Friday, December 22, 2006

Of course its about intentions

Even if Ampersand claims its not.

I finished reading The Human Stain a little while ago and I can really think of no more eloquent an argument against Ampersand's position. One of the main themes throughout the book is that its vital to ascertain an actor's intent before leveling a charge of racism. A professor refers to some students as "spooks", forgetting that the word is also an old derogatory reference to people of color, and you can figure out where it goes from there.

Certainly the episode that Ampersand is commenting on isn't as cut and dried as the example above, but eir unwillingness to consider intentions leads to horrible results. Eliminate the intentions of the actor and the only relevant item left to be considered is the perception of the victim. This leads to a self-fulfilling definition of racism whereby an act is racist if a person says it is.

"But what about the facts on the ground?"

Findings of fact are ultimately about determining intention. In the example above you can point out that "spook" hasn't been commonly used as a slur about people of color in years. But this fact is only useful to bolster a case regarding the intentions of the speaker; since intentions have been apriori ruled irrelevant there's no point in making such an argument. Under this rule any person can hold the entire sphere of discourse hostage merely by claiming offense.

Regarding the specifics of the case against Billmon, it goes back to an idea that I've written about before: acknowledging the reality of racism is not, in itself, racist. Acknowledging that racism has existed in the past is not, in itself, racist. Acknowledging that persons or institutions in the present bear a striking resemblance to racist persons or institutions in the past is not, in itself, racist. Etc.

I was thinking about Dave Chappelle's work in the context of all of this when, coincidentally, I ran across a handy flowchart that says that you get a pass if you happen to be Dave Chappelle. Why does Dave Chappelle get a pass? He's got some funny shit going on, but if you apply the "intentions don't count" rule to just about anything he produces you end up with a product that unambiguously perpetuates racist stereotypes about African Americans.

In reality we, the public, give Dave Chappelle a pass because we realize that he's just the latest in a venerable tradition of people who have made ironic use of stereotypes. You don't even have to be African American for that particular trick to work; anyone want to argue that Blazing Saddles is racist?

In short, Ampersand is making a broad statement that's wholly unsupportable. As a practical argument it ignores the fact that people do make use of a person's intentions when determining whether a given act is racist. As a theoretical argument it fails because it allows acceptable modes of discourse to be dictated by the person with the lowest threshold of offense. QED.


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