Morality People Politics

Building a better society starts with recognising this one’s broken

Today’s horror is the rape of a Northern Cape high school boy, whose classmates tied him to a bed and raped him with a broom handle. “Today’s horror” is of course inaccurate, as there are no doubt many others. But this one stands out for me for various reasons:

The initial use of the word “sodomy” instead of the word “rape”, demonstrating an unconscious (and widespread) homophobia. It’s a mild form of homophobia in isolation – but to note that would really miss the point unless you follow it up with the observation that, for those who identify with marginalised and oppressed groups, all of these mild or micro cases add up to a environment of systemic discrimination.

The norm is white, male and heterosexual. This is not to say that it’s impossible for people to overplay their hand (whatever that hand might be) in terms of being part of some marginalised group – some people can be disingenuous, and excuse some personal failing by reference to a coincidental feature they happen to possess.

That’s an entirely separate issue from whether, on average, someone who is not white, male and heterosexual is likely to have a rougher deal than people like me. So, denying any person’s experience by reference to them “playing the x card” (x = race, gender, etc.) pretends that systemic disadvantage is nonexistent, and makes you sound like a heartless, uninformed and unreflective fool.

SASecond, on the rape case, is the fact that some seem to want to make this all about kids being kids at an initiation ritual, rather than it being a racially motivated attack. The bone I’ll throw at you is that of course we can’t know it was a racial attack. But it’s pretty likely to be, in South Africa, at least to the extent that certain inhibitions about not treating other human beings in a barbaric fashion are more present if the prospective target is white, male and heterosexual.

It doesn’t matter that the crowd of kids who were looking on, and (I’m told) cheering were modeling a united colours of Benetton poster, comprising people of various races. It’s possible to internalise racism against any group, even the group you belong to yourself.

And, as DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme rightly notes in a statement on this attack

Under the cover of “traditions” such as initiations, children are given the platform to act on their racism and homophobia – sanctioned by the institution and often “protected” by just those who went through the same “rites of passage” themselves. Many of these kids are raised by racist, bigoted parents and then spend years and years in these situations where they barely have to disguise this. In fact, it often gets encouraged.

On Facebook, Max du Preez asked “Isn’t it time to consider legislation declaring racist acts (attacks and serious insults) hate crimes with harsh punishment?” I don’t want to get into hate crimes and hate speech at present, because there’s so much to talk about there, but one thing we do need is to at least recognise that they exist, and identify them for what they are.

We have too many folk who still believe the Rainbow Nation myth, and think we’re pretty much united, and too many who believe we’re still in some sort of (undeclared) race war, or at least socially (or otherwise) incompatible with each other. The truth is in the middle – we’re sorting things out, but that requires work, not mythologising.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, go read and play with the “parable of the polygons” to see an elegant demonstration of how (perceived) harmless choices can still add up to a harmful world. Also, read Oliver Burkeman’s recent Guardian piece, which argues that believing the world is intrinsically fair or just can lead to increased injustice, because we “blame the victim” instead of supporting remedial measures.

I don’t know for sure how we build better societies, but recognising our problems, instead of pretending we live in some alternate and superior universe would surely be a start.

Morality Politics

Trigger warnings – Internet civility and the risk of infantilization

Those of you who frequent corners of the Internet that discuss prejudice against other human beings on the grounds of things like race, sex, sexual orientation, physical disability and the like would no doubt have come across the term “trigger warning”. For those who haven’t, a “trigger warning” is essentially an alert that the text that follows might contain words or ideas that “trigger” some negative reaction in the reader. For example, a victim of violent crime might be prompted to re-live their terror on reading a descriptive piece about an armed home invasion.

There’s no doubt that some of us can be insensitive to the needs and interests of others, some of the time. In fact, some people seem to take pleasure in being wilfully offensive, and might deliberately taunt others for some or other manifested difference (or even an imagined difference). Trolls are one example on the most egregious end of the spectrum, but more commonplace is the problem that for those of us – like me – who fit into the categories that have long been considered “normal”, it’s easy to find yourself offending others without realising it, and without intending to.

More worrying for us “normals” is the possibility that this social-baseline existence makes you blind (or contributes to blindness) regarding the privileged status you might occupy in life and social discourse. The relevant catchphrase here is “check your privilege”, and as I’ve previously argued, demands to “check your privilege” can sometimes be a complete nonsense, used to evade the responsibility of making and engaging with arguments, even if it is sometimes true that “privilege” can blind one to other ways of being.

But it can also sometimes be accurate, just as there might be – and are – situations in which we’d want to warn a potential audience that something they are about to read and/or hear could unsettle them. The concept isn’t an alien one – age-appropriate warnings for visual media rely on it, and news inserts are often preceded by a warning regarding graphic content.

Yet, we surely need to take some responsibility for ourselves, in that it would be unreasonably demanding to expect, for example, a support group for war veterans to precede every recollection of some event they witnessed with a “Trigger warning: violence” alert. Instead, the most obviously suitable place for trigger warnings (if we are to agree that they should be more prevalent, that is) would be on content or platforms where a responsible consumer of that content would be justifiably surprised to encounter that which they find triggering.

Take an unmoderated Internet discussion forum, for example – you cannot expect such a place to contain only things that don’t upset you. But you might more reasonably expect a discussion forum on how to raise children to not contain accounts of children or parents dying in labour – an unwritten social contract has arguably been violated in the latter case.

The broad point is that it’s impossible to protect people from all harms, and it’s also only morally expected of us to avoid causing foreseeable harms to others, and even then, it’s unreasonably demanding to expect that we take all such harms into account. I don’t want to explore the issue of which harms we’re obliged to take into account and which not (not today, at least), but for example, I know it might harm the feelings of a religious person to tell them that God is a fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent me from being able to say so.

In other words, both because the Internet is an unregulated place, and second because we can’t reliably predict what people might or might not be harmed by reading, the traditional distinction between what’s morally expected and what’s “nice to have” – supererogatory in philosopher-speak – needs to be maintained here. We might prefer for people to create a environment of type X, but might only be able to expect an environment of type Y.

Because the alternative – of always and only saying things that are guaranteed to not harm anyone – creates such a sanitised environment that it would run a serious risk of infantilizing us. We need to be able to tolerate different points of view, and that which we might find offensive, because that’s part of the way that we learn to cope with the slings and arrows of fortune.

Of course, this approach does advantage those whose points of view, or who – as people, are subjected to fewer of those slings and arrows. But at the same time, there are people who have endured traumas that prefer to talk about them openly, to not have them treated as a “special” topic that needs to be preceded by warnings, or confirmation that a certain conversation is permissible.

Striking a balance here requires empathy – and there’s no question that far more can and should be done by “normals” to be sensitive to the fact that they frequently win at life simply because they wrote the rules. But the solution isn’t to be found in swinging completely to the other end of the spectrum, and attempting to rule out all possibility that people might find themselves challenged, even hurt, by the things they encounter in the world.

The thoughts above were prompted by a worrying trend described in this New Republic article, namely that of college classes now carrying trigger warnings on class syllabi. If a class called “Histories of the Present: Violence” is expected to carry a trigger warning, then it seems clear that we’ve over-corrected – even if there’s a real problem at the heart of the motivation for that correction.