"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 11, 2015

WELFARE! SECTION 8! RACISM!

Part I: Are Some of My Facebook Friends Racists?

How’s that for hot-button issues?  Did I get your attention?  I am going to discuss those issues, specifically the all-too automatic connection between them.  I’ve addressed the first two on several occasions, so it’s time to add the third.  That’s because they are connected in the minds of a great many Americans.  I acknowledge the connection, but think it might be overstated.  Here’s what I mean:

Although I have attracted a worldwide audience, my subjects tend to be quite geographically specific, the classic river mill towns along the lower Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania.  I derive many of my topics from reading posts on the Facebook group pages to which I belong, in particular on those dedicated to reviving these communities.  Posts about unpleasant neighbors, their landlords—or both—appear frequently.  I often read screeds against welfare and “Section 8” that not only decry these people, but also the fact that they are benefitting from the writer’s tax dollars.  Race is rarely mentioned, and I have seen no references that I would find pejorative.  Yet many would term them so. 

I also belong to several “Occupy” groups, and in them see claims that such posts evidence racism even when race isn’t mentioned.  It doesn’t matter that nothing explicitly racist is written, they say; the racism is implicit, and evidenced by “cover phrases,” designed to provide some other, and more acceptable, reason to argue what one already believes for other reasons, ones that would attract widespread disapproval if expressed publicly.  This, they say, is the real meaning behind citizen outbursts against welfare and “Section 8.”

Such an argument bothers me on two levels.  First, there are far too many assumptions built into any attempt to simply dismiss the statements of so many unrelated people with one sweeping gesture.  This suggests an ignorance—or avoidance—of well-known elements of both world religious history and from American history that offer an alternate motive for opposing welfare.  The Facebook groups to which I belong focus on urban areas.  The faces of the urban poor tend to be of a darker hue than those of their rural counterparts, and appear much more often on TV, but it’s a big leap to automatically assume that the people being scorned in the posts I read are minorities.  Even if they are, do complaints about their illegal behavior constitute racism?

My next post will discuss how anti-welfare attitudes are intertwined with American history, from the very beginning, even without adding racism.  This post, however, focuses on the aspect of this dismissive approach that I believe to be much more insidious than just its display of ignorance.

Dismissive responses maligning someone’s motives are examples of an all too frequently seen rhetorical trick. I consider the trick more dangerous because its use is not limited to “urban” issues (attention! cover phrase!), but because it has become such a staple in our national discourse, regardless of subject.

Here’s the trick: someone confronted by a perfectly legitimate question or observation and who wishes to avoid—or can’t—respond in a reasonable, factual manner, dodges the issue by attacking the questioner personally, claiming to see improper motives behind reasonable words.  This immediately shifts the focus of attention from the subject to the questioner and heaps on a little personal scorn at the same time; exactly what the person being questioned wished to have happen.  There are many phrases that cover this rhetorical trick; I call it “The Apt Response,” for more than one reason.

Given our national concern over “offending” people, they who claim to be offended—even by innocuous words—too often get away with this trick, and may even manage to avoid the original issue entirely, by describing an apparently innocuous question as racist, anti-Semitic, or some other unpleasantness.  They often double down by saying something like "By saying such a thing, you clearly are either [an unpleasantness] or [another unpleasantness].  If you give people more alternatives to think about, the less they think about the original subject.  Nobody wants to be accused of those motives, and too many readers equate accusation with evidence.  It’s a trick and nothing more, regardless of the word(s) used to divert attention.  People employ it so often because it works so well.

It doesn’t work with me, so I shall continue to take each Facebook poster’s statements at face value.  I owe that to them.  The Shadow may know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, but I don’t.  Of course, they might be carefully choosing their coded phrases to disguise racism, as posting blatantly racist thoughts tends to bring too much trouble, but I see no reason to just assume that.  I try to live by the adage, “say what you mean, mean what you say,” and I shall assume the same of my readers until proven differently, and then only in individual cases.

What does all this have to do with my constant topic, urban revitalization?  Everything, of course.  This is particularly true in our smaller towns, as the “bad neighborhood(s)” are harder to avoid, and the municipality has fewer resources to combat the problem.  The issues of welfare and “Section 8” can have an outsized effect on these towns, in both their real and their perceived effects.  I have written on this subject before.  But once you add racism to the discussion, things tend to polarize.  That sends the discourse off course, usually to a sullen dead end.  One side assumes the other’s racism, and the other resents it.  The people resources of our small towns are sorely taxed to overcome such impressions, whether they are justified or not.  Honest, straightforward dialogue is needed, and assumptions about the motives behind those who disagree with you should be avoided.

I thus implore each and every one of you to recognize this rhetorical trick when you see it.  Don’t fall for it, use it instead as evidence against what the trickster is trying to get you to support.  But I’m not going to leave it at that.  There are valid historical reasons to object to welfare, at least in theory.  They are rooted deeply in American history, and have become part of our national myth.  That doesn’t make them valid reasons to oppose welfare today, but they are—again, in theory—distinct from the racist components of our history, and should be understood as such.  My follow-up post will discuss these.

NOTE:
I publish a post every two weeks, on Friday.  As that schedule this month would have me posting on Christmas Day, I will not follow it.  I will publish the follow-up to this post NEXT FRIDAY, December 18, and then take holiday break until New Years Day.