Thursday, 31 October 2013

On the Racism of Certain Hallowe'en Costumes

     I have always enjoyed Hallowe'en. Even before my LARP days, I was very enthusiastic about costuming. Probably the masterpiece of all my costumes was the blood red Fokker triplane, artfully constructed by my extremely handy mother from cardboard under my strict technical supervision. I also did the painting, with careful attention to the insignias and other features. I was going through a WWI fighter aircraft phase in the fourth grade, and I wanted it to look as much like von Richtofen's famous plane as possible. (I chose the triplane over his Albatros D.3 biplane not just because it was more recognizable, but also because the Fokker's stubbier engine cowling was easier to make out of cardboard than the more conical nose of the Albatros. Yes, I was an ├╝bergeek.)

     The political implications of Hallowe'en costumes didn't really concern me, but they've become kind of a hot topic lately. There's been a lot of attention paid to the idea that certain costumes are racist or disrespectful, and in particular some celebrity's choice to appear at a party in blackface has drawn considerable ire, with some writers arguing that "Blackface is always racist".

     My natural tendency, upon seeing such a generalization, is to try to think of counterexamples, and of course that's not too terribly difficult to do. It seems obvious that a commando applying black makeup so as to be less visible at night is not necessarily committing an inherently racist act. Nor is someone who alters her appearance in order to more closely resemble someone else necessarily guilty of racism. And indeed, authentic, traditional blackface minstrelsy isn't necessarily an act of genuine racism if one is, say, acting in historical film about the life and influence of Al Jolson.

     I am thus sympathetic to those who do not understand why darkening one's face for a costume is always racist. It isn't always. But at the same time, just because it isn't intended as such doesn't mean it doesn't reveal a racist attitude. You see, wearing a costume is an inherently expressive act; you wear a costume in order to elicit some sort of reaction from your audience. The reaction you're looking for may be quite innocent: "Wow, I never noticed before how much your bone structure resembles Martin Luther King Jr.! And the moustache is perfect!" But expressive acts take place within a shared vocabulary, and for various historical reasons, a white person wearing black makeup has a whole lot of other connotations one should be aware of, connotations that will affect how one's message is received. If you do not know those connotations, then maybe your intention wearing blackface is truly innocent, but you have another problem: you don't know the connotations, which in itself is a sign of privilege, the sort of privilege that helps keep racism going.
     Think of it this way. By itself, a swastika is a elegant and attractive design, independently discovered or invented many times by many cultures. Not knowing its most infamous 20th century association, you could easily imagine someone choosing to wear a swastika T shirt just because it was a nice pattern. But almost everyone knows of that association, and assumes that everyone else knows, so if you wear that T shirt, people will make assumptions about what you mean by it. If they call you on it, you don't say, "But it's not racist! It's just a pretty pattern!" You either say, "Oh my god, it means WHAT? I'm so sorry!" as you cover it up or remove it, or you say "Yes, I'm glad you asked. I deeply resent the Nazi's co-opting this ancient and honourable design for their despicable ideology, and I am trying to reclaim it and divorce it from its political connotations. To me it represents..." blah blah. You might be wrong then, but you can at least discuss it respectfully, acknowledging the meaning you are explicitly disavowing, rather than taking the dead end denial route.

     Okay, so I get that blackface is "always" racist, at least in the sense that it has a subtext that needs to be acknowledged, and the failure to acknowledge it is itself symptomatic of racial privilege. But I'm less convinced by the complaints that other costumes with cultural stereotypes are inherently racist. That is, I think they're insulting, not because they are depictions of stereotypes but because they're bad depictions. Clumsy, ignorant, insultingly stupid depictions.
     A prime example: the "Sexy Chinese Geisha" costume cited as #1 in this Cracked article. Yes, this is insultingly stupid, but mainly because of the name they sell it under. It's not that there's no such thing as a Chinese geisha, because sure, there could be. A Chinese woman could travel to Japan to study and become proper geisha, and maybe even go back to China to set up her own geisha house. I have no problem with that premise, and also no problem with the "sexy" part, because there's nothing inherently racist (sexist, maybe) about taking any old costume idea and making it sexy. Indeed, the costume itself isn't particularly offensive in a racist, taken as a pastiche of loosely interpreted stylistic elements from various cultural sources.
     (Years ago, by the way, I drove past an actual restaurant with a big sign that read: "Haiku Palace Authentic Chinese Cuisine". I didn't have occasion to go inside so I don't know, but supposing the proprietor to have been Chinese, I don't think the sign would have been any less insulting, because it still conveys the presumption that the audience is culturally ignorant, regardless of how well or poorly informed the namer of the restaurant might be.)

     No, my problem is that the person who named this costume almost certainly didn't do any of this thinking. He or she (or maybe it was a committee?) clearly either had no knowledge of the cultures referenced, or worse, didn't care. It makes little sense to be offended by someone else's ignorance, but what's offensive here is that they unironically invite the audience to recognize as cute or clever something which is devoid of wit. (Unless it's actually a very sophisticated musing on what a sexy Chinese geisha would look like as distinct from a traditional Japanese one, in which case I'm afraid it's far too subtle for me. Is that supposed to be a corset?)
     I realize I'm speaking from my privileged position as a white male here, but it seems to me that it shouldn't be the ethnic inspiration of a costume per se that we object to, but the execution. A clumsy, ignorant and lazy stereotype is of course insulting. But on those rare instances when someone takes the time to get it right, to invest time and effort in learning enough about the culture to produce (and correctly wear) an authentic costume, I think it's probably wrong to feel disrespected.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Playing the Cancer Card Against Chain Letters

All right. You know that Facebook status chain letter that's been going around, asking you to post it or share it to show respect and honour those who have been fighting cancer? Actually, there are several, but they all have the same basic idea, and they all employ the same subtle emotional bullying to get you to share them. Since they come from someone you probably like, and they appear as a personal request from that person to share them, you feel obliged to do so, not just because you don't want to disappoint your friend but also because you don't want to look like you are indifferent to people with cancer.

You know what? It's a chain letter. That's all it is, really. The heartfelt personal request from your friend? They may feel the same way, but they didn't write it; they're passing along what they think is a heartfelt request from one of their friends. And chain letters, they're basically the memetic equivalent of a virus. They get into your mind, instruct you to make copies, and the copies go off in hopes of infecting more minds. Unlike biological viruses, chain letters rarely kill their hosts, but the basic ecology is the same.

So odds are, the person who sent it to you isn't going to be heartbroken if you ignore their personal request, because it isn't actually their request: they're just relieved to have avoided feeling guilty for ignoring their friend's "personal" request.

And as for respecting and honouring cancer victims, well, obviously I can only speak for myself, and maybe that chain letter has brought real comfort to others, but for my part, I am unmoved by the gesture. Look, I know people who forward these things mean well, but seriously, if you want to do something nice for cancer patients, go volunteer at a cancer clinic. Give money to support cancer research. Go get a colonoscopy before you start showing symptoms so you can avoid using up scarce medical resources to treat a preventable cancer later. Stop smoking. Or if you really just want to make a gesture or send a message, don't cut and paste someone else's words or graphic: take a few minutes to write your own. I mean, presumably they've friended you because they think you're a decent person already, and it kinda goes without saying that decent people care about people with cancer, so clicking "share" doesn't exactly supply your friends with new information. 

So. Let me play the cancer card here, and speak in my capacity as a former cancer patient: If someone forwards you a chain letter asking you to pass it along out of respect for cancer patients/victims/survivors, I hereby give you permission not to forward it. I won't feel disrespected.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Addressing One Hypocritical Argument Against Guaranteed Income

     This week I read that Switzerland is voting on a proposal to guaranteed every Swiss person an income of about $2800 a month. I will probably be writing more about the idea of a guaranteed income later, but for now I just want to address one criticism I've seen that is particularly annoying to me. Specifically, people look at this proposal and ask, "Hey, why would anybody work for minimum wage if they can get paid the same amount for just sitting at home doing nothing?"

     I am annoyed by stupid questions, and this is a stupid question, because it is based on the stupid assumption the only reason anyone works at all is just to make enough to survive. That is a stupid assumption to make when it is made by people who object to being taxed because they feel they should be allowed to earn as much as they like beyond what they need to survive.
     Stop and consider for a moment: once your basic needs are met, Mr. Hardworkingtaxpayer, are you content to stop working and enjoy your basic rations, watch TV and produce no more? No, of course not. You're the motivated go-getter who creates value for society, thriftily and prudently investing surplus for your retirement, and treating yourself to some of the finer things you've earned through your initiative and sweat. And good for you.
     So why, then, would you expect anyone else to be content with mere subsistence? Why would you assume that someone endowed with a basic income -- and now, some free time -- wouldn't choose to spend some of that free time to earn a bit more? And, given that basic survival was already provided for, wouldn't that free up employers and employees to negotiate wages without the need for an arbitrary minimum? For some extra spending money, accepting $1 an hour might be a rational choice; if you need to earn enough to survive, the opportunity cost of that hour is far too high.
     And secondly, let's suppose that someone would choose to sit around and do nothing with a guaranteed income. So what? Does it make you similarly angry when lottery winners quit their jobs? Are we facing a critical labour shortage right now, because urgently needed workers are insufficiently hungry? Or are workers sitting idle and hungry because nobody wants to pay them to do stuff? Unless you have some job you urgently need workers for, you have no right to complain about the inefficiency of labour resources going unused, because those labour resources do not belong to you. And even if you do have some urgent need for labour, here's how you address it: offer someone enough money to work for you! That's all, really. Negotiate a mutually acceptable price.

     There are other reasons one might criticize a guaranteed income scheme, but moral indignation that someone else is getting money "for nothing" is just silly, especially when it is so selectively and inconsistently applied.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Man up, MR!

     People often use the metaphor of the pendulum when they talk about social change, particularly with respect to such things as civil rights. I've always detested that metaphor, because we don't want to oscillate between extremes; we want to move to a nice, fair equilibrium where everyone's rights are respected, and stay there. And while gravity can be trusted to push a pendulum towards that center, momentum will always cause it to overshoot. With a pendulum, the right thing to do (if you want to end up stable at the center) is to apply force in the opposite direction of whichever way it's going, to drain its momentum so eventually it comes to rest. If social justice really were like a pendulum, then we all should have been pushing against Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, not to oppose it per se but to help slow it down so it would come to rest at the happy medium.
     But we now recognize that the "moderates" who urged Dr. King to be patient, not to move so fast, were simply wrong. Even if there is a force of gravity gently tugging us in the general direction of social equality, the pendulum here is mounted on a rigid and far from frictionless pivot, and can quite easily remain at a socially unjust status quo indefinitely. We have to push it to get it to budge, and historically we've had to push pretty damned hard, because there's always someone trying to keep it right where it is.
     (Also, the pendulum metaphor misleadingly suggests that there's symmetry in the distribution of injustices over time, and sure, we may be on top right now, but it all evens out because remember when white Europeans were slaves of African overlords, or when a man's legal personhood was subsumed under that of his wife? Me neither, but it must have happened because pendulum!)

     Lately we have been hearing about the Men's Rights movement, whose position seems to be that the pendulum has swung too far and now men are disadvantaged as women once were. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, yeah, there are situations in which men suffer injustices simply because they are men, and so yeah, I sympathize. I've had to contend with various inconveniences for being a man myself.
     But on the other hand, I'm very much aware of how many advantages I enjoy simply by virtue of being a man in this society, how easy it is to take them for granted, and how much I probably enjoy without even noticing. On the balance, it's pretty obvious to me that I come out ahead on the deal, overall, and so I feel it would be undignified for me to complain about the times it works against me.
I would call it unmanly, but there is nothing uniquely masculine about courageously enduring hardships.

     One of the minor ways being a man has occasionally disadvantaged me is when it comes to discussing feminism. I recall conversations in which my views were enthusiastically embraced as sensitive and enlightened until I happened to disagree over some point or other, when I suddenly became unqualified to know what I was talking about. (Gee, thanks for the object lesson in what it feels like to be marginalized, but wouldn't it be more helpful to model for me how to respect someone as an equal?) My gender shouldn't have any bearing on the validity of my arguments, but to some people it does.
     Fortunately, as a man, I am qualified to say things about the Men's Rights movement without having to face such challenges, and the main criticism I have is actually the very same one I have of the term "feminism": it's adversarial and divisive. Feminism should not have been, and ideally isn't, about women's issues, but about addressing the impact of gender on human issues. That we call this movement "feminism" is a historical artifact of the fact that the bulk of the political and economic injustices resulting from sexism have been and still are borne by females.
     So while I object a bit to the term "feminism", there's at least some justification for having focused on women's rights, particularly when they weren't thought to have any. I grit my teeth a bit every time I use the word, but that's the word we have. There is no such justification for creating a separate-but-equal masculism (packaged with a tastefully rugged blue label: "Feminism -- For Him!") to focus arbitrarily on gender injustice when it happens to disadvantage someone with a penis. Gender injustice is wrong whomever it happens to.

     I sometimes use "Mankind" as a gender-neutral, inclusive term for our whole species. I figure I should be man enough to call myself a feminist in the same spirit.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


     When I was about 13 or 14, visiting my grandparents in Massachusetts one summer, my parents dropped me off at the New England Aquarium for the day. (I have always been a nerd, and insisted on being allowed to spend a day there or at the Museum of Science every time we were anywhere near Boston.) On this particular visit, though, I was kind of shocked to see a couple of men holding hands.  This was the late 1970s, and there was no greater insult at my junior high school than to call someone gay. And these two fellows were decidedly, flamboyantly so, though at the time I did not recognize it from their style of dress so much; naively I thought gay men must have worn dresses or something, and was perplexed that manly-looking men in their manly muscle shirts, manly tight white trousers and most of all their hyper-manly moustaches (when you're 13, facial hair is manliness itself) were -- ewww! -- holding hands! I admit, at that time and place, I was a bit grossed out.

     The other day, I was driving somewhere, and noticed a couple walking along the sidewalk, holding hands and obviously very much in love, and I just found myself smiling and thinking, "Aw, how sweet!" And it almost didn't even register that they were both men, except perhaps in the way I used to notice couples of mixed race, with a sense of solidarity and pride that our society seems to have learned to accept these things.