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(un)Fairly Labeled

There is a great deal of consternation that gets kicked up over the terms “racist” and “misogynist” (I would also put “homophobic” in this category, but it is a special case). People who engage in racist or misogynistic behaviour, or who espouse racist or misogynistic attitudes, will furiously clutch their pearls and fan themselves feverishly whenever the dreaded “r word” or “m word” are applied to their behaviour. “But I’m not a racist!” they will cry “how dare you call me such a thing!”

Those who are thus rebuked have developed a fun new pattern of congregating to lick their collective wounds and lash out at those who have applies such ugly and hurtful labels to them. To them! Of all people! To be called such a hurtful thing! It’s beyond the pale!

 It slaps pejorative labels—racist and sexist—on great segments of the population on the grounds of the skin colour and genitals they happened to be born with, and aims to radicalize other segments into a state of perpetual victimhood.

The above is sliced from a piece quoted by fellow FTBorg Avicenna. The original piece seeks to deny the existence of privilege by pointing out just how awful it is to be racialized as white, or gendered as male. It’s not an original argument, nor is it particularly well-argued – I will say that the writing is pretty good. Even so, I don’t recommend reading the whole piece (the original – not Avicenna’s; I assume you read everything he publishes) unless you have a lot of time to kill and some extra eyes to roll, but it’s the exerpted piece I want to expound upon a bit today.

This “pejorative label” meme has quite a bit of traction in conversations by aggrieved white men (although it is worthwhile to point out that the author of the original piece is not a man, and I have no idea what her racial identity is). To hear them tell it, there is no worse thing you can call a white person than “racist”; no worse thing you can call a man than “misogynist”. By throwing around these “labels”, you are causing such mental anguish and despair to white men who are “totally not racists“, and unfairly stigmatizing them. Not only that, but you take the ‘punch’ out of the “insult”, and drawing attention away from the “real racists”.

Let’s approach that last paragraph piece by piece, shall we?

“Racist” and “Misogynist” label behaviours, not people

Almost by definition, it is not “an insult” to describe someone’s behaviour. If someone has murdered someone else, it’s not “an insult” to call them a murderer. If someone has stolen or lied, it’s not an insult to call them a thief or a liar. The words “racist” and “misogynist” work in a similar fashion: if you engage in a racist behaviour, or you give voice to a misogynistic belief, then calling you “racist” and “misogynist” are not insults – they’re descriptions of the thing you are doing. You might feel insulted by the “label”, but that doesn’t make it “an insult”.

The “pejorative label” crowd usually chime in at this point with words like “slander” and “defamation”, showing at a stroke that they have only passing familiarity with the law. Slander and defamation are specific legal charges with a specific meaning, and pointing out that someone is doing racist shit does not meet the definition of either. It’s a good thing too, because otherwise the courts would be clogged by defamation suits filed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and  Rush Limbaugh, seeking protection against the grievous harm being done to their otherwise-sterling reputations by such pejorative labeling. “Racist” and “misogynist” are subject to the same standard of proof that “ignorant” or “asshole” are: defined in the moment and, while undesirable and potentially damaging to one’s reputation, not defamation of character.

There are those who feverishly complain that their reputations have undergone irreparable damage as a result of being labeled as “a racist” or “a misogynist”. They offer no examples of such a case actually happening, and the only examples I can think of are cases where a person has said something racist or misogynistic and then either refused to apologize or worse, who have doubled down and confirmed the suspicion. Even then, there are always a chorus of fellow travellers who see the label “racist” as a badge of honour, because it is evidence of “political correctness gone mad”. Mitt Romney engaged in months of race-baiting, and still secured the majority of the white vote – I think your reputation will survive, random person on Twitter.

“Not a racist”

As I’ve said countless times before, the phrase “a racist” is meaningless, as is “a misogynist”. There is no standard, not even a colloquial one, by which someone goes from being “not a racist” to being “a racist”. In the moment that you are doing something racist, you are “a racist”; in the moment that you are doing something misogynistic, you are “a misogynist”. That moment ends the moment your behaviour ends; the alternative is that everyone who has ever said or done anything racist is “a racist” forever, which would include roughly 100% of the population, thus making the phrase useless as a descriptor.

The fact that you, as a white man, don’t believe that your behaviour is racist or misogynistic is similarly meaningless. By dint of your lived experience of race and gender, you are the worst possible judge of what is and isn’t racist or misogynistic**. You have had comparatively few experiences where you have had to adjudicate race- or gender-based prejudice, or where you’ve had to deal with the consequences of failing to notice. You have not spent your life awash in a constant tide of prejudicial judgments about you based on your race or gender, often at the hands of those who can deal serious damage to your life or livelihood. Put simply: the fact that you don’t personally think it’s racist/misogynistic is the least convincing evidence possible.

Concern trolling about “real racism”

The people who raise this great hue and cry over being called “racists” are often, judging by the stereotyped simplicity of their reasoning, having the first conversation about race that they’ve ever had. They don’t understand what racism is or how it works, but they are convinced of two facts: 1) that whatever it is, they’re not doing it, and 2) that there is a real version of it out there that everyone should be focusing their attention on instead.

I cannot imagine a more dishonest and craven tactic, to be honest. There are, indeed, more dramatic examples of racist behaviour than what some asshole says on a Reddit comment thread. If you’ve never spoken up about those before (as evinced by your complete lack of knowledge on the relevant subject), spare us your faux concern about the “real racism”. The differences between programs like Stop and Frisk and statements like “black people have a culture of poverty” are differences of magnitude, not of kind. They share a common root: racist beliefs. Similarly, the differences between the young men who raped a drunk woman in Steubenville and those who insist that she “wanted it” are differences of magnitude, not of kind, that share a common root: misogyny. Describing them using the same term is not to divert attention from the “real” examples: it is to note that they are merely different symptoms of the same disease.

The worst thing you can be called?

I have led a relatively lucky life when it comes to racism. I have not, for example, been set on fire or dragged behind a truck or been presumed more deserving of the death penalty. I have been called some pretty awful things, sometimes to my face, based not on what I’ve done or who I am, but because the speaker has some fucked up ideas about black people. I would wager to guess that most people of colour have had this experience, many of whom are not nearly so lucky as I am. I have also been called “racist”, almost always in ways I disagree with (and some circumstances in which the accusation was just absurd). I know which kind of “insult” hurts the most.

I cannot speak about misogyny from personal experience (except as a guilty party), but I would imagine that, had I lived a life of being dismissed as merely a sex object or a goal to be “achieved”, having my accomplishments put down, not feeling safe walking down the street, and having to constantly be on guard against assault (either verbal or physical), there are a lot worse things you could call me (and probably have at one point or another) than “misogynist”.

If the worst possible “insult” you have faced, or can face, is to have your racist and misogynistic behaviour described for what it is, then you are living proof that we live in a male-dominated, white supremacist society. There is no race-based or gender-based insult that is capable of making you feel what it is that PoCs and women feel when they are targeted. That’s not an accident: it’s evidence that the deck is stacked in your favour to begin with.

To petulantly demand that others not call you out for the things you say and do because it makes you feel bad is to demonstrate a complete lack of self-awareness. And while it is conceivably possible that the person calling you “racist” or “misogynist” is incorrect, you are not the victim of a great injustice – you are being inaccurately described. In the vast majority of circumstances I have seen, the person being accused of racism or misogyny is actually doing something wrong, and needs to check their own behaviour rather than launching into a lengthy protest about how hurt their feelings are.

But that’s what all this comes down to: people want to say and do racist or misogynistic things, they just don’t want to have to deal with the social consequences. They rail against the label, without understanding its meaning, because it is not fair that they should have to examine their own actions. Because they don’t personally believe their behaviour to be bad, that’s all the proof they need to know that those who would accuse them (them! of all people!) are motivated by a slavish devotion to “political correctness”, or simply wishing to “slander” people for “merely dissenting”.

You’re not being slandered. You’re not being unfairly labeled. Your reputation is not under attack. You are just being made to face the consequences for your actions and beliefs; a price that that, up until then, only had to be paid by the people on the receiving end of your abuse.

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*Actually, this is not so clear-cut in law, but for the sake of simplicity I am happy to stipulate that someone who accused someone of being a murderer in public without proof could be subject to a law suit.

**At the aggregate level. There are certainly white people who have grown up in places where they are racialized on a day-to-day basis, and in some rarer cases where their skin colour puts them at a disadvantage. These exceptions do not disprove the rule, however. They merely add context to a conversation where the ‘aggrieved party’ has decided to throw context out of the window in the first place.