I recently found a new insight into SJW worldview that has caused me to radically update a few of my beliefs. This may take a wee bit of set-up, the impatient can probably skip to Part III.
The Austin Alamo Drafthouse is holding an all-women showing of Wonder Woman on Tuesday (5 days after the movie is released). I love this idea! In large part because I grew up in the Xena fandom, which was dominated by women, and I know how important that sort of thing can be. Also, because Wonder Woman has long been a feminist icon. This is a genius idea on aesthetic, thematic, and cultural reasons. And finally, because I’m a strong support of freedom of association. If people want to have all-christian showings of Passion Of The Christ, or all-black showings of Get Out, or anything like that, they should be free to do so. Mad props all around.
Surprising no one who’s been on the internet for more than a week, sexist trolls made disparaging comments on the Alamo’s facebook page. Everyone shrugs and moves on, in the alternate universe were people are sane. In this universe, various Media Dragons turn it into a major event and tell the left how much we should hate these people. A bit of an overreaction, but whatever.
Aaaaaaand then a friend posts one of the particularly awful articles, that highlights a number of these comments and then attributes them to an entire class of human – in this case “men online.” Through a series of unfortunate events, I get sucked in.
Articles that take instances of shitty individuals being shitty, spotlight them, and then spin the headline and article to strongly insinuate that everyone who shares a hated characteristic with the perpetrators are vile. This is a large driver of racism, religion-ism, sexism, hell… most group-prejudices. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with an article like this one, that singles out “Sexist Trolls” in the headline. At least then it’s putting the blame directly on a group that is defined by their ACTIONS – making sexist, trolling comments. Those sorts of people really are awful. It’s like an article that speaks of “Murders” or “Arsonists” – those groups are identified by what they did. An article that identifies a group by a characteristics that has nothing to do with the action and is present in a large group who are mostly innocent, such as skin color or gender, is an evil article that promotes group-hatred.
Objections mostly took the characteristic of “The articles are only showing actual bad things that were done. Everything within them is accurate. These statements were made, and they were made by men. What is the problem?”
One can always find people who did bad things and share a characteristic, then publish a list of them, and imply that everyone with that characteristic is as bad as they are. That’s literally what all these prejudices – racism, sexism, religion-ism, sexual-orientation-ism – have in common. “Gay Men Are Pedophiles” “Blacks are Criminals” “Muslims Are Terrorists.” And with a large sample size and careful picking, it’s easy to do. Google found me this article that looks to be a direct parody of those “Men Are Going Crazy Over Wonder Woman” articles – Alamo Drafthouse is Doing a Women Only Screening of Wonder Woman and Chicks Are Very Mad – that does the same thing only for women. With nearly 2000 comments (last I checked) it’s easy to find 10 that make a group look bad. I bet one could, with a little extra work, easily write “Alamo Drafthosue is Doing a Woman Only Screening, and Muslims Are Very Mad” with the exact same wording as those other articles, but selecting only comments by Muslim commenters.
In fact, this is exactly what Donald Trump is doing to spur hatred of immigrants. He has ordered the weekly publication of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Everything in these reports is accurate. It is a list of real crimes, that were actually committed by illegal immigrants. Wherein is the problem?
The problem is the implication that the crimes were committed BECAUSE of the characteristic that is being highlighted. And thus outside parties can draw the inference that anyone who shares that characteristic is also likely to commit those crimes. It’s the difference between “Arsonist burns down church” and “Jew burns down church.”
This did not sit easy with a number of people, several of whom are friends. I wanted to find out why.
In my mind, a principle is valid or it isn’t. Either the principle “A group X should not be tarred by the actions of individuals that share (non-causative) characteristic Y with that group” either is valid for all values of X and all values of Y. There is no special exception “unless that group is Jews” or “unless that characteristic is having a tattoo.” So when I gave the previous example and I was told I can never make that comparison, doing so was wrong, and I should apologize, I was confused. Why is it wrong in the case of Immigrants/Criminals, but not Men/Sexists-Commenters?
Hoping to start with common ground I asked – “Why is prejudice wrong?”
I expected an answer based on the injustice of judging a person due to outward characteristics or group membership, rather than due to their individual actions and the content of their character. Instead I was told:
“Because in many cases it hurts people by denying them the privileges experienced by others.”
This was an authoritative answer, based on years of schooling while securing a masters in Sociology.
Unpacking this in my mind took a long time.
First – everyone has some privilege. Undeniable. And between any two given individuals, it’s overwhelmingly likely that their levels of privileges across all domains aren’t identical. Given that, it’s plausible that we could label one person as more privileged than another.
Second – certain characteristics bring more privilege with them on an aggregate level. White people suffer less discrimination than black people, on the whole. The rich have an easier life than the poor, on the whole. Men have various advantages in many fields over women, on the whole. This is, again, undeniable.
But these privileges aren’t really “granted” or “denied” on a personal level. They are societal-scale issues. Attacking individual sexists on the internet is not going to change anything. It can’t. Perhaps you can change the actions of the men targeted, or onlookers who see the attack, but the vast edifice of privilege is unmoved.
So, Lesson One – my first mistake was thinking that sexism was something that an individual does. If that’s the case, it makes sense to separate those who show sexist behavior from those who do not. But sexism is a thing that a society does. In which case there’s no point in focusing on individual behavior, or differentiating between guilty individuals and innocent individuals. It was never about individual action or how those actions hurt other people.
Also, Lesson Two – this is why it is important that entire groups are attacked. Privileges are assigned based on group membership. To make the world more just and less oppressive requires the remove or lessening of that group’s privilege. Therefore the actual intent of these attacks is exactly what my principles scream against – tarring a whole group. Even if that means highlighting the despicable actions of a few people and drawing attention to their membership in the target group.
Third – let’s focus on the “denying them the privileges” part. How is it that someone is denied privileges? It’s certainly not due to any individual’s actions, because it’s not about the individual. I cannot deny anyone a privilege. No single person can, privilege is inherent in society. That’s what it means to be a privilege! So someone isn’t “denied the privilege” of being male by anything a male does, they are denied it simply by being non-male. Therefore the more-privileged group deserves to be attacked purely due to the fact that it is privileged. It denies others privilege by virtue of its privilege existing at all.
And now the claim that tarring all men via selective reporting is incomparable to tarring all immigrants by selective reporting makes sense. Men have privilege. Immigrants don’t. Ergo, the two cases are not comparable, and trying to draw comparisons is abhorrent. The principle isn’t “Judge individuals fairly”, it’s “Judge groups by their privilege.”
This does raise the question of “What Is To Be Done?” Just a few days ago I posted about the unfairness of not everyone having equal talent. It’s nobody’s fault. No one can be blamed for not having enough talent, and no one can claim that having lots of talent is due to some intrinsic deservingness. Some people just have it, and it’s damned unfair, but what can be done about it? All I can really do is feel sad and wish things were more fair. You can’t transfer talent from the more talented to the less talented. The most you could do is, like Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron, cripple the talented in proportion to their talent, so everyone is equally bad off.
Now suddenly the Oppression Olympics makes much more sense. The more Oppressed you are, the less you will require crippling. Obviously everyone will want to portray themselves as maximally oppressed, to avoid those hammer blows.
And privilege isn’t something you can control via your actions. Individual merit and effort don’t matter. Being personally anti-racist or anti-sexist doesn’t matter, if you still have privilege. Remember that prejudice is bad because it “denies people privileges.” Having privilege denies it to others, so if you have it you are morally culpable for its denial to oppressed groups. Of course you want to play up every possible morally good/oppressed group you can lay claim to, and play down any morally bad/oppressor groups you might be associated with. One is morally good or morally bad not due to their own actions, but due to accident of birth.
And so we have come full circle.
To clarify, my friend is a kind and wonderful person, and wouldn’t endorse the conclusions I’ve drawn from that statement. They simply bought deeply into the standard privilege narrative without really digging into its implications and real-world results, IMHO.