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Kiran Gupta discusses “moral blindness in an age of increasingly self-indulgent progressivism,” both in an attitudinal context and with regard to present day events such as the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Society has arguably come a long way in the last century and even in the last few decades. From the removal of homosexuality of the WHO’s list of diseases, the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the U.S. and a concerted move towards substantive racial and gender equality through hashtivism (the #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements are famous examples), it would seem as if society has come quite a way. It is beyond question that progress has been made, however, when considering progress on an attitudinal level, especially in the current climate of increasing panic and chaos, deeper reflection may beg the question: how far have we really come?
The often-prevailing response is to refer to phenomena such as hashtivism (hashtag movements that often double as a form of online activism) but there is something that must be noted very carefully when considering these movements. They are often one-dimensional, focussed on a singular issue and often with “tunnel vision.” Although this may not seem like a problem on the surface, such “tunnel vision” can often result in a ruthless exclusion of all other perspectives. In privileged Western society, there is often great peer pressure for young people to appear progressive or “woke” to demonstrate social engagement. However, the consequence of this is an increasing self-indulgence, where engagement with a form of oppression is either tokenistic or self-serving. This, in turn, leads to “moral blindness”, where in a singular pursuit of one form of equality, all others are excluded. In some ways, this is just as problematic as overt discrimination as it restricts any form of adequate discussion regarding progress and therefore, stifles any substantive movement towards genuine equality.
Boston University Gender Studies Professor, Lynn Hallstein notes that one of the main criticisms of second-wave feminism has been its lack of consideration and general apathy towards intersectional perspectives. However, by isolating alleged lack of intersectional consideration to an outdated movement, it serves as a means for some sections of third-wave feminism (especially in the media) to address issues of intersectionality in a perfunctory way and demand for that to be accepted as “better than before” as it is being considered. Considering this, it can often be seen that the desire to seem woke and the necessity of privileging that above all else for social vanity can actually make discourse worse and have a chilling effect on substantive progress. On race matters, for example, discussions are often hamstrung by participants feeling frightened or worried they’ll say something problematic. This has been termed “racial fragility” where any attempt to discuss a complex topic such as race in anything other than a normative discourse is met with defensiveness or, often, anger.
Through avoidance of meaningful discourse, stereotypes are spread and accepted as the norm. These stereotypes can undermine the very movements that purport to promote equality. For example, the problematic trope of the “angry African-American woman” is commonly used in mainstream media to undermine and devalue their perspective as overly emotional or “playing the victim.” This is a falsehood as it undermines the very notion of intersectionality and also, of feminism itself; when those stereotypes are validated and taken to represent all women, or all women of colour, fear-mongers are more easily able to “Other” those groups and belittle their demands. Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favourite modern thinkers due to her direct but often perforating insights into gender and race. She has argued that while differences in the feminine experience and identity should be acknowledged, they should not be exclusionary in nature. Unfortunately, stereotypes such as “playing the victim” are inherently exclusionary in nature as they inaccurately corrupt the motivation of women’s struggle for equality, while also dismissing the alternate feminine experiences of the search for equality. It fails to acknowledge that the fight for equality starts at different places for different people and that their reaction may be different. This is what must be considered in order to promote meaningful discourse.
When discussing stereotypes, it can be beneficial to consider their relationship to models of deviance. Stereotypes are often exaggerated caricatures which often signify an ideology which is difficult to translate into pure, simple meaning. This can mean they are often fantasies which reinforce normative standards and tropes of prejudicial discourse and “Othering.” Intersectional theorists have posited that stereotypes have contributed to the portrayal of vocal minorities as “deviant.” This is based on the notion that people who “deviate” from the accepted norm in society are often “othered” based on these characteristics. But does that mean that everyone is “othered” in society because everyone is, to some degree, “deviant?” The answer to that question is clearly no as it is often a question of degree and perception. When discussing the Adam Goodes saga, Waleed Aly correctly remarked that “it’s not as simple as it being about race [or any other minority status]. It’s about something else… the minute a minority – someone in a minority position acts as though they’re not a mere supplicant, then we lose our minds. And we say, ‘No, no you’ve got to get back in your box here’.” Through this, the model of deviance is clearly illustrated. Minorities often need to be silent. The moment an opinion is expressed, they cease to be a “mere supplicant” and another level of deviance is invoked. To this degree, it can be suggested that once multiple levels of deviance are invoked, anxieties and eventual “Othering” come to the forefront. And this is where the moral blindness kicks in.
This brings me onto a wider point about stereotypes and their relationship to deviance. Often, when someone wants to establish someone as “deviant” (generally for not being a “mere supplicant), they will invoke racialised stereotypes to establish them as “The Other.” By attempting to invoke common tropes often conveyed in mainstream media, the perpetrator tries to divide “The Other” from the group through the creation of an “us vs them” dichotomy which links the tropes back to mediated history and cultural perceptions. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, these stereotypes are in fact successful in creating and alienating an “Other.”
It is also worth considering stereotypes with the example of Aziz Ansari. Ansari received widespread negative publicity because of an article accusing him of indecent conduct that was published on babe.net. The Ansari case was discussed in conjunction with the #metoo movement which has been incredibly beneficial in challenging patriarchal structures of power in society and especially in the entertainment industry. It has also forced a critical examination around the discourse of power and the normative behaviour of those who both seek and are the beneficiaries of it. By drawing attention to the Aziz Ansari case, I certainly do not intend to exonerate him of any of the conduct he is accused of. Nor do I want this to seem like apologism. I fully accept that the behaviour he is accused of is not acceptable and he should be held fully accountable for it. The issues I want to draw attention to are the underlying racialised stereotypes used to convey Ansari in the media as well as the differing level of scrutiny to which he was subjected.
Ansari made history as the first South Asian to win an Emmy for acting in television. This was a huge achievement for the Asian acting community in Hollywood. However, the stereotypes in media coverage of the issue act towards invoking the stereotype of dark-skinned men as “sexually deviant and misogynistic,” or the even more racially-motivated stereotype of “the creep.” This is problematic as stereotypes often “signify much larger ideologies than they originally purport” and this type of discourse often obscures meaning and fuels the fire of racism in discussion, whether it was intended or not. While The Atlantic’s piece on the issue, describing the original article as “3000 words of revenge porn” and “the hit squad of privileged young white women opening fire on brown-skinned men” may be too much, it does emphasise how the level of scrutiny afforded to Ansari was disproportionate with respect to other celebrities who have been involved with sexual misconduct. Johnny Depp has been repeatedly abused of assault and various forms of sexual abuse. His ex-wife Amber Heard even went so far as to say “I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath.” However, these accusations (of arguably even greater significance) received far less attention than those of Ansari. Whether Depp deserved to be held to a standard more relative to that of Ansari, or whether Ansari was held to an unjustifiably high standard, the fact still remains that the disproportionate amount of attention that Ansari received says a lot about stereotypes and, by extension, deviance in wider society.
In a time of increasing panic and chaos, with the rise of the COVID-19 coronavirus, these stereotypes have manifested even more overtly than usual through the treatment of people of Asian ethnicity all around the world. The heavily circulated video of a person allegedly in China eating a bat has caused widespread anger and disgust among certain media communities, perpetuating the stereotype that the virus has been caused by eating habits. However, this video was debunked as being filmed in Palau (a pacific island) in 2016 for a travel blog. This in itself, represents a moral blindness as it demonstrates a need for the media, even publications who appeal to young, “progressive” readers, to identify an “Other” even when there is no identifiable link. In fact, it could even be said that a number of media organisations have modelled the pandemic as a form of “deviance” on the part of China, which has led to a significant rise in racially fuelled attacks on Asians around the world. Miri Song, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, told TIME magazine that, “Whenever there’s some kind of major incident with global or regional implications, and as soon as you can identify it in relation to some racial ‘Other,’ particularly in predominantly white, multi-ethnic societies like England or the U.S., I think it’s very easy for people to use a very small excuse to start scapegoating on the basis of their appearance.” This nicely summarises the phenomenon. Once any form of “deviance,” in any shape or form, is uncovered, it is very easy for a group to be categorised as “The Other.”
However, this does not stop with the mainstream media. Although younger people often identify as more progressive, social media discourse, especially on micro-blogging sites such as Twitter, has become increasingly toxic towards people of Asian ethnicity. This can even be seen on accounts of people who clearly want to market themselves as “progressive,” using hateful language and stereotypes to target who they perceive to be “The Other.” This 900% increase in hate speech on Twitter has led to many counter-movements such as the hashtag, #iamnotavirus. However, this begs the question: is this new brand of progressivism that many people our age identify with inherently exclusionary in its nature?
While stereotypes are often a way to visibly recognise moral blindness, it can also surface through hatred and difference of opinion on morally complex issues. To bring forward an example, consider the debates about gay marriage. For myself and the majority of Australia, it was beyond question that marriage equality was just, necessary and long overdue. However, there was debate about whether changes should be made to the perceived “sanctity of marriage.” A leading argument was that whether one personally agrees or disagrees with the practice of gay marriage should be irrelevant in allowing others to officially tie the knot. Although later than many other countries, I and a majority of the Australian public were glad to see that equality of marriage has finally been afforded to everyone, regardless of sexuality. However, although it seemed like the overwhelming public consensus was for a “yes” vote, there was a 38.4% no vote (nearly 5 million people).
Whether a “no” vote in itself constitutes a moral blindness is up for debate (and well beyond the scope of this article), but looking beyond that, a fundamental question must be raised as to whether it is reasonable to persecute someone for expressing their view in a votable issue, no matter what the perceived moral deficiency may be. News.com.au reported that a man of Asian origin was peacefully putting up “it’s ok to vote no” posters when a young same-sex marriage supporter said on video to “Go back to la la la la la Arabland … you want to change our country, go change your own f***d up country get the f**k out of ours.” When asked about her racist abuse, the man told news.com.au that “Even though I’m born here and raised here … apparently I should go back there .” This is another example of the “deviance” phenomenon. As a no-voter, who was also Asian and no longer a “mere supplicant,” the man was very easily identifiable as “The Other” through his multiple levels of “deviance from the norm.” Whether voting against same-sex marriage qualifies as moral blindess is another matter (in essence, the matter being voted on). However with nearly 5 million people voting against, to viciously use a person’s ethnic background to make a point about equality undermines its very premise.
Moral blindness is an interesting concept. Many young people identify as much more progressive than their predecessors. But is their progressivism inherently exclusionary when it only seeks (consciously or otherwise) to reinforce current social institutions and “other” those who they perceive to be as deviant? Is that truly progressive? Moral blindness is not something that is going away any time soon, especially with COVID-19 only just beginning to wreak havoc around the globe but as citizens of an increasingly globalised world, there is an argument that one should often consider the reason behind their decisions. What their decision may be is largely futile to this degree. But how and why they come to the conclusion, that is what says a lot.