We want to believe that the systems and institutions that govern our lives are mostly good. We want to believe that if we just keep our noses clean, we have nothing to fear. It’s a lie you tell yourself because it’s easier to ignore systemic injustice than to do something about it — that is, unless you’re the one being marginalised. Then it’s impossible to ignore.
There have been a few phenomena over the past six months or so that got me thinking about the relationship between privilege, marginalisation, and cultural norms that perpetuate injustice. Specifically, I’m interested in peoples’ reactions and responses to events that expose these systemic issues.
May 23, 2014. Isla Vista, California. Elliot Rodger kills six university students, then himself, after writing a misogynist manifesto. The typical media narrative — mentally unstable lone wolf goes on a tragic, horrifying shooting spree — is derailed by men’s rights advocates who defend Rodger’s actions and his worldview.
They form an unexpectedly large contingent of sympathisers, and it becomes apparent that a counternarrative needs to happen. So men take to Twitter and begin to defend… themselves. The #NotAllMen stream stumbles awkwardly out of the gate as a collective hand-washing exercise, essentially saying, It’s okay, don’t worry, we’re not all like that. Don’t listen to those guys. As if gender equity will happen by simply ignoring raging misogynists. As if closing your eyes will make the problem go away.
At this point, #YesAllWomen becomes a necessary rebuke to the self-centred non-sequiturs of #NotAllMen. It steers the conversation back to the central issue, back to violence against women and the cultural norms that enable it. We get discussions about rape culture and how rigid gender roles enable the structural oppression of women. It becomes a platform for first-hand accounts of marginalisation, injustice, and abuse. People feel empowered to tell their story.
And I, with my male privilege, lose a little more faith in the system. I learn to believe in victims that speak out. I learn to amplify feminist voices. I learn to think more critically about my role in perpetuating harmful gender norms.
August 9, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri. Darren Wilson shoots Michael Brown dead. When it comes to law enforcement, cynicism runs deep for a lot of people. On the other hand, those that still have faith in the system can have an unshakeable loyalty and respect for police. Which of these worldviews do you lean toward? If you’re not sure, think about your initial reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Whose motives do you question? What about your reaction to the ongoing confrontation between police and protesters in Ferguson?
Residents mobilise against the injustice of Michael Brown’s death, and the Ferguson police respond with force and military equipment. Some of us international onlookers shake our heads in exasperation, thinking, Well, as long as the protesters don’t get violent everything should settle down. As if settling down to the way things were will eradicate police brutality. As if the onus is on unarmed civilians to use restraint when they’re staring down the barrel of a tank. This line of thinking is dangerous — it comes from a place of complacency, of comfort with the system, of privilege. And it invites harmful red herrings like tut-tutting looters and arsonists. When the government turns heavy artillery against its citizens, it’s not time to talk about what some ruffians did to the local pizza shop.
Yes, in times of chaos and mayhem, some people will steal things, damage property, and set stuff on fire. It happened in Ferguson. It happened in the UK riots of 2011. It happened all throughout the Arab Spring. It happened in Toronto during the 2010 G20 summit. It happened in the 2006 youth protests in France. That isn’t news. That isn’t the point. It diverts attention away from the reason people are out in the streets in the first place.
To illustrate: what if all sports reporting failed to mention the score of the game and instead focused on the drunken behaviour of a few fans? Tonight’s showdown between the Leafs and Sens erupted in violence when two men got into an aggressive barroom fight in the arena’s restaurant. What a black mark on the Air Canada Centre. Now with a look at this year’s Grey Cup predictions…
Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby
Let me briefly mention Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, two entertainers that are institutions in and of themselves. Here, the concept of “faith in the system” is more a personal affinity that one feels with a celebrity. Ghomeshi and Cosby have built careers on their personality, with legions of adoring fans.
So when news breaks that they’ve been sexually assaulting women, my very first reaction is one of disappointment and betrayal. Aw man, I liked Jian Ghomeshi. Q won’t be the same with him gone. Or: Thanks Bill Cosby, now my childhood memories of your show are tainted. As if it’s all about me. As if the worst thing about assault is that I can no longer think of the perpetrator as a nice guy.
This kind of reaction is understandable, because public figures like Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby are people who you’re supposed to identify with. But it’s far too easy to keep sympathising and making excuses for them. That’s what you do when you don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth. That’s how you silence their victims and perpetuate the problem.
That little seed of disappointment you feel when you hear about police brutality, sexual assault allegations, or any kind of injustice, reveals that your faith in the system has just been taken down a notch. Not just police, but the entire legal and justice system benefits from a sense that justice prevails and the rule of law is fair. As if the legal system doesn’t have its own prejudices and habits.
Having faith in the system means valuing the institution over victims of injustice. Once you recognise this worldview, you recognise your privilege. Which is a great first step, as unexamined privilege is the perfect vehicle for maintaining the status quo. So, as a privileged person in an unjust system, it is my responsibility to think, speak, write, and act consciously in ways that push against that balance of power.
Moving forward, I’m keeping these questions in the forefront of my thoughts and putting them into practice:
- Which marginalised voices can I amplify?
- Who can I donate to or support?
- How can I remove or report hate speech?
- Where is there misguided or misleading discussion happening? Can I identify any red herrings?
I no longer believe that the systems and institutions that govern our lives are mostly good. Systemic injustice is pervasive. Here’s hoping my cynicism spurs action rather than complacency.Sam Nabi