Monday, January 29, 2007

Social Justice Lyrics Part 1

When talking about social justice words, eventually we can all get bogged down in the analysis. But I also enjoy good lyrics, or poems, or speeches...

"New America"
by Bad Religion

laurels, human triumph,
bestowments from the past
victories don't mean a thing
if they don't last
we are just marching toward extinction
with blinders on our eyes
jeopardizing everything
we've learned and come to realize
you call that wise?
Full lyrics are here.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Apologies for Slavery

Ilie over at noted the other day that Virginia steadfastly refuses to apologize for slavery.

The Virginia lawmaker who caused an uproar this month by questioning the need for a state apology for slavery proposed a measure to commemorate the freeing of the last U.S. slaves in June 1865.

Del. Frank D. Hargrove Sr. (R-Hanover County) inflamed the House of Delegates by saying that blacks should "get over" slavery and that apologizing for slavery was no more necessary than asking Jews to apologize for "killing Christ."

I'm somewhat appalled by this on a number of levels.
  1. The Jews killing Christ is a myth. It is questionable even within the subtext of the Christian Gospels. Most of the details for this come from a 19th Century German nun and a revelation she had. Of course, there's a suspicion that most of that was fabricated as well. When you have power, it is often fashionable to write the history of oppressed people specifically to denigrate them.
  2. Even if the Jews did kill Christ (let's humor "crazy Mel" for a bit), it did not lead to oppression of Christians by Jews, especially not in this country today. Words have power when they are wielded by those with power. (Disclaimer: I am Jewish)
  3. However, white people in this country (and particularly Virginia) still have a whole lot of power. Therefore, those words do have power. By refusing to apologize for such barbarism, they continue to affirm African-American's subordination.
  4. White people do not get to speak for black people. Period. This was sponsored by black lawmakers, and the fact that a white lawmaker is challenging and devaluing their history by stating that it is "over and done with" is shameful. True anti-racist allies support, not devalue.
  5. Let's face it, this is symbolic, but it's also important. Many white folks do not want to acknowledge that they still benefit today from their white skin, either because it hurts to hear or because they want to maintain that privilege. We cannot solve contemporary racism unless we acknowledge its presence, and those who have a vested interest in maintaining that will continue to deny that as long as their conscience permits.

The Dehumanization of (some) Stars

I'm opposed to the whole "star" system by which we have 24/7 news cycles about the couples status of the rich and famous, mostly because I hate the way in which people who are no better than anyone else (and sometimes much worse) are treated like a higher form of life by the media. This irritates me to no end, and for that reason I can't agree entirely with Dr. Lawyer IndianChief's latest post over at (side note: if you're a sports fan with an interest in social issues, I highly reccomend FreeDarko). But it's one of my favorite blog reads of late--it's about the need to tear certain sports stars down, focusing on the NBA and Serena Wiliams and Maria Sharapova.

So much attention was paid to Sharapova's "star" after she won Wimbledon, and with every ad campaign, slinky dress, and public appearance, pundits began making faulty attributions that all of this "fun" was inhibiting her from winning another Grand Slam. That tennis experts even included "Kournikova" in conversations about Sharapova's work ethic is sillier than comparing Yao Ming's work ethic to Yuta Tabuse's because they're both Asian. And Serena, well, the lambasting of her has been all too well-documented. All the time that she takes off, the tournaments she pulls out of at the last minute because of "injuries," the kicking it with Keyshawn, and her stunning ESPY appearances--people feel that she "owes" the sport something, giving her a harder time than Robert Smith or Tiki Barber, and SHE hasn't even retired yet. (Not even to mention the fact how much her being "out of shape" has gotten discussion during this recent tournament).

DLIC has a different analysis of why this is, but I believe this is because we feel threatened by people like Williams and Sharapova. Two non-Anglo powerful women are torn down precisely because their high status threatens the media's image of what is an "ideal". After all, the media system has power over most images in their feature stories (ie, People magazine-type stories, which are suddenly being treated as real news), but they do not have power over who advances to the finals in tennis.

On the other hand, they do have power over the commentary on these stars, and it seems as though the media will do anything to avoid talking about their accomplishments. Jean Kilbourne has done some outstanding work on this issue.

Instead, they focus on Maria Sharapova's physical attractiveness. When you have a truly dominant athlete, focusing on their attractiveness is a way to undercut their accomplishments. The classic example of this is Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which has actually gone so far as to have female athletes pose.
(Interestingly, although certainly not female, Beckham is given a nasty dose of this as well. This is unsurprising, however, since he displays a radically different form of masculinity than the anger-fueled stereotypes that are usually glorified in athletes).

On the other hand, Serena Williams is treated in a particularly unfeminine manner, and is frequently the victim of stereotypical portrayals of African-American women as "animalistic", and other disparaging remarks about her body that criticize her for her "unmanly" demeanor. I see echoes of the latter in the media's treatments of both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleeza Rice (neither of whom I agree with, but they have certainly been unfairly targeted by the media).

DLIC sees similar treatment in the predominantly African-American population in the NBA.
Psychologist, Nick Haslam, has a compelling theory of dehumanization, which suggests that dehumanization comes in essentially two forms: denying people uniquely human attributes (e.g. moral sensibility), which posits humans as animal-like, or denying people human nature itself (e.g. agency), positing humans as objects or automata. I suggest that the type of NBA-wide dehumanization going on falls somewhere in the middle, constituting a mass infantilization of ballers.

Stern raised the age limit but more and more is treating players like children. The synthetic leather ball fiasco actually constitutes an underrated example of this. Players were denied a SAY. a CHOICE. Rationality, desire--these core human qualities were not necessarily denied, but rather they were ignored, and that angered the hell out of the players.

It's a fascinating set of comments, especially with Haslam's theory about turning humans into animals. It seems as though this is a common label not only for African-American women, but for black men and women. The NBA certainly is a good example of this.

I find the second half of Haslam's theory relevant as well, since changing individuals into automatons is a hallmark of classism. One could argue that Stern's decision to switch balls unilaterally is not really an attack on their stardom per se, but rather a disturbing trend amongst corporations where management reserves the right to make all decisions and denying non-management workers a voice. This mass infantilization of workers across America is generally accepted by the media structure, which is probably why it's so hard to get positive coverage of union activity that demands a say in workplace matters. It is also a particularly insidious subtext to have, since demanding that workers are below management as humans is incredibly dangerous to equal treatment of all human beings.

To summarize--I'm not so sure that I'm comfortable with the "star" system that thoroughly permeates our media. But until then, there is a lot that we can learn about ourselves from analyzing the way we treat our celebrities.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Maori as a Second Language

Being the good American I am, I'm always fascinated by other places' languages. I just found out today that Maori is actually the official second language of New Zealand.
I've never been to New Zealand, but this is interesting given the debate today over whether to enshrine English as the "national language" of America. By declaring English the official "first language" and Maori the "official second language" I don't think they're actually protecting Maori's status as a language as a culture. Rather, it is making their culture and language officially "secondary" to the primary culture, which is Anglo.
This is particularly complex because part of New Zealand's history is that they promised to protect Maori as a language in the Treaty of Waitangi (which apparently is rife with controversy itself--if I'm not mistaken, I believe that the English version is actually different than the Maori version, not just a pure translation--feel free to correct me on this one if I'm off). So on the one hand, there has to be official recognition of Maori, but recognizing it as secondary is...sort of offensive. At least it seems it would be that way to me.
I think that with the current debate over making English the "national language" in America, these are important issues to consider. It is a largely symbolic gesture, made to reassure skittish Americans that the dominant Anglo strain will not be washed away in a sea of Hispanic immigration. However, these things can also seen as an assertion of superiority. And since this does shape how we view an entire class of people, I'm extremely concerned about how this will shape generations of younger Americans and how they view our neighbors to the south, much less Hispanics in their own communities.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Interesting Commentary on the Iraq War

A very interesting article political strategy in "framing" the debate over Bush's military plans is at CNN's website--check out "Escalation or Surge: Those are Fighting Words".

Sexism and Racism: Not a Two-Way Street

Percusso made an interesting comment below, that attacks on men because they are men is "sexist". It's an interesting point, but I'm not sure I agree with it. Prejudiced? Yes. Bigoted? Probably that too. But not actually sexist. Sexism, like racism (and most other "bad" isms) are largely about the combination of prejudice with power.

There are a lot of people who support my definition, but a lot of people who don't. And there's very little to argue definitively that power is a neccessary precondition of racism or sexism, or vice versa. But I think it's very important that we define it as such because it helps distinguish between the dangerous impact that sexism and racism has on people's lives, as opposed to only people's feelings being hurt (which is also no laughing matter, but a less serious designation nonetheless). When people are sexist or racist (or a similar ideology), entire classes of people are subject to being second-class citizens economically, socially, or in terms of physical safety.

This distinction is more than merely semantics, because it separates "being a prejudiced jerk who we shouldn't imitate" from "being a prejudiced jerk who can cause unbelievable pain and suffering to entire groups of people--and we especially shouldn't imitate him." While working against prejudice of all kinds is important, preserving the distinction of prejudice and power is important to understanding why injustice exists for entire categories of people.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pro-Choice vs. Other?

Jeff at Feminist Allies has some interesting comments about being pro-choice. I'm still musing about the various terminology--pro-choice vs. pro-life vs. anti-choice vs. pro-abortion...I hope to break these terms down more at some point, but what do you think they all mean? I definitely identify as pro-choice (as will most of you reading this), but a friend recently gave me a good definition for what "pro-choice" is really about.
This young woman grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical home, and still identifies with that to some degree. She believes that abortion kills a soul, and yet she recently decided she actually was "pro-choice" because she doesn't believe that the government has any business regulating women's bodies based on a religious principle. She is very clearly against abortion, but she is very clearly for "choice", and it is the concept of choice that drives my position as well.

The Christies

Someone just sent me a link to the new BET show "The Christies". For those of you who don't know who Doug Christie is, he's a former NBA guard who very publicly shows that he respects and cares for his wife. This usually overshadows his defensive contributions--after all, a lot of guys in the NBA play good defense, but not a whole lot go out of their way to establish an alternative sense of masculinity and relationship with his wife.

Turns out BET decided their marriage would make a good reality show. Interested in a show that would demonstrate a loving, healthy relationship, I clicked over to see this.

BETJ follows the lives of NBA star Doug Christie and his strong-willed wife, Jackie. You won’t be able to take your eyes off this romantic train wreck as the Christies work through the issues of living together.

Doug Christie is a champion and a tough-nosed competitor who will bite, fight, scratch and claw his way to victory. At least on the court, that is! Off the court, however, his wife Jackie is the star. She is omnipresent, controlling and clearly in charge. Some would say that Doug’s “whipped”; he says he’s happy.

So instead of focusing on a unique style of masculinity and a relationship by which people share power, they sell it by saying "look at this p-whipped NBA star! He's a freak!" Because he has a different style, they vilify his wife and say he's weak. Not exactly what I had hoped for.

Won't Believe the Hype

Men Can Stop Rape just posted a great column by Bryan Proffitt called "Won't Believe the Hype." I won't repost it all here, but here's a snippet. It's in the same vein as my last post, but longer and more in-depth.

We know that there are people across the country looking for a grounds-eye perspective on this one. Others are better equipped to come with legal analysis and media strategy, but for those of us focused on the long-term struggle to end sexual violence, here's some thoughts. Please share them with others and take action in your own communities.

Go check it out here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Alexander Pring-Wilson and the Duke Rape Case

When I was living in Cambridge--a few blocks away from Harvard--a young man stabbed another young man. One man was a white Harvard Grad Student, the other was a hispanic high-school dropout short-order cook. One was heavier, taller, and armed with a knife, and he stabbed his opponent to death--not too far away from my apartment.
We often stereotype criminals as hispanics with low levels of education, so it came as some surprise to me that the attacker was actually the Harvard Grad Student. Alexander Pring-Wilson was convicted of manslaughter, a conviction that was later thrown out and is currently tied up in the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

I remember reading a comment by a leader in the African-American community at the time that went something like this: "One can almost imagine that the defense will be 'white upper-class Harvard Graduate Students don't murder people in dark alleyways."
Of course, that's not true. Men are the most likely to commit violent acts of all types, and this is a dramatically stronger causal relationship than any ethnicity.

When paired with the Duke Rape Case Accusations, we see a series of similarities that tell us about violent crimes that are perpetrated by a dominant group member against a non-dominant group member:

The aggressor feels strongly that the other group is "beneath" him". See above.
The attacker is motivated by a perverse sense of masculinity. In the Duke Case, they had hired a stripper and actually threatened to sodomize both strippers. In the Pring-Wilson case, it was because some people had dared laugh at him.
The initial reaction to both are that "these are good kids". In Pring-Wilson's case, there's actually an entire website devoted to establishing his humanity and how he fits our image of a young man who can do no harm. In the Duke Case, you can see the favorable coverage given to the attackers by 60 Minutes. After all, the model of our society is a white man who goes to a prestigious college and participates in extra-curriculars.
Both times, the attackers are turned into "victims". In the Duke Rape Case, there is a great deal of time devoted to showing how the lacrosse players were supposedly unfairly targeted because of their sex, class, ethnicity, etc. And you can see the same thing in Pring-Wilson, this time stating that he is the victim of a "politically correct society" and "judicial mismanagement."

It is almost as though the media screams, "wait, the justice system is supposed to reinforce patterns of dominance, not break them!"

Other thoughts?

Welcome to "Just Speech"

Welcome to Just Speech. Just to introduce myself: I am a violence prevention educator at a small rape crisis center and domestic violence shelter in Northern Virginia. I also am a community organizer in my spare time, and a former union organizer. I'm an alumnus of the Jewish Organizing Initiative in Boston and Grinnell College in Iowa.
Just Speech refers not only to what I hope to present in this blog (commentary from a social justice perspective) but also the common (mis)conception that words do not influence the world that we live in. When we talk about hurtful words (such as "slut" or "kike"), we often don't analyze beyond the basics, which are usually:
  1. "You shouldn't say those words. They are hurtful."
  2. "Lighten up. You shouldn't be so serious."
While I certainly sympathize with the first statement, it doesn't really explain the depth of why these words are so dangerous. These words are not just powerful, they literally are power. They are verbally abusive, designed to destroy another human being by reminding the target of their vulnerability (due to their membership to a particular sex, ethnic group, or other social category).
This is essentially the danger of the Confederate flag as well--it's not just that it is disrespectful to remind African-Americans of slavery, but it resonates powerfully in a world where whites dominate economically, politically, and socially. It is a reminder that African-Americans are still threatened today--both physically and monetarily.
To say "Lighten Up" is an attempt to prevent social change. It is saying that "my good time isn't as important as equality." It is not "Just Speech"--on any level. It is fundamentally an attack on an entire group's dignity, an attack--when backed up by other forms of power--that produces social inequality. And by devaluing and relegating an individual to lower status, we signal that it is acceptable to commit violence against them. This is the basis for violence against any particular group--women, ethnic minorities, and the GLBT community. (A perfect demonstration of this step-by-step process is how the Jewish people were systematically devalued in early 20th Century Europe. Hopefully, you can contribute other analyses in the comment section)
So let's discover Just Speech together.