Friday, February 21, 2014

The Metaphor Police

This is the almost-final-draft of a section from a book about social justice warriors, identitarianism, and mobbing. For more information and links to other chapters, see How to Make a Social Justice Warrior.

The Metaphor Police
• “Brown bag lunch” is racist
• “Slavery” and “Holocaust” are racist
• Fried chicken is racist
• “Death March” is racist
• Kilowog in Green Lantern is racist

The Metaphor Police

“The theory behind the PC view of the world is that if you change the language, you change what the language describes, because perception alters reality: non-sexist expressions, for example, help to foster non-sexist thoughts. But what if the prescribed opinion is a false consensus? What if language is a disguise, a means of conformity that serves to conceal the underlying and more disturbing truth?” — Andrew Anthony, “Göran Lindberg and Sweden’s dark side”

• “Brown bag lunch” is racist

In 2007, the Starr King School for the Ministry had a program for Unitarian Universalists called “Educating to Counter Oppressions.” A faculty member announced, “Because of the racist connotations of the phrase brown bag lunch, we will now be using the term BYOL, ‘bring your own lunch’.”

Brown bags have a place in the history of US racism. Wikipedia explains, “The “brown paper bag test” was a ritual once practiced by certain African-American and Creole fraternities and sororities who discriminated against people who were “too dark.” That is, these groups would not let anyone into the sorority or fraternity whose skin tone was darker than that of a paper lunch bag, in order to maintain a perception of standards. Spike Lee’s film School Daze satirized this practice at historically black colleges and universities.”

But if “brown bag lunch” has a connotation today, it’s about class: brown paper bags are the cheapest lunch bags. Saying “brown bag lunch” is racist is like saying cotton T-shirts celebrate slavery.

The Left Coast Unitarian defended the announcement: “For me the actual matter of dispute is fairly simple. If a person of color, especially an elder, suggests that a particular term is not the most inviting way to title or describe a gathering, I will take them at their word absent a good deal of evidence.”

Tom Schade replied, “In order to raise these questions, which could conceivably require more research and reflection, one has to be able to hold as a possible answer: this fact about brown bags is interesting, but essentially unimportant. But in an intellectual environment where the value of information is determined by who provides it, such criticism is not welcome. The only question really allowed, is “Please, I don’t understand and it troubles me, explain some more, so I can be reunited with you.””

ChaliceChick commented, “I think that if I were a guest speaker at a school in, say, the Netherlands, and I wanted them to rename their local dike because I was offended by the term, they’d have every right to say that they wouldn’t, that they were sorry I had been hurt by homophobia, but that “dike” isn’t a hurtful term in that context, and never had been.”

The Socinian wrote, “…perhaps most significant, is the supposition that “anti-oppression” is a valid religious principle to which all sincere UUs should commit both private devotional practice and public prophetic advocacy. I deny the premise on its face. Justice, equity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, karma, dharma, atonement, salvation – these are all legitimate religious concepts worthy of devotion that can stand on their own merits. Negative principles, however, are by nature antitheses that cannot exist without a thesis against which they are defined.”

In the comments on his post, the Socinian added, “I don’t like the way AR/AO [Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression] has been promoted recently as a core collective value within the UUA, or as a necessary part of our collective identity. I don’t like the way it divides the world into the self-righteous “us” and the contemptible “them.” I don’t like the way it replaces a soteriology of grace with a soteriology of victimhood and conflict. I don’t like the way it sanctifies victims for things they had no choice over and demonizes even unwitting “oppressors” for harm they may never have intended (or even have participated in), or the way it eagerly and gullibly finds oppression and victimization even in the most unlikely and dubious of instances. (Like a “brown bag lunch”, for instance.) I don’t like the fact that too often its response to oppression, whether real or imaginary, fails to include any meaningful physical, emotional or spiritual ministry or healing to the actual victim—other than perhaps nurturing and encouraging the victim’s sense of anger and injustice. I don’t like the overemphasis of faultfinding, and underemphasis of our historic Universalist gospel of love and forgiveness even (or especially) when it has not been earned.”

In “Brown bag landmines, culling the affiliates, and more”, Philocrites offered a useful term for the anti-racist attitude: “terminal earnestness”.

• “Slavery” and “Holocaust” are racist

In “Occupy These…! Slavery and Abuse by Metaphor”, Jared Ball wrote, “Young white demonstrators should be advised not to complain of being “enslaved” to student loans and such, any more than they would speak of a “Holocaust” of unemployment. Such metaphors of slavery are more than merely inaccurate – they may reveal dark facts about the speaker.”

The Metaphor Police do not understand:

1. Metaphors are supposed to be different in degree. When you say your head is killing you, you are not disrespecting people who died from brain tumors.

2. Every culture has slavery in its past, and the history of slavery in the USA includes black slaveowners and white slaves. If you must be of the race of former slaves to use slavery as a metaphor, your race only needs to be human.

3. If “slave” belongs to anyone, it belongs to the Slavs whose forced service inspired the word.

4. We use metaphors to link ideas. If your circumstances force you to serve others, you are in a condition like slavery. Comparing debtors to slaves is ancient. In 1960, a white Florida farmer said about migrant workers, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”

• Fried chicken is racist

An Australian KFC ad showed a white Australian joining a group of dark-skinned people who treated him coldly until he shared his fried chicken. Anti-racist Americans denounced the ad as racist. When I began to watch it, I saw what misled them. The white guy was wearing Australia’s national colors. The meeting was about sports teams, not races—Australia was about to compete with the West Indies. The ad wasn’t about friendship crossing racial borders. It was about friendship crossing sports borders. American anti-racists often impose US notions of racism on other nations. As many Australians have pointed out, few Aussies know that in the US, black people liking fried chicken is supposed to be racist.

Which is one of the oddest bits of US racial code. I grew up in the South, and everyone there liked fried chicken. We owned a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and were one of the few places in the county that served whites and blacks. Mom and Dad were told by some black families that they came out of their way to support us.

By eating fried chicken.

The roots of the notion that black people love fried chicken is classist, not racist: chicken is a cheap source of protein, so “white trash” and poor blacks both ate it.

Besides, Martin Luther King’s favorite meal was fried chicken. If you think a dish loved by the US’s greatest civil rights leader is racist, it’s time to think again.

• “Death March” is racist

In August of 2010, Elizabeth Bear used a metaphor that’s been common in arts and programming communities for ages: she said she was “deathmarching” toward the end of her novel. The metaphor was declared racist by people who knew Filipinos died in the Bataan Death March and didn’t know or care that the march included 11,796 American prisoners of war, 650 of whom died. Nor did they know that victims of death marches include most of humanity.

Though Bear changed the word in her post, Tempest Bradford wrote a post calling out Bear for racism in a post un-ironically titled “When Writers Fail To Understand How Words Work”.

At Robert N. Lee’s “They keep sucking me back in”, Damon Kaswell said, “I propose we outlaw all forms of metaphor that reference anything awful anyone at any time ever endured. You can’t hijack conversations, because people have died on hijacked airplanes. You can’t put your nose to the grindstone, because people were tortured that way a long time ago. You can’t call yourself a slave to fashion, because of real slavery. You can’t mount a crusade against idiocy, because you might offend both Christians and the victims of historical Christian violence. You can’t crash after a hard day, because people in real car crashes might not like it.”

Robert N. Lee added, “One of the FAILfailers’ favorite terms is “derailing.” Don’t they know that trains have actually derailed? In India and other exotic places with lots of poor people, even?”

Kathryn Kat Allen wrote an LJ post called “Triskaidekaphobia” pointing out that real people suffer from the fear of the number 13, and made suggestions for how activists might help the sufferers, including, “Campaign against the malicious practise known as a ‘baker’s dozen’ (by which people introduce the number thirteen in to the lives of others against their specific instruction to stop at twelve).”

If you think Bradford’s complaint about “deathmarching” means she opposes the use of violent metaphor, you would be wrong. She once tweeted, “I’m just going to give up on reading any books until someone else vets them now because if I have to see any more damn rape Imma cut a bitch.”

• Kilowog in Green Lantern is racist

On November 18, 2011, Nalo Hopkinson, a black Jamaican Canadian writer who lives in California, tweeted, “Watching Green Lantern. Michael Clarke Duncan’s character is named...Killa Wog? WTF?#ohnotheydidnt #racefail”

That was retweeted by people who see racism wherever they look. But they were only demonstrating their own flavor of cultural imperialism. Kilowog was created by Steve Engelhart, an American writer. In the US, few people know that “wog” is a racial insult elsewhere—it’s not part of this country’s racist vocabulary. As Wikipedia notes, “In the United States, “Wog” is simply short for Pollywog, the navy term for sailors who have yet to cross the equator in the line-crossing ceremony, and has no racial associations.”

Kilowog’s name may’ve been inspired by the town of Killawog, NY. Which was not named for a “killer wog” or because someone “killed a wog” there.

In the Green Lantern cartoons, the character was voiced by Henry Rollins, who is white. Giving the character to Michael Clarke Duncan was an example of colorblind casting.

Devout anti-racists believe words and customs are the same everywhere. Perhaps they don’t know that a Brit who wants to “light up a fag” does not want to burn homosexuals alive, but only wants to smoke a cigarette. They are the people who think “niggardly” is racist. The crucial question that no one asked when declaring “Kilowog” was racist: are there any examples of US racists using “wog” as an insult where average Americans would be expected to recognize it as a racial insult? I’m typing in Apple’s Pages program right now. My spell checker recognizes “nigger” but it does not recognize “wog”.