Mar 28, 2012

Kony, Jenna Talackova and Trayvon Martin

What does an Internet campaign to stop an African warlord have in common with a trans woman barred from a beauty contest and a black teenager murdered in cold blood by a vigilante? Simple: they're all symptoms of what may be our biggest problem as a society and a culture.

In each case, we react when presented with an individual example of injustice, but ignore the wider context. We enthusiastically share the Kony video, but does anyone care why people like him can run riot in Africa? Probably the single biggest reason is the poverty of most of the continent, which leaves governments powerless. One of the chief causes of that poverty is the agricultural policy of us, the world's developed nations. The majority of Africans are farmers, but we won't let them export their surplus to us. Instead, we subsidize farmers in the West to over-produce food, which we then dump on the world market, driving African subsistence farmers deeper into poverty. Is this even mentioned in, say, discussions on agricultural policy in the West? Nope. Indeed, most of the people I saw going on about Kony think that buying domestically grown produce and "supporting our farmers" is virtuous.

It's heartening that the Trayvon case has stirred up such an outcry. But most of the questions being asked are secondary or irrelevant. The real question isn't stand your ground laws or whether the shooter should have been arrested. The question is: how have you managed to create an environment where a suburban vigilante makes thousands of 911 calls solely to report black men in his neighborhood, shoots one of them for no reason, and not only avoids arrest but has his story unquestioningly believed by the police, who publicly defend him? The question isn't if a particular law or an individual police officer of department is at fault, or even the moronic question of whether the vigilante in question was a racist. It's how incredibly racist your society has to be for this whole sequence of events to unfold at all.

How does Jenna Talackova tie into this? As empirical proof. I offer you this tweet from the formidable Natalie Reed: "Miss Universe Canada petition got 20,000 signatures, Bill C-279 petition only 280. I really, really, really, REALLY hate humanity right now." Bill C-279 is a trans rights bill that you can read about here. So about a hundred times more people support trans rights than... support trans rights. Again, people think that a given individual shouldn't be mistreated because she's a trans woman, but they won't support a bill to end that mistreatment.

Part of the problem is psychological. As my co-blogger put it: "our brains can't multiply". We can, if we choose,empathize with a single individual, but we're really bad at empathy with a group. But it's more than that. The same reaction comes up all the time, in just about every political discussion; the copyright system, police brutality (especially the American practice of senseless SWAT raids and wholesale murdering of dogs), racism, corruption. Confronted with an individual example, people will decry and condemn it, but balk at any suggestion that there could possibly be a wider, even structural, problem. It goes far beyond sensible caution of sweeping political reforms; it's a wholesale denial of the very possibility that we might live in a society where systemic injustice happens.

In my opinion, it's simply a psychological defense mechanism that protects people from having to ask themselves difficult questions about the world they live in. It's hard to think about big political questions. Much easier to live in a fairy-tale world where society is fundamentally good and sound, and all problems are caused by evil individuals. Makes for better Hollywood movies, too. The problem is that it also leads people to passively condone, or even actively support, policies and structures that directly harm the people that they claim to sympathize with.


Leon said...

I'd throw in another reason for the support Jenna Talackova's getting compared to C-279, the same reason Natalie Holloway dominated the news for months. An attractive white woman was wronged so people get all up in arms. If she was not as attractive and black (and not Miss Canada), would this even make the news?

Michael Halila said...

Yeah. Or, for that matter, if a black man had shot an unarmed white kid...

I'm not nearly as angry about the Talackova case as Ms. Reed is, BTW, but I suppose that's because I'm positively surprised that the public reaction was in her favor at all.

Leon said...

Well for Canadians (I am one), we're always quite insecure about our identity being so close to the US. As a result, we have a serious love-hate relationship with them. So some may have taken her rejection as a slight against Canadians (since the overall pageant is owned by Trump=US twat=they're infringing on us somehow).

Plus, it's Canada. We've made gay marriage legal and are pretty progressive towards alternative lifestyles.