Collective identity politics

The term “identity politics” is missing an important word. It’s collective identity politics. Who you are is an individual matter, but the culture is full of claims that your identity is your group membership. If you subscribe to identity politics, you’re supposed to think not for yourself, but according to someone’s group stereotype. You have to follow only your own group’s traditions; adopting and enjoying other people’s is “cultural appropriation.” It’s supposedly a great revelation when you stop thinking of yourself as a human being and start thinking of yourself as a member of a race.

Lately we’ve seen identity politics taken to its logical conclusion, with white nationalists coming out of the woodwork. In Washington, DC, Richard B. Spencer declaimed, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” In German, that would be “Heil Trump! Heil unserem Volk! Sieg heil!” He was answered with applause and Nazi salutes. (YouTube video; may be nausea-inducing.)
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“Race” doesn’t determine ideas

When I read this morning about a teacher who allegedly declared, “All white people are racist,” I was initially disgusted. Then I thought perhaps his comments were being taken out of context; perhaps he was making an intentionally absurd statement to illustrate logical fallacies, in the style of “All Cretans are liars.” I still don’t know for sure, but a Christian Science Monitor article takes the statement at face value and yet merely says it’s “reigniting discussion about how difficult it is to talk about race in school classrooms.” Normally the CSM is more respectable than that.
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The cliff of force

When people resort to force to defeat other people’s views, they aren’t starting down a slippery slope. They’re stepping off a cliff. It doesn’t matter how strongly they feel, how contemptible the opponent is, or how carefully legal they are. Resorting to force to silence an opponent means substituting muscle for reason.

Many news outlets reported that “violence broke out” at a white supremacist rally in Sacramento on June 26, but are vague on who engaged in violence. This isn’t necessarily unreasonable; it can be hard to sort out where things started, especially if both sides are spoiling for a fight. All the evidence I see, though, indicates that it was a gang of “counter-protesters” who launched the first attack.
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The forgotten story of eugenics

'White' and 'colored' drinking fountainsWhen I was in college, a professor maintained that the racial hostilities of the time (around 1970) were carried over from slavery and Reconstruction, still fresh a century later. That never seemed like a sufficient explanation to me, and recently I’ve been learning more about an important piece of the history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bad science tried to put “race” on a scientific basis gave new life to the idea that some racial groups were superior to others. The Foundation for Economic Education has run a number of articles on the subject lately, such as “How States Sterilized 60,000 Americans – And Got Away with It”. I’ve also been reading a library book, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century by Michael Yudell.

The terms “moron” and “imbecile” are just insults today, but to the eugenics movement they were precise terms, used to justify practices like forced sterilization. The weak-minded needed to be kept from breeding. The idea had roots in a misapplication of Darwinian theory, using imprecise methods that couldn’t distinguish lack of education from defective genes. Not surprisingly, this led to the conclusion that the groups that were denied access to education had genetically weaker brains.
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“Birth of a Nation” on MLK Day

I’m a silent movie fan, and I often attend Jeff Rapsis’s presentations of them with live keyboard accompaniment. He’ll be accompanying a silent movie on Friday evening at Arisia, and I recommend going to see it, even though I won’t be there myself.

On Thursday the 14th, he’ll be presenting a more controversial choice in Plymouth, NH: D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It presents a story of the Civil War and its aftermath and actually makes the Ku Klux Klan the heroes. The intertitles include quotations from Woodrow Wilson praising the Klan. Jeff chose this movie specifically for Martin Luther King’s birthday and explains his reasoning in his blog:
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Prof. Frankenstein’s monster turns

“Illiberalism” is a word I often use for intolerant behavior, but it’s too weak for what’s happening on some college campuses. The New York Times has an account of what some of the protesters at the University of Missouri were doing.

Tim Tai, a student photographer on freelance assignment for ESPN, was trying to take photos of a small tent city that protesters had created on a campus quad. Concerned Student 1950, an activist group that formed to push for increased awareness and action around racial issues on campus, did not want reporters near the encampment.

Protesters blocked Mr. Tai’s view and argued with him, eventually pushing him away. At one point, they chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go.”

Melissa Click, a professor of mass media, reportedly tried to incite the protesters to violence:

As the video nears its end, the person taking the video, Mark Schierbecker, emerged from the scrum and approached a woman, later identified as an assistant professor of mass media, Melissa Click, close to the tents. When he revealed that he was a journalist, Ms. Click appeared to grab at his camera.

She then yelled, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”

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The “discriminating” reader

Lately there’s been a really bizarre and disgusting notion going around. It’s a “challenge” to spend a year reading only books by people of specified racial or sexual characteristics. Its source is an article by K. T. Bradford, titled “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” It wouldn’t be worth paying attention to except that I’ve seen others seriously discussing it. Now K. T. can read anything or not for any reason. It’s the “challenge” which is offensive.

K. T. Bradford (I think), warning you not to read Neil GaimanIf you accept Bradford’s advice, you have to start by deciding whether you’re allowed to read the article itself. Is K. T. a man or a woman, and of what skin shade? There are several pictures on the page which don’t actually say they’re of Bradford, but it seems likely; I’ve linked to one of the pictures so you can decide before clicking. Of course, anyone who’s taken the pledge can’t read this post either, so that really doesn’t help.

People who take the pledge will have to research the authors of every piece they decide to read. That will pretty much kill their reading for the year, thus solving the problem. Or there’s an easier way: You can let gatekeepers give you a list of permitted reading. Bradford is, just by chance, available to provide you that service. The article ends with “some reading list seeds to get you started.” Relying on Bradford and other gatekeepers of permitted literature is really the only way a serious reader would make it through the year without sinning.

The idea seems to appeal to some readers as a way to explore new material they might have otherwise missed. As a way to find new material to read, with ideas that might challenge their usual ways of thinking, seeking out authors off the normal path can offer value. But for Bradford, it’s the exact opposite of this. She’s retreating into her comfort zone:

Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn’t enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

I can sympathize with wanting to avoid upsetting material; there are a lot of books I’ve given up on and a few I’ve tossed across the room. But she decided it was the race, sex, or sexual orientation of the writers that was upsetting her.

A discriminating reader will ask questions like: How good a writer is the author? What outlook on life do the author’s works present? For fiction, what kind of story do they tell and what kind of characters to they portray? For nonfiction, how good is the author’s research and presentation? But the “discriminating” reader, in a much uglier sense of the term, will ask: What’s the author’s skin color? Is the author male or female? What kind of sex does the author engage in? It’s the supermarket tabloid mentality.

Let’s judge authors by what they write, not by their appearance or private choices.

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How not to win support

It’s good to see people waking up to the problem of unjustified force by police, but whenever an idea starts appealing to a crowd, you know some things will go wrong.

Some people seem convinced that blocking traffic and invading and disrupting private property will win support for better police accountability. If people encounter protesters blocking their commuting and shopping, they’ll realize there should be more controls on the power of cops. Oh, really? I can’t imagine that winning support for anything except getting the police to clear the way and arrest people.

People with dark skins bear a disproportionate burden of police harassment, false arrests, and unjustified violence, but it’s not exclusive to any group. It’s appropriate to point out that “black lives matter.” However, this line has been repeated so incessantly that something else is clearly at work. When I went into Boston earlier this month, some people were riding on the subway to a protest against police violence. One (light-skinned) woman was making a sign while sitting on the subway; it was something like “Black lives matter. White allies speak out, even in white-only spaces.”

I don’t read this exactly as “Only black lives matter,” but rather as “If I stay in my white-only space, it can’t happen to me.” She wants to imagine a world in which she’s “privileged” and none of these bad things can personally happen to her; then she can generously ally with the people who are at risk, as long as they keep their distance.

These seem like two opposed trends. The people who block streets and shopping malls seem to be acting from anger that they want to take out on anyone convenient, whether they win any support or not. The “it can’t happen to me” people want to win support but need to convince themselves that nothing bad can happen to them.

Effective opposition to unwarranted force requires attention to, and effective presentation of, both principles and facts. The principle is that no one should be an initiator of force; the one who uses force on people who aren’t violating anyone’s rights, or responds with severely disproportionate force, is in the wrong. The facts are the many instances where cops are the initiators of force and anyone might be a target. Sometimes the facts aren’t as they first appeared, and it’s important to separate truth and error.

There are signs that things may improve. I hope people don’t ruin it with stupid tactics and pretenses.

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Opposing the tribalist mindset

Events in the past couple of weeks ought to have disgusted most of the people reading this blog, whatever we may disagree on. A cop choked Eric Garner to death for selling cigarettes, he was caught on video, and no charges were brought against him. It’s official now that the CIA has been torturing people, stumbling into the policy rather than having a real purpose, and not even accomplishing anything, and no charges are being brought against anyone. Obama is being True Neutral on torture, showing himself more than ever as a slimy creature with no principles. At least Cheney stands for something, even if it’s vile.

Outside the US, there are the ongoing atrocities by the Islamic State and Boko Haram. The majority of their victims are other Muslims. Lately the loudspeakers on the mosques in Kabul have been urging people to stay inside instead of calling them to prayer.

All these events are manifestations of the collectivist, tribalist impulse to divide the world into “us” and “our enemies.” It seems to be a path of least resistance in human psychology. In primitive societies, there must be a value in making snap judgments about whether someone is friend or foe. The Bible, which is part of our culture whether we grant it religious significance or not, is full of horrible deeds which are supposedly good because their targets have a different religion. It presents the child-butcher Joshua as a hero because the children lived in a Canaanite city.

Science fiction fans aren’t completely free of the impulse. While the division between fans and “mundanes” is usually expressed in a good-humored way, I’ve heard “mundane” used as an expression of contempt often enough and may have used it that way myself. This is especially likely to happen when a convention is sharing a hotel with a group that includes some obnoxious people. All mundanes get painted with the same brush. I’ve heard annoyingly often, among filkers, that people speaking German always sound angry. Perhaps a good reply would be, “If you’d stop saying that, they might sound less angry.”

Uglier than either of those is the “race identity” mindset that’s taken hold in some parts of fandom. This is the notion that we’re supposed to think of people not as people, but as members of racial groups. There was a post I encountered on Tumblr a long time ago, which I’d meant to work into a blog post but never did. The text was in pictures, and I couldn’t figure out how to link to it, but here’s the relevant part:

I kind of just spontaneously groaned and put my head in my hand and someone said, “Well, what was THAT reaction?” And I said, “Well, when I wake up in the morning and I look in the mirror I see a human being.” I’m kind of a generic person, y’know, I’m a middle class, white, man. I have no [visible] class, no race, no gender, I’m universally generalizable. So I like to think that that was the moment that I became a[n aware] middle class, white, man. That class and race and gender weren’t about other people but they were about me and I had to start thinking about them and it had been privilege that had kept it invisible to me for so long.

The brackets were in the original, if my recollection is correct.

The KKK couldn’t have put it better: Stop thinking of yourself as a human being and start thinking of yourself as a privileged white (or as whatever group has been assigned to you). People of other skin colors are different. I don’t have any reason to think this person (yes, person, however how much he objects) was in fandom, but the expression is a particularly clear form of the rhetoric I’ve seen from people trying to promote race identity on convention programs. As far as I know, no con has yet put “Your race:” on its registration form; I hope none ever do.

There’s a large difference, of course, between mocking mundanes and torturing prisoners, but the motivation is the same in kind. The same kind of motivation has muted the response to the torturers — excuse me, the politically correct term is “enhanced interrogators” — and their defenders. We’re Americans. They’re “terrorists,” whether anything has been proven against them or not. So we can regret that “we tortured some folks,” but let’s not be vindictive against people who approved or committed war crimes “in the past.” Let’s “look forward, not backward,” unless we’re talking about Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, or Chelsea Manning.

If we’re ever going to reach a society that isn’t ruled by tribal hostilities, we have to learn to be aware of those impulses, control them in ourselves, and point them out in others. That requires a culture with an ethic of individualism, the treatment of people according to their personal merits rather than their group membership. Today that’s an unpopular idea, and we’re paying a high price for its lack.

We can’t change the world, but we can each speak as the opportunity arises. We can be careful to check our premises every time we start to think “All of those ___ are scumbags.” Any degree of honest effort helps.

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Group “identity”

Sometimes the best way to learn what people are thinking is to pay close attention when they’re talking about something else. When a subject is their main topic, they might be saying just what they think they should say, but at other times they might be more off their guard and candid. Recently I was reading an essay by Suzanne Romaine, called “Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages,” in a book called From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (my review here). It refers to the notion of group identity as a side issue to its main topic. Her comments about “identity” struck me precisely because she wasn’t grinding an axe about them.

Some examples: “People feel a key part of their traditional culture and identity is lost when that language disappears.” “Although the term identity derives from Latin idem ‘same,’ identity is primarily about constructing differences between ourselves and others.” “Hence, identity planning goes hand in hand with language planning.” “The power of identity to imagine and invent both nations and languages is by no means confined to the past.” “The interests of those learning Catalan, Cornish, or other revitalized languages for the sake of identity are not identical with the interests of native speakers.”

She takes it for granted that identity consists of group membership, and that it’s about how your group isn’t like other groups. It’s psycho-epistemological tribalism, “us vs. them” as a basic mode of thinking. I don’t mean that it’s necessarily hostile, but it’s the idea that the answer to “Who am I?” is found not in my personal capacities and values, but in how my kind is different from your kind. It easily leads to hostility.

This approach gets nasty when it’s applied to “race identity.” If people’s identities are their physical differences from you, you end up seeing not an individual human being but a breed, a specimen of a group. When people have internalized this way of thinking, the best they can do is say, “You are the Other, but I reach out to you anyway,” which is condescending. The worst they can do is horrible.

“Race identity” advocates are perversely prone to accusing other people of racism. While this is often just a convenient smear, it might also be a result of premises so internalized that they can’t think outside them. If you can’t imagine treating people as individuals rather than specimens, then the only alternatives are “good” racism, the privileged people reaching a hand downward to the unfortunate lower groups, or “bad” racism, reaching a foot downward to stomp on their faces. The idea of treating people just as people is outside their grasp, so they think of the condescending approach as non-racism, and imagine that anyone who disagrees with it must be a racist of the face-stomping kind.

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