I guess I'll start with Donald Sterling. As of this writing Sterling is still the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers; I phrase this as I do because it seems very likely that this will change in the immediate future, as Sterling is on the verge of having his ownership of the team terminated by the Board of Governors of the National Basketball Association. The reason this is happening is that Sterling was recorded telling someone he was involved with not to post pictures of herself associating with black people and not to bring black people to Clippers games. Sterling's statements rightly touched off a furor. In the aftermath, Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, gave an interview to Inc. magazine that also created a controversy. Cuban maintained that while he found Sterling's statements abhorrent, he didn't feel in a position to sit in judgment over him, and said that when he encountered bigots in his own company, he sent them to sensitivity training rather than cutting them loose. "We're all prejudiced in one way or another," Cuban maintained. "If I see a black kid in a hoodie, and it's late at night, I'm walking to the other side of the street."
In fourth grade I was regularly beaten up by a black kid. I have also been mugged twice in my life, and each time it was by a pair of black men in hoodies. Once was in Chicago in 1995: they punched me several times, and tried to drag me into an alley, but I somehow managed to get away and run into an El station. The other time was in Brooklyn in 2001. These guys were much bigger, and one grabbed me firmly right away, so there was no chance of getting away this time; luckily, they were satisfied with the amount of money they got from me and let me go physically unharmed. It was still a big deal to me, though. I was sufficiently traumatized that I left New York City. Similarly, the first mugging spelled the end of my attempts to see what Chicago might have to offer; I spent the remainder of my time in Illinois too freaked out to leave Evanston. I suppose you could call this geographical prejudice. But I honestly believe that I still don't factor race into my assessment of how much danger I'm in when I'm walking down the street. Not only did I have it drilled into me as a kid that racial prejudice is morally wrong, and not only did I have it drilled into me in school that generalizing from individuals to groups and making assumptions about individuals based on membership in a group is logically wrong, but as someone with caramel-colored skin, unplaceable half-Asian features that make people squint at me and ask, "What are you?", and a last name of Arabic extraction, I've been on the receiving end of enough racial prejudice that I know how it feels and can't stand the thought of inflicting that on other people.
A while back I posted an article arguing that it is idiotic that sex is encoded in pronouns in the English language. At one point I mentioned Douglas Hofstadter's "Person Paper", which demonstrates how ridiculous gendered pronouns are by presenting a world in which the pronouns "whe" or "ble" are assigned to each person depending on whis or bler race. One reader wrote in to disagree. Unlike race, he argued, "Knowing the gender of a person helps one to establish a framework of (probabilistic) expectations by which their actions and words can be judged," and "while some say that people should consider others without any preconceptions, strong statistical correlations do exist that allow far better-than-chance predictions, and a rational actor would take them into account." I said that this preoccupation with "expectations" and "predictions" seemed very strange to me, and to the reader's contention that "knowledge of gender can help you form a more accurate model of a person's character, mental state, etc.," I countered that it was likely to be less accurate because people see what they're preconditioned to see, as happens at birthday parties where the girls push and shove, the boys play together quietly, and the parents cluck to each other about how rowdy boys are and how well-behaved girls are. The reader was unmoved. "I don't see that getting it wrong sometimes outweighs the benefit of having information that lets you get it right most times."
In reply, I related some of my own experiences, and asked, "Have you really never felt how infuriating it is to have people blithely make assumptions about you? You may not 'see' it, but — YES. 'Getting it wrong' COMPLETELY outweighs 'the benefit of etc.' The latter allows you to feel smug when your suspicions are confirmed. The former is an assault on a person's sense of self." I hate abstractions, so I offered up an example based on sex. "Women are overrepresented in academic programs in the humanities and underrepresented in technical fields. Say you hear a reference to a female college student. You rifle through your mental statistical charts and discover that the fact that she's female makes it only 40% likely that she's in a technical program. What are you going to do with that information? Play the percentages and just assume that she's not technically inclined until new information indicates otherwise? That is obnoxious and dehumanizing. If you actually do that, stop." In response, I received another long email in which the reader defended his practice of factoring in gender when making assumptions about people. For instance, he said, "I learned that I should avoid arguing philosophy or social policy with women. Women tend to a far greater degree to take it personally and become distraught or upset if I disagree with them." Note: he said this in response to a man, viz. me, who had just taken his arguments personally and become distraught and upset enough to break out the italics and even the ALL CAPS. And in no way did this seem to suggest to him that his mental modeling left something to be desired.
Last week a hateful outcast, enraged that women did not spontaneously offer him sex, attempted to carry out a slaughter at a sorority house at UC Santa Barbara, failed, and instead went on a flailing killing spree that ended with six dead in addition to the shooter: his three male roommates, two sorority members, and another male student. In response, people across the Internet took to their keyboards to try to pre-empt the inevitable media framing of this massacre as the work of an isolated victim of mental illness. Instead, they contended, it was merely an amplified version of the threat women in our culture face from men every day. Men kill women over sex all the time. Men sexually assault women all the time. And virtually all women have to deal with being accosted by men virtually every day. One of the great projects of our time is educating men about the last of these facts. I didn't realize the extent of it until I saw what Elizabeth went through just going about her day-to-day life in supposedly polite Victoria, Canada. She'd get on the bus and some old man would order her to smile as she looked for a seat. She'd walk down the sidewalk and a guy driving by would honk his horn at her. One time we were walking around downtown and some bearded hippie called out to her, "Hey, how about a hug?" — and then actually got into her path with his arms out: "Come on, just a little hug?" I am among the most timid creatures on this planet, but I saw red. "W-what is wrong with you?" I stammered at him. "D-do you think that just because she's female you get to harass her on the street?" His unapologetic reply: "I don't want a hug from you!" It's beyond infuriating, and I don't even have to deal with it firsthand every fucking day. Do we need to radically rework our society to put an end to this shit? Absolutely. That is certainly not what my question is about.
My question is this. Poking around the Internet in the hours after the news broke from Isla Vista, I found a number of posts along these lines:
"That's it, I'm done. Men need to stay the fuck away from me. Seriously. Don't get near me. Ever again."
As a traumatized reaction, this strikes me as understandable… but, ultimately, no more acceptable than if my Calendar article for 2001.1003 had read, "Black people need to stay the fuck away from me." If I had posted that, I would rightly have been deluged with messages saying, "Hey, you racist asshole, not all black people are violent criminals." But "not all men are violent criminals" is a statement that in recent days has been specifically targeted for scorn. The objections to "not all men" seem to fall into a couple of categories. One is heuristic. "You say not all men are monsters? Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% of them are poisoned. Go ahead. Eat a handful." I admit that I'm not entirely sure what this means. If it means that we need to radically rework society to get the percentage of misogynistic, predatory men as close to zero as possible, count me in. If it means that the percentage of misogynistic, predatory men is sufficiently high that women must assume that any unknown man is a potential threat and act accordingly… that makes a hell of a lot of sense! But the corresponding point is that the percentage of violent criminals among black people is sufficiently high that I have been personally assaulted by them on multiple occasions. Does that mean Mark Cuban is right? Should I be crossing the street before I pass the black kid in the hoodie? Am I being stupid in eating the M&Ms? Or is there a lack of parallelism that I'm missing?
The second category of objection is discursive. "You're sidetracking the discussion! You say you're not a monster just because you're a man? Cool story, bro. Stop trying to make this about you. If you're not a monster, then she wasn't talking about you." Again, this makes a lot of sense to me. Sidetracking does indeed suck. I remember that, one of the first times I tried to start an online conversation — back when "online" meant "on dial-up services like Compuserve and Prodigy and GEnie" — I wrote a post about how I'd recently started college and was disappointed to discover that all the activism on campus seemed to revolve around identity politics, only for every post after that to consist of random users jumping in to talk about their ethnic backgrounds, and it pissed me off. How much worse for someone who wants to talk about sexism in society to find Mr. Random Q. Internet trying to turn the discussion to the pressing issue of whether Mr. Random Q. Internet is a sexist. But, also again, the same rhetorical move doesn't seem to work in analogous situations. If a comment on my hypothetical racist Calendar post reads, "Hey, I'm black, and I'm not a violent criminal!", does it really work for me to reply, "Stop trying to make this about you! If you're one of the good blacks, I wasn't talking about you!"? Or take the shockingly sexist "I don't talk philosophy or politics with women because they get too emotional" line I mentioned above — how many I-wasn't-talking-about-yous does that guy get?
I said that I had a question, and I haven't really articulated it, so I guess I will try to sum up. I feel very strongly that "because I have been repeatedly assaulted by black people, black people need to stay away from me" is not an acceptable thing for me to say or think. But I have seen similar statements directed at men as a group, and I have seen those statements applauded. I think that "not all blacks are violent, and generalizing from the few who are to the entire race is very hurtful to the many who aren't" is a legitimate objection to the race-based statement. It seems to be the consensus among smart, progressive people that "not all men are violent" is a totally illegitimate objection to the gender-based statement. But these statements seem parallel to me. I don't think this makes me a bold iconoclast — given the weight of opinion suggesting that they are dissimilar, I assume that I must be wrong. But why? Is it a "punching up" vs. "punching down" thing? I.e., blacks are an oppressed group, and to the extent that they commit crimes at a higher rate than members of other races, it has nothing to do with race per se but rather with the poverty they have been subjected to because of racism, while on the flip side, men are a privileged group, and to whatever extent their disproportionate criminality is not innate, it's about preserving their privilege? And that to the extent that men who oppose patriarchy are wounded by being lumped in with those who support it, they kind of have to suck it up because it's one of the few drawbacks of being a member of a privileged group? Am I anywhere close here? And how is it that I'm so confused about all this, while other people seem to be so clear on when making sweeping generalizations about people is reprehensible and when objecting to those generalizations is even more so?
part two >>