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Common Sense Symmetry: Language and Political Correctness

I’m part of a Facebook group for women, and one of the members recently posted a “news story” about a man who went sunbathing nude. According to the story, a bird of prey mistook his private parts for turtle eggs, and the man ended up in the hospital. There are so many problems with this posting that I hardly know where to start. First, it’s fake news. Second, it’s not funny. Third, if someone posted a similar story with the genders reversed, wouldn’t there be an outcry that it was offensive and sexist? Can you imagine the reaction to a story about a naked sunbathing woman being attacked in delicate places by a bird of prey?

Fortunately, few members of the group “liked” the posting, and several responded positively to my comment that perhaps this wasn’t appropriate. But I was still left shaking my head: why don’t people use common sense to see the symmetry? If you can’t say that about women, why can you say it about men?

Similarly, why is it OK for some people to complain about “white people” on Twitter? I was astonished recently to see a favorite fiction author going on tirades against white people. In my view it wouldn’t be acceptable to go on a tirade against “black people,” so why is it OK to complain about “white people”? Common sense symmetry: if you can’t reverse it, don’t say that. How about instead going on a tirade against “racists”? Or even about “white people who don’t recognize their implicit privilege,” or “white people who <any adjective you like can go here”>? Yes, we can and should talk about race. Yes, racism is a pervasive problem that is critical for the future of our society. But aren’t you reinforcing racism by complaining about “white people,” “black people,” “Asians” or any group as a whole? Even just adding an adjective like “some” (or even “most”) helps.

Some people argue that it is more acceptable for members of a comparatively disempowered group to be critical of other groups—i.e., it’s more acceptable for women to be critical of men, and African Americans to be critical of Caucasian Americans than the other way around. I don’t really understand that argument—rudeness is just rudeness. It’s particularly problematic because it adds fuel to the fire of the culture wars. Over the last two years, I have spent time online with groups of people (particularly members of the GamerGate movement) who among other things advocate for men’s rights. Their online discussion sites are filled with outrage at cases where common sense symmetry is not applied. They are justifiably outraged at tasteless cases like the tale of the “turtle eggs.” Going beyond that, some take the next step to argue that men are just as oppressed as women. We could have a long and complicated discussion about how to measure the relative oppression of various groups within society, but I’ll go on the record as saying that I believe that the statement that men are as disempowered as women is not supported by the facts no matter how you measure. But every time we tell turtle egg jokes or vent about “white people,” we give energy to groups that are not in favor of working towards embracing diversity and empowering all groups.

  1. william
    July 31, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    Hi professor. On the “turtle eggs” post, even if it were not a fake news story or was a made-up, fictitious event that served as the set up for a joke, I would find it funny. Not because of the human suffering implied but because the actors and the sequence of events aligned so perfectly bizarrely. It is the actual or aftermath of human suffering that sucks the humour out of of the story. For those who would laugh only because of “who” was hurt as opposed to “someone was hurt in a bizarre sequence of events”, I would question their morality. This reasoning crosses the line into targeted cruelty, because there was not any mitigating, specific history that feeds the human instinct for fairness (which we share with our more distant primate cousins). As a species, we do tend to invent words out of necessity e.g. karma and schadenfreude.

    I like your succinct recommendation of common sense symmetry: “if you can’t reverse it, don’t say it. Will have to mull it over some more to see if there are instances when it does not apply. Someone claiming to advocate for the disenfranchised while or only engaging in this specific behaviour is a hypocrite and a bully: a SJW.

    I would not exactly say GG advocated for men’s rights. GG wanted to protect everyone, and men were just part of that group. Because supporters came from so many different walks of life and were completely confused as to why the press was lying about what was going on, who were these bizarre trolls that were harassing everyone, and why were supposedly learned people endorsing nonsensical extremism; GG welcomed and listened to everyone. Some proved to be very insightful and useful in providing information that supported or explained GG’s case against the press and far-left activism. Others were poisonous and extremists.

    (You might have noticed that I referred to GG in the past tense. GG is over, or rather the original group that came out to support it is. What exists on KIA now in 2017 now does not mirror or represent even GG in early-mid 2016. On KIA, there has been a palpable shift in openness and political alignment that can no longer be denied. As such the subreddit is irrepresentative of what GG was when it was piecing together the puzzle. The main culprit was politics, but since the multiple problems still exist the different individuals/groups/communities are still trying to solve them, just not alongside each other.)

    Back to the turtle eggs. Deferring to comedians who make a living out of laughing at their own or someone else’s pain is a good guide. I think it was Tina Fey who said that comedians are cruel, adding that if you want to make the writers’ room laugh one has to be a little twisted. For them, someone falling down the stairs = not funny. However, a blind, old lady in a wheelchair falling down the stairs = hilarious. Why? It is the combination of the unexpected and the insult to injury. What else that is terrible can happen to that old lady that proves that life is unfair, that life is suffering? Good comedy often hits that sweet spot between horror and slapstick. The punchline for the joke is not the suffering of an innocent person but those realisations that life is indifferent to our suffering so we best laugh when it gives us lemons and squeezes the juice in our eye.

    Anthony Jeselnik had a interesting segment on his show once. Determined to find what was and was not okay to laugh at he took on cancer. He interviewed an oncologist and cancer patients currently undergoing treatment. When asked, “What is the funniest type of cancer? Butt cancer perhaps?” the doctor replied no cancer is funny. However, when he did his limited performance (with albeit better jokes) for the patients, they liked it. They liked the cancer jokes. Now, here we had two different groups that very much understand suffering. Was it the doctor’s empathy that just made her politely smile and rebuff Jeselnik’s attempts at levity? Was it that the patients having to face their own mortality what made them more receptive? Did the doctor’s commitment to her job make her blind to the seriocomic indignities of human suffering? Did the intimate suffering of the patients make jokes about it welcome? Nowhere here does cruelty come into play. No one is specifically being targeted only because of the “who”.

    To conclude, I would acknowledge that cruel, tasteless humour does exist. For those who think the entire punchline should be the shock value and associated making people upset or uncomfortable, I question their grounding. What is the point of deliberately encouraging or cultivating real human suffering–not imaginary–in order to laugh at someone?

    • July 31, 2017 at 3:21 pm

      Wow–thanks for the thoughts! I could write three or four replies to different aspects of your comments. I hate the term “SJW” and I think it’s used completely unfairly in many cases. But that said, I think part of the point of my post is to explain part of what some might call SJW behavior in a way that could be understood by those people. We really really need a better term–one that helps us all to be less jerk-like and understand what behavior patterns of the unreflectively self righteous are problematic.

      • william
        July 31, 2017 at 7:10 pm

        You are correct in that a lot of people use the term SJW inappropriately. A lot of people have been abusing it for broad-brush, liberal bashing because their politics are more important than their personal value-set. I have seen it applied to people just asking how can one help solve seemingly intractable problems.

        Journalist Cathy Young recently joked about “wokies” as a replacement for “SJWs”, though I still prefer the latter because my definition remains very specific. And given that it is tied to an actual philosophy (Social Justice, not social justice) it makes more sense to me.

        As for understanding these people I have found some cultural precedents useful. There is the very human appetite for public shaming which ignores political leanings. There is the concept of motivated reasoning which gives people the necessary excuses to treat the accused as evil (innocence be damned), which is also very human. Then there is utopianism which appeals to people who are idealistically minded. Because of the religiosity of belief and that this is a secular cause/cult, they are not interested in the promises of prophecies or the after-life. They want their utopia right here, right now and by any means necessary.

        Their influences also draw from different cultural institutions. The most obvious is the combination of radical and intersectional feminist thought and activism. These provide the lists of oppressed and oppressor which can grant or take away “victim status” (which is for them their most valuable currency). Its academic moorings are tied to postmodernism which (along with the title “feminism” minus the qualifiers) conveniently lends the veneer of credibility/respectability; requires a very low burden of proof to whatever claims that they make; and allows for the rewriting of history to justify their activism. And ironically, considering all of the histrionics they put on stopping about it, many SJWs have pasts connected to trolling culture. That they signed onto SocJus could be a form of creating their redemption narratives, narcissists looking for an adoring flock, or the ideological cover the harass allowed targets that those who enable SocJus provide (i.e. the media, mainstream feminism, etc).

        Why did this incarnation of extremism come exclusively from the left? The desire to take a victory lap for past liberal accomplishments birthed itself this movement. They want to fight for women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights etc. They want to be part of history or rather they want to be “on the right side of history” and remembered by it. They want to have their stories told about when they bravely stood up to bigots under threats of physical retaliation; or they want their art and writings to be cited as what ended bigotry. They want to be honoured as the ones who created a utopia. But today’s Western society is more liberal than ever. Yes discrimination still exists, but compared to 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago,…people in the West, in terms of social freedom, are much better off. Today’s problems are more complicated and yesterday’s solutions might no longer be applicable.

        So what is a narcissistic, idealist bully to do? Call everything and everyone “sexist, racist, and homophobic” and bask in the applause of one’s peers. People protest? “I am creating a utopia.” People assert their innocence? “I am creating a utopia.” People point to evidence that the charges are false? “I AM CREATING A UTOPIA DAMMIT!!!” See where the unreflective, self-righteousness comes from and why it is universal among those who have adopted the ideology?

  1. August 4, 2017 at 2:06 pm

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