Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Blowing the dogwhistle

It's no secret that I'm a privileged white guy.  I've never had to deal with -- hell, I've never had to think about -- being on the receiving end of discrimination based on my gender or the color of my skin.  I'm not saying my life has been without any impediments, but inequities of race and gender have not been amongst them.

So when people who have experienced this kind of prejudice and bigotry tell me about their experience, I listen to them.  Simple as that.

Which is why the nasty rebranding of COVID-19 as "the Chinese virus" is, in fact, racism.

The racist part isn't from the first time the term was used.  Being a privileged white guy, I've probably said things that have been insensitive -- not from any malice, but simply from ignorance of the implications.  But if someone points it out, what you do then is you stop fucking doing it.  If you call COVID-19 "the Chinese virus" and someone says, "you really shouldn't call it that, there are Asians who are being targeted for harassment because they're being blamed for the virus's spread," you say, "Good heavens, I didn't realize that, I'm so sorry, that was so thoughtless of me," then you don't say it again.

You don't say, "here's why your perspective is wrong, I know so much better, so I'm gonna damn well call it Chinese virus if I want."

That is racist.

Of course, Donald Trump, whose attitude is that anything that comes out of his mouth is perfect, is where this started.  And of course, when called on it, he didn't back down.  "It’s not racist at all," he told reporters.  "It comes from China, that’s why."

Which is somewhere beyond disingenuous.  No one doubts that the virus originated in China.  But continuing to harp on it as "Chinese virus" even after you know that Asians are being threatened or outright physically harmed because of it -- yeah, that's racist, however you're trying to whitewash it.

Any argument for it being a casual, offhand slip of the tongue went out the window yesterday when a photograph by a reporter for the Washington Post showed that Trump had actually crossed out the word "corona" and handwritten in "Chinese" (in black Sharpie, if I even needed to add that).  So make no mistake; this is absolutely deliberate.

And of course, as soon as Trump labeled it that way, his various bootlickers were quick to follow suit:
  • Meghan McCain: "I agree with you that I think if the left wants to focus on P.C. labeling this virus, it is a great way to get Trump re-elected.  I don’t have a problem with people calling it whatever they want.  It’s a deadly virus that did originate in Wuhan."
  • John Cornyn: "[Chinese] people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.  These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people, and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses...  China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS and swine flu and now the coronavirus.  So I think they have a fundamental problem, and I don’t object to geographically identifying where it's coming from."
  • Marsha Blackburn: "This outlandish claim is crucial to Communist China's propaganda machine.  It is a bold-faced lie and a corrupt attempt to shift the blame and origins of the Chinese novel coronavirus."
  • Tucker Carlson: "Today, NBC News sent a tweet suggesting the president's use of the phrase 'Chinese virus' was 'both inaccurate and harmful, in tying racist associations between the virus and those from China...'  Another statement written by morons in our news media.  How is it inaccurate to call a virus from China 'Chinese?'...  That was Trump at his very best."
  • Lindsey Graham: "I think it is fair, because China is accusing American soldiers of causing this problem, so yes, we're gonna fight that.  I'm not blaming the Chinese government.  It did come from China...  This problem came out of China.  You guys [reporters asking whether the term is racist] are nuts."
  • Brian Kilmeade: "While some here say that’s a racist term, it’s actually just an accurate term of where it started and them not being transparent about how it started really hurt literally the rest of the planet."
Let me put this succinctly: if your words are inciting others to harass, demean, threaten, or harm someone based on their race, and even after finding this out you continue to use those words, your actions are racist.

Of course, I'm not na├»ve enough not to know why they're doing it; these kinds of racist dogwhistles play well with their base, who just love the ultranationalist, 'Murica-first attitude that Trump and his cronies excel at.  This kind of language has been used against Hispanics, Muslims, and a number of other ethnic groups (remember the "shithole countries" comment directed against people from subsaharan Africa?), to cheering crowds.  And whenever this is flagged as racism, immediately the "political correctness" epithet comes out, as if treating people with consideration, and recognizing that people from other demographics have a different perspective than you do, is somehow a character flaw.

As journalist David Plotz put it: "Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok.  It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who were once barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem to be innocent to you may be painful to others."

For me, it boils down to one of the guiding principles of my life, which is "don't be a dick."  I'm not saying I don't make mistakes or that I've never offended anyone.  Being privileged means that's probably inevitable.  But when I do, I try like hell not to do the same thing again.  Maybe sometimes this will mean I'll change my language because someone's being hypersensitive, but what harm has come to me because of that?

Given the choice between hurting someone and making a small amendment to the way I talk, I know which one I'd choose.  And seeing it that way makes the fact that this isn't just random thoughtless talk, but a deliberate dogwhistle, abundantly clear.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a classic -- Martin Gardner's wonderful Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?

Gardner was a polymath of stupendous proportions, a mathematician, skeptic, and long-time writer of Scientific American's monthly feature "Mathematical Games."  He gained a wonderful reputation not only as a puzzle-maker but as a debunker of pseudoscience, and in this week's book he takes on some deserving targets -- numerology, UFOs, "alternative medicine," reflexology, and a host of others.

Gardner's prose is light, lucid, and often funny, but he skewers charlatans with the sharpness of a rapier.  His book is a must-read for anyone who wants to work toward a cure for gullibility -- a cure that is desperately needed these days.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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