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August 16, 2005

Defining "-isms"

Yesterday, I was one of the people who argued that PETA's latest ad campaign was offensive and exploitative, but not racist. Now, Steve Gilliard is arguing that he ought to have the final word on whether something is racist.

First, let me say that I find it incredibly condescending to be told that images are used in a way I know are racist are not. I don't need anyone to define racism for me. I especially don't need to be told that I have a problem in defining it...

My reaction to that is quite simple and direct: go fuck yourself. Now, that may not be nice, but when you post something like that, it's like me saying to Jen, "oh, just get over your period, it happens every month." I don't think she would hesistate to tell me to go fuck myself. Unless you have been black and had these experiences, like I have never had a period, some respect should be accorded my views. You, unless you're non-white and have experienced American racism up close, telling me something isn't racist is like me saying selling the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Harlem isn't anti-semitic. I think there are reasons behind it, but I would never expect a Jew to accept my explaination as defining.

It's not that you can't understand it, but unless you feel it, unless you've been chased by people, it's an idea, a concept, not a reality

It is hurtful and deeply offensive to have to explain to people, after I say I think something is racist, why I think so, over and over. It shows an utter, complete and oddly predictable lack of respect for my experiences. I realize some of that is ignorance, some obstinancy. But I can assure you most black people feel the same way about these images.

It is not condescending to voice honest disagreement. I'm a woman, but I don't demand the final say on what's sexist and what isn't. I'm a Jew, but if I say that something is anti-semetic, my position isn't unassailable.

Arguing that something isn't racist isn't necessarily telling anyone to "get over" their feelings. If racism-detection is a subjective experience like menstrual cramps, then obviously anyone who says that person X should "get over" their feelings is being a jerk should go fuck themselves.

Defining racism in terms of group member's feelings trivializes racism. Likewise for sexism. What if women disagree about whether something is sexist? Does that mean that it's sexist-for-feminists but not sexist-for-other women? The feelings interpretation of the "-isms" seems to imply that it's okay to discriminate against people who don't feel that they are being discriminated against. After all, who are we to question their feelings?

A big problem with discussions about racism and sexism is that people don't define their terms. As several people remarked in my comments section yesterday, there are different conceptions of racism in play. Failure to agree on definitions gives rise to a lot of needless confusion and animosity. According to the feelings model, only one side is allowed to define its terms. People who have alternative definitions of racism aren't allowed to disuss them because that would itself be racist.

The way we talk about racism and sexism suggests that we don't really think that these determinations are relative to individual emotional response. If racism and sexism were just a matter of individual feelings, we wouldn't be able to have substantive arguments about what they are, or how we ought to define these terms in specific contexts. When people were arguing about whether the Kos pie fight ad was sexist, they weren't just talking about their feelings (although there was a lot of that too). People were making arguments.

In this case, I'm responding to a post of Steve's in which he makes a sustained argument that the PETA ad is racist because of the history of racist representations of black people animals. Here he's not just talking about how he feels, he's making a case to persuade people who don't have the same visceral reaction as he does. Once we enter the realm of argument and evidence, the discussion should be open to everyone. You don't need subjective experience to ask whether someone else's account of racism or sexism makes sense on its own terms, or whether its factual presuppositions are accurate, or whether it's the most useful strategy for defining the construct.

Most people agree that there are unintentional forms of racism and sexism as well as intentional ones. There may be good reasons to expand the definition of racism or sexism to include slights to groups that are enabled by an underlying contempt for that group, even if the overt act wasn't intended to demean or degrade the group. Some people argue that the definitions of "racism" and "sexism" should be broadened even further to include any factors that systematically disadvantage members of a particular group, even if these factors have nothing to do with anyone's attitudes about any groups.

It's one thing to argue for a more expansive definition of "racism" or "sexism"--but even when you do, you still confront disagreements on matters of fact. Is it true that an ad campaign is motivated or enabled by underlying contempt for a particular group? Is it the case that a certain representation or type of representation is harmful to the group in question?

The debate over the most useful definitions of racism and sexism should be open to everyone, as should questions about whether something meets whatever definition we're using.


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» Who Decides What Is Racist, Sexist, etc.? from MoonOverPittsburgh
Lindsay's response, her refutation of Gilliard's conclusory, vulgar, and vaguely derogatory riposte to his critics (which, to be fair, precedes a rather long-winded possibly well-sourced counterargument, such counterarguments being the stuff of product... [Read More]


Very, very well put.

Isms in my opinion are not good. People should not believe in 'isms, they should believe in themselves. Like John Lennon said, "I don't believe in Beatles -- I just believe in me."

Good point there, John. Of course, he was the walrus.

Well said.

I think Steve is wrong to give the ultimatum: the only way to show respect for my opinion is by agreeing with it. On the other hand, such ultimatums are common in persuasive discourse, and that's exactly what I dislike about the PETA ads. They are basically saying that either you agree with PETA, or you are on the side of slaveholders. Either you agree with PETA, or you are on the side of the Nazis. It's just like similar ultimatums on the right: Either you support George W. Bush, or you are on the side of the terrorists. Either you condemn abortion, or you are on the side of Nazis.

On the various isms, it seems to me that it is important to distinguish several different aspects of an action:

1. The hatred, contempt, low-regard of the actor towards some group.

2. The ignorance or indifference of the actor towards that group.

3. The emotional impact of the action on members of that group.

4. The objective harm of the action on members of that group.

Many clueless white men tend to only consider the first aspect in judging whether something is racist (or sexist, or anti-Semitic, or whatever). If there is no evidence of ill-intention on the part of the actor, then it probably wasn't racist (sexist, etc.).

I tend to take a utilitarian approach. I don't care whether something was done with good intentions or not; if it causes harm, then it should be avoided. Emotional harm counts as harm. I don't think that it is necessary or helpful to argue about whether something was racist or not---the argument should be about the consequences of the action. Should the action be corrected, should the ad be withdrawn, etc? In the case of the PETA, I think that there is substantial agreement that the ad should be withdrawn. Why fight over the exact judgement of how bad the ad is?

Lindsay, I thought you said earlier that you were half Jewish (and that being a half Jew was like being a half elf only without the powers.)

I mention it because it clearly means that you only have half of a final say about what constitutes anti-semitism.


While I tend to agree about the abstract question under discussion here, I think Gillard makes a pretty compelling case that the ads are racist.

I happen to agree with Gillard's argument that the PETA campaign is racist. I am offended by his assertion that I have no right to disagree.

I don't think that PETA's willingness to use images of lynching victims was the product of a specific underlying contempt for black people or an insensitivity to black people's feelings qua black people. It's not enough to say that PETA did something that they ought to have known would be especially offensive to black people.

PETA is insensitive to everyone's feelings, as evidenced by their willingness to run ads featuring male caucasian-looking Holocaust victims, a crucifixion scene with a pig standing in for Jesus, etc., etc.

PETA's willingness to use these iconic images of oppression stems from their underlying attitudes towards people and animals, not from society's attitudes about the various groups PETA depicts. PETA rejects moral distinctions between different species. A forteriori, they reject that different races have different moral status.

Obviously, the lynching ads are crass and insensitive. I mean, come on, it's PETA. What do they ever do that isn't crass, insensitive, and inappropriate?

I think there's an important conceptual difference between being insensitive and being racist. Accusations of insensitivity or cruelty are not necessarily any less serious than accusations of racism.

Steve is absolutely right when he says that PETA ought to have known and cared about the special emotional significance of comparing black people and animals. For that, they are cruel, but not racist.

Steve is absolutely right when he says that PETA ought to have known and cared about the special emotional significance of comparing black people and animals. For that, they are cruel, but not racist.

I think it's reasonable to call PETA racist for not knowing or not caring about the special emotional significance of comparing black people to animals.

I should add that I don't think it's reasonable for Steve to try to shut down discussion the way he did.

Well, Lindsay, I disagree with you on what I glibly referred to as "hair-splitting" on insensitivity versus racism, which means I was momentarily in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Gilliard. His post alleviated that discomfort.

It's gotten to the point where it's considered far worse to accuse people of racism than it is to actually do something that is racist. I'm an anti-racist, and I still hold racist images in my head. The other night I was walking the dog in a deserted parking lot near my house and an African-American kid ran past me, and until I recognized him as someone I know from the neighborhood I was somewhat more nervous about his swift approach than I would have been if he was recognizably, say, Asian. I could weasel out of my discomfort with my own feelings by referring to socioeconomic reality or pat myself on the back that I'm a good person and pro-Affirmative Action and sat in the University of Buffalo administration building to support the Attica riot defendants back in 1974, or I could say that thoughts don't matter as much as actions, but why weasel? That fear was racist. I have racist thoughts, blessedly rare but far more frequent than I would like. If I bend over backwards to avoid the word, how the heck am I going to root that crap out?

But as regards Gilliard's "agree with me or fuck off" stance on what constitutes racism, he's being silly, as he often is when he feels his back is against a wall.

First off, by his logic he's open to any Muslim saying that the stuff on his site is racist, and he couldn't argue with it. I doubt he'd want to be in that position.

Secondly, if I as an ignorant white guy must take Steve's word as to what constitutes racism, must I also take Thomas Sowell's word? How about Louis Farrakhan?

I am, to a first approximation, an ignorant white guy. I'm inclined to listen to Steve on issues of race, and to weight his viewpoint more heavily than my own. If he'd said "consider that you white folks might not know what the fuck you're talking about," that would have been equally obscene and yet perfectly legitimate.

Chris Clarke writes: It's gotten to the point where it's considered far worse to accuse people of racism than it is to actually do something that is racist.

That's only because it is (usually) easier to demonstrate. If the racism were equally obvious, it would be condemned much more strongly. To give an example: Suppose I opened a restaurant today and put up a sign saying "No black people welcome" (or "No Jews", or "No Muslims"). Do you really think that that would go unchallenged?

a more expansive definition of "racism"

I don't think we are expanding the definition of racism at all. PETA used images deliberately to provoke a reaction - they clearly want to associate animal rights with oppressed groups (I haven't seen the american indian or vietnamese ad yet, but I'm sure they are coming).

They've done this without any consideration of the history in US of comparing blacks to animals - not a hidden or minor history - of if they did, they didn't care. This is because their campaign is more important to them than what prior memories they invoke. The fact that their campaign has blown up in their face shows that they don't think or care about this stuff.

That can be unintentional racism, I think it's more like "I don't give a shit" racism. But it's not expanding the definition.

Whole thing misses the larger point that PETA got what they wanted out of the ad: tons of free publicity.

That's what they shoot for everytime. Feelings, logical arguments, carefully thought-out frames of references -- not of it matters.

It's all about the bullhorn.

Is it fair of Steve to claim the exclusive right for Blacks to define racism? Isn't that racist?

But seriously, we may as well just take the time to define our terms, otherwise communication is impossible. There are serious issues to be addressed here, but the use of the term 'racist' as a blunt weapon just clouds the waters.

Whole thing misses the larger point that PETA got what they wanted out of the ad: tons of free publicity.

That's a question that's been bugging me: at what point does free publicity turn into bad publicity? I know the old saying about any publicity being good publicity, but is PETA really, really sure that it will never turn around on them?

Because, at this point, the main thing these ads make me want to do is to show up at the next PETA rally eating a bacon double cheeseburger. Or maybe ripping into a chicken leg that I pull out of a KFC bucket.

I can only see one way that it will never turn around on them: if their donor base really is racist (whether overtly or covertly) and sees no problem in running these kinds of ads.

What galls me most about the "your opinion is invalid because you're a WASP male" is its fundamental uselessness. Brushing aside people's opinions does not lessen the amount of racism/sexism/whateverism in the minds of the people who make decisions about ads or public policy. It's a pain to make people understand what it's like to live on the recieving end of an 'ism', but it's the only way to advance discourse.

Steve might be in a particularly advantageous position to tell the rest of us about the form of racisim directed at people of african descent in america. But that doesn't make him specially qualified to tell us about racism per se. In the right (or wrong) circumstances, anybody can be the victim of racism, and anybody can know "from the inside" what it's about.

Is it just in the way most of us view animals? "Animals are beneath humans, we are superior to animals".
PETA is for "people for the ethical treatment of animals".

They are trying to bring animals up to the level of humans. They are not trying to bring people down to the level of animals. It's a matter of perspective. PETA holds the minority perspective.
"When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change" Dr. W. Dyer

It seems ok to compare human tragedy to human tragedy, genocide to genocide; but when a group compares animal tragedy to human tragedy, it is wrong or racist. PETA views animals as on equal footing with our species. They do not want animals to go on being harmed and killed. I assume they care as much about people, present and past, as they do about the animals they fight for.

The adds bring up images which provoke strong emotional response to anybody with a sense of justice for victims of the past. But it seems to do nothing for the animal victims; they are not being discussed.

I watched the online PETA video. It stirs up strong emotions. Personally I don't hold humans on the same ground as animals. But, I also would never hurt, torture, or kill an animal directly. I do however eat meat. And I also have benefitted from animal testing.

Off topic, but, how do morally conservative individuals or groups feel about sexually provacative images? It surely has emotional impact upon them. They would rather not see such images. Does this have an -ism?

I can't argue with those who view these adds as having racists under- or overtones, for them the adds are obviously racist; but try looking at it, these adds, through the eyes of a PETA member. They care deeply about these animals, and they want to stop the inhumane treatment of them, just as groups past have stopped the inhumane treatment of fellow humans.
Civilization Advances.

PETA is for "people for the ethical treatment of animals".

Judging by PETA's actions, "ethical treatment" means taking adoptable animals from shelters, euthanizing them, and dumping their bodies in dumpsters instead of letting them go to loving homes:

Why? Because PETA's stated position is that keeping animals as pets is unethical and cruel, so it's better to euthanize (kill) them than to allow them to be kept as pets by humans.

PETA is far, far nuttier than their defenders realize.

Well I am black and I am inclined to agree with his position on the PETA ad to some extent but his reaction to your post seems wholly absurd. In particular, his analogies are not even close to being equivalent and he seems to be arguing that he has the right to shut down discussion on this issue with anyone non-white. I actually find his argument here more offensive than anything else involved in this entire debate.

It seems pretty clear to me that the key factor in determining whether a statement is "racist" is intent. For example, the word "niggardly" is often perceived as racist; and yet if it was used by somebody who knew the actual meaning of the word, and the fact that it is not a racial slur, then I think people would agree that it wasn't racist. Conversely, the word "apple" is not racist (I don't think). Yet if a group of people among themselves used it as a private code for "black person" (as in, "I didn't want my boy going to no public school, they're full of apples.") then people would agree that was racist. Words and images have only that meaning that we impart to them.

I'm not saying Steve was wrong in his first post, but this second post just reminds me why I gave up reading his blog.

This IS a lot like the Pie Fight. I'm hearing very little argument with the idea that PETA should ethically and morally back off comparing burning chickens to burning men. I can respect Steve's exhaustion about defending his right to his emotions. I can also understand that when fighting a world of racism or sexism, that emotions will sometimes override the ability to argue a position. It is harsh to spend your life arguing a stereotype and then have it thrown back at you.

It is my race and class privilege that I was, in fact, largely unaware that the 'African-American person as an animal' abuse was still an ongoing racist comparison present in people's minds. In this way, Steve DOES have more right to say what's racist than I do, because I wasn't aware of the pervasiveness of that fight.

Does accidental blundering into stereotype constitute racism? I don't know. It's offensive, it's personally hurtful, and if it's a reinforcement of something that's still being used as a repression, then it's abuse. What is our definition of any -ism?

Someone posted in Steve's comments - would it be sexist to say that a corporation raped the land the way men rape women? Maybe show clearcuts alongside female rape victims? What if the people making that comparison believed in Gaia & Earth Consciousness? Well, I'd be bugged. I'd feel ... used. And yes; I'd want my voice and experience to be privileged in the debate simply because I'm female.

On the other hand, environmentally minded feminists have made exactly this argument. Daly said a sister would never rape a sister on the ecology issue, equating environmentalism to physical rape. So she & I have different perspectives on what is sexist or diminishing. Here's where the argument and discussion need to happen: neither of us, by virtue of our vaginas, are right. And I don't think that anyone with a penis should be told not to have an opinion.

It can't just be an intellectual argument: nor can it be simply emotive. People of all backgrounds need to have a seat at the table: but people of the "targetted" background have deeper understanding of what's daily at stake.

The only way for PETA to REALLY apologize is to find pics of white folks being killed or tortured and use those instead. I wouldn't find this racially offensive because I've never had repeated contact with white-person-as-animal stereotyping. PETA might have to look harder for those images. That is because of racism. No doubt.

I am in a weird position--I have to agree with Steve. The ads were racist and even if they were unconsciously so, they were racist in a way that demonstrated that PETA sneers at the history of oppression of black people in this country because they, in their uptight white privilege, cannot conceive that anything could matter more than their petty fucking concerns.

Steve may have said it kind of brusquely, but he was referencing the well-known theory that one privilege of the privileged is to be blind to how privileged they are. Thus, people with privilege really aren't in a position to decide what does and doesn't qualify as oppression when they are the beneficiaries of said oppression. I deal with this all the time with men who feel that they, as men, have the right to tell me what is or isn't sexist, even though it's clearly obvious that most who take this stance are trying to get away with sexist behavior and just don't like having it labeled "sexist".

I agree that there's an interesting discussion to be had. But when it comes to race, white people who truly want to be anti-racist are obligated to understand that our privilege blinds us and there's a whole lot that black people see that we do not. This is not necessarily our fault, but a fact of history. But it becomes our fault if we won't take steps to correct it.

I agree that PETA didn't mean to be racist anymore than, say, the guys lining up behind Kos when he told the women on his blog to get in line on the stupid pie fight thing meant to be sexist. But PETA's ad was racist and those guys were sexist.

PETA's a nightmare. They need to be shut down. They get their hands on the money of well-meaning people who would do much better to donate that money to anti-cruelty organizations that actually do something, like the Humane Society.

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