So my friend Alex does this thing called Potentially Problematic Opinion Month on her blog, in which she discusses potentially problematic opinions and she invites others to do the same. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Anyway, I wanted to get all up in on that action so allow me to present my post: Black & White.
First of all, this is not about race. Rather, it’s about Black and White thinking with relation to labelling people. Just to clarify, my definition of black and white thinking is: when people think only in diametrically opposed binaries. For example: Someone is good or they’re evil. They’re right or they’re wrong. They have the solution or they don’t, etc.
A good example of this is George Bush’s “You’re for us or against us” statement with relation to the Iraq war.
The reason I want to talk about it is because I see a lot of it happening on the internet and particularly with relation to social justice on Tumblr.
What’s the problem?
Well the problem with this kind of thinking is, in short, that it’s faulty logic. People don’t usually fall in to neat little binaries, but rather exist as complicated individuals.
People throw around labels a lot when we talk about social justice: “Sexist!” “Homophobic!” “Racist!” Etc. They’re pretty blanket terms and my problem is that they’re often applied to people who I don’t really think deserve them.
For example, someone who is generally pro-gay rights, pro-equal marriage rights, pro-assisting LGBT youth might casually use the word “gay” as synonymous with bad. There could be a number of reasons for this, but if it’s the case that they’ve simply never been told not to or had explained adequately to them why they shouldn’t… does that make them a “homophobe”? I don’t think so. I think it just makes them a person who happens to do a thing that is homophobic.
Similarly, let’s take someone who is all for gender equality (equal pay, equal rights, equal treatment, etc.) but occasionally uses words like “cunt” or “bitch” as insults without realising the gendered nature of those words. Does that mean they are sexist? Again, I don’t think so.
This, of course, doesn’t excuse the action or make it any less hurtful. But I think we do have to be careful of labeling someone just because they aren’t perfect.
And this, basically is where black and white thinking comes in. Either: You are perfect or you aren’t. Either you’re not sexist or you are sexist. Either you’re not homophobic or you are homophobic. With this logic you can’t be a generally good person who occasionally says something that is, for example, homophobic or sexist.
The reality of life is that nobody is perfect and while a lot of us try hard to be sensitive and aware to those around us we often fall short [of the Grace of God, as some might put it]. I will be the first person to admit that I occasionally say things that can be discriminatory, or at least founded in that kind of thinking because I come from a culture that raises me to think that way. Alternatively, I will say something without realising/thinking that it can be hurtful to other groups of people. I don’t like it when I do and I often feel bad about it afterwards, but does that make me a “bad” person? No, I would say. I like to think that I’m a generally good person who occasionally slips up.
In other words, I’m a human.
I don’t think there is no place for that kind of label. But rather than looking at a handful of isolated incidents we should be looking for broader, long-term patterns in behaviour. There is a point where actions stop being a thing that occasionally happens and starts to indicate things about someone’s personality/disposition.
Instead of looking at occasional slip-ups when making decisions about people let’s try and take the “big picture” into account. People are complicated and flawed. That doesn’t make them bad people. It might mean that they have more to learn about a particular thing, or that they should occasionally be more sensitive and considerate, but not that they’re “bad” or irredeemable.
ETA: I’ve only used a few examples like sexism and homophobia here because they’re some more straightforward examples. There are, of course, a lot more and I could have provided much more in-depth examples but I could sense you were already getting bored.