Monthly Archives: March 2012

In Brief: Tulisa

A celebrity sex-tape turning up online isn’t generally an unusual or surprising event these days.

The case of Tulisa Contostavlos, singer with N-Dubz and one of the judges on The X Factor, differs from the norm in two ways.

One is the level of class hatred that followed the revelation:

The word “chav” would not go away. This derogatory term of abuse, loaded with class prejudice, was ubiquitous in tweets on the subject. Certainly, tweeters were using it as a self contained insult: “Tulisa makes my blood boil. Fucking chav”. In fact, the words “slut” and “chav” were used pretty much interchangeably.

Tweet after tweet focused obsessively on Tulisa’s working class background: her “chavvery”. Many expressed a lack of surprise at the tape, because they “always knew she was a chav, was just a matter of time really before she made one”. One, fairly representative, tweet read “Oh Tulisa, living up to the chav image we all expected of you”. The implications here are fairly unsettling: sexuality and class are seemingly still being conflated in a way that would be more at home in Victorian or Edwardian times. The concept of a dangerously immoral and highly sexed lower class is apparently still relevant.

The fact that the Tweeters had to comfort themselves by believing that Tulisa had been pretending to be something she’s not is extremely odd and betrays the fact that vast sections of our society literally still can’t imagine a woman who no only doesn’t aspire to be perceived as middle class and sexually pure, but who is successful and popular at the same time. Where this sickening vitriol comes from, I have no idea. But it seems we still have a long way to go before sexual license and social mobility are no longer dirty words.

The other is the level of humanity, dignity, and level-headedness in her response to all the fuss.

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Slaughter in Afghanistan

I’ve written a very brief post over at my main blog, concerning the recent mass killing one particular recent mass killing by a US solider in Afghanistan.

It’s worth noting just how much this incident brought out the repugnantly tribalistic side of many supporters of the military. When one of our side goes off-message and slaughters innocents while they sleep, we expect it to be taken for granted that this was one rogue, isolated individual, unrepresentative of us as a whole, and it’d be completely unfair to judge the rest of us based on this one guy. Obviously we’re still the good guys and we’re doing what’s best. The idea that we should act even for a moment as if our position as moral defenders of freedom and goodness weren’t totally assured is ridiculous.

But whenever one of them attacks us, well, that’s entirely typical behaviour, it’s just what they do, it’s what we have to expect from them.

A post at Practical Doubt in particular exhibits some truly staggering examples of othering from commenters on the Fox News website. The first exemplifies the general attitude taken to foreign victims of US military action:

How “innocent” were they really? Any proof ? ? ?

If someone were to question the “innocence” of the 9/11 victims, and ask for proof that they didn’t deserve to get blown up before offering them any sympathy, I wonder if this person would take a similar position.

There are no “others” here. There are lots of people with lots of ideas and lots of feelings and lots of ways of dealing with their ideas and their feelings. Some people died, and that’s horrible. Someone killed them, and that’s tragic. It was just one event which doesn’t stand out much in an ongoing conflict, and that’s…

I don’t even know.

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Trayvon Martin

His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman.

You’d think that when a seventeen-year-old black kid gets shot dead, we could all agree that the situation is unequivocally tragic, even if he hadn’t been both innocent and unarmed.

In case you’re not up to speed, Trayvon Martin was an innocent and unarmed seventeen-year-old black kid who was shot dead recently in Florida. George Zimmerman is the “neighborhood watch captain” who shot him. The hoodie was an item of clothing worn by Trayvon at the time. And the above quote was one of a series of tweets made by Geraldo Rivera about the incident.

He expressed similar sentiments on Fox News, explaining:

I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was… You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangsta — you’re going to be a gangsta wannabe, well people are going to perceive you as a menace. That’s what happens. It is an instant, reflexive action.

The list of situations under which firing a gun directly at somebody is justifiable as an “instant, reflexive action” is, I dare say, an exceedingly short one, and “a young black man wearing a hoodie walking into your line of sight” is not one of them.

Maybe this particular clothing style does have an association, in some parts of the world, with a certain violent gang culture. But even if that’s true, the only acceptable solution is one in which we try to change that culture, not just abandon people to their fate and tell them they should have acted differently to stay out of trouble.

Geraldo has never said, “It’s a simple fact that black people get shot more often, they should learn to adjust,” but the callous victim-blaming is no less insensitive here.

He professes to have seen Trayvon Martin as a “wonderful kid” who “didn’t deserve to die”. But he must have abandoned a certain measure of human empathy a long way behind, to see this kind of senseless killing as inevitable on the basis of some clothes and an accompanying stereotype.

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The Difference Between Us And Them

This post by Popehat could almost serve as a manifesto for this blog. It’s framed in the context of American politics, but summarises many major points of self-serving tribalism and othering which can be seen in every kind of discussion imaginable.

Sample quote:

They are constantly saying vile, racist and sexist, and threatening things about Us. That’s unacceptable. To make things worse, because They don’t understand humor, satire, parody, or context, and because They are willing to misconstrue things for political profit, They are constantly and unreasonably whining about Us of saying allegedly vile, racist, sexist, and threatening things about them.

What he’s not bluntly and dully spelling out, of course, is that there really is no “Us” and “Them”. There are no “Others”. But breaking that habit of thought – the habit by which we tend to make excuses for ourselves and cast our own group in a favourable light, while condemning the “enemy” at every opportunity and granting them no such leniency – is difficult and unnatural, and requires a good deal more reflection, study, and humility than many of us are capable of or inclined towards.

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Government Social Programs

I don’t think these are new results, but this post about government social programs gave me a slightly new perspective on them.

The research shows that people who are receiving financial help from the government will, in significant proportions, report that they “have not used a government social program”. A quarter of people on food stamps or welfare, over a third of Medicare users, and fully half of those with student loans will deny that they’ve had any monetary support from the state.

Putting aside for a moment the problems of the underlying inequality behind the need for these programs, I think this study tells us something interesting beyond the extent of people’s ignorance as to the details of how these programs are run.

Many people have an idea in their head of what state hand-outs look like, and the kind of people who take them. It’s free money that the government gives to lazy moochers like them, having taken it right out the pockets of hard-working, decent citizens like us.

It might only be a minority who see things with quite so little nuance, but a similar attitude seems to be disappointingly prevalent. When thinking of government hand-outs, it’s apparently hard to see the recipients as being as fully human as ourselves, and as potentially deserving of help as we feel that we are, particularly when there’s a risk of our own financial benefits being taken away.

Nobody wants to see themselves as a moocher, but if you’re going to be consistent, it’s important to remember that other people have their own difficult circumstances to deal with as well. If you’re morally justified in accepting these benefits, then maybe the other people who receive help from these programs are human too.

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