Monday, August 11, 2008

No Middle Ground (or, A Corollary to Godwin’s Law)

In a previous post, I alluded to two major barriers to having meaningful, constructive dialogues about race. I wrote about one: the failure to distinguish between individual and collective acts of racism.

The other barrier is the absence of useful language to describe gradated acts of racism. We tend to describe racism as an either/or proposition when, in reality, racist behaviour acts upon a continuum.

The American journalist Julian Sanchez recently wrote a wonderful post titled Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist (which, coincidentally, is my favourite song from the musical Avenue Q) on his blog. Here, he describes what I’m talking about far better than I can.
Is it possible to be so opposed to racism that it becomes more difficult to root out racism?

Just follow me for a second here: What image springs to mind when you think of “racism”? A Klansman burning a cross? Adolf Hitler? George Wallace barring the schoolhouse door? Images like these are iconic, easy to invoke, and extreme. They remain current because they are potent illustrations of where racism leads; their ugliness, their repugnance, is manifest.

There are still, of course, sectors of American society where the crude racism of the epithet and the noose is casually accepted. But, happily, this sort of thing is largely beyond the pale in polite company now. And this makes it beguilingly easy to conclude: “Well, I don’t go around slinging racial epithets or fuming with hatred at this or that group. Therefore I can’t be one of those awful people. Why, some of my best friends…”

But the variety of racism more common today is more subtle than that, and in a way more pernicious for it, since the overt bigot is unlikely to wield much social power. It’s the subliminal reaction of the manager looking for a new cashier who, for some reason he can’t articulate, just doesn’t think the minority candidate seems quite trustworthy enough. It’s this person who we most want examining his own attitudes. But to do that means being prepared to start from the difficult premise that even he—educated, urbane, kind, and so on—may indeed harbor racial biases. Like Hitler! Like a Klansman!

Now, there’s an obvious way around this, though it should make us uncomfortable for different reasons. We could make a point of talking about race bias and stereotyping in a more gradated way. At one pole is the Klansman. At another, there’s that “typical white person” who is more guarded and alert walking past a black guy at 1am on 7th and V than he would be walking past a similarly-dressed white person.

The discomfort here comes from the thought that allowing these gradations entails licensing some forms of racism—regarding them as understandable, even acceptable. And for very good reasons, this is not the kind of conversation we want to have: “So, is this particular instance bad racism or sorta-understandable racism?” There are whole modes of thought we just want to be entirely beyond the pale.

Sanchez makes a number of excellent points. We don’t have the words to describe the vast middle ground that exists between the actions of a Klansman and the minor racist transgressions that almost everyone commits.

Consider for a moment that the term racist can be (and has been) used to describe all of the following situations:

While on the sidewalk, a person of colour comes towards you and you automatically steel yourself because you think he’s a panhandler.

An illegal immigrant working as a domestic is systematically abused and exploited by her employers who threaten her with deportation.

Although you’re a fourth-generation Chinese-Canadian, an elderly white woman prefaces asking you for directions by saying in a loud, slow voice: “Excuse me … do … you … speak … English?

A black teenager is dragged to death from a pickup truck by a group of whites.

A light-skinned Indo-Canadian actor auditioning for a role is told by the director (who is also Indo-Canadian) that the production is looking for “a darker-skin South Asian”.

There is clearly no moral equivalence between these acts and yet we apply the same generic term to descibe them. And though we have tried to use somewhat nebulous terms such as ‘culturally insensitive’ to describe less serious offenses, most discussions tend to escalate to the terms ‘racism’ or ‘racist’ all too easily.

In the process, we rob these words of their power. If we keep throwing around the term ‘racist’ injudiciously, it will cease to have meaning. Which really sucks because it’s a highly useful word to describe, you know, actual racists.

The classic example of devaluing words, of course, is the Hitler Card. Here’s an individual who was responsible for six million deaths and yet, any act of aggression invites a comparison to Der Führer. (Here’s the latest.) Godwin’s Law states: As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

I think we need to create a First Corollary to Godwin’s Law which goes: As a discussion about cultural diversity grow longer, the probability of an allegation of racism approaches one.

The ways things are going, it’s not hard to imagine future conversations sounding like this:

Such-And-Such is a real racist, you know.

He is?

Totally, dude.

Now, do you mean a real real racist? Or racist like a that last time you called that guy a racist and we all stuck up for you but then it turned out you’d never even met the guy and we all looked like douche bags racist?

No dude, I mean a real real racist. A TOTAL racist …

TOTAL? Wow, that’s serious, dude …

To avoid ridiculous situations like this, we need to hold each other accountable when one of us starts taking complex issues and stripping them of nuance. So let me start by pointing out a recent, egregious example of public Godwinning.

I call out … me.

In the fourth last paragraph of this recent post I stated that racism could be proven by evidence such as:

a letter to the country club chairman asking to kick out all the Jews, an “I [heart] Rush Limbaugh” bumper sticker, a KKK discount card (10 per cent off lawn crosses!)

See what I did there? In my zeal to make the standard for calling someone a racist high, I set the bar impossibly high (and got in a few cheap laughs in the process). Shame on me. Of course, it’s not that simple to define a racist. We’d all be lucky if it were that simple. Please call me on my bullshit when I do stuff like that. We can win this war through truth and reason and we don’t need to resort to specious arguments.

Despite the error of my ways, I still maintain that calling someone a racist, like the Hitler Card, is a nuclear option that we should reserve for those times when it truly deserved.

Conversely, to anyone who is reproached for cultural insensitivity, please try not to respond as if you are being branded a racist. Even if a charge of racism is ultimately easier to defend, no one is served by overreaction. A sense of proportion will prevent situations like this.

Let’s find ways of discussing the vast middle ground and prove Godwin wrong.

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