xenologer: (do not even)
TW: mention of all kinds of bigotry

I was going to write this as a FB comment in reply to a thread, but that would likely have resulted in me losing it forever to the flood of other content. And good gracious, what a waste that'd be. So far I have two parts to this. One is establishing the distinction between "offense" and "harm" that I'll be using. The second is intended to establish that verbal bigotry is itself harmful, rather than merely offensive. Then I'll explain why this even matters to me. There are various subcontentions here, but those are the main points.

Thing the First: Offensive vs. Harmful

It seems to serve a lot of people's interests to conflate "offense" and "harm." Generally it's a handy way to trivialize the harms done by bigotry to conflate them with mere "offense," but it's also a distinction that culture critics have been very sloppy about using themselves, so it's hardly just the fault of those who want to keep their consequence-free casual bigotry.
There is a distinction, though!

I owe Fineness and Accuracy a debt for alerting me to this distinction, as it has quite probably forever changed the way I look at culture critique. I wouldn't have ever even looked for it in John Stuart Mills' work without this blog post, so I wanted to give credit where credit is due. The handy thing about this distinction is that it's one that I think even those typically unconcerned with things like "hate speech" or "political correctness" can work with. Trying to convince an open and comfortable bigot to care about offense is a preposterous activity, but I've been working in political persuasion for a while now and I can tell you that there are plenty of people who're doing harm only because they have only been told that they're being offensive. Demonstrate to them that they are causing harm, and their ethical considerations start kicking in. Only at the point that they are engaging their own ethics does it make any sense to try to have an ethical conversation.

And this is emphatically an ethical conversation. I'm not going to get into legal concerns right now, because there are plenty of things it's easy to ethically condemn that I wouldn't presume to condemn legally (mostly because of the necessarily absolutist and contextless nature of making and applying law). When I say that a particular thing is unethical, I am not using 'unethical' as a euphemism for 'bannable,' and I'm making this explicit to pre-empt several tiresome but ubiquitous rebuttals to claims I never made.

I also want to emphasize that I don't think the potential to cause harm is necessarily a categorical dealbreaker. I won't even argue that it's necessarily a detriment to the ethicality of an action by my standards. Other people are welcome to draw this line in different places than I am, but for me there are many occasions where very carefully-calibrated levels and types of harm will be instrumental in accomplishing an ethical goal I've set for myself. I have personal rules about which kinds of harm can be justified by an ethical end, and other people may have different rules, but the fact is that the ends justify the means enough of the time that I do need rules for when it will not.

So not only is "offensive" not a categorical condemnation of an act or its impact, I wouldn't say "harmful" necessarily is either. But harmful things are at least eligible for consideration as ethical failures. For now the chief point I am trying to make is that they are separate categories. My next point is what puts verbally-expressed bigotry in the subcategory of "unethically harmful" rather than merely "offensive."

Thing the Second: Physical Reality of Psychological Experiences

I'm no Cartesian dualist myself, as I don't see any reason to treat the mind or self or soul as something apart from the physical meat and its mechanical processes that I call my body. But I understand that on some level many people do consider the mental and the physical to be separate, so I wanted to spare a moment to talk about the impact these have on one another.

The easiest thing for most people to see is that damage to the body's meat impacts allegedly purely-mental things like personality, memory, priorities, all that. Everything from the accidental lobotomization of Phineas Gage down to the most mundane effects of alcohol or caffeine consumption bear this out. The trickier thing to see is the physical reality of these seemingly ephemerally-mental parts of the human experience. (It doesn't help that there are a lot of quacks out there spreading exaggerated claims about this to make money on alternatives to medicine, but I'm going to do my best to sift them out.)

Stress is an easy example, because the emotion of stress is the result of a biochemical process. A lot of the respectable research about this is behind paywalls (another rant entirely), but a look at some abstracts will give a general idea of the kinds of findings that are earning wide acceptance among communities of experts.

For consideration of what stress-associated hormones cause in themselves, try The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition. I'm including this because it's a straightforwardly physical interaction, without even getting into the way that the learning process of the brain can itself be turned against it.

The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan is a good one too, and I link it because a lot of the harm that children experience happens prior to and during the period of their lives where they learn what 'normal' is and what they have legitimate room to be upset about. It helps get past some of the suggestions I've seen elsewhere that people must be taught to feel harmed by mental or social experiences.

It isn't a moral failure or a sign of a weak personality to be impacted by physical processes in one's brain. It's not a moral failure to have epilepsy, it's not a moral failure to have a traumatic brain injury, and it's not a moral failure to be impacted by chemical reactions happening inside the brain meat where one's personality resides. It's just an inevitable result of being built from chemical reactions; those chemical reactions are so intrinsic to our existence that what impacts them impacts us.

Hopefully I've done enough to establish that external factors can impact the meat that we're built from and therefore can even impact the parts of us we (erroneously) frequently assume to be separate from our meat.

Thing the Third: Experiences of Oppression Have a Psychological Impact

I want to carefully differentiate oppression as a systemic experience built up of complex interlocking (sometimes mitigating, sometimes synergizing) networks of social power from merely having one's feelings hurt. While hurt feelings are a real psychological and therefore a real physical experience that impacts any brain capable of learning, I want to make it very clear that some forms of interpersonal harm are made more effective by supportive cultural power while some are mitigated by being unsupported by that kind of extra strength and protection from accountability.

This is what makes it different to call the rich spoiled than to call the poor lazy. In any nation that hides plutocracy beneath a thin veneer of alleged meritocracy, the rich will not only have the power that money gives but will also benefit from the favorable cultural assumptions commonly made about rich people. By contrast, in any such nation, merely lacking money is not the only thing disadvantaging its poorest members. There are in fact counterfactual narratives about the poor that--if believed by people in a position to either aid or quash attempts at upward mobility--can be direct obstacles to acquiring resources.

This is what makes it different to call USA Christians oversensitive than to say the same of minorities of gender or orientation. Christians in the USA have accumulated enough cultural power that their position is entrenched and therefore pretty darn safe. By contrast, queer and trans and intersex people are actually quite vulnerable on a basic physical safety level to the sort of attitudes that Christian groups can shrug off when it's directed at them. As a result, even if these are both impolite things to say in many contexts, their impact is starkly different.

If we actually did live in a world where the power dynamic between men and non-men were perfectly reversed, men would be entirely correct to campaign against systemic misandry. As it is, the power dynamic favors men at the expense of non-men in many contexts, and this means non-men simply do not have the kind of cultural clout it takes to protect themselves adequately (let alone turn the tables via a merciless regime of political correctness).

Some people, due to entrenched power in the hands of their opposition and comparatively light social penalties for harming them, will be impacted differently by superficially comparable experiences.

Here are some examples of experiences that mixed populations can all have, but which will have very stark impacts on members based on how favored or disfavored parts of their identities are by the broader culture they're a part of.

A given classroom may have a mixed population with a single teacher, making the experience of learning there seem superficially identical for all. And yet, there is such a thing as stereotype threat. Due to experiences happening primarily (though probably not exclusively) outside the classroom, students experiencing the same lessons will perform differently. When you consider the degree to which education is presented as a great equalizer in USA culture, the power of a broadly-accepted stereotype to impact academic performance is a direct attack on the current and future thriving of students affected.

These damaging stereotypes can be strengthened even by people who would not claim to believe them wholeheartedly. Many men tell jokes whose humor value is dependent on misogynist stereotypes would strongly and quite sincerely deny that they think less of women. Even so, they are participating in an activity that makes their surroundings more hospitable to misogyny. Not even kidding. The telling of sexist jokes actually encourages misogyny in the settings where they are excused. I must reiterate that I am not suggesting they be made illegal. I am making the point that even merely-verbal behavior like telling sexist jokes reinforces the misogyny that is a direct existential threat to those it impacts (not all of whom are women, as any man physically attacked for "effeminacy" could attest).

Sometimes the harm isn't even as direct as that! Sometimes the harmful impact of certain verbal behaviors isn't what it does to its targets but what it does for those who harm the targets. The stereotype of queer and trans people as cunning infiltrators of unsuspecting cis people's intimate lives is certainly cruel in itself, but it also helps shelter from accountability those who harm (for example) trans women and hide behind this stereotype as a justification for their actions. It's called the Trans Panic Defense, and it has even recently been used to excuse brutality toward trans women as not great, but understandable and perhaps forgiveable. It's ugly and it's common.

Because, see, these stereotypes aren't merely believed by bigoted uncles at Thanksgiving, or irritatingly outspoken neighbors, or rude drivers at intersections. They are believed by people in all sections of society from law enforcement to criminal justice to education to medicine.

The demonstrable empathy gap between what whites will neurologically react to if it happens to white people versus when it happens to a black person is awful in itself, but particularly so when you consider its implications in an Emergency Room. Many white people have been, on some level, assuming the validity of this stereotype since they were children. That entrenches it pretty deeply in our psyches, not to mention what it does to the life experiences of black people who grow up alongside people who believe this about them even as children.

Given that misogyny doesn't use entirely different brain meat than homophobia or transantagonism or racism, does it seem so unreasonable that jokes about hurting a trans woman upon discovering she's trans could be similarly hazardous? Does it seem unreasonable that jokes about black people as sturdy unfeeling beasts could have a similar impact on medical professionals doing pain assessments? Does it seem unreasonable that jokes about the laziness and general moral degeneracy of poor people could make it harder for them to access lifesaving (or at least life-improving) services?

Thing the Fourth: Being Harmed isn't Exclusive to 'Weak People'

I understand the temptation to say that a strong enough personality, a pure enough will, would make all this irrelevant. I understand the temptation to find something wrong with people who are disadvantaged. It's called the Just World Fallacy, and I know its temptation very very well. I was raised to believe that everything happens for a reason, a weird theological quirk that stuck around in my head for a long time past when I considered theological claims to be very sensible. For years I resisted the frightening notion that bad things might happen to me no matter how perfectly I shape myself into the kind of person bad things don't happen to. This is probably the most horrifying thing about being alive and self-aware, knowing that we cannot completely control our circumstances by becoming infallible (because even if we were, it wouldn't necessarily protect us).

This is why abuse survivors frequently blame themselves and are blamed by others. We don't want to believe that our brains are like theirs, that our selves are like theirs, and the realization that maybe They and We are comparable organisms can be devastating to someone whose self-esteem was built on being perfect enough to be safe. Abusers use variable interval reinforcement because it works, it verifiably has been scientifically proven as a conditioning tool whose impact is very difficult to undo, and having it work on them doesn’t make victims weak, or enablers, or stupid, or DESERVING OF ABUSE; it makes them the owners of mammalian brains. Heck, I probably shouldn't even exclude that to mammals. Non-mammal brains are capable of learning as well, which means this capacity can be used against them. This is the very foundation of PTSD, and if more of those afflicted by it understood that it doesn't make them weak to have had a brain that can learn (and can therefore learn wrong), we'd have a much lower suicide rate among veterans, I can promise you that.

This applies to people who've experienced oppression. They are not harmed by demonstrably-harmful experiences because they lack resilience. They are harmed because our brains work a particular way, and that makes it, well... hackable. If diving into how conditioning works on even self-aware sapient creatures like us doesn't convince you, please take it from me as someone who did persuasive work--some of it questionably ethical, looking back--even the most rigorously rational brains can be hacked because they are still brains. Even people who do dedicated work on making their brains less exploitable by counterproductive or counterfactual pattern-matching (and they do exist), they are fighting an uphill battle that cannot be completely won (no matter how unmistakeably admirable it is to fight anyway).

Our brains work the way they work. The strongest human brain will still be a human brain. Even a non-anthropomorphic mind will have its own way of operating that will inevitably be exploitable by anybody with the knowledge and the access to do so. It's not even part of being a human; it's part of being capable of learning.

Thing the Fifth: Why Do I Care? Here's Where I Get Personal.

All the above considerations are counter to the way I was raised. No kidding, every single frickin one is a contradiction to what I was taught to consider reasonable. My brain, being a brain, has fought these supposedly-unreasonable propositions tooth and nail right up until the moment when they became undeniable empirical reality... and then I couldn't unknow them. Once a thing is broken by a truth, it's broken and that truth remains until it is supplanted in turn.

This knowledge interacted with the ethical system I built for myself. The quick and dirty way to explain how I approach my decisions is that I have experienced things that were not fair, that were painful, and that warped me in ways I didn't deserve to be warped (even if some of those changes were for the better in hindsight). I do not like those things. I did not like them happening to me, and I saw them as having happened to me because I lived in a world where they happened at all. Fortunately I wasn't raised with the sort of religious programming that taught me I must necessarily be to blame for all bad things that happened; I was raised with more than a healthy share of anger and that probably saved me even as it damaged those around me.

This anger is terrible. I don't even know how to explain it to anybody except to say that I don't have nightmares about fear. The emotion that shreds me in my dreams and wakes me gasping and panicked is my own rage. I've learned to channel and coexist with it in ways that are up to my own ethical standards, but that doesn't reduce its size or destructive power. I've just grown to be large enough to master it. It's still there. And the only way to avoid turning it on myself is to not make the world worse in the ways I hate.

If I were, for example, to physically terrorize a child... I will have added to the Child Terrorizingness of the world that I found so viscerally unacceptable and which has twisted me so far from what I could have been in a better world. I will have been part of the reason why the world we have now is beneath my standards, beneath my approval, beneath me in general.

It's a very egocentric way of having ethics. I know this. But I was warped in ways that make this the best I can build with the tools I'm left with.

Rawls' Veil of Ignorance factors in here too, a lot. I am loyal above all to myself, and what if my self had been assigned the wrong gender at birth? I live in a world where transantagonism is not only common but lethal, and that is not good enough for that version of me. What if my self had been born black? I live in a world where white supremacy (specifically anti-black racism) is also common and lethal, and that would not be good enough either. I am angry on behalf of the versions of me that I could have been, in addition to being angry on behalf of the version of me that I am.

When I learn of some new form of oppression visited upon people I have only avoided being by sheer accident of birth or circumstance, I have a new hypothetical version of myself to avenge by preventing her from ever having to exist in reality. I am never at a loss for reasons to be angry, but likewise I am never at a loss for opportunities to learn to be better and to do my small part to make the world more worthy of my existence in it.

I seek this new information proactively, because that is what it means to be as routinely angry as I am. I must always be doing something, becoming better, fighting smarter, discovering and refining new weapons. I have many unearned privileges that nobody deserves, and I have many unearned privileges that everybody deserves but doesn't get. Each and every one of those is a weapon, and that is why I am so driven to find them all and learn how to best use them with a minimum of unintentional damage.

Consequently, when I see people who share my ethical standards of what makes the world insufficient but they're not doing this proactive due diligence to continue learning, I don't see them as any ally of mine. They're lukewarm bystanders who respect my fight but would never learn the skills to have my back or anyone else's. To put it bluntly, they disgust me. They are the ones I consider weak. They are the ones my contempt lands on the hardest. And they are the ones I think of when someone knows that bigotry is wrong but still indulges in small-scale expressions of it. If a man says that he wants to live in a world where women have equal access to power and safety but he also tells jokes about domestic violence, part of me is snarling. If a white person says that they want to live in a world without racism but rolls their eyes at people of color pointing out areas for improvement, it makes me want to spit.

Whatever I've become, I'm grateful that I was never allowed the luxury of becoming a willing collaborator with the corrosive shit ruining the world I have to live in. I am almost certainly an unwitting collaborator from time to time, which is bad enough. I could be worse! Fortunately for my self-respect, I am getting better all the time. Those who aren't... well, it's really quite fortunate for them that they don't particularly need my respect to get by, because I give it very sparingly.

This is what drew me to The Satanic Temple (as distinct from the Church of Satan), though my involvement is still quite minimal and marginal. I have to live in the world. My actions are based in large part on what will make the world more or less worthy of me. It's no sense benefiting myself in an immediate way if in so doing I am making the world more noxious and repulsive, considering that I LIVE HERE. There are actual forces out there with too much power, and I could have easily been any of the people those forces are crushing. In various aspects of my life I exist on both sides of that power gradient. So that is where my rebellion lives. Small and weak people can fight their small fights against their tax dollars paying for public education or fire departments. My cultural prey is much larger. My cultural prey is worse, and worthier. Picking that hardier target just means that sometimes it's inside myself in addition to outside it. But that's fine. I'm willing to chase it. If I didn't, I wouldn't be good enough for myself.

Other people can do what they like. I haven't given myself the right to control them. I don't think I'd want to live in a world where everybody had had to turn into me just to survive anyway. But I did, and this is the best I can do with what I am. This is how I earn my own loyalty.

April 2016

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