Special Feature: I participate in SlutWalk Vancouver

This past Sunday, I participated in the local (to Vancouver) SlutWalk event. I have spoken previously about the issues that preceded this event, so if you haven’t heard of it you should probably read that post. I will attempt to summarize: a police officer in Toronto suggested that women who don’t want to get raped probably shouldn’t “dress like a slut”. Giving Constable Sanguinetti the benefit of the doubt for a moment, I’m sure what he was trying to say is that rapists are more likely to target women who are wearing clothes that expose skin than someone dressed in, say, business casual (more on this later). What followed was a backlash against the idea that rape victims are “asking for it” through their dress, as though a woman’s job is to not provoke the ravenous male hordes through improper dress.

Obviously, when put into context, this idea is not only wrong but very dangerous. Women are often blamed for being raped, disbelieved by even their own families and the judicial system. This kind of slut-shaming double standard inherently disadvantages women – “slut” is always a gendered term even when used (subversively) to describe men. Inherent in the word slut is the idea that a woman enjoying her sexuality is dirty and immoral. It is leveled against women irrespective of their level of sexual activity – a girl who sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time (or indeed, who has never done anything sexual) is just as likely to be called a slut by those around her as is a professional sex worker. Neither of them deserves the appellation – the word should never be used.

In this post, I will give some of my reactions to the event.

The Good

1. Attendance

I wasn’t sure how many people would bother to come to an event like this. Keep in mind that it was pouring rain at various points that day (this is Vancouver, after all), but there was a crowd of around 1,000 people (my estimate would have been higher, but that’s what the paper said) there. Some were dressed in a variety of costumes: three men in operatic drag, a woman in a Saran Wrap dress, a young woman in a really uncomfortable-looking corset, a guy wearing a tiny t-shirt and silver bicycle shorts (not a flattering look… they kept slipping down), and my personal favourite: bandana man – so named because that’s all that covered his junk. My response to my friend (who I will call “Julie” just for simplicity’s sake) was “wow, who knew people actually cared about women’s rights?”

2. Who Attended

One would expect that an event like this would be almost entirely women. I was pleasantly surprised at the gender mix: still majority women but with a lot of friends, spouses, boyfriends, and people like me who simply care about the issue there. It is a sad fact of the sexual double-standard that these kinds of issues only seem to gain real traction when men start speaking about them, but at least the Y chromosome camp was well-represented. It certainly surprised a couple of knuckle-draggers who showed up expecting a parade of sluts, and were instead confronted by a group of passionate feminist allies.

3. Support

This was not a fringe event where only a few whackos showed up (although there were a few of those, to be sure). In addition to various legal and social support organizations, the deputy mayor of Vancouver Ellen Woodworth showed up and spoke at the kickoff to the march (“As a lesbian, a queer, a dyke… I know the power that words have”). Media were present, and sponsors had donated materials and time to the event. The Vancouver Police were also on hand to block traffic, which was important because there were a lot of people on the streets.

4. The Reaction

Nothing was more rewarding than seeing people’s faces as the parade moved past. People were shocked to see not only the attire, but the word “SLUT” paraded defiantly and openly through the streets. I said to Julie “that is the face of consciousnesses being raised.”

The Bad

1. Messaging

One of the stated purposes of SlutWalk was to reclaim the word ‘slut’, in order to rob it of its power. Ultimately, I disagreed with this part of the campaign. Like with the word “nigger”, I don’t think that re-appropriating words is a useful endeavour. I am of the opinion that people should be forced to deal with the full history and implication of a word like ‘slut’, and to understand that it is a word that cannot be separated from inherent hatred of women. Once people understand not only where it comes from, but how it is used to silence, shame and victimize women, they won’t want to use it. I have never been the target of the word ‘slut’, and so it is not my place to say that women shouldn’t re-appropriate it; my criticism is of the idea of re-appropriating words in general.

2. Failing to understand the point

I spotted a number of signs saying things like “real men don’t rape” and “don’t tell me how to dress; tell men how not to rape” and “rapists cause rape, not women”. Even one of the organizers went up and said “women don’t need to be reminded not to dress slutty; men need to be reminded that they will go to jail!” While I understand the spirit behind the statement, I think it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of rape and slut-shaming. Men that rape women do not do so because they want to get laid*. They certainly don’t do it because they “are rapists” any more than people commit crimes because they “are criminals”. Failing to understand this is committing a fundamental attribution error.

Rape is an issue of control and respect. Rape is the result of someone believing that their own wishes supercede the rights of another person, and that the victim deserves her/his treatment for whatever reason. Rape, like all violence against women, is the product of the idea that women do not have the right to sexual self-determination. The word ‘slut’ is a manifestation of that idea. It is the idea that needs to be fought, rather than focussing on “rapists” – as though that was a group in and of itself that must be identified and punished. A man who doesn’t rape because it’s illegal will rape as soon as he thinks he can get away with it. Better to make fewer men that think rape is acceptable.

3. Failing to address the fallacy

There was a particularly powerful moment during the introductory speeches, where one of the organizers said “I am a woman, a colleague, a friend, a girlfriend, and a person deserving of respect.” She then removed her pants, revealing a short sequined skirt, followed by the words “I am still a woman, a colleague, a friend, a girlfriend, and I am still a person deserving of respect.” It was a perfect demonstration of the fact that regardless of a person’s apparel, she/he should be treated as a self-determining individual whose body is her/his own. However, as great as the demonstration was, it skipped over an important point.

While it is difficult to get exact numbers on this (since many sexual assaults go unreported, particularly in places where they are not taken seriously), I hope those of you who are skeptically-minded will allow me to get away with the following assertion: places that have strict dress codes for women do not have lower rates of sexual assault. While it is my suspicion that these places have higher rates of assault, at least we can conclusively state that covering women head to toe does not eliminate the risk of sexual victimization. The fallacy committed by Constable Sanguinetti was not that he was impolitic in his wording, it’s that the original statement is nonsense. The way that women dress is not related to their risk of being raped, at least at a population level.

I am reminded of the old joke about the two hikers that run afoul of a bear. While the first hiker starts running, the second quickly starts putting on his running shoes. “You fool!” calls the first hiker “Those shoes aren’t enough to outrun a bear!” The second hiker says “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.” There is no standard definition or quantitative parameters for what “dressing like a slut” means. It is entirely subjective – the things that are worn by the women I work with would be considered pornographic in many Middle-Eastern countries. The problem is not the clothes; it’s our attitudes towards women and sexuality.

This point was not adequately addressed by the speakers, and I think it was a real missed opportunity.

The Ugly

1. The Racial Double-Standard

Vancouver is a city with a large East- and South-Asian population. Black women and aboriginal women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual assault (including rape) than are white women. Neither of these facts would have been apparent while looking at the crowd. Like most feminist and social activist causes in North America, SlutWalk Vancouver was attended by white people, organized by white people, and focused on issues that do not include race. One of the speakers was Angela, a woman who works front-line for a victim support service in Vancouver’s downtown East Side (DTES). She began talking about the work that she and her colleagues did while dealing with assault victims, and whenever she talked about defending women from rapists, her every sentence was greeted with enthusiastic applause and cheering.

When Angela pivoted to point out that there is a racial component of the word “slut” that is largely ignored, that women of colour don’t particularly want to take back the word “slut”, that this wasn’t an issue of wearing a little black dress but of not being beaten and subsequently ignored by the legal system, the reaction was far more muted. I think I might have been the only person who cheered.

There is a common theme in the intersection between race and feminism. Feminism is well-tended by white women, and many women of colour recognize that there is a need for shared mutual struggle. However, when issues of race and racism – particularly the fact that PoC are disproportionately affected by sexism – come up, there is significant hesitation to face those head-on. Aura Blogando calls this ‘white supremacy’ – I think that characterization is perhaps a bit strong. I think of it more in terms of “white blindness”, or more familiarily, privilege. White women are very enthusiastic to address those issues that are germane to themselves, but more reluctant (it seems) to bring issues affecting PoCs to the fore except in very tokenistic ways (for example, the organizers of SWV noted correctly that Vancouver is built on unceded Saalish territory, but didn’t say word one about the fact that Aboriginal women are more often the victims of assault).

By completely dismissing, or at least not making a point of raising, the issues associated with race, SlutWalk Vancouver allowed white people to feel good about themselves for standing up to one injustice, without having to deal with the related injustice in which their own (unexplored) attitudes play a role. This criticism should not be interpreted as an indemnification of white people, merely an observation that these issues tend not to become publicly-relevant until they affect the majority (in much the same way as sexism issues don’t get treated seriously until men complain about it too).

So in all of it, the good bad and ugly, I think SlutWalk Vancouver was a success. People from many different walks of life were present to raise consciousness about an issue that I think is very important, and hopefully a conversation will be sparked about not only the word “slut”, but how we think of women in our society in general. I was proud to participate, and look forward to more opportunities to do the same.

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* I will no doubt be criticized for making the generalization that it is only men that rape women, or that only women are raped. I fully recognize that men rape men, and less frequently women rape men or other women. Rapists are not exclusively male, and victims are not exclusively female. I also recognize that transpersons are caught in a tricky gender classification limbo, and are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual assault and rape than are cispersons. It is not my intention to diminish these cases, and I hope I do not come across as dismissive of this very real issue.

I’ll just leave these here…

Sometimes things get said so well that there’s no point in my digesting and putting my own spin on them. Today we have a few of those, which I’m just going to leave here and suggest you read.

1. 90% of prominent Climate Change deniers are linked to Exxon Mobil

A recent analysis conducted by Carbon Brief which investigated the authors of more than 900 published papers that cast doubt on the science underlying climate change, found that nine of the ten most prolific had some kind of relationship with ExxonMobil.

Links to these papers were proudly displayed on the denialist Global Warming Policy Foundation website, where they are still fanning the dying embers ofClimategate hoping something will catch, under the heading, “900+ Peer-Reviewed Papers Supporting Skepticism Of ‘Man-Made’ Global Warming (AGW) Alarm.”

The top ten contributors to this list were responsible for 186 of the 938 papers cited.

Hey denialists (coughcoughcoughgrassrutecough) – want to talk some more about how climate change is just a scam? Just be aware that your position was bought and paid for by oil companies. Why don’t we look at the evidence rather than accusing each other of having some secret financial motive?

2. The appeal of the “New Racism”

The New Racism manifests itself in many ways–school choice, the obsession with property values, including the rise of Neighborhood Watch in the 1980s; the differences in prison sentences for those convicted of possessing crack as opposed to cocaine, etc.

We’ve lost an understanding of what racism means in this country. We’ve forgotten that it’s race hate combined with power. A white person being harassed in a black neighborhood is not experiencing racism–that person can call the police and get a response. My students refer to anything other than whatever they think of as Martin Luther King’s dream as racism. Like with so many other words, conservatives have won the rhetorical war. We need to define racism as what it actually is and reclaim the rhetorical ground on moving toward real equality.

To the list of code words that don’t sound racist but are, I would add ‘personal responsibility’. While personal responsibility is a good thing, its usage in discussions of race inevitably cast black and brown people as being personally irresponsible, as though some genetic flaw makes us incapable of achievement (which, in turn, explains why we deserve to be poor and why any attempt to balance the scales is ‘reverse racism’).

3. Seriously, Fuck Ayn Rand

We all know that liberalism is for the (naive, inexperienced, foolish) young while conservatism is a natural byproduct of aging, maturing, and gaining experience with the world, right? Conventional wisdom gets it wrong yet again. The surge in popularity of objectivism and libertarianism on campus underscores how right wing ideology, not pie-in-sky liberalism, is the real fantasyland for kids who have absolutely no experience in the real world.

Yes, Ayn Rand is making a comeback among the college-aged. Objectivism is even getting some mainstream press in light of Commissar Obama frog-marching the nation toward hardcore Communism. Heroic individualists are threatening to “go galt” now that Obama has completely eliminated all incentive for anyone to work ever again, re-enacting their own version of the “producers’ strike” in Atlas Shrugged.

I’ve gotten a little more mellow in recent years, believe it or not, less keen to argue and more able to see middle ground. But there is no middle ground here, no way for us to meet halfway in intellectual compromise: If you are an Objectivist, you are retarded. This is a judgment call, and I just made it. Grow up or fuck off. Those are your two options.

So I decided to give you 1000 words on objectivism last week. Gin and Tacos gives us an… alternative take on the same position. While I’m not a fan of the use of the word ‘retarded’, the rest of the piece is worth reading. Edit: I should note that there is at least one person who is a Rand devotee and whose intelligence and opinion I respect, even if I do not agree.

4. 10 Ways the Birthers are an Object Lesson in White Privilege

Ultimately, the election of Barack Obama has provided a series of object lessons in the durability of the colorline in American life. Most pointedly, Obama’s tenure has provided an opportunity for the worst aspects of White privilege to rear their ugly head. In doing so, the continuing significance of Whiteness is made ever more clear in a moment when the old bugaboo of White racism was thought to have been slain on November 4, 2008.

To point: Imagine if Sarah Palin, a person who wallows in mediocrity and wears failure as a virtue, were any race other than White. Would a black (or Latino or Asian or Hispanic) woman with Palin’s credentials have gotten a tenth as far? Let’s entertain another counter-factual: If the Tea Party and their supporters were a group of black or brown folk, who showed up with guns at events attended by the President, threatening nullification and secession, and engaging in treasonous talk, how many seconds would pass before they were locked up and taken out by the F.B.I. as threats to the security of the State? If the Tea Party were black they would have been disappeared to Gitmo or some other secret site faster than you can say Fox News.

Earlier this week President Obama tried to be the adult in the room by surrendering his birth certificate in an effort to satisfy the Birthers and their cabal leaders Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan. Of course, his generous act does nothing to satisfy the Birther beast for it is insatiable in its madness. Nevertheless, a lesson can still be salvaged by exploring the rank bigotry which drives the Birther movement. In an era of racism without racists, the Tea Party GOP Birther brigands provide one more lesson in the permanence of the social evil known as White privilege.

Still confused about how white privilege works? Here’s a few concrete examples.

I guess I should get a tumblr or something for this stuff…

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One thousand words on objectivism

Which is, perhaps, one thousand more than it deserves

When I was in high school, a friend loaned me a copy of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead – a lengthy tome about a superstar architect who defies the forces stacked against him to create the buildings that he wants, not the ones that the mediocratic hordes are creating. I remember being enchanted by the idea that someone could stand up for her/himself and refuse to capitulate to the opinions of popular demand. A major part of my personality has been informed (or perhaps reinforced) by the ideas I read in the book – the part of me that speaks my mind unashamedly and tries to be unfailingly honest in expressing my opinions.

Later, I read the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. While I enjoyed the series (except the last 2 books, which were steamy piles of word salad), the sixth book – Faith of the Fallen – really spoke to me. Its protagonist fights the good fight against a self-destructive ideology that punishes those that work hard and rewards malingerers and the lazy, by inspiring the people to reject the idea that mankind is inherently flawed and unworthy of dignity. This book, too, resonated with my sense that human beings should work hard to achieve, and that hard work and innovation should be rewarded. I was later to learn that the author was a Rand devotee, penning his own view on objectivism.

As I was completing my graduate studies, I read (well, as an audio-book) Atlas Shrugged, another novel by Ayn Rand. It sucked. It was awful. The writing was as stilted and awkward as the plot was circuitous and interminable. The plot twists were predictable, the ending plodding and unsatisfying, and there was a billion-page monologue from one character that could have been shortened to maybe 5 pages. I got none of the thrill that I had enjoyed from the other two objectivist works I’d read.

Reading Atlas Shrugged (a title which, incidentally, doesn’t make any sense since Atlas held up the sky and not the Earth), I lost any allegiance I had to self-identifying as an objectivist. The entire philosophy seemed to be based on a view of the world that is fundamentally flawed – creating false dichotomies and presenting people as caricatures rather than believable characters. Those who advocate for others are grasping, greedy leeches that feed off the righteous generation of resources that is the result of the hard work of an elite few. Those who produce are virtuous, upright, honest and fair-dealing – the only iniquity is seen by those that would attempt to sponge off the upright by exploiting a sense of “altruism” (which, to Rand, is just the application of guilt). Completely unexamined is the idea of someone producing goods by exploiting and abusing those with less wealth, or the idea of someone being given a leg up and turning that opportunity into a productive life. In Randian terms there are only the good guys (producers) and the bad guys (leeches) – and I suppose the hodge-podge of people who do manual labour and are employed by the good and bad guys alike.

Of course this kind of black-and-white world view appeals a great deal to a large number of people – particularly those that are millionnaires already. I’ve talked about this before, but it can be incredibly difficult to see the number of helping hands you’ve had along the way to success, and it’s very tempting to conclude that your achievements were gained simply by the sweat of your own brow. That’s so rarely the case as to be laughable – everyone has help at various stages, just as everyone has difficulties. Some people are born with innate abilities that make them more likely to be successful, others are born into familial privilege and are able to capitalize on opportunities to which others would not have access. There are many others that are born with one of these things but not the other. As we can infer from the type of nepotism, cronyism and pandering we see in our electorate and in industry, it’s much better to have the second than the first.

So what becomes of those who have no connections or privilege? In an ideal world, those that are born with inherent gifts are able to apply those abilities and achieve some level of success – success that can be passed on to their descendents. Ostensibly, that’s how those that are rich today gained their wealth. Those that cannot achieve greatness can at least work hard and have a decent standard of living, commensurate to their human dignity. That is a true meritocracy – where your level of success is dependent only on your natural abilities and the amount of work you put in.

However, we don’t live in a meritocracy. We live in the world – a world in which political favours are given to corporate entities based on lobbying and favouritism rather than who does the best job, and those at the top achieve greater wealth by defrauding those lower on the rung than they would by producing a superior product or service. Objectivism does not apply to a world like this – it speaks only to a world in which the only barrier between a person and her success is the amount of work she puts into her life. When people do not behave like rational free-market agents, objectivism can make no meaningful predictions about the world.

So is objectivism a complete waste of time? Are there no lessons that can be gleaned from Rand’s works? I don’t think that’s the case. Like the axioms of religion or admonishments of metaphysical philosophy, there can be great subjective value to be gained from reading Rand allegorically. Forgetting for a moment her insistence that her books are meant to portray real life events and people, we can certainly empathize with a person against whom the odds are stacked standing up and refusing to compromise her/his vision, provided we also recognize that when our vision impacts the lives of others, they also have a stake. We can recoil from anyone that insists that we have a moral obligation to give up what we have to those that don’t, provided we simultaneously remember that it is in our best interests as members of a society that people have the opportunities to do for self, and that our participation in that effort may be required. We can recognize that “profit” and “wealth” are not dirty words – rather measures of the success of an idea – provided that we scrutinize the practices of the wealthy to ensure that those without wealth are not being exploited or defrauded.

We can make the world closer to meritocratic, provided that we don’t try and take objectivism literally.

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Fuckin’ privilege? How does that work?

My experiences dealing with other people, as well as my own recollections of how my opinions have changed over the years, have imprinted upon me the need to be as even-handed as possible to those whose positions oppose mine. As hard as it is to do sometimes, I have to constantly remind myself that it is entirely possible (and more than likely to be the case) that my opponents really do believe the nonsense they defend sincerely. Sometimes the opinions expressed are so batshit insane that I am sorely tempted to suspect that my interlocutor doesn’t really believe what she/he is saying, but is simply trying to get my goat.

I don't blame them - my goat is adorable

More often than not, disagreements between people are rooted in ignorance. There are a few people to whom I quite regularly lose arguments, and 95% of the time it is because I don’t actually know what I am talking about. Once I am educated about what piece of evidence or alternative argument I have overlooked, I eventually either concede the argument or revise my position. This kind of discussion is only possible when the opponents respect me enough to not simply dismiss my arguments out of hand.

And so it is in this spirit of extending the benefit of the doubt that I address those of my readers that don’t accept the existence of white privilege. I know they’re out there (at least 2 of them have said as much), and many people who haven’t heard of the concept before find it hard to spot. It’s one of those seeming Catch-22s that one of the ways privilege manifests itself is that it prevents you from seeing it, which directly leads to you denying it. Hopefully this will help change some minds:

Seattle University researchers who posed as “secret shoppers” to test customer services at the Department of Social and Health Services gave the agency a failing grade. Their report card, released this month, showed that DSHS treated whites and people of color differently, failed to provide basic information on programs when asked, failed to keep confidentiality and made things difficult for the disabled and those who don’t speak English.

The researchers, who are of different ethnicities, visited all 54 DSHS offices around the state between July and December of 2009. Of the four female researchers, the African-American received the worst treatment, according to the study. Many DSHS receptionists also assumed the Asian-American investigator was a foreigner and asked questions about her citizenship status, even though she was born in America and had no accent, said lead investigator Rose Ernst, Ph.D., an assistant political science professor at Seattle University and the study’s author.

It is rare that such a blatant example of this effect manifests itself, and I’m sure using this example will open me up for criticisms that this is not representative of average experience. To make it clear – I don’t believe that this magnitude of racism is widespread and normative; however, this kind of racism exists everywhere. The level of service experienced by these researchers varied based on their race – to an almost comically absurd extent. This isn’t in the South either – this is Washington state! Super-liberal latté and arugula Washington state. I’ve said this before, but I should probably re-iterate: being a liberal is not a magic pass to being non-racist. Liberals are racist too, just in a different way to conservatives.

There are two distinct phenomena happening here that I think must be explored and highlighted. First, there is the experience of the researchers of colour. They posed as women needing information and assistance – the purview of the DSHS. What they received instead was dismissive and rude treatment:

The African-American investigator encountered rude or dismissive behavior in roughly 40 percent of her visits to DSHS offices compared with 25 percent for Ernst, the white investigator. At times, staff members raised their voice to “shame” the African-American investigator by broadcasting her question to the entire office, the report says.

This is your classic racism, which strictly speaking is not privilege, except insofar as being non-white is a barrier that a white person doesn’t face. The consequences of being non-white are palpable in this case study, and were not experienced by the white researcher. There are a number of other embedded barriers here – poor women are likely to receive inferior treatment compared to middle-class or rich women, women with unaccented English will be treated better than women with accents, men will (probably) be extended more respect than women (although that might not be the case here, given that many DSHS users are abused women – men might be a bit unpopular). That’s only half of what is going on though.

There is a second phenomenon that clearly demonstrates the manifestation of white privilege:

“I never had a single question about my citizenship status,” said Ernst, who is white. “On the flip side, there was an assumption if I was in the office, I had a very legitimate reason to be there, that I really needed help,” Ernst said. Ernst said office receptionists asked if she had a domestic violence problem or drew her into hushed conversations about others in the waiting room.

Not only did the white researcher not face the same kind of overt discrimination that the others did, but she received preferential treatment because of her skin colour. This is not treatment that Ernst had demanded or otherwise solicited – the fact of her white skin gave her a leg up that, if she had not been looking for it, would have been completely invisible to her. In other words, had she been unaware of the phenomenon of privilege, there is no way she would have seen her experience as anything but typical. She would have been, from her own perspective, right to say that she didn’t receive any special treatment because of her skin colour – why would she suspect otherwise?

It is precisely that aspect of privilege that is most galling to people on both sides of the debate. It bothers anti-racists because it is so shockingly obvious once you see it, but its existence is denied to high heaven. It bothers deniers because it seems like a non-falsifiable hypothesis – denying it is proof that you have it. My hope is that this example might provide a clear illustration of not only what privilege is, but how it works as well.

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Psychology beats “bootstraps”

Crommunist is back from vacation, at least physically. I will be returning to full blogging strength by next week. I appreciate your patience with my travel hangover.

Here’s a cool thing:

You don’t have to look far for instances of people lying to themselves. Whether it’s a drug-addled actor or an almost-toppled dictator, some people seem to have an endless capacity for rationalising what they did, no matter how questionable. We might imagine that these people really know that they’re deceiving themselves, and that their words are mere bravado. But Zoe Chance from Harvard Business School thinks otherwise.

Using experiments where people could cheat on a test, Chance has found that cheaters not only deceive themselves, but are largely oblivious to their own lies.

Psychology is a very interesting field. If I wasn’t chasing the get-rich-quick world of health services research, I would have probably gone into psychology. One of the basic axioms of psychology, particularly social psychology, is that self-report and self-analysis is a particularly terrible method of gaining insight into human behaviour. People cannot be relied upon to accurately gauge their motivations for engaging in a given activity – not because we are liars, but because we genuinely don’t know.

Our consciousness exists in a constant state of being in the present, but making evaluations of the past and attempting to predict the future. As a result, we search for explanations for things that we’ve done, and use those to chart what we’d do in the future. However, as careful study has indicated, the circumstances under which we find ourselves is far and away a more reliable predictor of how we react to given stimuli than is our own self-assessment. This isn’t merely a liberal culture of victimhood, or some kind of partisan way of blaming the rich for the problems of the poor – it is the logical interpretation of the best available evidence that we have.

Part of the seeming magic of this reality of human consciousness is the fact that when we cheat, we are instantaneously able to explain it away as due to our own skill. Not only can we explain it away, but we instantly believe it too. A more general way of referring to this phenomenon is internal and external attribution – if something good happens it is because of something we did; conversely, bad things that happen are due to misfortune, or a crummy roll of the dice. When seen in others, this kind of attitude is rank hypocrisy. When seen in ourselves, it is due to everyone else misunderstanding us. This is, of course, entirely normal – everyone would like to believe the best about themselves, and our minds will do what they can to preserve that belief.

The researchers in this study explored a specific type of self-deception – the phenomenon of cheating. They were able to show that even when there was monetary incentive to be honest about one’s performance and cheating, people preferred to believe their own lies than to be honest self-assessors. However, the final result tickled me in ways that I can only describe as indecent:

This final result could not be more important. Cheaters convince themselves that they succeed because of their own skill, and if other people agree, their capacity for conning themselves increases.

There is a pervasive lie in our political discourse that people who enjoy monetary and societal privilege do so because of their own hard work and superior virtue. This type of thinking is typified by the expression “pulled up by her/his bootstraps” – that rich people applied themselves and worked hard to get where they are. The implication is that anyone who isn’t rich, or who has the galling indecency to be poor, is where they are because of their own laziness and nothing more. It does not seem to me to be far-fetched at all that these people are operating under the same misapprehension that plagued the study’s participants – they succeed by means that are not necessarily due to their own hard work, and then back-fill an explanation that casts themselves in the best possible light.

Please do not interpret this as me suggesting that everyone who is rich got their by illegitimate means. If we ignore for a moment anyone who was born into wealth, there are a number of people who worked their asses off to achieve financial success – my own father is a mild example of that (although he is not rich by any reasonable measure). However, there are a number of others who did step on others, or use less-than-admirable means to accumulate their wealth. However, they are likely to provide the same “up by my bootstraps” narrative that people who genuinely did build their own wealth would, and they’ll believe it too! When surrounded by others who believe the same lie, it becomes a self-sustaining ‘truth’ that only occasionally resembles reality.

The problem with this form of thinking is that it does motivate not only attitudes but our behaviours as well. It becomes trivial to demonize poor people as leeches living off the state, and cut funding for social assistance programs as a result. People who live off social assistance programs often believe this lie too, considering themselves (in the words of John Steinbeck) to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” who will be rich soon because of their furious bootstrap tugging. While it is an attractive lie, it is still a lie that underlies most conservative philosophy – which isn’t to say that liberals aren’t susceptible to the same cognitive problems; we just behave in a way that is more consistent with reality, so it doesn’t show as much.

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Movie Friday: Tim Wise and the illusion of “post-racial”

I am depressed.

I am depressed for two reasons. First, I am depressed that no matter how hard I work, I will likely never get as good at talking about issues of race and racism, history and the importance of advocacy as Tim Wise is:

The second reason I am depressed is that it seems like the forces of reason are losing the fight to the forces of revisionist history, post-hoc rationalization and short-sighted self-interest. I realize this post is much longer than what I usually post for Movie Friday (and has fewer jokes), but if you’ve found any of my posts on “the good old days” or the importance of recognizing black history, or really anything that I’ve said about race to be interesting (and the numbers suggest that at least some of you do), then you’ll absolutely love this clip.

Any of you who have watched any black beat poetry or other forms of spoken word, you’ll recognize that Tim uses a lot of their cadence and punctuated rhythm to get his points across. It’s not just a lecture – it’s verbal poetry. Amazing stuff, and I really really hope you watch it.

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Privilege: when turnabout isn’t fair play

There is an age-old adage when it comes to argument – “turnabout is fair play”. Basically, the idea is that if an argument is reasonable in one direction, then it’s entirely reasonable when turned around and used the other way. When a homeopath demands 100% positive proof that homeopathy doesn’t work, it is an entirely fair argument to ask them to provide 100% proof that gremlins and faeries don’t exist. Because neither argument is reasonable, they can be scrapped. Similarly, when religious people invoke scripture to prove that something or other is ordained or banned by God, it is reasonable to turn that same argument around and show where the scripture ordains or bans something that contradicts the believer’s position.

Turnabout is entirely fair play in most cases, save one – when privilege is in play. Regular readers of this blog will probably remember my previous discussions of how privilege manifests itself in religious people, in discussions of racism, and even in the atheist movement itself. Privilege, for those unfamiliar with the term, is what happens when belonging to a particular group gives you an automatic advantage over those who are not in that group. The characteristic of this advantage is that it is not inherent to real differences between the groups (it is not, for example, an example of “tall privilege” that tall people can reach high shelves easier than short people), but due to some undeserved social assumption or historical advantage (the fact that tall people are considered more trustworthy and attractive than short people would be perhaps an example of “tall privilege”).

Members of a privileged group are doubly-cursed (or blessed, depending on your perspective) since the usual kind of  advantages that accompany privilege are completely invisible to those inside the group. White folks will angrily rant until they are blue in the face (as only they can be) about how they earned everything they ever had, and how life wasn’t handed to them on a silver platter, and how the real racists are the ones who think that white people enjoy privilege at all! Men will insist that men are the truly oppressed sex, since they are no longer allowed to use sexual banter in the office, and that feminists are neutering their manful impulses. Meanwhile, those of us not in the in-group will patiently wait until they run out of steam and point out that the phrase “mighty white of you” exists for a reason, as does “crying like a little bitch.”

It is in cases like this, where privilege is in play, that turnabout doesn’t function as a reasonable argument. For example, imagine this (not so) fictitious exchange between two people:

Boy: I don’t understand why you’re mad
Girl: That guy just slapped my ass!
Boy: So?
Girl: So it’s degrading and basically sexual assault!
Boy: I would love it if girls came up to me and slapped my ass. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of it – you should take it as a compliment.

I doubt that anyone would find this sample conversation bizarrely unrealistic. Boy is trying to set up a bit of “turnaround is fair play” to illustrate that Girl’s position is unreasonable – being sexually objectified is a compliment and Girl should not be offended. Boy is doing this by showing that when the situation is reversed, there is no offense felt by the objectified party – indeed there is a positive reaction to the same stimulus. Any feeling of offense must therefore be purely in Girl’s mind, and all she has to do is adjust her bad attitude.

And of course this would be a completely reasonable position to take but for the existence of male privilege. Boy exists in a world where women are not sexually aggressive in the way that men are. As a result, he has rarely (if not never) had cause to feel as though his merits are judged solely on his physical appearance. He is not constantly bombarded by messages that make his sexuality the sine qua non of his entire existence. He is not meant to feel stupid for simply being born a man. Perhaps most frustratingly (to Girl, at least), nobody ever condescendingly tries to “woman-splain” to him that his totally reasonable objection to being physically and sexually assaulted is just because of his bad attitude.

Boy is not necessarily a bad person, he has simply not taken the time to consider the real differences between his default position in any social situation and the position of Girl. There are a great number of other forces at work on Girl that Boy doesn’t even have to think about. By assuming that those forces, because he can’t see them, simply don’t exist, Boy is preserving the conditions that creates those forces in the first place.

This isn’t an abstract concept for me – I’ve been Boy more than my fair share of times. It’s a tempting trap to fall into, because then problems become everyone else’s fault and you can sit back and pass judgment on the rest of humanity. This type of thinking definitely runs outside of sexism, to be sure. Anyone who has ever said that black people need to just “get over” something are operating from that exact same position of privilege – racism is someone else’s problem! Anyone who has ever said “this is a Christian country, and if you don’t like it you can leave” is, in addition to being sorely deluded about their facts, operating from another position of majority privilege – civil rights are someone else’s problem!

This is why I harp on about privilege so much – failing to recognize its presence forces us to spend a lot of valuable time pointing it out. There will always be those who stalwartly refuse to recognize that it exists, being much happier to mischaracterize it as a device used by bleeding hearts to make white Christian men feel guilty (which is a crock), but there are others who are genuinely ignorant and are willing to put in the work to see how things might look from another perspective.

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