A Labelling Dilemma


I haven’t updated this blog in a long while, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to update again.  For one, my real-life job left me with little energy or motivation to write.  Also, it seemed as if I were beating my head against a wall.  While I do receive a number of friendly comments from like-minded people, or at least from people who are willing to respectfully disagree, I also get a lot of nasty comments from people who are just itching to tell me how wrong I am.  Well, that’s okay.  I don’t expect to sway those people’s opinions, just as I hope they don’t expect to sway mine.  If it makes you feel better to tell me what a moron I am, speak your peace and then get ye gone.  I’ve no more patience for trolls.

I encountered this meme on the Facebook wall of a friend who is typically pretty left-leaning, like me; a person whom the right would derisively call an SJW or social justice warrior.  If the meme contained only the second sentence, there wouldn’t be much to complain about; after all, Flying Spaghetti Monster knows we could stand more teamwork and unity.  But the first sentence is full of culpability shuffling, and there’s a nasty word that adds an extra dose of irresponsibility.  Can you spot it?

Before we get to that word, I’d like to talk about the hazards associated with saying “Not all _____ are _____.”  Even if the statement is true, there’s an obvious but oft-unstated follow-up clause: “Although some are.”  And it’s in this clause that social infection festers.  “Not all cops are bad.”  That’s very true.  There are lots of good, decent cops who would never dream of killing an unarmed man.  “But some are.”  And it’s the responsibility of the good cops to break the blue code of silence and speak out against the minority of police officers who abuse their power.  The justice system bears the onus of breaking through the shield that protects police officers who unjustly kill people.

“Not all whites are racist.”  In general, I agree with this statement.  To be sure, I think everybody occasionally has thoughts that would qualify as racist – that’s ingrained in us by our tribal roots –  but a reasonable person recognizes those thoughts for what they are, and declines to give them voice.  And he certainly never acts on them.  He tries to understand where those thoughts come from.  He doesn’t tweet them as if they are Truth Revealed, then marvel at the social backlash.

“But some are.”  Some whites are racist, and it is no longer enough for the rest of us to be non-racist.  We should aspire to be anti-racist.  We should speak out against people who lack a racist filter.  We may never convince them that their thoughts, words, and actions are wrong, but at least we can show them that they will not be accepted in a civil society.

Now let’s address the elephant in the room.  “Not all African Americans are thugs.”

“But some are.”  Do you see the problem?  The word thug has become a racist code word; a stand-in for the N-word.  In fact, this meme may as well have simply used the N-word, because the effect is the same. People who use the word thug in this context don’t just mean “folks who break the law”.  They mean “black folks who break the law”.

Now if you’re one of those white people who are thoroughly marinated in privilege and oblivious to racism, you might wail: “Political correctness strikes again!  We can’t ever say that black people commit crimes!”  But that’s rubbish, and you know it.  It’s okay to acknowledge that people of every race break the law and hurt others, but how easy would it have been to select a word that isn’t racially charged?  “Not all African Americans are criminals.”  “Not all African Americans are rioters.”  “Not all African Americans are looters.”  Any of those would have been preferable, because none of those words pack the same racist connotations as the T-word.  And you could reasonably follow any of those statements with “But some are, and they should be held accountable for their crimes, just as a person of any ethnic background would be held accountable for the same crimes.  They should not be punished more harshly than a white person would be, nor should they have a reasonable fear of being killed before they even see a jury.”

I’m all for unity, but this meme doesn’t inspire it.  It almost makes it seem as if the good cops and non-racist whites must condescend to acknowledge the non-thug African Americans.  Unity isn’t unity when one group thinks they are doing another group a favor by including them at all.

6 thoughts on “A Labelling Dilemma

  1. Please – if you have the time and motivation of course – continue this blog. I’ve been checking this page every once in a while and was really happy to see a new entry today, after this rather long break. I can imagine that it is pretty demotivating to read all those hateful comments that you get, but doesn’t that in a way show how important it is to tell people what’s wrong with all their stupid bad memes that they post on facebook without thinking about their content for a minute? In my opinion you’re doing a great job here, and I for one love this blog a lot. Not even because some stupid bad memes really need to be corrected, or talked about, but also because I learn something from every post on this blog. When I discovered your blog, I couldn’t stop myself from reading every single entry in a row, because I was so intrigued. So, I don’t think that the supply of crappy mems will ever stop, and there’s definitely a need for a page like yours. Also there are people who really enjoy your work. So please don’t let the trolls win, and keep this blog alive. I’d be really happy about that, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one who thinks this way 🙂

    Sorry for my weird english, and greetings from Germany!

    • Wow, thank you very much Sarah. That really means a lot to me. And to be clear, it’s not that I was de-motivated by the nasty comments; I can handle those. But yes, I would like to make an effort to continue updating, at least once a week. Stay tuned, and danke schön!

  2. I just wanted to take the opportunity to let you know that I subscribed to your newsletter and read your posts regularly. I also follow you on Twitter. Your topics are probably controversial for some people and this may be the reason for some of the negative resonance. I like the idea of taking up memes. I come across a lot of them and in more cases or not—there’s a flaw.

    What you didn’t mention regarding the above meme:

    1. Spelling error—if you’re going to write up a meme—make sure at that you at least get the spelling and grammar right. It should read: All whites aren’t racists. The verb “are” takes a plural.

    2. What got my off-sync about the statement above:

    It says:
    Not all cops are bad
    Not all African Americans are thugs
    Not all whites are racists

    Neither “cops” nor “whites” fit in with “African Americans” when it comes to logics. Cops and whites can generally be seen as something on a global level, whereas “African Americans” can not, at least in most cases (notwithstanding that there are African Americans that live outside of the U.S.). So this is really a clumsy comparison if you ask me.

    So there’s are even more things wrong with this meme that you mentioned but like in most cases, you can’t even begin to over them without writing a book.

    • Not that I’m defending this meme or its author, but I think the word “racist” can serve as a noun or as an adjective. For example: Those guys are a bunch of racists. Or: Those guys have some racist ideas. In this meme’s case, I assume the author was using the word as a predicate adjective – not that the author put that much thought into it. Regardless of the author’s intent, I agree that there are some inconsistencies in his/her tone, particularly in the first sentence.

      Your point about the clumsy comparison is also well-taken. You said it: if I mentioned everything that was wrong with every one of these memes, I’d never stop writing!

      As always, thank you for reading and for commenting. Take care.

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