It’s Not Bullying When I Do It.

This story raised the question of whether a black person can be racist. I don’t make any character judgments of the black person (a young college professor) in question. The “offensive” tweets and inflammatory Facebook comments (not at the link) are certainly in bad taste but at least one or two seem to have been attempts at legitimate social commentary.

I have heard it said that blacks can’t be racist, and women can’t be sexist, because they have no power. It is also said that “punching down” – satirizing a weaker person – is evil but “punching up” – satirizing a powerful person – is good.

In this view, the act of harassing a person because of their race or gender is not racist or sexist per se. It is not inherently wrong to tell somebody, “I hate you, consider you inferior, and harass you because of the color of your skin or the nature of your genitalia” if the person being harassed is white or male. Racism or sexism is a matter of power only: only the powerful can exhibit it.

There is an element of truth to this. Only a person in a position of power over another can say to another: “I will not hire you for this job because of your race or sex” which is racism or sexism that has a concrete and direct injurious effect on people (and which is illegal). A person who is not in a position to give out jobs can’t refuse to hire somebody because of the color of their skin or their sex.

But power changes with circumstance. To use stereotypical examples: a male white banker is in a position of power over a black loan seeker. The same white man lost in a certain kind of black ghetto late at night is in a relatively powerless position from which he should escape as soon as possible. And of course beyond stereotypes in the real world there is the possibility of a black banker and Appalachian loan seeker, and so on.

The above example only concerns economic or physical power. There is also social power: a man may be more powerful than a woman on average when it comes to money or physical strength, but in most social situations the woman has the power to humiliate the man.

As for “punching up” and “punching down”, the supposed power relationships often make no sense: Charlie Hebdo is criticized for “punching down” with obscene cartoons, but who really has the power, the man with the pencil or the man with the AK-47?

Merely verbal or social attacks on people are also an attempt to exercise power: since we are social creatures who want to be accepted by the group, group harassment and insults are a way to influence people. It is called bullying. By its very nature, bullying is a power tactic.

So the argument that a black person or a woman cannot be racist because they have no power, or the “powerless” cannot be a bully, is false, because 1) power depends on circumstance, and 2) bullying is an exercise of power.

But while false, the argument is useful to those who believe it. By it, they absolve themselves of accountability and get to see themselves in a heroic light as they fight the forces of evil. It simultaneously grants moral superiority and lets them use the tools of their enemies.

And if it is true, then the inverse is also true: the “powerful” are bullying even when the are not. Innocent behavior on the part of the target group becomes a microagression. Rational arguments they present are really harassment. Everything they do and every argument they make is suspect: heads I win, tails you lose.

It is what sociologists who study religious cults or totalitarian regimes call a thought stopper*: a superficial but loaded slogan that appears to give a satisfactory answer a problem without actually doing so, usually in the form of a circular argument or paradox. “The powerless cannot be a bully” translates into “My attempt at coercive power is not an attempt at coercive power.”

Here is a saner way to approach life: bullying wrong, no matter who is the target, and who is the perpetrator. As for the difference between satire and bullying, that is a subject of a future post.

*The phrase is borrowed from Orwell’s description of Newspeak in 1984: [it] makes [the citizen] unable and unwilling to think too deeply on any subject whatever…. [it] means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought.”


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