Archives for posts with tag: Michael Warner

In a shock to absolutely no one, condemning Nazis is super easy. Industrialized murder and racial supremacy aren’t really all that controversial. I mean, I know that’s not universal and there is a certain president that seems to excel at fucking up even the simplest of value-judgments, but when there was that anti-immigration rally in Vancouver, and an overwhelming number of people showed up to say that overt racism is wrong, was anybody really all that surprised? Cuz like, Nazis are bad. Punching Nazis isn’t controversial; we’ve made video games about exterminating them with a variety of creative weaponry far more grisly than a fist since video games first started being a thing. Same thing with violence against women. Even the Alt-Right propagandist Breitbart released some articles about the recent #MeToo campaign that conveyed sympathy toward the victims. Their goals are the same as any radical feminist: sympathy and justice for the victims, and retribution against the offender. No one in the world has more respect for women than Donald Trump, because disrespecting women is bad.

We know these things because they are obvious. Nazism today is repellent. Rape is horrific. Disrespecting women is barbaric. If there’s one thing that fascists and misogynists agree on, it’s that fascism and misogyny are bad. If everyone agrees on these things, then surely bigotry must be eradicated from society. All those SJWs can sleep easy, knowing that white supremacists no longer identify as racists.

I mean, even though hate crimes are on the rise, lynchings are way down. No one is burning crosses anymore. Where did all that racism go? Why do people keep talking about it when everyone agrees that it’s bad? Well, all the -isms have gotten more subtle. Now racism, sexism, and heterosexism are most prevalent in systemic structures.

I know what you’re thinking: ffuuuuuuuuucccckkk! Systemic? Structures? What is this postmodern cultural-Marxist jargon bullshit?! If the president doesn’t explicitly say that black people are inherently worthless due to the colour of their skin, then the “system” must be equal for everyone because there can be no possible form of racism other than direct violence.

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If this isn’t happening, it can’t be racist.

As it turns out, there can be. Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil gives a pretty fair description of what systemic injustice looks like. A Jew who fled Nazi Germany, her critique of Adolf Eichmann during his post-WW2 trial mostly centres on him being the most boring, inoffensive dude in the world; the Ed Sheeran of the Nazi party. How could this oppressively bland human being be responsible for the expulsion and extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust?

Systemic injustice thrives on those who participate within an unjust society believing that they are not doing wrong. They are simply following the rules, and any kind of blame for the results of those rules is so diluted in bureaucracy that personal responsibility evaporates. Everyone is so distanced from direct action that they can confidently state, “Well, I never did ________!” Eichmann, and anyone who participates in these types of systems, is seen as normal to the point of being dull because normalcy itself is the monstrosity that is causing the atrocities.

Monsters-Rampage

In this instance, George, Lizzie, and Ralph are metaphors for normalcy, and Dan’s Deli is the Holocaust. Or maybe it’s the Jews? I picked a bad metaphor here, I think.

The person has no specific value because their role in this system is interchangeable. There is no need to hate the Jews, and weeding out the sadists and psychopaths perpetuates the normalcy that is required for the system to function. Passionate people with convictions are also not particularly welcome, since convictions would negate the systemic process. Normal people are calm, educated, and endure uncomfortable realities because dirty jobs need to get done. Normalcy validates our deeds, allowing us to separate our identity from their intrinsic stigma, and quells any misgivings we might have about the way things are because the way things are is already established as “normal.” When everyone is guilty, nobody is.

To quote Arendt:

From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied – as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels – that this new type of criminal . . . commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-night impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

Creating an unjust normal does take some work. It usually finds its beginning in more overt and direct oppression, and then over time infuses itself into the institutions of society that become a part of the every day normal. To give an example, say I’ve shot you repeatedly, but all of a sudden I stop. Then I start saying something like, “hey now, the rules say no bleeding on the carpets! If I were to slice myself while cutting vegetables, I’d have to face the same consequences. Rules are rules!” Then you might say, “But you’re the one who shot me!” My reply of course would be to say, “That was in the past! You’ve got to own your own destiny now!” And then I’d throw you in prison or a concentration camp or something. The normal is the rule about blood on the carpets, equally held for everyone. What makes it unjust is how those very rules are framed to oppress the poor shot up jerk trying to hold his insides in.

Arendt quotes David Rousset, a concentration camp survivor:

They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold . . . is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery

In Canada, the most obvious example is that of our First Nations people. After the initial genocide and land theft died down, Canada abducted Aboriginal children and forced them into what are known as “Residential Schools” where they would be physically and sexually abused under the pretense of removing their indigenous culture and replacing it with white culture. When that started slowing down, Canadian social workers would go into Native communities, abduct children, and place them into white foster homes under the same basic pretense. This is what’s referred to as the 60s scoop. Today, First Nations children make up close to 50% of all children in care (foster care, group homes, etc.), despite only being 7% of the population. In Manitoba, they make up 88% of children in care. The rules today are that children are not allowed to be in homes where they may be abused or neglected, so they are removed. The reason that Native homes might produce that kind of environment is driven entirely by the history of abduction and abuse that they have suffered in the past. First Nations in Canada must somehow learn how to stop bleeding on the carpet, because our rules, the norms of society, will only continue to punish them for the gunshots they have endured for centuries.

In America, the glaring example is the war on drugs. Founded by Nixon literally as a reason to crack down on blacks and hippies, it continues to this day. Crack is criminalized to a greater extent than cocaine, despite the fact that the drug component of each is exactly the same, because crack is cheaper and thus more predominant in poorer, black communities. White people and black people do about the same amount of drugs, but black people are the ones getting arrested and doing jail time, due in part to the fact that more police patrol black neighbourhoods over white ones. The rules say that drugs are bad, so it doesn’t matter if those who are punished for them are predominantly from a certain group, because rules are neutral. Rules are normal. If they didn’t want to do the time, they shouldn’t have done the crime.

I mean, there are other rules that aren’t so explicitly stated as those written in the law. Regular social rules, like women are supposed to be caregivers, can create systemic opposition when women try to break free from that stereotype. It’s not sexist if it’s just acknowledging what’s “normal,” right? Gay men or those effeminate enough that the differences are negligible (outside of actual sexual preference, which is irrelevant) aren’t real men, so it’s normal to exclude them from homosocial environments. Trans women aren’t real women, and they have to abide by the same bathroom rules as everyone else. If an international corporation moves its manufacturing to a place where labour is cheap and regulations are zilch so they don’t have to pay to protect their poorly paid workers, and as a result I fall into poverty because my secure, good-paying union job has been compromised, that’s fine because companies are allowed to do that. Those are the rules. Doesn’t matter if international corporations are the ones writing them, rules are rules.

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When rich people get richer, the GDP grows even if poor people get poorer! When the economy grows, it doesn’t matter *how* it grows! It’s a success when the numbers go up. Pay attention to that.

Systemic racism, systemic sexism, systemic injustice in general is what happens when normal people apply the way things are in broad strokes, not knowing that their very normalcy is the problem. How do you change that? Arendt resorts to biblical… I don’t want to say hyperbole because I’m not sure she intended it that way… but whatever. She refers to Sodom and Gommorah as societies where injustice had become so infused into their system that the only solution became complete destruction. It’s a bit dramatic, but as Michael Warner, author of The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, says,

When battles have no enemies . . . victories are rare.

There’s a reason that radical leftists call for revolution. If you see statistics that say a minority group is doing worse off than everyone else, but you can’t see anyone giving them ten lashes simply for their minority status, odds are it’s because the ways the rules are set up, these groups are being left behind. They’re being told that they should stop bleeding on the carpet before they’re allowed to fully participate. The problem is normal, and changing normal is a revolutionary process. Yes, there are still people handing out lashes, there are still people firing those gunshots, but seeing beyond these obvious examples requires reevaluating the rules. And it’s something we all have to do.

Let’s finish with some more Arendt to really drive us home:

Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not  to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to becomes accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.

You know who perpetually sucks? Those jerks in the out-group. They’ll never be as cool as us in our in-group. They’ll always be the Other, and as such, we will literally never care about them. At worst, we’ll go out of our way to kill every God damned one of them. Remember, it’s not because we’re jerks; it’s because they’re jerks.

Us and them have always been at odds, and that conflict has resulted in quite a lot of really tragic things, in hindsight. However, it’s a mentality that’s difficult to escape. Jonathan Haidt posits that there are five moral frameworks with which every human is imbued: harm, fairness, in-group, authority, and purity. The last three are often rejected by liberal-minded individuals, or at least not given as much weight, while all five are embraced by the conservative-minded, though the first two are generally less weighted than for liberals. Haidt suggests that while a focus on the in-group, authority, and purity can lead to terrible outcomes, they are needed for social cooperation in the long term. Cohesion requires solidarity, and solidarity requires some degree of enforceable rigidity.

We need union. We need to be a part of a group. We are social creatures. The nature of that group is important, however. Conformity within the in-group is problematic. Conformity means that abnormal behaviour, even benign abnormal behaviour, becomes stigmatized. Michael Warner describes a modern reality where gays are becoming part of a sterile “normal”, where they will be accepted so long as they blend in to the sexual status quo. Marriage is encouraged because it offers a legitimacy to a gay relationship, even if by doing so it still delegitimizes other, non-state recognized relationships such as polyamory, casual encounters, or cohabitation. Deviance is still deviant, and gays are only accepted so long as they conform to the generally puritanical sexual standards of the West. This is obviously despite the fact that homosexuality itself was once considered inherently deviant, and seeking conformity to a shaming culture belittles the underlying goals of the movement.

The shame of deviance is problematic for more than just sexual minorities. New ideas are quashed because they do not fit with the current paradigm. Information that is in conflict with the accepted group ideology is swept under the rug which means that any output generated can only be considered propaganda. Consider a political party; are they going to champion new research that disagrees with their values? Is the backbencher going to have a say if they aren’t going to toe the party line? Of course not. Social conformity on the macro level is just the expansion of partisanship to a larger ideology.

Can we have union without the perils of conformity? In truth, we cannot. There will always need to be a thread that interweaves throughout society that binds everyone together. However, the perils can be mitigated. Celebrating deviance from the norm is in fact a form of conformity. If everyone is called upon to support diversity, that is in itself a structure of conformity. Consider this quotation from Karl Popper:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

Relativism fails because it simply becomes an argument for nihilism, but absolute relativism, where relativism is itself something that is demanded, creates an ideology that can be successfully promulgated. There are of course other factors to be taken into account (universal tolerance could potentially lead to the acceptance of child molestation, for example), and to go through a full list isn’t something that I’d like to get into just now, but the basic foundation that Warner suggests is focused on personal autonomy. We decide how we behave, and society as a whole fights for our right to do so.

However, as with the paradox of tolerance, freedom is something that cannot be universal. There are two types of freedom: freedom from oppression, and freedom to oppress. I’m sure you can come up with contemporary examples of each on your own as people aren’t very subtle when they are describing the type of freedom that they are after.  The two are mutually exclusive, and society can only fight for one. Given the nature of Popper’s tolerant society, the choice ought to be fairly straight forward.