On Sunday, the New York Times wrote an article about Michael Brown saying, among other things:
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.
Which is a vile paragraph for the Times to have published. I can only imagine that what was going through the author and editor’s heads was a desire to appear balanced: the next paragraph said
At the same time, he regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.
But this sort of “balance” is singularly inappropriate: there’s a good reason why we use the term “eulogy”, coming from a phrase meaning “speak well”, to refer to writings about people who have just died. Situations where it’s appropriate to break that rule are few and far between; talking about a kid who was just the victim of police murder (followed by weeks of terrorism committed by multiple levels of police, no less) is not one of those exceptions.
This is a classic case of false equivalence: when writing a story about a politically touchy issue, the media likes to find two sides of the issue to present, and to present those sides without any sort of context that might cause one to evaluate one side more favorably than the other. It doesn’t matter if one of those sides is supported by essentially all experts on the subject while the other is only supported by loons or guns-for-hire; it doesn’t matter if one of those sides is engaging in behavior squarely within our political norms while the other side is doing historically unprecedented attacks on the very concept of majority rule; and, as here, it doesn’t matter if one of those sides is behaving with simple compassion while the other side is lacking even a shred of simple human decency. False equivalence demands both.
Our dominant non-right-wing media outlets are beyond hope on false equivalence in the political arena. In more personal stories, they aren’t in general, but of course we know what’s going on here. Michael Brown was black, and my country’s paper of record knows what sort of story it’s expected to tell in that scenario, what sort of images to invoke. I of course have know way of knowing for sure, but my assumption is that this choice of the type of wording for the article wasn’t even an active choice by the author: that’s just what came out of their subconscious.
And, whether conscious or subconscious, that choice is very well grounded indeed. See, for example, this analysis of whom the Times labels as “no angel”: you basically either have to have done horrific crimes or be black. Or, for another example, see this comparison of the above story about Michael Brown with one on one of the Boston bombers; the Boston bomber story isn’t from the New York Times, but I don’t think that weakens the power of this comparison.
That’s part of the evil of privilege: it’s so pervasive that even our subconsciously constructed phrasing works to actively maintain it, to bolster it so strongly that just trying to get to a position where we can start looking behind that privilege is exhausting. But that’s only one part of that evil: there’s plenty of active maintenance of privilege out there, of people actively and intentionally using it to help themselves and to harm, even kill, others, as Ferguson has given us endless evidence of.
Last week, indie game developer Zoe Quinn was a target of focused and sustained harassment. Harassment which is still ongoing for her, and which has spread more broadly. That led to many reactions, including one from Kotaku that contained the following paragraph:
We’ve long been wary of the potential undue influence of corporate gaming on games reporting, and we’ve taken many actions to guard against it. The last week has been, if nothing else, a good warning to all of us about the pitfalls of cliquishness in the indie dev scene and among the reporters who cover it. We’ve absorbed those lessons and assure you that, moving ahead, we’ll err on the side of consistent transparency on that front, too.
Yes, the last week has shown one downside of “clicquishness in the indie dev scene”: if you’re friends with a bunch of other indie devs, and if 4channers hack one developer’s account, then you have to start being very careful about what links you click on in Skype messages. That downside, however, is not what Kotaku was talking about.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Kotaku was talking about; that whole post of theirs made very little sense to me. But I suspect that it’s another example of the false equivalence trap that I talked about: this is a big story that some people would like to present as a controversy, so Kotaku felt that it needed to take both sides seriously, and use the controversy as a way to present themselves in a good light by doing some introspection.
Again, though, it’s not just false equivalence here: it’s privilege that’s shaping every part of the discussion. They didn’t do just any sort of introspection here: for example, they didn’t do introspection prompted by interactions between AAA game developers that provide direct funding to Kotaku and that have overwhelmingly male leadership, employees, and audiences, or introspection prompted by male editors hiring and publishing more and more men from their circle of friends. (I actually suspect Kotaku has been introspective about the latter in the past, admittedly, that’s the only reason why I visit their site at all.) Instead, they decided that the appropriate target for their introspection was their interactions with a platform that leads to donations of single-digit numbers of dollars to marginalized voices, with those donations leading to no significant gifts in return.
So here, too, we see privilege working at a subconscious level (at least I’d like to hope it’s subconscious!) so that just fighting to reach a level playing field is exhausting. Which would be bad enough if it were just subconscious, but in this battle as well, we see much more terrifying active attacks from people trying to maintain their dominance: trigger warning, but here’s a sample of what Anita Sarkeesian is seeing.
Fuck all of this. Can haz revolution plz?
- August 27, 2014 @ 21:35:04 [Current Revision] by David Carlton
- August 27, 2014 @ 21:35:04 by David Carlton