Thursday, May 5, 2011

Who Has Moral Capital? A discussion about the good and evil people among us.

image is from here
About the image above:

Good = right, light, white, blond, angelic, and unearthly--of the sky. Evil = left, dark, black, demonic, and animalistic--horned and spiked as well as winged. For those who don't know, "human having horns" is coded visual anti-Semitism. For more on that see *here*.

"Woman" here is both good and evil. "Man" is what?

This image of a woman is designed to appeal to het men raised on anti-human images of women, generally portrayed as variations on a very narrow socially-constructed fantasy, to be large-busted and small-waisted, ensuring that many heterosexually active girls and women will--in reality, not in fantasy--feel inadequate or insecure about men being attracted to them or staying with them if they don't look like the woman above, minus the wings--angelic and demonic.
As for studies measuring evil in U.S. institutions, well, of course "evil" is a bit hard to measure or even define, and while U.S. institutions are quite probably the source of more evil stuff than any other country right now, that's only because they're the ones (currently) on top. But understanding evil, yes, that's the name of the game here. These kinds of studies are fascinating for me because, if they can be found to reveal something universal about human nature, then we can relax a little! Think of how freeing it would be to identify the moral defects that are built into every human being's architecture, and exactly what activates them. Then, instead of wasting energy castigating every person who misuses power for things that everyone in their same position would also likely do, we can get to work focusing on ways to build our own lives so that we can attempt to improve the world around us in ways that avoid the same traps.
If you click on the link embedded in the paragraph above and read the article, please note the color of the men with the word "ASS" written on their foreheads. And note what race they are not. White men, there, are presented as evil enough, but none are humiliated by having the word "ASS" written in their foreheads.

The passage above is part of a larger conversation that takes place underneath a recent blog post here, in which Quin links us to the results of a very interesting study, wherein people, in various contexts, are told they have or don't have various forms of power, and then are measured for how empathic or callous they become--based solely on the power they believe themselves to possess at that moment. I'd say that the study shows us something about human nature--that it is not fixed, that it is context-dependent, and that it is quite possible all of us can be manipulated by social forces to act more humanely or inhumanely towards other people. As a Jew with knowledge of my people's history, I'm quite familiar with racist societies capabilities to manipulate and destroy people, with public acquiescence and passive social approval. I know it because I live in a country, the United States, that denies it is committing genocide against American Indians.

I've raised a few challenges to the study, to its assumptions about "human beings" given that it's never just "human beings" who are studied: it's people who volunteer to be studied who are studied, and that's a particular group of people, often enough: for example, if the study is done at a university, the subjects studied might be traditional college-aged people, are often male more than female, are often white more than of color, are often middle class rather than not middle class.

The media repeatedly, unrelentingly tells us that white = human, male = human, and upper middle class or wealthier = human--also that thinner = human, Christian = human, heterosexual = human, able-bodied = human, and not-a-child and not-elderly = human.

This is to say, if you're not someone who is part of those demographic characteristics above, you're likely experiencing class-based systematic degradation, subordination, and violence, institutionally and interpersonally. If you're all of these: white, upper middle class or wealthier, male, thinner, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, and are not a child or elderly, you are not likely experiencing much in the way of class-based dehumanisation and oppression. Your humanity likely matters and is relatively visible to and represented by corporate media, to dominant society generally, and to the U.S. government and corporations.

I've witnessed how people who possess few of the characteristics above are not represented in media and are not valued socially. It's painful to witness. I know what it is to be rendered invisible because of not being Christian or heterosexual, to be told--in too many ways to name here--that my existence and experience is wrong, bad, or dangerous, simply due to not being a white upper middle class heterosexual Christian male.

I know what it is to feel and be invisible as a disabled person with disabilities that aren't readily visible to others. But as a white male with economic privilege I am, for the most part, visible to a large degree to a lot of people. I exist. I matter. Regardless of my own sense of myself, I matter to this country in a way that poor lesbians of color--of any faith, with any level of ability or disability--do not.

That simple while systemic reality--that possessing some characteristics means we will be seen, valued, and represented, is one that many people deny. Many people prefer to think what happens to us happens based on personal history only, or on individual qualities that are unique to us. The study linked to above puts into question this theory widely circulated in corporate media: that some people were and are born less humane and more dangerous than others. That some people are--for the whole of their lives--more brutal or savage or murderous than others. That some men are the kind of men that rape, and other men are not. That some people can be terrorists--from childhood--and others of us cannot be, no matter our age.

It is a feminist belief, in my experience, that men are not born to be rapists, and cannot be. And it is a feminist belief, in my experience, that whiteness is social and political, cultural and learned, not at all biological or natural. And that whiteness cannot be biological or natural, even while levels of pigment in human flesh is often related to matters of heredity and genetics. Pigment doesn't equal race; and having a penis-shaped genital that is medically and socially named as such doesn't make someone into a rapist. Social and political forces have to forcefully work to make people white and into men. And those forces do work, and are both systemic and systematic.

When people argue that some men are born rapists, I ask them if they believe some whites are born racists. The issue then, is: How "determining' is society? What role does it have in developing us individually and as members of various groups or classes of people, with or without entitlements and privileges, and with or without access to and use of certain forms of power exercised interpersonally and institutionally?

Let's return to the opening paragraph. I offer the following responses to the many issues and questions Quin raises.

As for studies measuring evil in U.S. institutions, well, of course "evil" is a bit hard to measure or even define, and while U.S. institutions are quite probably the source of more evil stuff than any other country right now, that's only because they're the ones (currently) on top. But understanding evil, yes, that's the name of the game here.

I think evil is measurable, depending on what you individually or collectively determine to be "evil". For example, lots of Tea Partiers and social conservatives determine "evil" to be something gay men do when they are sexual, or that white heterosexual women are because they are socially and economically subordinate to white het men; to the extent that white men socially recognise and acknowledge women of color, such women are not recognised and acknowledged as being just as human as white men are presumed to be. And various groups of Asian people, living in various regions of Asia or not, are viewed to be "potentially evil" in a way that white North Americans, living in North America, are not. This leads to images designed to sell magazines, like these:

image of magazine cover is from here
image of magazine cover is from here
We can note who Newsweek assumed "we: the audience, the public, the people" are: whites. Because that very pale baby who is "ours" above is not likely to be the child of anyone with dark skin. And the lower image is perplexing in that it makes a link between being a child of someone who is Central Asian and part of a particular political organisation, with being a Black male wearing Western clothing. In so many ways, U.S. media reinforces that light = good (if possibly racist in attitude), while being Black equals being a potential terrorist who will do harm to whites in practice, not in thought. Evil is well-understood, well-defined, and clearly represented in media. You can't miss it. Evil is never stereotyped as looking like a white het man.

The subtitle uses this language: "the mutating extremist threat" as if being a Black terrorist, or just Black and male, is something that is a mutation, a dangerous genetic and social threat. I'd argue that such images give whites the impression that we are "better", morally, than Black people--and that U.S. whites are better, morally, than Central Asians too. And with this attitude, "we" can commit all manner of crimes against Black people--within and beyond North America, and against Central Asian people, and still carry the status of being good and holy, not the stigma of being bad and evil. With this form of social-political moral capital, we can commit mass murder on a scale never seen from Central Asian males or African American males towards U.S. white American males ever.
 
These kinds of studies are fascinating for me because, if they can be found to reveal something universal about human nature, then we can relax a little!

I'd like to question who the "we" is in that statement who can relax? I'd argue that within the West, those who are white het male supremacists are more likely to be able to relax with this news because only those with race, sexual, and gender privileges and entitlements have moral capital. Those without moral capital might agree with the findings of the study, but lived experience will remind the oppressed who is assumed to be dangerous and who really is: whites are dangerous to people of color. Men are dangerous to women. Heterosexuals are dangerous to queer people. How relaxed is an African American lesbian woman going to be among those who oppress her in various ways? How relaxed ought she be?

Whites, men, and heterosexuals actively engage in and passively support terrorising (through interpersonal bullying or institutional discrimination). And they also dehumanise women, people of color, queer folks, and other oppressed groups--regionally, for example, in producing images like those above, and by controlling media that spits out these images faster than the human eye can register. And those groups only will get away with it due to having moral capital.

Think of how freeing it would be to identify the moral defects that are built into every human being's architecture, and exactly what activates them. 

For whom is it freeing to realise this, in reality? Feminists, for example, have argued for forty years that men's behavior is socially constructed, such as through institutional versions of what the study identifies as socially coercive forces. Does knowing that anyone can be a rapist free women to be less afraid when only women--along with children (girls twice as often as boys) are targeted for rape in the general unincarcerated population? I accept that anyone can be coerced to do anything, more or less. But this awareness doesn't stop me from seeing who, in fact, is harming whom, and with what social means and protections--legal and otherwise--they do so.

Then, instead of wasting energy castigating every person who misuses power for things that everyone in their same position would also likely do, we can get to work focusing on ways to build our own lives so that we can attempt to improve the world around us in ways that avoid the same traps. 

For me, this solution doesn't adequately call us to action against institutions which are, when they function as designed, profoundly violent--dehumanising and subordinating--against oppressed people far more routinely and with much more precision than against oppressors. And such institutions, and the people who run and support them, award moral capital only to some demographic groups. And we know who those groups are. I call them out, systematically, here on this blog.


I call us to action against the institutions and privileged, protected people who commit acts of violence against us: the us who are women, who are people of color, who are working poor people, who are lesbian and gay and Two Spirit, who are disabled, who are elderly, and who are deprived the moral and economic capital--the spiritual and material well-being reserved for the few: usually white, usually heterosexual, often men, who rule the rest of us with impunity, and often enough, with our belief in them as morally superior people. 

Michael Moore is tonight telling us that U.S. Americans "are better than them" (al Qaeda) morally, and that to celebrate the murder of Osama bin Laden without a fair trial is to give up on being an [U.S.] American. Tell the mourning citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, who have lost loved ones due to terrorism committed by U.S. and NATO troops, that U.S. Americans are "better" than al Qaeda. Personally, I don't see the evidence of that at all. If we go by body count alone, the U.S. is the most evil empire on Earth.

Piers Morgan asked him if he were leader, what would his priorities be. He quickly responded that he'd end both wars and cut the military "war" budget (something I agree with him about) and use that money to stimulate jobs, to get the U.S. economy going again. The Empire's economy he wants to stimulate is deliberately, not accidentally, designed to be horrendously atrocious to girls and women, Indigenous people, people of color, the Third World, and the Earth. When do Michael Moore's beliefs and actions move from good to evil?

U.S. CRAPitalist Empire's supporters and rulers--who don't and won't call it what I just did--believe it to be so moral and so great that it is incapable of evil, and nothing will guarantee someone or some nation behaves immorally and evilly than believing itself incapable of committing atrocity.

Which is why white het male supremacist Amerikkka is so racist in thought and genocidal in practice, so heterosexist in thought and so anti-lesbian and anti-gay in practice, so misogynist in thought and gynocidal in practice, and so in denial that the U.S. empire and its dominant culture is everything other than "good".

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