Why what we say matters

So last year I posted on FB about “Apartment Patty,” the white woman who harassed a black man coming into the apartment building where they both lived and demanding he prove he was a tenant. For which her employer canned her. One of my FB friends, a right-winger who believes companies can fire anyone at any time for any reason, nevertheless declared this was bad, bad, bad! Thought policing! And if we penalize people for being racist, then they’ll hide their racism (I’m guessing he’d say the same for sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia, especially as he’s sexist and Islamophobic). Then people won’t know to avoid them!

First off, this is a dumbass argument in this context. The guy was entering his apartment building when the woman harassed him; how’s he supposed to avoid that? Time his comings and goings so they don’t meet? Move?

Second, I suspect that if the victims of this kind of bigotry have to choose between a)people openly harassing them or calling them for being in public while black and b)having to live with the possibility that people around them are racist but hiding it, they’d pick B. Ditto women being asked to choose between getting cat-called and groped vs. merely knowing some men around them might want to do it.

And third, stuff like this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As I’ve written before, people take their cues from what they see other people do and get away with. One post from England said that soccer fans yell abuse at black players because they know it’ll be supported by some and ignored by the rest: “There are plenty of people around you in the crowd who will listen to you roar abuse and who’ll still share a drink and a joke with you at half-time and after the match.”

Or consider the recent New Zealand shooter, who declared his admiration for Donald Trump as a white champion. He also admired Norwegian terrorist Andre Brevik. Incels likewise idealize misogynist shooter Elliott Rodgers. Anti-Muslim bigots are, of course, loudly denouncing the attacks even though they don’t sound that different (“Islam is the ‘religion of peace’ in the same way that rape is snuggling,” — Matt Barber) or claim similar attacks could happen here because, liberals!

If people see they can be racist shits and not suffer consequences, some of them will indeed give in to the impulse to be racist shits (“Somewhere, in a newsroom or a living room, there are countless others with the same bile in them as you, slightly more confident today than they were yesterday” in the words of the soccer link). Ditto how they treat gays, women, Muslims, Jews, trans people, etc., etc. to infinity. Some because they are racist shits. Some because they had a crappy day and they want to lash out at someone. Some because it just feels good if they can push someone, anyone around and see they’ve delivered a shot of pain. If there’s no consequences, why not?

If they see there are consequences, maybe they stay quiet. That’s not only better for the victims, it reduces the incentive for others to be jerks. Not being a jerk is not as good as being an actual decent person, but it’s an improvement. That’s why I’m glad a black Detroit man is suing three women for harassment-by-cop; it’s both what they deserve (assuming they’re guilty, which I don’t have much doubt about) and a disincentive to others.

Ignoring these kinds of behaviors will not bring about a post-racial world. Pushing back and condemning them might bring us a little closer. That was part of the point of Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad — that just smiling and saying “boys will be boys” sends the message their behavior is OK, even if it isn’t.


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