The absurd artificial divide that's making money off racism

June 8, 2020

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If you'd believe the slew of recent posts, it's so difficult to 'work ourselves up' to talk to 'the other side' about issues of structural racism that we need to be carefully educated on how to do it. But that these articles have to be so careful in their messaging irks me. That we have to pander at all to notions of 'crossing political divides' and 'engaging in dialogue with each other' on issues so clear cut as this one is frustrating in the extreme. Because they aren't really real.


I read the following line recently in an article designed to educate 'white allies' in the fight against racism:

"For instance, some aspiring allies have increased their ability to stay calm by listening to conservative media for two minute micro-bursts and then working up to entire 15 minute news blocks."

And it annoyed me.

Because even, and perhaps especially, for the liberal-minded reader it's aimed at, it undermines the whole article.

The article is fine, but this quote is a real problem

The article is an effort to help people who are opposed to systemic racism improve their ability to communicate with people who are disengaged, or worse, who are actively supporting racist structures. And it's fine. It's fairly balanced. I definitely like the point the author is making: we should move past a routinised anger response when we are talking to people who hold different views to us. Routinised behaviour is a key facet of the human experience, and in this case, it's behaviour that's blinding, unproductive, and typically not genuine. That is to say, it's a genuine emotion, but not one that is genuinely motivated--that's what routinised means. Our rage at opposing viewholders is borne more out of a disgust for the inequity of the world than of the actual viewholder.

If I, or a 'white ally', just screamed at everyone who "jokingly" called me a "half-caste" growing up, we'd have gotten just as far as if we'd stayed silent. That is to say, nowhere. In the circles I moved in, few people held overtly racist beliefs or bought into "white superiority". There'd be some kind of spectrum from more awareness to less awareness of the cycles they're perpetuating. But the truth is that they don't feel like a racist, so they aren't concentrating on the inherent power play in using race to denigrate, even jokingly. They just think they're being funny. In their minds, racism doesn't affect them so they don't have to care. If I want them to care, I should move past the anger I feel and focus on these problematic perspectives to communicate more persuasively. Moving them from disengaged to sensitive, and from there to stop using the slur. This is the rough point of the article. It's not an obligatory approach, but it beats the hell out of an angry Instagram post.

So the article is a helpful one, sure. But that this article, and the many that have emerged during the protests against police brutality against the black community have to be so careful in their messaging irks me. That we have to pander at all to notions of 'crossing political divides' and 'engaging in dialogue with each other' on issues so clear cut as this one is frustrating in the extreme. Let me tell you why.

The completely, and infuriatingly, artificial problem

What I don't like about the article is embodied by the sentence I quoted, and its implications. To remind you:

"For instance, some aspiring allies have increased their ability to stay calm by listening to conservative media for two minute micro-bursts and then working up to entire 15 minute news blocks."

It's hard to tell whether the author is speaking in this way because they actually believe that conservative media is some kind of torture that requires 'micro-burst' exposures. It seems unlikely. The kind of person who is comfortable enough engaging in dialogue with opposing viewpoints that they can educate others in the means probably doesn't view 15 minutes of conservative media something to 'work up to'. It may be that the author is simply applying their own advice and, to quote, trying to "arc past" the more obstinate tendencies of the audience. That is to say, the author is managing their audience in the same way as the author asks the audience to manage racists.

Either way, this strikes me as a problem, no? I'm not taking any particular stance on what people find difficult. But it strikes me as a serious issue that the media that one person consumes on a daily basis is something that can barely be endured by another. It concerns me that to educate our own allies we need to manage their anger at our situation. But primarily, it strikes me as problematic that we assume the barriers to understanding each other are so high that we must force ourselves to 'work up to it'; that we need an article teaching us in such minute detail how we can get past our revulsion at the other side, to mindfully deal with our anger, and work with others to change their minds.

This article is not about talking to white supremecists. It's not about shirtfronting a Ku Klux Klan member. It's not about picketing a far-right political leader. No. It's about the kind of racism that comes from a lack of understanding of racist systems and institutions. It's about talking to your average person who hasn't been exposed to a liberal education, or who isn't surrounded by others who hold liberal belief structures, or who doesn't have a history of being stopped and frisked while going around the corner on an errand. It's apparently, at least in part, about talking anyone who listens to conservative media, as though it were only those people who demonstrated a lack of understanding about race.

And let me remind you that the article is directed at the 'white allies' who might be doing the talking. Not black people, or even other people of colour, who might have a life history of reasons to be angry at the misinformed. As such, a lack of understanding of critical race theory, or intersectionality shouldn't make a dialogue so emotionally charged. A conservative bent that has blinded them to the issues shouldn't represent a near-overwhelming barrier to discussion. It's not as though our hypothetically racist average person is a fan of police brutality. Rather they are something akin to a conspiracy theorist on the wrong side of the evidence: an understanding of the world that is poorly adjusted to the objective facts.

We don't treat other conspiracy theorists in this furious way, not least because many conspiracy theories pan out. But even those conspiracy theories that appear particularly bizarre are treated more with an enduring curiosity than contempt. Perhaps these conspiricists evoke irritation, or even sympathy, for believing unusual things and for the conditions that led them to understand the world that way. But for all our engagement with those who hold these odd beliefs might reflect the fact that we might find them deluded, it does not typically provoke such contempt. Certainly not so much rage that we have to 'work up' to talking to them. And what are the outcomes of an opposing political view, or even systemic and structural racism, but a conspiracy? Harmful social consequences arising from the coordination of some collection of influential people.

It would seem that we should treat the people who ended up on the opposite political side in the same way--if not sympathy, at least a recognition of an education that's different from our own, and the attendent care taken to bring that person around. So what is it about specifically our political antipodes that causes us to behave differently?

There is legitimacy, in the question of racism, to be angry but that's not what's happening here

Much of this, I assume, is a question of power. Typically, conspiracy theorists are in a minority. They wield little power. This question of the balance of power is a fundamental contributor to emotions like anger, and hate. Those who concern themselves with things like ancient aliens or flat earths are often seen delivering angry diatribes on and offline. That underlying anger is almost certainly compounded by the fact that they are treated as deluded and they have little power to make change.

In a polarised political climate, each side holds a great deal of power. In the question of racism, the racists hold enormous power. These things engender feelings of powerlessness, and so too do they engender anger. For many people, particularly black people, those who don't understand racist systems represent that lack of power and thus become a conduit for their rage. This I understand. In fact, this I often feel myself when it comes to explaining racism yet another time to someone who barely gives a shit. But racism isn't the same as conservativism. I have plenty of self-professed liberal friends who are equally ignorant. As such, this disgust directed at the opposing side does not stem entirely from the issue of racism. And yet, as this quote indicates, remains a non-trivial barrier to addressing it.

Our contempt is created, and it's for sale

I would suggest that a large proportion of our contempt for each other is engendered by the media itself. Neither conservative, nor liberal media sources are particularly informative. Rather, both hype up the worst attributes of the other side.

For example, even during these global protests to end police violence perpetrated against black people, a cause anyone not explicitly racist could get behind, the media moves the message elsewhere. On the right, the media equates rioters with protesters and invites you to indulge your fear of violence by opposing the cause of the protesters. On the left, the media glosses over these less tasteful aspects of the movement to concentrate instead on police brutality, or far-right infiltrators, encouraging you to ignore the concerns of people worried about the violent aspects of the unrest. Neither spend time recognising that the peaceful protesters are distinct from rioters, that both have been present, and that you can support the cause even if you prefer a peaceful approach over a destructive one. Nor do they highlight that while various actors are using the unrest to engage in malicious and/or criminal activity, we probably shouldn't assign them a role in this issue because it's not typically interesting what political opinions malevolent minorities might claim, unreliable narrators as they are.

Let's move on to the US election, which seems to me similarly manufactured and for some reason dominates even UK and Australian news.

It's difficult to find concrete examples of why Joe Biden would be a better solution to US leadership than Donald Trump, other than the malignancy of Trump. Trump makes plenty of racist noise. But I was raised understanding that Biden was a leading figure in supporting the racist reforms to the criminal justice system that are causing so many problems today. You'll have a hard time convincing me that his laissez-faire approach to gaining the black vote represents a true commitment to changing that, particularly when he cites this very same 'record' as evidence. Trump is anti-immigration and imprisons children. But Biden doesn't occupy the same space as, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the topic--rather his faction of Democrats are relatively silent on the issue which is concerning because political silence typically means political inaction. Trump is sexist, but Biden is, at worst a sexual predator using the same slanderous tactics as powerful men everywhere to dilute the allegations against him, and at best similarly sexist only in an apparently cute 'grandpa' kind of way. Despite the global media dominence of these two figures, I've heard almost no mention of these, or other tangible implications of changing leadership. Instead, the liberal media repetitively emphasises how terrible Trump is, and how Biden is the alternative. The corollary, of course, is that if you don't support Biden, or worse, explicitly endorse Trump, you too are a terrible person. In the conservative media, you're exposed to a repetitive emphasis on the zanier antics of the liberals with a similar corollary: if you agree with them on anything, you must be a nutcase yourself.

On any particular topic, it seems to me, the media is less concerned with the issue at hand, and more concerned with how awful the opposite side is. Which might explain why, if the other side is awful, we might feel the need to 'work up to' engaging with them. And yet, this bipolar environment is entirely artificial, which makes me wonder how much of this 'work' we have to do is a product of nothing at all.

People aren't left or right, they're just swamped by difficult issues

You might have heard the view expressed that most people are centrist. If you haven't, you likely will though this isn't strictly true. Rather it's the introduction of a third side that's probably as artificial as the others. Most people are, as you might expect with such a large category, all over the place, politically speaking. If anything, they are more left and authoritarian, but this is less because they are communistically-inclined and more because people like to be free, are generous when it isn't uncomfortably costly, and prefer also to not have criminals running rampant.

More importantly, people actually have very little idea where they stand on many issues because they have no real understanding of them. Issues like climate change, migration, welfare, structural racism, and so on are complicated problems that require complicated solutions. The reason people overwhelming self-identify as moderate is because “the moderate category seems less an ideological destination than a refuge for the innocent and the confused.

There is no "divide". Only stressed out people.

But because people know where they stand on a couple of big and often quite intractable issues, like abortion or open-borders, and since those issues have been divvied up by existing political ideologies, people feel like one "side" represents them better than another. And so, if they are politically engaged at all, they end up flooded with a stream of media that increasingly isolates them from how similar they are to everyone else. And because the issues are big and complex, they are dissuaded from engaging in them at all. It might not surprise you to learn that those who are drawn to conspiracy theories often share an anxious cluster of psychological features. People, particularly when anxious, are drawn to ideas that give them a sense of control. Structural racism does not engender feelings of control. Climate change does not engender feelings of control. So they cling to the messaging provided by their toxic media streams. The combination of the fear of instability and a narrative that teaches them the other 'side' are terrible leads people to become increasingly belligerent.

And this is why we have carefully worded articles teaching non-racists how to teach other non-racists to be less racist.

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