The eye of the beholder

One common claim that comes up in discussions of social justice issues is the following, predominantly uttered by a member of the majority group:

I am against all kinds of discrimination. In fact, I am never hesitant to call others on their own prejudiced behaviours!

What usually follows is the word ‘but’, and then some explanation of how ze is the real victim of discrimination because people keep telling hir to check hir privilege, often with accusations of being bigoted* or something of that nature. The reasoning, I imagine, goes something like this:

I believe myself to be opposed to discrimination
I behave in a way that is consistent with someone who is opposed to discrimination
Therefore your accusations of my prejudice are misplaced

I can certainly appreciate how much it sucks to have someone call you a bigot when all you’re trying to do is express reasonable skepticism about something. This is especially true when you are a passionate defender of the very people making the accusation. From an outsider’s perspective, it can certainly seem as though the name-calling is completely offside – they should recognize that you are an ally and you are doing your best.

Maybe the following expansion of the above syllogism can help flesh out why this attitude is problematic and will lead you into more trouble: [Read more…]

Racism a la Canuck

I’ve had a few e-mails and tweets and comments over the past handful of weeks asking me some version of the following question: “is racism as bad in Canada as it is in the United States?” Many people have heard of Canada as being a place where racism is not really that big a deal, and people like in relative peace and harmony. Then they come to this blog and read about all the horrible racist shit that goes on here, and it shatters the illusion.

I hope you’ll forgive me for skipping ahead to the end of my long-winded and professorial answer when I tell you that I would much rather live just about anywhere in Canada than just about anywhere in the United States. While neither country is perfect, and I have only anecdotes to inform my opinion, I can say that despite Canada’s flaws, the kind of racism we have here is, on the whole, far less violent and extreme than our southern neighbours. And when something racist does happen, it is cause for national consternation: [Read more…]

The one-way mirror of racial privilege

One of the most powerful tools we have when trying to parse an argument is the analogy. We can take the elements of a position, plug them in to a different context, and then press ‘play’ to see whether or not the argument still logically follows. So when a religious apologist talks about the perfect love and perfect mercy of YahwAlladdha, we can ask if it would still be considered ‘loving’ to lock your children in the basement and torture them (for any amount of time, let alone eternity) if they disobeyed your rules. We can point out the absurdity of demanding that atheists ‘play nice’ or ‘leave well enough alone’ by pointing to the similarities between ours and other civil rights movements, and show how active engagement in the public sphere is vital to progress.

Accustomed as we are to the incredible usefulness of this tool, there are cases where it goes horribly awry – namely, those cases in which privilege plays a significant role. At once, argument by analogy becomes completely derailed, and to the person drawing the (flawed) analogy, it seems as though the “privilege card” is being pulled out of nowhere. The argument seems to be, to them, that one is wrong simply because ze is white, or male, or cisgendered, or whatever dominant group identity is germane to the conversation – that the mere fact of being in the majority immediately disqualifies your arguments. Then out come the waterworks: “you’re just as bad as those you criticize – my opinion is being dismissed as you complain about people dismissing yours!”

Animated .gif of a Decepticon laughing and shooting lasers

Let’s just jump ahead a few paragraphs to the end of the argument and state unequivocally that your argument is bad, and you should feel bad.

Now that everyone who needs to learn this lesson has stopped reading, let’s forge ahead, shall we? [Read more…]

We can’t opt out

There is a contingent of the freethinking community, and I have no idea how large it is statistically, but a contingent nonetheless that believe the conversation about social justice lies well outside the list of things we should be talking about. Science, religion, skepticism – these are clearly part of the relevant topics for us to discuss. Why do people believe crazy things? How do we get them to stop? What is the evidence? Other things like racism, feminism, sexual expression and identity issues – these sorts of crazy beliefs and evidence are obviously not relevant to our group. These folks rankle and agitate any time any of these subjects are even broached, replete with admonishments to focus on the ‘real issues’, and to claim that people are ‘overreacting’.

Of course, anyone who honestly agrees with any of that is hereby invited to fuck right off.

An animated .gif of Jeremy Piven (as Ari Gold) saying "Get the fuck out!" [Read more…]

When the goggles come off

I have size 16 feet. They’re quite ridiculously large. I have to order my shoes from the internet, because if I try to buy them in a story I get laughed at (and then apologized to when they realize I’m not joking). I am not particularly eager to confirm or disconfirm the rumours about guys with big feet, but let it suffice to say that my feet are a rather hefty inconvenience. They pretty much preclude me from any activity that requires specialty footwear – rollerblading, skating, bowling – all of these have been off limits to me for about 12 years now.

One of the biggest losses, as far as I’m concerned, has been my ability to ski. When I was a kid, I was enrolled in a junior ski racing program at my local hill. I wasn’t great, but I had some serious promise. Then we moved to Ontario, my feet grew out of control, and the rest is history. It’s a true shame though, since I live within a pretty short drive of some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the world. And until I have a couple thousand dollars to blow on custom equipment, I’m going to have to forego the thrill of winter sports.

One of the things I remember most clearly about skiing is what would happen when, either at the end of a day or just one a break, I removed my ski goggles. In order to protect from glare, ski goggles are tinted orange. After an hour or so on the slopes, my eyes would adjust to the way the lens would filter colours. When the goggles came off, however, the full spectrum flooded in. In the relief, the world looked eerily blue and fluorescent. It would often take a few minutes for my eyes to return to normal. [Read more…]

Here come da judge…

This weekend this blog was visited by a rather unsavoury character who decided to take your humble narrator to school on why passing laws against black people isn’t racist. At first I was amused, much the way I would be watching a dog try to take a stick through the doggy door. It’s cute and entertaining in a pathetic sort of way, watching the poor thing struggle to achieve its goal. Unlike a friendly mutt, however, this particular commenter got progressively more unhinged as I refused to take him seriously, and he began lashing out. I quickly became bored, and left him to rage by himself in the dark.

One of the points that he was sure he had ‘got’ me on was the fact that black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white people. This proved, he asserted, that there was something wrong with black people that made them more likely to commit crimes. It’s just statistics, he claimed. The problem with his theory is that it is not supported by the evidence, or at least the evidence is not sufficient to justify the conclusions he draws. We know, for example, that racism often acts as a confounder in what appears to be a straight-line relationship. We also know that race can play an undue role in things like sentencing and presumed innocence, putting the weight of the judicial system disproportionately against defendants of colour.

This phenomenon is not necessarily because judges are ‘racists’ or because they have a grudge against black people or anything quite so simplistic. The issue is complicated, but one of the culprits is our inability to think critically about our own attitudes about race and racism. By making race a taboo subject, we have set up a situation where people would rather ignore it than discuss it. It happens to police, it happens to lawyers, it happens to judges, and it happens the next level up as well: [Read more…]

A Wildrose by any other name…

DISCLAIMER: I am going to do my absolute best not to make fun of Alberta in this post.

Those of you who do not follow Canadian politics news closely may be unaware that the province of Alberta recently had a provincial election. Alberta has often been (somewhat unfairly, but not entirely) characterized as the Texas of Canada. It is rich in oil wealth, and has long held itself out as the victim of a campaign of neglect by central Canada. At least partially as a result of this, and the entrenched conservatism that seems to accompany life on a frontier, Alberta has long been to the political ‘right’ of most Canadian issues. Of course, now that we have a Prime Minister from Alberta who is to the political ‘right’ of most Canadian issues, it’s a confusing time to be Albertan. What does it mean to your long-standing identity as the middle child of the Canadian family when one of your own is calling the shots?

In the wake of this confusion sprung the Wildrose Party, a provincial party that is even further to the right than the Progressive Conservative Party that has run Alberta for the past 40 years. Yes, you read that right – Alberta has been represented by a single party for 40 years, and it is called the “Progressive Conservative” party – Americans, sorry for blowing your minds with our weirdo Canuck ways. The Wildrose Party, branding itself as the populist conservative alternative to the staid, Tory leanings of the PC party, made a strong bid to unseat the reigning PCs in this latest election. Up until recently, political observers (plus everyone with a sense of civic duty) were gnawing their fingernails at the prospect of the right flank of the right wing seizing control – it was a real possibility.

Then… the wheels kind of came off: [Read more…]

Racism? Let them eat cake!

Sometimes stuff comes up in the news and I just don’t bother going after it. There are low-hanging news stories that are so silly or frivolous that I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about them. Sometimes I file them away for a rainy day when I don’t have a lot of time or energy, or on the off chance that I’ll be able to link to it later in a more substantive piece. So when I read about Sweden’s “racist cake” incident, I figured it was worth taking a pass:

Sweden’s culture minister is facing calls to step down after she was photographed cutting a cake shaped in the form of a naked black woman. The incident involving Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth happened at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. According to Radio Sweden, the museum said the cake was supposed to highlight the issue of female circumcision. But the Association for African Swedes said it was a crude racist caricature and called for Ms Liljeroth to resign.

A few people asked me to respond, but I thought it was a waste of time. After all, it’s a very silly story about an art installation that, as is often the case, was provocative and not in the greatest ‘taste’ (sorry for the pun). Avant garde art is, by definition, ahead of public opinion and designed to shock to prove a point. The involvement of the Swedish culture minister was a regrettable move on her part, but what would you do if asked to cut into a living cake at an art gallery? Staunchly refuse and launch into a tirade against the artist? It was the result of really shitty staff work and a questionable piece of art.

But damn if that confection didn’t have staying power. I guess it’s true – chocolate just doesn’t come out! So here’s a brief issue-by-issue breakdown of my thoughts. [Read more…]

Learned helplessness

I got hit by a ‘double whammy’ this weekend. First, I watched The Trotsky on the plane to Kelowna (well, part of it – it’s a 30-minute flight). The premise of the movie seems a bit silly – a teenager who believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky stages a coup in his high school in an attempt to organize the students into a union. It’s ostensibly a comedy, and is definitely a really funny film – the scenes where he woos a lawyer 10 years older than he are absolutely priceless. At the same time, the climactic scene (where the students charge up to the school with protest signs and righteous fury) fucks me every time I watch it, and my eyes start welling up like I’m a 6 year-old with a skinned knee.

Add to that a long conversation I had with Edwin Hodge about the heights of ridiculousness of post-modern thought (I more or less took Natalie Reed’s position – that post-modern thought can function alongside skepticism to help us critique the ways in which our own experiences and perspective affect truth claims), and whether or not political movements were undermined by the way in which postmodern perspectives can splinter populations that, from the outside, should share a single goal. The point I made to Edwin was that one doesn’t blame a CT scan for discovering problems we weren’t looking for. Postmodern ‘splintering’ is oftentimes simply the exposition of real divisions that exist, and provides a method by which groups who are not commonly represented in the majority group’s interests can keep their needs from being overlooked.

The problem of course is that the infighting that seems to happen – feminist atheists against anti-feminist; anti-racists against those who wish to ignore racism; trans skeptics against gender essentialists – all stem from a common route: the idea that the issues of the minority are not the real problem. Again, this is certainly an idea with easy appeal. After all, if we are a movement of atheists (for example), then our fight is with religion, not an esoteric crusade against systemic misogyny. The problem of course is that one cannot examine problems in isolation, and some issues cannot be extricated from larger, more diffuse problems. What ends up happening is that once the movement solves the “real” problem, the minority goes back to being ignored, having lost those who were allies of convenience. [Read more…]

Sitting in a privilege ‘sweet spot’?

Over the past two years, I have spent a great deal talking about (and even more time learning about) the way that group privilege operates on our evaluations of people, of events, of ourselves. It’s almost like an evaluation of ‘room temperature’ – where we sit on various latitude lines will influence what we think of as ‘normal’, and whatever our perceptions, they are filtered by our ‘set point’. And while your neighbour is shivering and complaining about how ze’s freezing to death, you’re throwing on a t-shirt and left baffled as to how anyone can call 15 degrees ‘cold’.

Another thing I have noticed is the yawning diversity in people’s willingness to recognize their own privilege. Some are ready, even eager in some cases, to accept that their own judgments are the product of a particular perspective that may not be shared by other people. Many others, with frustrating frequency, look into the face of the existence of privilege with the stony, reluctant resolve that is usually reserved for sexual requests involving drop cloths and rubber hoses. Any and all possible excuses are found to escape rather than simply accept the possibility that the sails of their ‘rational’ argument might have a gaping hole that they just cannot see.

Now my experience here at FTB has been… let’s just say it surprised me. I thought that I would have a much rougher ride toward acceptance than I did. People seemed to be familiar with the concept of privilege, and willing to at least listen when the topic is discussed. I credit the feminist skeptics with breaking this ground and bringing the idea of male privilege into the mainstream. To my perhaps greater surprise, many readers have been the one schooling me when my own privilege pokes its head through. It is that latter phenomenon I want to explore today, because it’s been on my mind for a while.

The reason for my surprise at my reception isn’t because I blindly assume that nobody before me has ever thought about these topics before. I contrast my experience here with what I have seen in the world and in other spaces where privilege is raised as a topic. Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, I bought into the stereotype that the majority of my readers would be white males (and who knows, maybe y’all are). Like the hypothetical temperature example above, I rather assumed that, like in other spaces where the topic has arisen, I’d see significant pushback when discussing issues of race because people would see it as an attack rather than a neutral description of behaviour. It is notoriously difficult to see reason when your back is against a wall and you feel like someone’s gunning for you – especially when that gun is aimed at your race.

Thinking about that got me thinking about my own experiences where I’ve had to acknowledge how my own privilege has filtered my judgment. These days it’s no problem – I live in a world of privilege dissection, and recognizing that I’m not perfect is something that has become much easier as I’ve gotten older. If I work at it real hard though, I can still remember those many years ago (read: my early 20s, like 4 years ago maybe?) when I was so woefully blind and ignorant of the power that my being male carried, and still carries. I used to be almost as bad as the MRA set when it came to things like mansplaining and finding the “real reasons” for things*. Just because the people I was arguing with lived sexism and misogyny didn’t mean that I couldn’t just armchair philosoph my way into propping up the status quo, right?

I am sad to say that it wasn’t my female friends that eventually turned me around on the whole ‘feminism’ thing. As much as I would love to be able to claim that a persuasive, rational argument opened my eyes, it was in fact my exploration of race issues. Understanding white privilege was easy – I’d seen it a million times in others. Understanding my own colour privilege was a bit tougher, but because it aligned so  closely with the colour-based privilege I’d seen before it wasn’t too much of a stretch. Understanding that, by being a man, everything I knew might be draped in falsehood and misperception was a tough thing to accept. The consequences of such recognition meant that I was going to have to say “I’m wrong” a lot.

Of course, the upshot of actually learning to do that – to admit that I just didn’t get it – is that other things in my life got a whole lot better. I no longer feared losing arguments or exposing my own ignorance. After all, it was just another opportunity to learn – who wouldn’t love that? And yes, I would look weak in the eyes of people who equate strength with inflexibility, but was that really important? I realized that the path to truth is paved with stones of honesty, and that self-delusion is the worst kind.

All that to say this: I may have been situated in a ‘sweet spot’ for privilege recognition. Because I’ve seen privilege from both sides – being on the wrong side of white privilege, being on the ‘right’ side of male privilege (not to mention colour privilege, able-body privilege, cis gender privilege, first world privilege, insert your favourite here) – it is a trivial task for me to recognize and admit that there are things I don’t get simply by virtue of never being on the receiving end. It would be far more difficult for me to understand if I were white, and I dare say if I were… I dunno… a paraplegic trans lesbian living in Somalia or something. Being able to see ‘both sides’ puts me in an advantageous position to not only recognize privilege, but explain it to others.

Or maybe it’s easy for everyone and I’m just an asshole.

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*Seriously. Ask the people I went to grad school with. I used to ‘cheers’ friends at the bar with the opening line from Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit”. It even made it into my MSc thesis. I thought it was a really funny joke, and that the women in my program were just being uptight. If I could go back in time, I’d kick my own ass. For a lot of things.