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What was I talking about?

My left arm has seceded from my body and is planning to go on a solo air guitar tour of the Midwest.  At least, I assume that's why it's alternately hurting and numb.

I honestly wasn't expecting the reaction I got yesterday for a dashed-off early morning post, but thanks for all the thoughtful answers.  My original point, which was obscured by my use of WalMart as an example, was that when people have a legitimate dislike for something, they also have an unpleasant tendency to launch personal attacks on the people that use that thing.  My example, though poorly chosen, was the characterization of people who shop at WalMart as ignorant tasteless rubes.

I think we lose when we go ad hominem.  To pick another controversial subject, I sincerely dislike Sarah Palin, but I don't think attacks on her as a woman, or using gendered slurs, do anything to advance the argument against her politics, which are plenty horrific on their own.  When I see liberal sites or blogs that think it's funny to call her "Caribou Barbie" or (more heinously) talk about hate-raping her, I get mad, because they're attacking the fact that she's a woman, not that she supports a policy platform that thinks its voters are idiots, or that she thinks women should have no say over their own bodies.  Her politics are scary, but that gets lost in the generalized woman hatred.  It's simply the other side's tactics against Hillary Clinton, reversed.  One can hardly claim superiority when one is perpetuating the same misogyny as the other side.

In the same fashion, attacking people who shop at WalMart as low-income, tasteless, buck-toothed, overweight "breeders" is not a neccessary part of decrying WalMart's business practices. 

It is a very common thing to otherize people who disagree with one's viewpoint.  Dehumanization makes it a lot easier to treat people badly.  This is why war propaganda characterizes the enemy, whomever they are, as animalistic, savage, and non-human.  If the enemy/opposition is not human, then it's no big deal to be cruel to them.

It's much harder to be mean to someone when you know they feel the same things you do, and you see them being hurt.  One of the reasons flame wars get so vicious is that the participants cannot see the hurt they inflict, so it isn't real, not in the way that calling someone a whore who should die in a fire to their face can be*.  When you can't see the tears, it doesn't count.

I know lots of people who fall into the categories that are popularly stereotyped, and really, none of them fit those stereotypes.  I could talk a lot about how the people who have a desire to maintain the status quo have a vested interest in maintaining negative stereotypes of the people they want to keep down, but I'm not up for the discussion today.  Let's just stick with my opinion:  I feel that an awful lot of negative stereotypes exist to help maintain the marginalization of outsider groups.  Welfare recipients, for example - people love to extrapolate the behaviour/attitudes of all welfare recipients based on the examples that they have seen or heard about**.  It is a common thing to attribute the behaviour of one member of a group to all of that group.

But it's not accurate, is it?  And it's not right.  I have done it - oh yes, I am not Pristine McPerfectPants, I have been cruel and exclusionary, and I have caused hurt.  Part of my journey of self-awareness has been to recognize that what seems like a easy joke is wrong when it is made at the expense of someone who has no control over the characteristic I am mocking.  I'm fine with making evil jokes about how Sarah Palin says she "chose life" but wants to remove that choice from all other women, or that I'd give a wolf a gun and a helicopter and let it hunt humans any day, but I'm not going to go after the fact that she's a woman, and I personally hate the moniker "Caribou Barbie", since it trivializes her, and by extension all women in politics, not to mention it distracts from the fact that if she was elected to high office, she would be extremely dangerous to all the principles I hold dear.

Making fun of public figures is a time-honoured tradition.  It is even a valuable part of our public discourse.  But nothing is gained by mocking women for being women, poor people for being poor, or any group of marginalized people for being marginalized, not to mention that it is just low.  It's a form of bullying, a way to make oneself feel big by belittling someone powerless to fight back.  And using hateful imagery to make the point cheapens and obscures the actual argument being made***.

I like to try and see things from different perspectives, not to justify something that is harmful, or to advance a particular agenda, but to see the ins and outs of every situation. Very few issues in the world today have easy sound-bite solutions, and I think there are unintended consequences from every choice, so I want to know about every side of things so I can make a more informed choice when the time comes.
I don't like Nestle, and that's been hard, since they make some of my favourite English candy. Not shopping at WalMart is relatively easy, but I'm not as good as I should be about that. I won't buy pizza from Domino's for ideological reasons, but that's hardly a sacrifice, since I prefer Pizza Hut. Life is full of choices, some easy, some very hard, and some impossible.  Many economic choices have far-reaching ramifications because of the global economy****. I can't even pin down what "buy American" actually means, and I've been trying. I buy clothes from the thrift store, not just because it's cheap, but because my purchase benefits people in need (plus I'm a fan of recycling perfectly good clothing and household goods rather than stuffing them in a landfill). Again, not particularly hard for me, so it's not like I deserve cookies for my choice. 

But I buy goods from China (it's really hard not to, dammit!), and I just got my new Shuffle from WalMart because we were there looking for something we couldn't find anywhere else.  I still buy Coffee-Mate creamer.  I buy things from Target, and I know their clothes aren't all made in countries that pay a living wage as we understand it. 

I'm tainted - we're all tainted in some way. I'm no better than anyone else out there, which reminds me that mocking people for being somehow "lesser" than me is disingenuous. I can disagree with people's actions and with people's ideology, but I can't put myself on a pedestal because I'm lucky enough to be white, well-educated, and born into a middle-class family. I can't mock someone for the things they have no control over.

I'll save my well-deserved snark for the assholes.

*Yes, it did fucking hurt my feelings, even if it was just my ex-husband.  It's easy to say "just brush it off", but words pierce to the bone and linger like a staph infection.

**The Republican Party is masterful at exploiting the welfare stereotype of a black woman with tons of kids who stays on welfare for life.  Most welfare recipients are white, have one or two children, and stay on welfare less than two years.
It's much more complicated than that, of course, but the Republican sound bite is a lie.

***And allows Republicans to play on that snobbery to justify cutting social programs that help marginalized groups, which is really scary if you are fighting for social justice.

****Sweatshops or prostitution?  Can we engineer a third, fourth, or fifth choice that doesn't involve human suffering?  What will we need to sarifice to make that happen?  Are we willing to make that sacrifice?  This shit is hard.


( 25 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )
Mar. 5th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
I'm actually kind of amused by characterizing Sarah Palin as "Caribou Barbie," but I'd be leery of doing so in a piece of writing meant to explain just WHY she's a terrible political candidate, because, while *I* hear "Caribou Barbie" and mentally unpack it to find commentary on cynical politics that prize image over substance and are more concerned with providing a figurehead than in getting anything accomplished, other people could hear it and just go "GIRLS ARE STUPID BARBIE DOLLZ HA HA."

So yeah, I'd focus on the terrible things she'd done as governor, her lack of qualifications, blah blah.
Mar. 5th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
Exactly. :)
Mar. 5th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
See, this is why I have trouble being human. When I hear "Caribou Barbie" I think of male-dominated-society-sucking-up plastic that's all about what to wear and what to buy but pretends to be a role model. And I have a real hard time remembering that some people might think 'barbies'='women' because my whole life everyone's run around shouting Real Women Are Not Like Barbie and I agree.
Mar. 5th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
Preach it, sister.

One of the things that always upset me as a poor kid was the myth that somehow if you are poor or underprivileged (or have bad acne, don't use grammar properly, wear the wrong pants or have a speech impediment or whatever) it's somehow your fault. That the kid who was lucky enough to have been born to rich parents was somehow better. Maybe it's the need to back up the statement "I deserve what I have" with something and the inability of people to just credit dumb luck.

You were born lucky, kid, be grateful for that and don't look down on the rest of the world that wasn't so lucky.

And for those of us who weren't so lucky... I had a hard time overcoming an intense hatred of the rich and realizing that rich people were just people who had been lucky in who their parents were* and could be honest, decent human beings even if they had expendable income. I'm very glad I got rid of that hatred. It wasn't easy.

* (And I can hear someone now saying 'I worked my way up with blood and sweat and tears!' yeah, some folks moved up on their own, but for 99% of us, where you end up has a lot to do with where you started. Yeah I started poor and now I'm middle class, but I know that wasn't really my doing, it was luck and being poor in a wealthy community.)
Mar. 5th, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
In American History, my professor has repeatedly reiterated the fact that in order to get around feeling bad about "attacking" a race/culture/belief, we dehumanize what we're attacking. So by labeling WalMart shoppers low-income, tasteless, buck-toothed, overweight "breeders", it's makes them less than humans. Our forefathers did the same thing with African Americans. We've done it with the Nazis, etc.

So, it's easy to salve your conscious when you label what you're attacking something that is less than human or at least less than what you value yourself at. But, that's basically what you've said and I just didn't read down far enough.

I enjoy reading your posts.
Mar. 5th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
Like I said yesterday, I agree with everything you said. And I think there's a reverse damaging effect; those in the dehumanized group will then act more in a stereotyped manner, out of a hopelessness that they're never going to change the minds of their tormentors so they might as well behave as they have been portrayed, or even as a gesture of defiant pride and anger, a thumb in the eye of the elite and a conforming to their peer group.

You keep telling someone that they're something else, and eventually, they are going to believe it. Like when you were told by your family members that you were fat (when you weren't). When I was told by various people growing up, "You're the smart one, your sister is the pretty one." (My sister is much smarter than anyone ever gave her credit for, and there's a lot of wasted potential there.)

There's probably a sociology term for this, but I don't know what it is.
Mar. 5th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure what sociology calls it, but it's certainly related to confirmation bias*, in that we look for and see the things that confirm what we are told. "Self-fulfilling prophecy" also works.

*but is not the same thing.
Mar. 5th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
Self-fulfilling prophecy seems to work very well. Here's the Wiki entry about stereotypes and stereotyping:


From there:

"The effects of stereotyping can fluctuate, but for the most part they are negative, and not always apparent until long periods of time have passed. Over time, some victims of negative stereotypes display self-fulfilling prophecy behavior, in which they assume that the stereotype represents norms to emulate. ..."

So, thank you for inspiring me to do a little digging on my own. :-)

Mar. 5th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
It is always easiest to denigrate the "other" - I have a number of arch-conservative co-workers and friends, and lately I really have to watch myself to not let something awful come out of my mouth to match the awful coming out of them - or that they're posting either here or on facebook.

Good lord, some of my coworkers are anti-science to the point that they loudly proclaim the morality of their visits to the Creationism Museum in Ky. on vacation...

Part of me wants to say "fuck it" about that, because the general rule of thumb seems to be that those on the right in "polite society" are allowed to be bullies and cast aspersions, and those in the middle and on the left are inclined to smile, nod and let the bullies continue to foam at the mouth. Well, sometimes that pisses me off to no end, but I get that if you respond, more often than not you add fuel to the fire.

The anti-human suffering thing - that's tough, because it involves making changes to our economy that are pretty drastic - it means paying more for basic things, and while many poorer people flat-out can't, many middle class and upper class people won't. And we are a material culture that wants our plastic crap, to add on to that - we want salad shooters! We want plastic decorative bottle caps! We want ... and want. We rarely think about need, as opposed to want.

However, and this is why, in part, I recommended the Thomas book, the poor don't have the market cornered on bad taste. There's plenty of ugly in the rest of the world, and much wasted money.

As to the Barbie thing - well, it doesn't bother me. I get called Countess Barbie all the time, because, silly as it is, I do look like that - hey, it's genetics (I got Disney Princess jokes when I was princess and queen too). As long as it's intended in fun, I'm fine with it. it has more to do with the intention - anything, no matter how innocuous it may seem, can be turned into a sneer too easily these days.

I am well aware that Barbie isn't the best roll model, but I'll take Barbie over Paris Hilton or Carrie Prejean any day. The visual shouldn't matter, the substance should. Pretty on the outside, ugly on the in? Not right. "ugly" by societal definition but pretty as a rose on the inside - I'll take that. But there can be good pretty... and heavens, I know now that I'm well, better than average looking, but growing up, I was teased and tormented by other girls for being so, and that was fairly miserable. So I'm wearing the Barbie/Sleeping Beauty roll well enough these days.

I have found that I tend to see anyone I love as beautiful, and those - no matter who good looking - as ugly when the ugly inside shows. My grandfather used the phrase "say pretty" to mean precisely this - stay good, stay kind, stay nice. The "pretty" was always on the inside - and he had physically pretty daughters and granddaughters aplenty.
Mar. 5th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
I want to keep a copy of this essay to help explain this very thing to people who need it. Bravo!

I also try to be aware about what I'm buying and from where. I too do not always succeed. In my own business, I have chosen to have anything I subcontract out (casting, mostly) done in the USA where those businesses have to pay a living wage and follow environmental regulations (dumping silver into the environment is not good for it).

Thanks for another thoughtful post!
There are consequences to this choice. The biggest one is price. Many people are not willing to pay more for something made this way. I don't make buckles and smaller accessories anymore, because many vendors are having these items cast overseas and can sell them for $6 ea and make a profit. I can't sell a very similar item for $30.

This is the biggest issue with the big-box stores. Low-income people can afford to buy new shoes for their growing children at Wal-Mart. I'm not going to tell them they are wrong to do so. I didn't grow up wearing charity or thrift-store clothing, and I'm not about to tell someone they should. I can *choose* to shop at Goodwill. However, the overall societal race for the lowest possible price has had predictable effects on the quality of products now available. We bought crappy tools for almost nothing, driving quality toolmakers out of business, and now the only tools available are crap. (an exaggeration, but not by much). I say we, because this is a large overall trend, and the retailers have fully participated in it.
Mar. 5th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
Ack. The "Thanks for another thoughtful post" was supposed to be at the end.
Mar. 5th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that last link. Amazing stats.
Mar. 5th, 2010 05:31 pm (UTC)
Interesting, huh? :)

Mar. 5th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
Not only is it difficult sometime to not lump everybody together, but it's also difficult to understand when somebody is expressing frustration about an entity, not about the individuals that shop there. Your post yesterday was a great example - it's HARD to separate in both the expression and in the understanding of the difference between hating Walmart and hating Walmart shoppers.

If that makes any sense.

I detest politics by sound byte. That seems to be what so much of it is reduced to, now, ideals without any sort of critical thought. One likes to imagine that somehow it was better way back when, but I suspect that it's one of those things which has always been a problem.

Have you seen the "coffee party" group on Facebook? They're hoping to create a group of people who raise their political voices in civil discourse. I love the idea, of course, but then the cynic in me supposes that the message will be soundbyte-d anyway.
Mar. 5th, 2010 05:44 pm (UTC)
Hm. That didn't come across right. First of all, it's sometimes hard for people to hate walmart and not make fun of the people who shop there.

But it's also hard when somebody is attacking walmart, for the *listeners* to understand that the person is not talking about the people who shop there.

Another example - I rant about suburbia, and developers, but people have a hard time understanding that I have no ire for people who *live* in suburbia.
Mar. 5th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
I get what you mean, because that's what I was saying yesterday. :) Today I hoped to clarify why I feel that way - and the pitfalls that lie behind lumping everything together.

For me, it's a question of compassion - not the "oh, I forgive everything someone does, because life is hard" compassion, but the willingness to hear what people have to say. It helps to give me a larger picture, since social issues are like coral reefs - there are good things and bad things, but dealing with one thing will have an effect on other parts of the reef. It's best to know all the connections.

The reason some people perceive any criticism of something they are involved with as a personal attack is the flip side of judging anyone who is different - if you disagree, then you must be judging their choices negatively. People are surprisingly fragile.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 5th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
Any public post is free to be shared. :)

I wonder how much of that "it will never happen to me, because I'm not [insert negative stereotype]" is a version of superstitious finger-crossing. We know it happens with victim-blaming (especially in sexual assault), and I think it applies here, too - "I will never be homeless, because I'm not a bum/addict/lazy/etc." is a talisman against the vagaries of luck. But people don't want to admit how much the luck of the draw has affected their life, because that means that you can lose that luck.

(Also, that people don't neccessarily "deserve" what they've got; it's hard to separate how much success is "earned" vs. what comes as part and parcel of being in the favoured group. I know my life would be very different and a lot less easy if my skin was darker, and also that it would be very different and probably much higher earning if I was a man.)
Mar. 5th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
the china angle is soo right ( I remember an very good piece on the daily show regrading CHINA making the ultimate anti women stand by killing them systematically off) and the attacking women in politicy for being women: I personally didn't vote for Frau Merkel when she first took office but the political comedieans at home INSTEAD of attaking her politics which should have been easy to do they stopped by called her *the girl* and the *skirt* and the *queen* and if you point that out *YOU* get called out for having to loosen up and having no sense of humor.

What is damaging beyond the feminist angle of such arguments and true even in cases where the women's aspect isn't overtly present: After such idiot talk the issues at hand get no longer the attentention. people prefer humor over info. those who can see beyond the cheap joke usually avoid the playing field where the idiots play. thus teh discussion is effectively dead.


and that is the really sad part.
how we let idiots steal the grounds for seriously addressing the issues.
Mar. 5th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
I agree. But I, too, get the "humourless feminist" card if I say something. :) Sometimes it's worth it, sometimes I just write it out here, where I get to control the conversation.

I especially like (i.e., HATE) the guys who proclaim they are liberal and progressive who become completely misogynistic when presented with a powerful woman. Bob and I may not agree on all issues, but he always respects women.
Mar. 5th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
nods. But also if you keep at it and have a serious discussion a lot of my friends where like: why do you bother? That guy was clearly an idiot. After I swallow the *well, nice to know you agreed with me, I could have used some support while getting ridculed I usually point out that I have a very good track record as lot as I don't get too angry. I even had a frind of my little brother call me the next day to tell me that after having slept on it he had to agree with me and promised to never make such statements again ;) so , hang in there. It isn't fun all the time and it is the ONYL way to change things. seriously, when it comes down to it: This is the only way to change the world. One conversation at a time.
Mar. 5th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)
I used to have a t-shirt that said 'humourless feminist'. I wore it to demonstrations. My flat mate and I also had a sign behind our toilet that said 'We are humourless feminists. Put the seat down.' There's a lot to be said for embracing your labels.
Mar. 5th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
"My left arm has seceded from my body and is planning to go on a solo air guitar tour of the Midwest. At least, I assume that's why it's alternately hurting and numb."


Call your doctor.
Mar. 5th, 2010 08:03 pm (UTC)
Uh, no - I have nerve damage. But thanks.
Mar. 5th, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC)
Brilliant post. Really well argued.

I know that in Australia we tend to get a warped view of American politics, but one of the things that amazes me about the Christian Right is that they seem so reluctant to apply their own text - in this case the bit in the bible where Jesus says 'when I was hungry, you gave me to eat' - surely that's an imperative to feed the poor, not castigate them? But then I'm privileged to live in a country where unemployment benefits or supporting parent benefits are seen as a right for those who need them, and are not cut off while that need is still there. Lots of people lost their jobs in the GFC and they got unemployment benefit, no stigma attached.
Mar. 6th, 2010 11:13 pm (UTC)
Well, I'm no expert, but apparently the new religious right theology of abundance holds that if you are pleasing to god, you will have material wealth and power. And I think it also takes the biblical statement "the poor are always with us" as a command to refrain from doing anything to provide relief to the poor. Ugly stuff.
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