Monday, February 04, 2013

The Physical Impossibility Of Debate In The Mind of Someone On The Internet

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Right so bitwixe a titlelees tiraunt
And an outlawe, or a theef erraunt,
The same I seye, ther is no difference.
To Alisaundre was toold this sentence:
That for the tiraunt is of gretter myght,
By force of meynee for to sleen dounright,
And brennen hous and hoom, and make al playn,
Lo, therfore is he cleped a capitayn;
And for the outlawe hath but smal meynee,
And may nat doon so greet an harm as he,
Ne brynge a contree to so greet mescheef,
Men clepen hym an outlawe or a theef.
Geoffery Chaucer

Woman is the nigger of the world.
John Lennon

Let us suppose, hypothetically, a country in which there was, and had always been, a link between complexion and seating on public transport.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that dark skinned people have to sit in the rear seats on busses, but light skinned people are allowed to sit in the front seats.

Let’s assume that this has been the case for so long that it’s practically invisible: most of the time, even the dark skinned people take it for granted that that’s the way things have to be.

Let’s also note that in this hypothetical and imaginary country, dark skinned people tend to come from the lower social classes, are less likely to own cars, and therefore have to use the bus service more frequently.

We could conceptualize this unfairness in two ways.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs would be for everyone to sit in the front seats, and that the dark colored people are disadvantaged by having to sit in the ones at the back.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs is for everyone to sit at the back, but the light skinned people have the advantage of being able to sit in the front if they want to.

Or we could say dark and light skinned people are equal (they can all sit down) but different (they have to sit in different areas.) But we probably wouldn’t. The phrase “equal but different” is used almost exclusively by light skinned people who are quite sure that dark skinned people are not their equal. So toxic is the phrase that even if a situation arises where it happened to be true — say, at a school where there were separate boys’ and girls’ soccer teams — you almost certainly wouldn’t use it.

So: either the dark coloured people are disadvantaged — suffering from unfair discrimination — or else the light coloured people have an unfair advantage or privilege. Both descriptions are equally true, or equally untrue: the glass really is both half empty and half full. But if you take the first model, you are apt to think in terms of stroppy black people demanding something extra; if you take the second, you are more likely to think in terms of mean white people refusing to share their treat with anyone else. Taking the second model also makes it harder to be indifferent: supporting the status quo means “supporting the privileged position of the white people.”

(Some parents tell children: “if you are very naughty, you will not get any ice cream.” Other parents tell them “if you are extra good, you will get some ice cream.” American parents, or at any rate, parents in American situation comedies, say “If you are bad, I will take away your ice cream privileges.” Using food as disciplinary tool is a really bad idea because and can result in all sorts of hang-ups and eating disorders.)

However you describe it, the situation is horribly unfair: so if the dark skinned people finally decide that they are going to sit in the front seats regardless of where law and tradition says they should sit, then everybody would support them on general principles.

There are, in fact, two sides two every question (apart from the one about who created the Silver Surfer.) It might, in fact, be that the fight about bus-seats isn’t worth having; or at any rate, that it isn’t worth having today. Better let the light skinned people keep their symbolic advantage than anger the more extreme elements on both sides and risk riots and reprisals. It is certainly the case that all the seats are much the same and the bus takes you where you are going regardless of where you are sitting. Changing a law, even an obviously unfair law, takes time, and the lawmakers may have more urgent matters they want to deal with first.(Politicians do have to think like that, at any rate so long as we remain a civil society with a constitution, laws and procedures, as opposed to one of those anarchists utopias where you tear up the rule book and everyone starts being spontaneously nice.) It might be that what is in everyone’s best interests is a harmonious society where even the most prejudiced light skinned people put up with even the most prejudiced dark skinned people, and that a gradualist approach to reform is more likely to bring this about than radical reform. Politicians sometimes have to think like that, too.

But I can’t imagine anybody actually arguing any of those points. The situation is so blatantly unfair that we would have a two-horse race: between the small minority of racists who don’t really want coloured folks on their busses in the first place, and an overwhelming majority who think that it is obvious (once the question has been raised) that everyone should be allowed to sit wherever they want to.

Similarly, there could in theory be a disagreement about what kinds of tactics the reformers should adopt. Should they simply disregard the law? (But doesn’t civil society depend on us all obeying laws, even laws we don’t like? If I am free to disregard the bus law, whence cometh my obligation to stick to the law about paying my fare, or the one about not punching the bus driver on the nose? Because it’s my duty is to obey a higher, god-given law of morality? But whose god? And who decides? The stronger side? But isn’t that how we got into this mess to begin with?) Do they have organized protests in which everyone ostentatiously and pointedly breaks the law on a particular day? Or do they start lying down in front of busses and picketing bus stations? Do they politely ask the transport staff to change the rules, or actively intimidate bus drivers until they are too scared to enforce them? What about the fellow who sets fire to himself on the back seat of the Number 9 to make his point? Or sets fire to someone else? Or blows up the whole bloody bus?

Most of us would say that it was our duty to support the dark skinned people regardless of whether or not we happened to like their tactics. Even discussing the tactics is tacitly supporting the injustice. The power imbalance is so obvious and blatant that it's incumbent on you to support the weaker side. You simply have no right to sit in the comfortable seats saying that, although you agree with the point that the people in the uncomfortable seats are making, you wish that they wouldn't make it quite so loudly. 

“But what if the dark skinned people adopt violent tactics: are you obliged to support them even then?” I think you are. Or rather, I think that once you have asked the question “do you agree with violent tactics?” you have put yourself on the wrong side. “Violence” means “use of force by the side we don’t agree with”. It’s a word that the powerful invented by strong people to describe tactics used by weak people. It’s just very odd to look at the entire machinery of a nation state bearing down on the little guy and say “I deplore the fact that the little guy threw a stone at a police officer.” 

“Terrorist” is what the big army calls the little army. It’s only “class war” when the poor fight back.

And this is true of every argument and every disagreement. Every quarrel is, in the end, a quarrel between a person with power, and a person without power. So you only ever have two alternatives: intervene on the side of the guy being beaten up; or intervening on the side of the guy doing the beating. If you do nothing, then you allowing big guy to carry on whacking the small guy, which amount to supporting the bully. If you say "But what if the fight really about? Maybe the little guy antagonized the big guy in some way?" then you are still doing nothing and allowing the victimisation to carry on. 

Of course, you may dress it up in fancy words. "I feel sorry for you" I may say "I genuinely do. I have nothing against dark coloured people. Some of my best friends have dark coloured skin. But philosophically, you will concede that it is part of the Cosmic Essence of buses that the dark coloured people must sit at the back  of them and light coloured people must sit at the front? You wouldn’t want to upset the Balance of the Force, would you? Or if you do not concede that, you must at least concede that that is part of my sincere and devout beliefs, and the since and devout beliefs of many other Jedi? So in order to preserve the Cosmic Balance, or out of respect for other people's faith, I must reluctantly sit in the comfortable seat. But do please understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about the bus.”

If I said this, I think that you might well take the view that I hadn't really said anything at all. All my talk about the Force and Cosmic Essences amount to "Well, I would give up my seat, but I don't feel like it." La la la I'm not listening!

Of course, most people are better at concealing their privilege under a poor mask of logic; but that's all it ever is -- a mask. Suppose I say: “Why does the law ban me from killing foxes for sport, but permit me to keep chickens in horribly inhumane conditions?” Aren't I just invoking concepts like "humane" and "even-handedness" — which are in the long run just as made-up an imaginary as the Cosmic Essence of Busses — to assert the hereditary right of rich people (like me) to own the countryside and do whatever they like it in? 

Or if I say "Is there any statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the number of murders in society?", aren't I just invoking mystical concepts like "statistics" and "evidence" to occlude my belief that I'm a rich white guy, want rich white guys to stay in charge, and think that culling a few hundred poor black guys every year to show the who's boss is a small price to pay for maintaining the status quo? My use of terms like "murder" and "capital punishment" show pretty clearly which side I'm on. When a weak person kills a strong person, we call it "murder"; when a strong person kills a weak person, we call it "capital punishment". (C.f The school teacher hitting a little boys backside with a big stick, while chanting "")

It isn't that my arguments are "bad". It's the whole idea of "argument" that's the problem. "Arguments", "logic", "evidence", "proof", "neutrality" are things you learned in school, and schools were set up by rich white guys to teach ideas thought up by rich white guys in order to keep rich white guys in charge. 

How did the light skinned people get to sit at the front of the bus in the first place? Not by winning an argument, that's for sure.

Everything's really all about power. (Unless everything's really all about sex, but that's an argument for another day.) You might think that you are talking about theology or music or sanitation but if you look under the bonnet, it's always really about who gets to sit at the front of the bus. The question is never "who is right?: it's always "which side are you on?"

All of which leaves me rather stuck.

So far as I can see, everything I've said above is true. But when I'm asked a question, my inclination is always to work out the answer from first principles. At any rate, to use some kind of argumentation and try to work out what the other fella is trying to say, and if he's wrong why he's wrong and if he might have a good point. Which keeps putting me on the wrong side of the question.

I have just deleted three separate paragraphs giving examples of questions I may be on the wrong side of. I know how toxic discussions about questions that people are on the wrong side of can become, and how quickly. 

I have also deleted a paragraph about why I think they become toxic. It has been explained to me that when I try to do that kind of thing, I come out, to use the technical jargon, "sounding like a cunt". (I suppose this is why it is called "vulgar Marxism".)

Despite early assurances, the internet does not contain a 3D virtual reality in which I can be taught Kung Fu by Lawrence Fishburne and drown Tom Baker. All the internet actually contains is words. Lots and lots of words. Oceans of words. Millions of writers telling us what they think. Good writers, bad writers, indifferent writers; informed writers; ignorant writers; boringly right, engagingly wrong. Writers telling you what they think about what other people wrote about stuff they read on the internet. Derrida was right. There isn't any stuff. There's only people talking about stuff. I've never experienced a murder, or an election, or a football match, or (god forbid) an instalment of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. I just kind of intersect with the ripples these things put out in cyberspace. Which isn't really a space, and isn't really very cyber. It's more like a lot of very bored people making wisecracks in their coffee break. 

But all this argument is taking place in a space in which we have already agreed that argument is not even possible. "Right" and "Wrong" aren't qualities that any argument has: they are just descriptions of which side you are on in a big fight that has been going on throughout history, and will carry on until, any day now, history comes to an end.

And you knew that already. 

So why are you even reading this?

I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: think it possible that you might be mistaken.
Oliver Cromwell

The infidel might have a good point, you know. 
Les Barker

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Mike Taylor said...

I believe this is the first time I have ever been flatly unable to discern what point you're making.


Louise H said...

And that, my friend, is what happens when you spend way too much time checking your privilege.

Mike Taylor said...

Oh dear, now I don't understand the comments either.

Emily said...

OK, I'll bite. What is 'the infidel's good idea' in this case? I'd like to get past the over-extended metaphors, hypothetical arguments and 'view from nowhere'-style exhortations to 'play nicely and actually hear a GOOD reason to restrict marriage to only mixed-gender couples.

I am quite prepared to acknowledge that I might be wrong but I have genuinely looked and all I can find so far is "My religion says so and therefore the rest of the country should do as I want."

SK said...

And this is where the internet leads us. I said it was a bad idea, but did anyone listen to me?

I was listening to We Will All Go Together When We Go the other day, and feeling nostalgic.

Emily said...

OK, I have re-read your post a few times more and I have to admit, I have no idea what you are trying to say. I wish you had posted those deleted paragraphs, so that we had something to discuss because this whole post feels like it's full of pretend-arguments that you make and then disavow or extend to absurdity to prove anyone else is stupid for believing such things.

I admit - I responded to this post because I was needled by being told (again and not just by you) that both sides are as bad as each other and if we would just stop being so shrill etc etc.

This is not just an abstract debate for me about how to respond to injustice. This is about my life. I was a Christian, I was part of a supportive church that helped me grow and develop spiritually and intellectually. I had to leave because I could not accept that a loving God would treat LGBT people the way the church advocated. It broke my heart. Can you blame me for being unsympathetic when other Christians stamp their feet about how unfair it is to call them homophobic for believing LGBT people are sinners? When they claim it is loving to tell us our relationships disgust them? When we are told we should not be so uppity as to expect our lives and relationships to be treated as equally valuable? Do you think I am happy that to watch people I know to be generous and sincere in their faith prove to me that I was only acceptable to them when I appeared to be straight?

I can't do abstract intellectualising on this subject. I know I am falling back into other wellworn tropes – preaching from a soap box on one hand and showing my scars to appeal for sympathy on the other.

So, I will try tone down the rhetoric again and ask again – are there serious justifications for excluding same sex couples from marriage, other than “Because that’s the way it’s always been” or “God has told me so” or “Because gays are icky”?

Dan G said...

Aww snap!

Anonymous said...

Your train of thought derailed somewhere the point where you said capital punishment and murder showed what side you were on when the way question was phrased indicated the other way.

There never was a train.172

Anonymous said...

Look you hate gay people or are ununare how to avoid giving that impression. We know that. You don't have To have a idiot logherrea explaining it.

Anonymous said...

I think you've managed to confirm Andrew's very point. Well done!

culfy said...

I mean, Andrew has written a series of over 20 Blog posts explaining why he thinks that Mad Mel of the Daily Mail is a raving homophobic loon but still. a very tentative suggestion that some people might have sincerely held views about gay marriage which might be worth examining rather than dismissing and he suddenly hates gay people.

Am I the only one who understood this post? That the internet has now become a place where what matters no longer is reasoned argument, debate from first premises, use of similies to examine assumptions and other rhetorical devices, and instead it is just about how loudly you shout about being on the right side?

I once had an argument with someone on-line about the Da Vince Code with this person asserting that it was a matter of fact that the Church had suppressed gospels which showed Jesus as human. I asked her, out of interest, and she replied with a list of various crimes (both real and imaginary) ascribed to the Church. I then made the point that she was essentially dodging the issue - the fact someone has committed one evil act does not mean that they have committed another and without proof, such claims are meaningless....except I made the mistake of saying that the Church 'may have done something they really ought not to'....a queue to go off on a rant and accuse me fighting to suppress all kinds of evil the Catholic church has committed and even minimising or ridiculing victims of paedophilia.

Bejay said...


Bejay said...

TO CLARIFY: I get what you're saying (I think) about the seeming futility of internet debate, but you really need to be careful with the parallels you're drawing here.

With regard to the link I posted, it seems like some of those on the 'powerless' side of your bus analogy are discussing their real-world experiences of what this powerlessness actually means, and not merely making wisecracks on their coffee breaks, isn't it? This shit happens.

(I'm not clear how the Lennon quote relates to your actual post, TBH)

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bejay said...

"So, when people claim that Woman is The Nigger of The World? I want them to remember that not every woman is going to be called a nigger. Trust me, if I could give that word up I would, I certainly don’t want it. But I can’t, and I refuse to pretend that what happened to me could happen to a white woman."

Andrew Rilstone said...

Woman is the nigger of the world
Think about it, do something about it
Woman is the slave of the slaves
Better scream about it.

We make her paint her face and dance

If she won't be a slave ,we say that she don't love us
If she's real, we say she's trying to be a man
While putting her down we pretend that she is above us

We make her bear and raise our children
And then we leave her flat for being a fat old mother hen
We tell her home is the only place she should be
Then we complain that she's too unworldly to be our friend

We insult her everyday on TV
And wonder why she has no guts or confidence
When she's young we kill her will to be free
While telling her not to be so smart we put her down for being so dumb

Woman is the nigger of the world
If you don't believe me take a look to the one you're with
We make her paint her face and dance