The Art of the Insult & The Sin of the Slur

Throughout my blogging career I have occasionally been taken to task for using insults and ridicule on select occasions, and have in turn often discussed the ethics of insults and ridicule. And in The New Atheism+ I articulated some of those principles again, and then I went overboard in using the tactic in comments.

People rightly brought up issues with that, so I reexamined my actions there and what people had to say on the subject, and retracted and apologized for some of my actions there. In discussing the matter further I found I was wrong about a few other things, and realized this is an important issue that deserves an article of its own. Getting things like this right is what Atheism+ is all about, and debating and educating each other on these issues is valuable and ought to be welcome.

Because this article necessitates using offensive (in some cases extremely offensive) words in illustrative examples, a trigger warning is in order for anyone who might have a bad reaction to that. This is a clinical, philosophical post about proper and improper use of words, and should be approached as such. But if that is not possible, you should avoid it. [Read more...]

The New Atheism +

There is a new atheism brewing, and it’s the rift we need, to cut free the dead weight so we can kick the C.H.U.D.’s back into the sewers and finally disown them, once and for all (I mean people like these and these). I was already mulling a way to do this back in June when discussion in the comments on my post On Sexual Harassment generated an idea (inspired by Anne C. Hanna) to start a blog series building a system of shared values that separates the light side of the force from the dark side within the atheism movement, so we could start marginalizing the evil in our midst, and grooming the next generation more consistently and clearly into a system of more enlightened humanist values. Then I just got overwhelmed with work and kept putting it off on my calendar for when I had a good half a day or so to get started on that project.

Since then I blogged On Sexual Harassment Policies and Why I Am a Feminist (which smoked out a few of the dregs who attempted to defend their anti-humanist atheism), but closer to my growing thoughts on what separates us, and ought to separate us, within the movement was my post on (Not) Our Kind of People, which wasn’t really about any moral divide (since lots of people who aren’t my kind of people are nevertheless my people as far as basic values go, and I know they would agree; we just enjoy different company), but it paralleled my more private thinking about the evil among us. Then I read Lousy Canuck’s account of the whole abuse of Surly Amy at TAM and elsewhere, which enraged me (I had previously only known parts of that story). It shows the dregs will now publicly mock humanist values, and abusively disregard the happiness of their own people. Well, that starts drawing the battle lines pretty clearly then.

So I was chomping at the bit to find time to write something on this, but still not sure what to say or how to say it. It especially bugged me because I couldn’t get to it for lack of available time (which reminds me to mention, be warned, I am AFK most of this week and so comment moderation here will be unusually slow).

Then Jen McCreight said it for me, more eloquently and clearly than I could have. This weekend she wrote How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism, which was so well received (and quite rightly) that she wrote a brief follow-up: Atheism +. And Greta Christina and others have taken up the banner: Atheism Plus: The New Wave of Atheism. I am fully on board. I will provide any intellectual artillery they need to expand this cause and make it successful.

Its basic values (and the reason for its moniker) Jen stated thus: [Read more...]

Red Tails

Lucas’s new film is good but not excellent. There were elements of it that disappointed me. But it may be worth your support anyway. Here’s why…

Red Tails is a movie just released honoring the Tuskegee airmen, an often unrecognized unit of black fighter pilots in WWII. For those who don’t know the backstory, George Lucas (sort of?) wrote and produced it, and has been working for over two decades to try and make this film happen, because studios just weren’t interested (he ended up paying for it himself, and it wasn’t cheap). Why? Because, he was told, a film with an “all black cast” was assumed to be a loser at the box office, especially in the foreign market, and thus not worth the investment a major film like this requires.

Sikivu Hutchinson, writing for Black Skeptics here at FtB, gets you up to speed on this fiasco in Jim Crow Hollywood 101. Although one of the deciding factors causing studios to reject the film was apparently their belief that an all-black action film would flop in the foreign market, so it’s not just the fading ghost of Jim Crow America, but also the rest of the “We Used to Love the Atlantic Slave Trade” Western World and “Why Is Their Skin a Weird Color, What Are They Aliens?” Eastern World (oh, and I suppose we ought to add the “We Can’t Afford to Buy Your Stupid Movies Because of Your Agrosubsidies, Dumb Asses!” African market and the “We Have Our Own Action Movies With People of Color in Them, Thank You” Indian market, and so on, but I’m not a studio exec so I don’t know what supposed data they were looking at).

Other WWII Films to Compare

As for myself, I thought the movie might be awesome just because it was a WWII action flick; the fact that it was about the Tuskegee airmen was just a cool bonus. I was a little unsure, though, because ever since the 80s WWII movies either suck (Pearl Harbor, anyone?) or are beyond excellent but, as one might say, kind of dark. Das Boot, Schindler’s List, Valkyrie, Saving Private Ryan, Inglorious Basterds, Miracle at St. Anna, are all superb films, some are brilliant on almost every measure. But they aren’t exactly ra-ra, “heroes rock!” action flicks. Yes, Basterds had a bit of that (and some would say a bit too much of it, and that on the “um, that didn’t happen” side, but let’s be honest, we all love a good revenge fantasy now and then), but overall even that film was, let’s be honest, dark. So can we have more feel good WWII films? Sure, people die even in those. Sad things happen. It’s war. But the overall feel is not “excuse me while I go shoot myself,” but more in the “yay!” category.

Once upon a time we had those movies, albeit often wildly fictional: Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, Force 10 from Navaronne (all had a token black guy…who duly got killed; except in Force 10, where he’s only mortally wounded, demonstrating real progress in racial relations; until you notice he wasn’t depicted on any of the promo film posters, despite being Carl Weathers, hardly a nobody…). And of course there have been plenty of WWII-set pieces…that had nothing much to do with war per se. Like Victory, two of the Indianna Jones films (Raiders and Last Crusade), The Keep … (notice we are descending into even wilder fiction here). But they also used to write really heroic, sometimes even delightfully comic, WWII movies that, I have to say, would never get written today for some reason. I’m thinking of flicks like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Father Goose, and Operation Petticoat.

Red Tails: Bad News First

I name all of these so you’ll know what my point of reference is as far as what counts as a really good WWII flick (don’t make too much hay out of any omissions; there are tons of classics I haven’t seen). Red Tails doesn’t make this cut. And that’s mostly because George Lucas wrote it (the credits say two other guys did, but on The Daily Show he described himself writing it, and IMO either he did, or clones of him did, because it’s very Lucasy). George Lucas is kind of a shit writer, IMO, and the worst when he tries to write “for kids.” He talks down to kids. He apparently thinks kids are stupid. When I was watching Red Tails there were several scenes were I was pulled out of the film because of some stupid dialogue he’d put in (or allowed in, if he was just supervising the script; indeed the very first lines of the film will worry you as far as their dumbness…all I can say is, it gets better…mostly). Later I realized why that stupid, unrealistic dialogue was in there: he wants parents to take their kids to go see this movie, and he thinks kids are too stupid to follow realistic dialogue (as my wife said to me afterward, the opposite is the case: she learned how to speak and understand better by watching as a kid movies that were written for adults; but this is a guy who thinks kids loved Jar Jar Binks).

Still, there were really only three or four scenes that were that bad. The rest was at least decent, especially when the black performers were on screen (the cast is not devoid of white people, it just doesn’t have any in lead roles). But here I think the rest of what was wrong with this movie is that the director (Anthony Hemingway) kind of phoned it in whenever he was shooting white cast members. In almost every scene with a white person in it, their performance sucked. It looked like he always printed the first take, when a real director would stop and tell them, “Okay, you’re delivering your lines fine; now perform the lines. Okay, take two…” In contrast, the black actors performed solidly throughout, even R&B singer Ne-Yo, who was great, producing one of my favorite characters and adding something different to the film I’m sure would have been lost if they’d gone with someone else.

(I should also add my usual peeve about all contemporary cinema, that I’m sick of the over-use of CGI in movies today; it’s lazy and unconvincing and destroys most of the awe movies once could produce. I liked it back when we actually made movies, and not cartoons that we try to pass off as movies. But this is a minor point. I know it’s unrealistic to expect some real movie magic and actual aerial stunt work, especially when he wasn’t even getting funded properly, but I really do want to see real movies again some day. So, complaint registered. Moving on…)

Red Tails: Now the Good News

It’s a decent work of historical fiction that’s fun to watch in the classic sense. You will learn a lot about what went on and what they accomplished and how they were perceived at the start of the war and how that changed by the end of it, which is all in broad outline accurate. There’s humor and heroism. And it’s miles better than any crap film like Pearl Harbor. Note that I can’t compare Red Tails here with the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne, which covered the same unit, not only because I haven’t seen it (although now I am inspired to), but because it was not a studio released film; indeed, the fact that it was not is an example of what’s wrong with Hollywood (and accordingly, as I don’t have premium channels like HBO, I had never heard of it until researching this post today).

So what about Red Tails? Should you see this movie, and encourage others to as well? Your call. But let me play advocate: (a) it’s at least an okay movie (7 out of 10, and from me that’s saying something since most films these days don’t even rate a 5 for me); and (b) it will teach you shit about history you might not have known but would love to learn. And I don’t just mean the issues (or for some uninformed people, even mere existence) of black combat pilots in WWII, but, especially cool for a historian of technology like me, the fact that the Nazis invented jet aircraft and fielded a fleet of jet fighters during the war, and we had to fight them with ordinary prop planes (maybe someday I’ll blog about one of my old pastimes, weapons tech, and the fact that pretty much everything we fight with now was invented by the Nazis, including the automatic assault rifle, shoulder-launched rocket, and guided missile…and yes, jet fighters), and (c) it will flip the bird at the white-ass studio execs who wouldn’t pay for or to distribute this film because “no white people are in it.” They think white people won’t go see it because they aren’t in it (and it’s always supposed to be about us, see).

It would be worth it to prove them wrong. I’d certainly hate to find them feeling “vindicated” by the movie’s failure. Because studio execs are neurophysically incapable of registering a film’s quality at all, they won’t realize it failed (if it even does) because of the writing or directing, so they will think it’s because no white actors were in the lead parts. It’s this stupid false inference that has driven practically the whole industry since 1980. That’s why when one studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, every studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, because “obviously” that’s “in” now (rather than judging what to do based on whether a script is actually just good).

Next Move

If, however, you rankle at paying to see merely average movies just to learn stuff and support a cause, but you want to see what was actually the first all-black-lead WWII action movie, then rent Miracle at St. Anna (directed by Spike Lee). That got panned by the critics (mostly because Spike Lee didn’t direct it like a “Spike Lee” film, as critics had pigeonholed him, but actually demonstrated his skill and versatility as a director and made something quite different), and fans of “constant action” war movies hated it because it had a lot of boring “talking” and “emotion” and shit, and other people hated it because it was a little confusing and requires you to actually follow everything and be intelligent. But it actually rates as one of my top most favorite WWII films (in the “dark” category, that is), rivaling even Saving Private Ryan.

Why? Well, you might get it if after watching it, you have the balls to then watch it again, now knowing what happens and thus what all sorts of things really meant earlier in the film (the imaginary-friend scene with the boy in the barn will make you cry…once you know what was really going on in that scene). And if you have an eye for the decisions a director makes (editing, getting performances from the actors, where to put the camera) and just overall matters of quality (not much CGI here). It will also teach you about history (a central atrocity that occurs in the story is actually a true story). And it has literally the most intriguing opening scene of any war movie ever made (yes, even beating Saving Private Ryan). I know one critic who said it sometimes played too much into black stereotypes, but in fact it demonstrates how blacks themselves in the 1940s could play with those stereotypes, while some of them were based on cultural realities of the time, and in fact you actually get as much diversity of character among the men as you would in any “all white” WWII film (so if you don’t notice that, then you are the one obsessing on stereotyping…and I wonder if that was kind of Lee’s point).

Anyway, that’s an excellent film, and thoroughly anti-Lucasy (which does mean, not for kids). But what I want now are good, action-fun WWII films. Like Inglorious Basterds with an all-black infantry unit; or Operation Petticoat style antics in an all-black motorpool unit near the front lines (“When the air raid started he just took off. All he said was ‘In confusion, there is profit!'” … if you didn’t just laugh, you either have no sense of humor, or you haven’t seen Operation Petticoat recently; one of those is easy to remedy). Why not? The potential would be awesome. If you want to see that happen, though, you may have to start small and go see Red Tails. Then studios will start listening to pitches for similar films, and inevitably something awesome will get made that never would have otherwise.

In other words, maybe we should make Red Tails the next hybrid talking vampire shark movie.

Sexism, Racism, and the Golden Rule

Our own Ian Cromwell (the one and only Crommunist) posted today on the Schroedinger’s Rapist metaphor and the pushback against it that uses racism as an example (if you don’t know the back story, Daniel Finke provides). Ian’s thesis is this:

I’ve frequently heard people object to the Schroedinger’s Rapist argument as sexist, with anti-black racism used as a counter-example. I reject this comparison because it neglects two important factors: 1) that the issue under discussion is about whether or not we want women to feel more comfortable; and 2) that black people often make similar behavioural adjustments to accommodate the racism of their white friends. I share some personal stories to illustrate this.

He invited my comment and I realized I was just writing a blog post of my own. So here goes!

(To all of my readers, the following assumes you’ve read his post.)

Ian, awesome. I agree with most everything you say. I’d only offer some qualifications that come from comparing my experience and attitude to yours. You can tell me if I’m on track with this or not. (Though much of this in fact confirms your point.)

I think we should still account for the fact that there’s a difference between reasonable and unreasonable reactions.

I believe it would be wrong of you to adjust your behavior because of that crazy street-crossing lady, because not all people are like that. If I have to jog to get somewhere on time, I jog. You shouldn’t be deprived of that option because of your skin color. Were a hooded black man jogging up behind me, I would not be any more concerned than I would be were it a white man, nor would I dash away. And that’s saying something, as I’ve not only been attacked by black men, I was attacked for being white. So if anything you might think I’d have a legitimate reason to flee from jogging black men. But I’m not an idiot. I don’t assume all black men are racists or violent. And one dude jogging does not fall into any threatening reference class I know.

Likewise (regarding your door-to-door example), I chat with black men who show up at my door unusually frequently (I say unusually only because I live in a very diverse neighborhood and most people don’t). Again, people not talking to you is simply irrational behavior. You might have to end-round it (by wearing a suit, or developing a more disarming opening line and smile) for the practical reason that you need their cooperation and there really isn’t anything you can do about their being a racist idiot. But, IMO, you don’t have to like it. And when you don’t need their cooperation, you don’t owe them anything. Their fear and discomfort is their own damn fault. (But again, that’s just IMO.)

On the other hand, as I have myself been menaced by groups of black men for being white (complete with anti-white racial slurs and attacks with hurled bottles; I live on the edge of a rough town), I will cross the street to avoid a group of black men dressed like gangbangers, but not a group of black men dressed in suits or jogging clothes or even dressed in “hip hop” kit but with backpacks (as the sort of guys who would menace me would not be so dorky as to carry backbacks; those are clearly school kids). My reasoning is not “those guys must be dangerous” but “if I avoid those guys, my risk of being menaced declines considerably.” And that conclusion is based on actual, personal experience. (Which is also neighborhood specific; I have no such worries walking about in Harlem where I effectively lived for many years.)

It’s also not based solely on their being black (obviously it is partly: in this town [Richmond, California] there are some black people who will attack you for being white, whereas no white people tend to attack you for being white), but on their wearing gear that identifies them with the culture that dangerous men boast being a part of. And yet, only some people in that culture are dangerous. Thus, my avoiding them does not entail I assume they are dangerous, but only that I am reducing my risk in the event that they are. I don’t see that as racism. It looks more like common sense to me. (Which, as you note, is exactly a woman’s point: any random man could be Schroedinger’s Rapist–that doesn’t mean 50/50, but still a non-negligible risk that has to be managed.)

Accordingly, a bunch of black guys who see me do that in this town should know there are guys who actually do look like them who would give me shit, and thus acknowledge that it’s not unreasonable of me to avoid finding out. They might even telegraph a heightened friendliness to reassure me that they aren’t those guys. And that would be entirely reasonable, too.

This kind of adjustment doesn’t necessarily have to do with race, either. Even though I am white, I would have enough presence of mind to know I shouldn’t walk into a business wearing a ski mask, even if I was wearing it just to keep warm; and I wouldn’t joke about carrying a bomb within earshot of airport security; and I engage all manner of adjustments to my behavior to ensure my presence in some context is not misinterpreted. As you point out, that’s just good sense.

Like you, I’ve been attentive to what clothes I was wearing, for example, and adjusted to compensate, e.g. when I’m thrashed from construction work and covered in mud and grunge and dirt and wearing “second hand” clothes (because those are the ones I don’t care about getting ruined), and I walk into a shop to get a coke, I make an effort (by whatever means, from body language to conversation to facial expressions) to telegraph that I’m an orderly, intelligent man with money, and not a crazy homeless guy keen on pinching something.

And like you, I have often scared the hell out of people by walking up on them too quickly, so I also shuffle my feet now so someone ahead of me is aware. And even then (and this has happened a couple times just in the last year) I sometimes get fearful, worried looks as I pass. And I’m a white dude. (Which perhaps means you shouldn’t assume it’s always about your being black; evidently some behaviors worry people regardless.)

The point is, some kinds of reactions are simply unreasonable and do not need to be accommodated (unless for practical reasons they have to). But some kinds of reactions are reasonable and should be accommodated (and we should actually feel good about accommodating them). This applies in the male-female dynamic just as much as any other. I do make an effort to make women around me feel comfortable, and I don’t see this as some sort of reverse gender bias or affirmative action, but as simply what a good guest and/or host does: make those around him feel comfortable. We do the same thing when we avoid political arguments at family gatherings.

On the other hand, there are people whose company I don’t want, if they don’t like the way I naturally am. For example, I will avoid swearing in certain contexts (e.g. a formal lecture; when I’m a guest in a conservative’s house; etc.), but I’m not going to hang out at a party where I can’t swear. I’d rather be elsewhere. Conversely, if it’s my party, and you don’t like swearing, you belong elsewhere. And that’s your responsibility. By extension, any women who might have unreasonable expectations shouldn’t mingle with men who don’t meet them. But not all expectations are unreasonable.

How do you tell the difference? Empathy and the Golden Rule: (a) first understand what difference it makes to be a woman [e.g. by a huge margin, women are far more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than men, and they live with that fact, we don't] and (b) then ask if you were them, how would you want to be treated? (Or, “how would that behavior then look to you?” or “what would that remark then sound like to you?” or “what would reassure me that I’m going to be comfortable here?” etc.).

Another example of (a), BTW, is the fact that men tend not to have much actual experience receiving unwanted advances; whereas women tend to get that shit a lot, to the point of getting fed up by it as much as any man would who had the same experience. When guys say “but all advances from women are welcome!” that only confirms to me they are naively inexperienced. Would you want persistent advances from your best friend’s wife? Or women you find unattractive? What about daily menacing come-ons from gay men? I have been hit on or flirted with by gay men a good amount (and not just because my wife used to work in the theatre) and I don’t mind it, it’s even flattering, but this is because they were always polite about it, genuine gentlemen; but imagine if they weren’t? Or they just wouldn’t lay off? Or literally everywhere you went yet another dude came on to you? It would get tiring after a while. Why, gosh, you might even give up going to group events where that keeps happening.

Hence, Ian, I think your overall point is spot on.