Ethics and Opinion: Please Stop Confusing My Students

One of the sadly rather expected side benefits of the recent re-election of President Obama has been the predictable outpouring of racist sentiment. Of course, to listen to the people uttering racial slurs and unpleasant requests, they are not actually racists, they are just expressing their opinion. You know?

They’re just sayin’.

A woman is currently being investigated by the Secret Service for Tweeting a heavily charged racial epithet against the President, wrapped up in a paraphrased death threat, and appears puzzled about all of the fuss. After all, it’s just what she thinks and she’s not a racist. Australian former cricketer Greg Ritchie recently uttered some serious racial slurs that are highly inflammatory towards South Africans and can’t see what the big deal is either. He also managed to get in a joke about Muslims. When asked, however, Ritchie had this to say:

“If they take offence that’s their choice.”

His joke, involving Muslims, is in his own words “just a little humourous joke to indicate that they’re not my favourite people of my choice.” Hey, Greg, guess what, when you’re trying to defend yourself against charges of discrimination, perhaps it’s best to do so in a way that is not actually discriminatory? Of course, we’ve been tolerating Ritchie’s antics for years, so it’s not surprising that he is now confused that we don’t find him funny. He, in blackface as pseudo-Indian Mahatma Coate, was a regular on the Australian Rules Football sports variety show “The Footy Show” for years. And, thus we crawl, inexorably, towards my point.

If you’re opinion is actually racism, then it’s a racist opinion. I can completely understand why people don’t want to be labelled as racists because we all know that’s bad but, and here’s the tricky thing, racists are people who believe and say racist things or act in a manner than discriminates against people based on their race. Calling someone a racial epithet because of the race that they belong to counts here and, before we get all ‘classification theory’ about this, there is a world of difference between any classifications of ethnicity that are scientific in nature and slurs. There is also a great deal of difference in how we use this information. The moment that you start saying things like “they’re not my favourite people of choice”, you are saying that you don’t like an entire group that is defined by a given characteristic and, wow, it’s not hard to see where that leads. (Now, no doubt, there is someone who is itching to leap and tell me that ‘aha – Muslims are not a race’. Spare me the sophistry, especially where the Muslims that appear to catch the most problems here are (surprise!) not Caucasian.)

Whenever anyone leaps in and says “statement – I’m just sayin'” or “statement that challenges movements that are egalitarian – playing devil’s advocate” then I really must wonder ‘why?’ I have heard a number of people trying to sneak in sexist comments based on poor evidence or by playing the “Devil’s Advocate” card. “Wow, but what if women aren’t as good at X as men, playing Devil’s advocate/just sayin’/just askin’.” You know, that’s a good question. But it’s not the one that you’re asking. The question that I’m hearing (and I apologise because I have weird ears) is “How can I make a sexist statement with plausible deniability because I am not yet convinced that women are equal?”

This is about fundamental human rights, not an opinion on whether Picard or Kirk would win in a jello-wrestling competition. The questions that we ask, however they are framed, reveal what it is that we believe to be true. And right. And, by extension, what we consider false or wrong.

My real problem with all of this is that my students are like big mobile sponges. They hear a whole heap of stuff before they come to me and, if most of it is opinionated nonsense that magically escapes classification, they will learn that this is how the world works and come to me with a head full of garbage. They’ll recite rubbish at me that they’ve picked up from the world, politics, media, television and their own families that has no place in a University environment. I don’t give a hoot how entitled you feel to have a racist, sexist or discriminatory opinion, it’s going to get called as one and you can argue until you’re blue in the face that saying discriminatory things doesn’t make you discriminatory but, important point, you are almost never as ironically funny as you think you are. (And, yes, we all have to be aware of that. To my shame, I have occasionally gone too far in trying to mock discrimination and I apologetically confess that I have on occasion been less than funny and just plain dumb.) The important thing to ask is why are you trying to set up the situation in the first place?

My students have to think about these things all the time. They cannot guess how people will react to their dumb jokes and supposed ‘irony’. Worse, as people who have had the benefits of more education, other people will look to them (explicitly or not) as thought leaders and the best of my students will have a very wide-ranging impact. I can’t stop people saying silly and hurtful things, but let’s stop the pretence that there are special “get out of jail free” textual containers that allow people to utter the phrasings of discrimination and, yet, mysteriously escape being labelled as such.

(And, for the record, the Internet indicates that Picard would most likely take the match, given that he has mud wrestling experience.)

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