Willfully blind

There is a particularly frustrating argument out there that seems to come out of the liberal tradition, but has been readily adopted by conservatives as well. The argument is that paying attention to a thing is inherently discriminatory. For example, in discussions of race, otherwise well-intentioned people repeatedly make the claim that noticing race is the problem, and that if everyone just ignored it the problem would solve itself. This makes a sort of superficial sense, as long as you don’t think about it too much. The problem is that colour-blindness is a failed idea – failed because there are real disparities that fall along colour lines that aren’t solved by allowing the status quo to perpetuate. Simply ignoring the problem doesn’t lead to a more equal world, and helps create an environment where racism can become more deeply entrenched.

Critics of outspoken atheists often make a similar statement – why not just live and let live? It’s one thing if you don’t believe in a deity, but why do you have to go shouting your disbelief from every rooftop? Why not just let people believe whatever makes them happy? Once again, provided you don’t put any thought into the implications of the statement, then it seems to make sense. However, it neglects the fact that belief is assumed (in our culture) to be normal, and disbelief to be aberrant. It neglects that people make decisions that affect other people based on their beliefs, and those are often very negative. It neglects, most of all, that the truth is important and worth understanding as best we can. The balloon of faith needs to be punctured as many times as possible by the arrows of logic (why are we shooting arrows at a balloon?)

In the backlash of a lot of the anti-bullying campaigns that have cropped up around America and in various other places around the world, we’re hearing another version of this argument pop up as a rejoinder to focusing attention on helping ensure gay kids don’t kill themselves. “We should focus on all bullying, not just gay kids. Straight kids get bullied too – concentrating only on this one group is unfair!” As with the above two examples, this objection makes a kind of superficial sense, so long as you don’t put any thought into what you’re actually saying. First off, there are already lots of anti-bullying campaigns that don’t focus explicitly on straight kids – it’s not as though only gay kids are getting any attention. However, gay kids are far more likely to be targets of bullying and disproportionately represent a suicide risk when compared to straight kids. It’s like saying that providing cancer care is unfair because some other people have heart attacks. When we have a bigger problem, we need to pay more attention.

Beyond the simple reality that anti-gay bullying is a disproportionately larger problem than bullying in general, there are issues that are germane to gay kids that don’t make much sense except in the context of homosexuality. Imagine telling a Pakistani kid that’s catching a lot of racist shit at her school the inspiring story of how Rosa Parks stood up against slavery; the allegorical relationship to her situation is so tenuous as to be essentially useless. Any public health advocate will tell you the importance of balancing general health approaches (clean water, vaccination campaigns, ad campaigns) with targeted health promotion approaches that reach out particularly to high-risk populations. Much can be done when these two approaches are taken in concert, but recognizing a population’s specific needs is not discrimination against the majority.

If I were to speculate on the motives for people making this flawed argument, particularly in the last case, I cannot help but conclude that these people are intentionally being stupid about this issue; refusing to entertain any sort of rational thought on the subject because they’ve already reached their position and are not looking for anything other than confirmation. That is certainly the case in South Africa:

The brutal killing of a South African lesbian activist has been condemned as a hate crime by Human Rights Watch. The US-based group has urged the police to do more to find those responsible for the recent murder and rape of Noxolo Nogwaza.

South African police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi says that the police prioritise violence against women and children but do not look at sexual orientation when carrying out their investigations. “To us, murder is murder, whether somebody is Zulu, English, male or female – we don’t see colour, we don’t see gender,” he told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

If I were to give the police the benefit of the doubt, I would interpret this as them saying “no matter who is killed, we will do our absolute best to solve the crime. We will not work less hard because of the sex or orientation of the victim.” I’m sure that’s what they hoped they were saying. However, the cynic in me can’t help hearing “so a gay person got murdered… people get murdered all the time! Why is she special?” In this case, and in the case of most hate crimes, the effects of the crime reverberate far beyond the simple act of murder – it sends a message to anyone else that would think to step up and advocate for gay South Africans: “this is what happens when you speak out.”

So while I recognize the shallow appeal of the admonition to just “treat everyone the same”, that kind of approach inevitably benefits the status quo at the expense of the minority. We must recognize that different groups may have particular needs, and if we want to achieve ultimate equality we must, at least for a time, swallow a bit of inequality.

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