people with mental illnesses do. I understand why they do, but for some reason hearing that word thrown around just doesn’t provoke any emotional reaction from me. I also occasionally use that word to describe myself. However, I never use it to describe other people, and I try to avoid using it casually in public because I’m mindful of the fact that others find it offensive. (Also, it’s just such an imprecise and lazy word to use.)

But I would be wrong if I said that because I’m not offended by the word “crazy,” nobody else should be, either. I would be wrong if I considered myself more mature or healthier than those who find that word offensive.

Speaking of imprecise word choice, “offensive” and “offended” are prime examples. When people speak dismissively about those who get “offended” by “politically incorrect” jokes or comments, they make it sound like those of us who dislike such jokes and comments are just choosing to take righteous offense because we’re so sanctimonious and more-liberal-than-thou. While that might be how it works for some people, for many others it’s a very different sort of emotion that it evokes. These comments hurt. They make people feel pigeonholed and objectified. They make them feel like the butt of a joke they never asked to be the butt of.

It’s telling, I think, that whenever I see discussions about how “being offended” is a waste of time/a sign of immaturity/not compatible with Real Activism/a “character flaw,” I never see any compassionate advice for those who find themselves inordinately upset by bigoted comments. All I see, really, is self-indulgent gloating about the virtues of Not Being Offended.

Nobody’s taking your freeze peach away. If you’d like to offend people, go for it. But prepare to face criticism for that choice. Personally, I’d like to live in a world where if someone hurts someone else with an ill-considered comment that serves no actual purpose, they’ll apologize and seriously consider not making such comments in the future rather than lording their Thick Skin and Maturity over the person they’ve accidentally hurt.

Microaggressions can actually have pervasive negative effects on people, and research backs this up. They activate stereotype threat, which is a process in which people underperform based on stereotypes about their race or gender when those stereotypes are made salient for them.

If you’ve managed to overcome that, good for you! Now stop looking down on those who haven’t.

The Real Problem With “Slutty” Halloween Costumes

Scooby Doo costume for men and women. Source: the ever-brilliant Fuck No Sexist Halloween Costumes.

Tonight is the night when a large number of people my age put on costumes and get drunk, and a smaller number of people my age scoff and roll their eyes at what the women are wearing.

There is a lot to criticize about the way we “do” Halloween in our culture, but here’s what we shouldn’t be criticizing: individual women who choose to wear so-called “slutty” costumes.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress revealingly. It can be fun, and as long as you’re not feeling pressured into it, there’s no reason why you should need an “excuse” to show off your body if that’s what you want to do. Not really my thing, but not everyone has to be like me.

Second, if you’ve spent any time at all on a college campus, you know that the way some women dress on Halloween isn’t really that different from how they dress when going to a frat party any other night of the year–that is, pretty revealingly. To me, this says that the problem isn’t really with Halloween itself or with individual women’s clothing choices.

Third, women are often shamed for not dressing revealingly when they go out, especially on Halloween. Friends have told me that they’ve tried to wear “normal” costumes on Halloween, only to be shouted at by men, “Why are you wearing so many clothes?!” So, in a way, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and I wouldn’t blame a woman for deciding that she’d rather get called a slut than a boring, no-fun prude.

Fourth, although dressing revealingly can be intrinsically fun, women in our society grow up learning to base their self-worth on their looks. It’d be nice if everyone became a Super Duper Feminist and broke down their assumptions about gender and beauty and only wore revealing clothing for Completely Personal Reasons, but that doesn’t happen. At least, not for now. The idea that you must look good and you must put on a display for (heterosexual) men is one that can take a long time for women to dislodge from their minds because it’s often so subconscious.

Fifth, “dressing slutty” is a stupid phrase and I wish we’d stop using it. How someone dresses has nothing to do with how much and what kind of sex they want to have, and with whom. Saying that someone is “dressing slutty” promotes rape culture because, in saying so, you are making unfounded assumptions about someone’s sexual availability. Stop saying it.

Sixth, just try finding non-“slutty” Halloween costumes for women. Not everyone has the time, money, and skill to make their own costumes (but here’s a great resource for those who are so inclined). Also, not all female-identified people are willing to wear men’s clothing.

So if we can’t necessarily criticize individual women and their choices*, what can we criticize?

Well, our culture.

And that’s where it gets difficult. It’d be a lot easier to point at women who wear “slutty” costumes and blame them for the problem. It’d also be easier, and definitely more to the point, to blame costume manufacturers. But even that fails to get to the heart of the problem, which is this:

We still make a number of destructive assumptions–we, as a culture. One of those is that women exist primarily to be “on display,” and that anything else they do is secondary to that. Another is that female bodies are attractive and pleasant to look at (assuming they fit into the narrow criteria we prescribe), whereas male bodies are not. Why do we never see men “dressing slutty”? Why aren’t men expected to wear garments that restrict their movement, make it difficult for them to breathe, and require constant readjustments to make sure that nothing “indecent” is revealed? Because female bodies exist to be looked at, and male bodies exist to do things.

Another destructive assumption is that women who admit that they find themselves attractive and that they enjoy getting attention for their looks are “full of themselves,” “attention whores,” “think they’re all that,” and so on. We need to put this to rest right now–not only because it’s barely-veiled misogyny, but also because it’s part of the reason “slutty” Halloween costumes even exist. Women feel like they need a special “excuse” to show off their bodies, and Halloween provides such an excuse. As Cady narrates in Mean Girls, “In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”

It may be tempting to ridicule women who wear “slutty” costumes, but it misses the point. Although we ultimately make our own choices, we don’t make them in a vacuum. In this case, we make them in a cultural context that still treats women as objects for display.

*Of course, that’s not to say you can never criticize people’s costume choices. If you wear this (TW for anorexia) you’re just a terrible person, for instance. And also, here’s a PSA: don’t be racist.

And meanwhile, enjoy:

Edit: A number of people have been misinterpreting point 3 above to mean that because men (sometimes) ridicule women for not dressing revealingly, that means that they should dress revealingly. No. While I’m glad my readers are all disagreeing with that idea, that’s quite an impressive misinterpretation of my point. I’m not prescribing what women should or should not do. I’m explaining why women should not be ridiculed for wearing revealing costumes by showing that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Likewise, I’m not saying ridiculing costumes is wrong. I’m saying ridiculing people is wrong–if you’re doing it in a gendered way.

So, OK: “Whaaaat that costume looks nothing like Scooby Doo/the Doctor/Super Man/Big Bird/Angry Bird/whatever”

Not OK: “Ugh, look at that slut.”

Faith is not a Mental Illness

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.

Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

I’ve got a post up at In Our Words today! Here’s a preview.

A few weeks ago, an organization of conservative LGBT folks and their allies called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Surprise, surprise: a conservative group endorsing a conservative presidential nominee.

Dan Savage, however, was apparently irritated enough by this to comment on it. He tweeted, “The GOP’s house f*****s grab their ankles, right on cue…” with a link to the story, followed by the word “pathetic.” Except that he didn’t use the asterisks.

One could hardly design a more controversial and, in my view, offensive message. First of all, the phrase “house f*****s” is a blatant allusion to another offensive term, one laden with historical meaning: “house Negros” (or “n*****s”). In the antebellum South, slaves were divided between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the plantation owner’s house. The house slaves were typically lighter-skinned and received better clothing and food, and the type of work they did was less physically taxing than that of the field slaves.

A century later, Malcolm X characterized the “house Negro” as a slave who is more likely than a “field Negro” to support—at least tacitly—the institution of slavery, because it has afforded him or her an easier life than it did to the field slave. Similarly, he described African Americans who wanted to quietly live and work among whites as “house Negros,” and himself and his fellow activists as “field Negros.”

[…]This is the complex and painful analogy—which I have probably oversimplified here—that Savage has, for some unknown reason, chosen to invoke. To him, LGBT folks who support conservative politicians are like “house Negros” because they are willing to support a power structure that others (rightfully) consider oppressive.

Read the rest!

In Defense of Cynicism

I’ve been thinking about cynicism a lot lately, for no particular reason aside from the fact that I am a cynic.

According to the actual definition, a cynic is either an adherent of the Greek philosophical school of cynicism, and/or simply a person who believes that human actions are motivated by selfishness (or rational self-interest, to put it more euphemistically).

While I do happen to believe that, I think the word “cynic” has taken on a slightly different, more general meaning, and that is the one that I usually think of when I call myself that. This general definition is that a cynic is a person who sees the faults in things more clearly than most.

Obviously, this entire blog is an expression of that particular trait of mine, and that’s why people seem to either love it or hate it–for the most part, you either “get” cynicism or you don’t.

I think, though, that at least when it comes to politics and social justice, cynicism isn’t nearly as miserable and self-defeating as people think it is. Most intelligent people, if pressed, will admit that there are some serious problems in our society. However, they will tell you that none of this will ever change, that it’s depressing to even think about, and that it’s best to focus your attention on friends, family, work, hobbies.

But we “cynics,” who point out all these problems and analyze them so enthusiastically, seem to actually enjoy the process of unearthing trouble, even if the things we find often disgust and dismay us. The reason the process is so rewarding is because we know that we’re crawling along towards change, and that the more people we urge to care with our commentary, the faster that crawl will go.

So who’s the real cynic?

Of course, there are certainly people out there who cannot remain informed about societal problems while still holding on to their mental health. To such people, I would obviously say to take care of yourself first.

But I think that most people who protest that being critical is “depressing” are selling themselves short. What’s truly depressing is to feel like you have to deceive yourself into believing that everything’s just awesome because you can’t change it anyway.

Cynicism may not be the right word for my approach, but I don’t think there really is one. For instance, calling myself a “critical” person sends an equally distorted message, because it makes it sound like I criticize things for the sake of criticizing them. I don’t. I criticize them because they need to be criticized, and because we all stand to gain from criticizing them.

Instead, I like to call my philosophy “optimistic cynicism.” Or, you know–hope.

"Vagina" is Not a Four-letter Word

You would be forgiven for assuming that our elected politicians are mature adults who can handle using words that designate genitalia. You would especially be forgiven for assuming that given that many of these politicians are very eager to legislate what can and cannot be done with genitalia.

However, you’d be wrong.

This is old news now for anyone who follows these things, but in case you don’t, here’s a recap. On June 14, the Michigan House of Representatives was debating a new bill that would severely limit a woman’s ability to get an abortion by placing new restrictions on abortion providers. The bill passed the House and will go to the Senate most likely in September. (They were also debating a separate bill, which did not pass, that would’ve restricted all abortions after 20 weeks, with no exception for rape or incest).

In response to this, Representative Lisa Brown (three guesses which party) gave a speech in opposition and said, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'” You can see her speech in its entirety here.

The shock! The horror! Brown was quickly forbidden from speaking on the House floor by Republican leadership of the House. A spokesman for Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger said, “House Republicans often go beyond simply allowing debate by welcoming open and passionate discussion of the issues before this chamber…The only way we can continue doing so, however, is to ensure that the proper level of maturity and civility are maintained on the House floor.”

To that end, Republican Representative Mike Callton said that Brown’s remark “was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

What Bolger, Callton, and the rest of these concern trolls apparently do not realize is that language is malleable and entirely based on context. In general, words might be inappropriate to say for three different reasons:

  1. They are derogatory and hurtful slurs (i.e. the n-word, fag, retard)
  2. They have been designated as “profane” by our society (i.e. fuck, piss, shit, cunt)
  3. They refer to things or functions that are generally considered inappropriate for polite conversation (i.e. penis, vagina, feces)
These three categories of Bad Words operate in different ways. The first category is inappropriate to say basically always, unless, in some cases, you belong to the group targeted by the slur, or you are using the word in a conversation about the word (but even that is controversial).

The second category are words that are usually used to make a statement. They are much more frequently okay to use than the words in the first category. That’s why when people curse, they use these words. That’s why many writers, such as myself, use them for effect. They’re generally okay to say around your friends, but many people avoid using them in front of people they don’t know well.

The third category comprises words for things that we usually avoid discussing in polite company without a good reason. You wouldn’t exclaim, “That looks like a penis!” in front of your grandma, and you wouldn’t say, “My vagina feels funny” in front of your boss (I mean…unless you have a very open-minded boss/grandma). It’s not the words themselves that are “bad,” it’s the fact that you usually shouldn’t talk about the things those words refer to if you want to be polite.

But all of this falls apart when the context demands discussion of such topics. If you’re at a doctor’s appointment and the doctor needs to tell you something about your penis or vagina, it would be laughable for him or her to avoid using those words. If you’re negotiating sex with a partner, you shouldn’t have to worry that he or she will be offended if you use those words. And if you’re attempting to legislate what women can and cannot do with their private parts, you’re going to have to face the fact that those parts have names.

The most ironic thing here, though, is Callton’s remark about the word “vagina”: “I don’t even want to say it in front of women.” First of all, that’s patriarchal as hell; women can handle naughty words just as well as men can. Second, it’s not just a naughty word; it’s a word for a thing that (most) women experience on a constant basis.

Some conservatives have apparently made a slightly more legitimate criticism of Brown in that she connects restricting abortion with rape (via her “no means no” allusion). I say “slightly more legitimate” only because, having once been a pro-lifer, I understand how they would take offense.

After all, pro-life politicians do not wake up in the morning thinking, “Yo, I’m gonna take away some rights from women and tell them what to do with their own vaginas today.” They think, “Abortion is murder and I have a duty to stop it just like I would stop the murder of a child or adult.” To them, drawing any parallels whatsoever between restricting abortion and committing sexual assault would naturally seem preposterous. It is only those of us who couch the debate in the language of personal liberty who see the similarities.

That’s why this whole incident really highlighted for me the divisions between liberals and conservatives on the matter of reproductive rights. It’s not even just that they can’t agree on whether or not abortion should be legal; it’s that they can’t agree on what abortion is, and on the terms with which the debate should be framed. Liberals say abortion is a woman’s right over her own body; conservatives say it’s the murder of an unborn human being. How can we ever reach a consensus if we define our terms differently?

I don’t know how to solve this problem–and if I did I would probably be the savior of American politics–but at least this story has a partially-happy ending. Brown and several of her colleagues performed the play The Vagina Monologues with its playwright Eve Ensler on the steps of the statehouse last Monday night as a tribute to our right to speak the names of our own body parts. About 2,500 spectators came to watch.

But as for the bill that the House passed, that’ll go on to marinade in the state Senate, which currently has 26 Republicans and 12 Democrats. I’m not getting my hopes up.