Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

Francois Tremblay has a post up about what it really means to tell somebody what they can or can’t do.

Nobody would really deny that we can demand some limits on other people’s behaviour. My right not to be murdered in my sleep trumps anybody else’s right to break into my house at 3am and stab me in the face. But the line isn’t always so obvious, and it’s possible to get quite confusingly tangled up in deciding just when such rules are preserving more freedom than they’re inhibiting.

It’s common to hear complaints about fine upstanding citizens having gay rights shoved down their throats, as if their own person were somehow being violated and assaulted by the presence and free expression of gay people. People who don’t want to endorse any kind of homosexual behaviour often paint themselves as the victims for being “forced” to exist on the same landmass as such perversity.

Of course, “You’re oppressing my right to dislike gay people” is markedly different from “You’re oppressing my right to physically assault anyone whose sexuality upsets me”, and it’s easy enough to identify a position on these which actually supports freedom. But it’s not always obvious where something like “You’re oppressing my right to misrepresent reality to support my claim that all gays are an unnatural abomination” falls in between the two.

Francois rightly highlights the problems with looking at individual actions in a vacuum, and deciding on a moral standpoint without considering the broader context. From his closing paragraph (emphasis mine):

What people do is their own business. But having a healthy functioning society demands that we try to stop people from hurting each other, be it directly (through acts of violence, threats of violence, or hierarchical control) or indirectly (through acts of racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred).

So, while physical assault might be obviously unconscionable, actions that cause indirect harm tend to be seen as acceptable free expression. And yet, certain kinds of hate speech can perpetuate and exacerbate a social environment in which such assaults are common, even if the single act of speaking can be argued not to infringe on anybody else’s freedom.

Denying people the “freedom” to murder or assault others is sensible and important. But denying them the freedom to publicly say words and express opinions is something we should be much more reluctant to do, even when the opinions are repugnant and the words incite violence. Can it be justified by the same reasoning?

This is where I’m not really convinced. It’s true that the less proximal effects of one’s actions are certainly real, and too often forgotten about. But even a well-intentioned insistence that we have the right to restrict other people’s actions, based solely on the indirect harm they may do down the line in a way that’s impossible to precisely measure, is a step down a dangerous road.

I’ve written before about why I’m against banning the burqa. This oppressive religious garb is symptomatic of a serious problem, and the illiberal, extremist values behind such clothing do merit a proactive response.

But Francois seems to be arguing that allowing women to continue wearing the burqa amounts to a tacit endorsement of an oppressive religious regime that subjugates women.

I would say that not allowing women to wear the burqa is a far more explicit endorsement of the idea that we have the right to tell women what they may or may not wear, in the name of fighting sexism, because we know what’s best.

Like I say, it’s tricky to untangle sometimes. But claiming that actions should be suppressed only because they’re known to spur other people to cause direct harm seems shaky to me. Some people are always going to be hateful, but in a free society their ability to harm others should be no more than that of empty words.


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As you may have noticed, there’s been rioting in certain areas of London, which has spread across the UK, for the last couple of nights.

Vehicles and buildings have been burnt, windows have been smashed, shops have been looted. People have died.

It’s been horrible.

So you’ll be pleased to know that I’m here to explain exactly why it’s all been happening and what we can do to sort it all out.

Not really.

In fact, there may not even be a question to ask. Maybe we don’t need so many Guardian-reading bleeding-heart liberals asking why these violent scum do what they do. Perhaps they’re just evil, and these constant attempts to excuse evil is why liberalism is the greatest blight on modern society. The Prime Minister described the destruction as “criminality, pure and simple“. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

As another commentator notes:

What we are seeing in London and other English cities is an outpouring of evil. To try to explain evil as the result of something else is almost always a mistake. The urge to do evil is a primary motivation, not the indirect consequence of something else… The British riots, like similar events in any time and place, are a reminder that while the existence of God may be debatable, the existence of the Devil is not.

Theological sound-bites aside, the message is clear: some people are just plain bad, evil, rotten to the core. Nothing provokes them to their evil actions except their own twisted purpose and selfishness, and any response except to forcibly restrain their capacity to inflict their malevolence on the rest of us is futile.

As an explanation for what’s going on, it’s reassuringly easy to understand, and provides a satisfyingly retributive solution for dealing with those rampaging hoodies out there. They’re probably all hoodies, aren’t they? And chavs. And other bad sorts like that.

Very satisfying. But it raises some awkward questions.

If some people are “just evil”, with no prior root cause except an inbuilt and irreparable inhumanity, you’d presumably expect them to be evenly distributed among our species, by whatever chance or unknown force systematically removes some people’s empathy for their fellow man. You wouldn’t expect this evil to occur mostly in socially disadvantaged ethnic minorities, where unemployment is unusually high, benefits are being cut, and residents have long since been complaining of having no prospects and being treated unfairly by police.

It seems odd that this inherent evil seems to be so demographically weighted. Almost as if social demographics played some sort of role in social unrest.

It seems even odder that so many separate incidents of rioting broke out in so many different parts of London, and then in further-flung parts of the UK, in such quick succession. It would be a tremendous coincidence for so many evil people to decide it was time to do some evil in such close succession, if they weren’t in some way responding to external events. It’s also strange that Bromley, which had had some looting the night before and rumours of an escalation yesterday, ended up being so quiet last night. Could the evilly motivated evil-doers have been steered away from all that evil by the large police numbers on the high street?

And there seems little doubt that a crucial catalytic factor to the riots was that Mark Duggan was shot dead in Tottenham a few days ago. He was a local resident, and there was no evidence that he fired any shots himself, before being killed by a single bullet fired by police.

That so much evil – which, remember, is not a result of anything else – would suddenly burst out in Tottenham, a relatively disadvantaged area with a large population of ethnic minorities, who have already complained of feeling antagonised by the authorities, such a short time after a young black man is deliberately killed by the police… well, it’s almost too tremendous a coincidence to be believed.

It must be, though. I mean, you can’t allow for any external explanation of any of these violent actions, or let yourself understand how a sense of frustration and disenfranchisement and political impotence might have arisen in some people. If you go down that road, you’re basically absolving all blame and justifying every stolen TV and incinerated bus in the country. Right?

I’m losing track of my own use of irony here. It may be time to stop being disingenuous.

Here’s my main thesis, for want of a less pretentious word:

“Evil” is the political equivalent of “Goddidit“.

It saves you from having to think any further about what’s happening, and provides a nice uncomplicated explanation for everything that seems scary and uncertain. But it rests on an immeasurable, unverifiable assumption, which stops any potentially fruitful discussion dead in its tracks.

It’s neat and tidy, but shouldn’t we care if it’s also true?

I can’t imagine anyone arguing there were no external factors at all that influenced the exact details of the recent rioting. The geography and timing of the various incidents make it impossible to write them off as a series of isolated, independent events, simply evil things done by evil people for evil’s sake. However evil they are, the rioters are very likely to have been influenced by factors such as the presence of police, the availability of suitable targets for aggression, the prevalence of other rioters, and so on.

It also flies in the face of everything we understand about human psychology to assume there was no impact at all from the broken windows effect, the bystander effect, or deindividuation in crowds, to name but a few fascinating and well established nuggets of research into human behaviour. Anyone passingly familiar with the field of psychology will be aware of Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures, which gave alarming insight into how far people can be persuaded into performing immoral acts they would never usually condone, if the surrounding circumstances are conducive to it.

And if you can acknowledge this, then it hardly seems implausible that some rioters’ behaviour might have been influenced by less immediate factors, perhaps present in their social background. That the extremely well-off and secure are less likely ever to break shop windows and assault passers-by is supported both by reality and common sense.

It’d be very, very strange if the kinds of social factors I’ve mentioned didn’t play some part, in some people, in fomenting a sense of injustice and anger. The kind of anger which might build, directionless and impotent, toward some kind of boiling point, a threshold of poorly expressed fury and manic, stupid delight at watching destruction reign.

If the problem is simply one of evil, the solution is comfortably simple to understand – but also limited. It means we can reassure ourselves that the perpetrators are “not like us”, but it means they must be abandoned as being beyond hope of salvation. It also means that there’s nothing we can do to prevent more truly black souls from arising in the future; we just have to wait until they can be identified by some sufficiently evil act, like mugging an injured man, or throwing a brick in a public venue to the cheers of their friends, or whatever other unquestionably evil criteria can be agreed upon.

On the other hand, the paradigm that allows for the effect of social factors, although it requires a more complex human psychology to be considered, offers hope for the future. It says that there are circumstances which exacerbate and promote the kind of dissatisfaction that leads to such civil unrest, and that these circumstances can be changed so that fewer such events are induced in the future.

Understanding does not equal condoning. There have been acts of vandalism, violence, arson, and thuggery committed, and there deserve to be arrests made and prosecutions brought. I expect some people will and should be jailed for what they did. But it’s a fantasy to imagine that the yearning to angrily set fire to buildings was with them since the womb. If we want to make our society better for everyone, we need to figure out how to do exactly that: make it better for everyone. Even the ones who sometimes seem to want to make it worse.

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I am in favour of the objectification of women.

Okay, that might be a little misleading, but if I said I was against it then that wouldn’t be controversial or edgy at all.

Either way, I should clarify my position a little.

Objectifying women isn’t always a good thing. Nor is it always a good thing when it happens to men. Transfolk probably bear the worst of it. But gender-based degradation of women is no small deal.

Strip clubs and pornography exist, (predominantly) for the enjoyment of (also predominantly) heterosexual men. We like being able to lust after and fantasise about women explicitly, and these things give us a chance to do that in a way our hormones crave but society doesn’t often allow us. There’s a vast industry which relies on exploiting and reinforcing the role of women as objects of men’s sexual desire.

And it’s not outrageous to imagine that these attitudes might spill over into other areas of human interaction. Women have a hard time being taken seriously by some people in many areas of business – the corporate and political worlds are still predominantly white and male.

There’s a degree of imbalance and inequality between the genders (let alone among people who don’t fit neatly into one category or the other) which nobody should wish to see perpetuated.

But if your intent is to be a critical thinker, a skeptic, a rational humanist – in other words, if you give a shit about people and you care whether what you believe is actually true – then you should be open to criticism of the ways you might think this imbalance ought to be addressed.

In particular, I think the sexism debate could do with much more emphasis on building up than dragging down.

Take strip clubs. Some people – mostly women who identify with a particular definition of feminism – think these are awful places, and want to see laws passed against their very existence. They don’t want men to be encouraged to see women as pieces of meat on show for their enjoyment, and they don’t want women to feel pressured into having to take a demeaning job as the best way of supporting themselves financially, because of the sexist attitudes this perpetuates.

Rather than doing anything to support or encourage women, this seems only to assume that men can’t be trusted and will inevitably behave with deplorable incivility if offered the slightest prompting to do so.

Some men fail, or refuse, to act as if women are ever anything more than sexy pieces of meat. That’s undoubtedly a bad thing – it’s a pretty crappy move to write off most of an entire gender’s potential like that. But it’s not clear that this behaviour will be diminished even slightly if you remove the venues where men get to enjoy ogling the sexy meat with impunity. It’s not going to stop men noticing that women are sexy and they are made of meat, or stop them behaving in ways inappropriate outside of allocated zones like a strip club.

However… this also isn’t to say that there’s not a problem worth addressing here. The fact is that men often do take the “sexy meat” attitude to women beyond reasonable bounds. Most women I know have had direct experience of being made to feel as if their physicality is all they’re good for, in a way that wasn’t appropriate and which they didn’t enjoy.

But there’s no contradiction in letting people know what’s inappropriate and what isn’t in the majority of human interaction, while also letting people earn a living through sex work or a related industry.

There’s an automatic connection in many people’s minds between a person earning a living in the sex industry, and that person being diminished in the perception of the rest of society. But that’s a problem with society and its hang-ups, not with the industry itself.

Some people are generalised about and de-individualised, because of their gender or gender identity – something of which both men and women can be both objects and perpetrators. Some women find that the sex industry provides the only means through which they can financially support themselves. That’s a problem with the economy and the job market, not with the one profession offering them a life-line.

I understand some people’s frustrations at the “freedom of speech” counter-argument. Josie Long has tweeted in the past about how little she appreciates the way she’s sometimes stereotyped as a woman, and sees strip clubs as a part of the problem. She appreciates the importance of freedom, but has tried to explain that it’s an unhelpful thing to use as a conversation-stopper.

Freedom’s important, but a lot of people still aren’t happy, and there might be something we can do about that even if we don’t agree on what we can do about it straight away.

Banning the burqa was an attempt to address an illiberal cultural tradition by means of an illiberal national law. I think passing legislation against strip clubs is a similarly bad idea, but re-emphasising the importance of people’s personal freedoms doesn’t solve the issue of the oppression of women within Islam, or of the bidirectional gender discrimination in the rest of society.

Giles Coren didn’t solve any of those problems either, but he was right about a few things. Misandry deserves to be given proper consideration, and men can be victims of just about every injustice that can befall women. But the two distinct problems don’t need to be placed in competition. We don’t need to bring attention to the suffering of men by playing down the hardships faced by women, and we don’t have to decry the evils of the sex industry if we think women deserve a greater societal respect. (How much respect does it show for the men and women in the sex industry, if we insist that they and their profession must be eliminated before we can make any progress?)

Some women want to have sex for money. Some women want to be treated more like an actual human being around the office. Both of these are fine aims, and we only need to make sure we’re giving each issue a reasonable amount of attention, without letting any one side of the conversation become stifling.

By which I mean: Let’s not get so hung up on the issue of freedom in the sex industry that we ignore the plight of women who feel inappropriately sexualised and objectified by men – but, let’s try not to focus on sexualisation as a bad thing, to such an extent that people in the sex industry feel marginalised or demeaned themselves.

Let’s not sneer at any attempt to raise the subject of misandry in a sensitive discussion about gender discrimination – but let’s also not be so persistent or strident in bringing it up that women always feel like they’re being shoved aside so that men can talk about their own problems.

Yes. Let’s all just follow my advice and everything will definitely be fine.

(If the comments below happen to go feral again, do try to keep things civilised.)

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