Tuesday, March 2, 2010

racism and empathy

the screen shot below is from the user account page for a fellow who used to post on the av club under the name mantan moreland. if you like old movies, you probably know mantan moreland, a black actor from the 30s and 40s who worked in a style that has become extremely embarrassing to blacks nowadays. a shuffling, eye-popping, mumbling, malapropism-spouting racist cliche of the most egregious kind. why would anybody want to post under that name, you might ask? mostly to engage in the kind of snarky, pseudo-racist "look how UN-pc i can be!" bullshit that occasionally soils the av club comments boards. blacks seem to be the most frequent targets of this stuff. and though common sense would dictate that this sort of "humor" would likely offend many blacks, it persists. mantan's posts generally consisted of half-assed jokes written in a loose approximation of the original mantan moreland's speech patterns. yes, in 2010 this is what some idiot thought would be funny. and the big surprise is that most of my fellow av clubbers didn't find him offensive. certainly very few registered any open complaints on the site.

personally, i don't have a problem with someone posting stuff that is openly racist, because it can be called out for what it is. but the mantan moreland character bothers me. it strikes me as a deliberate attempt to smear racist content across public boards in a way that seems cowardly and almost passive-aggressive. i don't understand the compulsion that makes some whites engage in this kind of behavior and why so many on the av club site are so blase about it. i attempted to address this by creating a character myself, stepin fetchit. i followed mantan moreland around for a while, adding on to his posts with some fairly heavy-handed commentary and criticism, written in a deliberately grating approximation of the original stepin fetchit's speech patterns. surprisingly, i received more complaints for doing this than mantan moreland ever received for his schtick. a few posters suggested that whatever the intent, "mantan" and "stepit" were both simply boring. one rather jaded person came right out and said that explicit racism was no problem in their opinion, we just weren't funny. for lots of post-pc people, that's an important point, i guess. it's okay to be obnoxious as long as one isn't boringly sincere about anything like racism, because the av club is a pop culture site and nobody's interested in tiresome discussions of racism and morality. many take the position that those issues can't be settled, so there's no purpose in arguing them. many of these same people are more than happy to engage in long arguments about which quentin tarantino movie is the best. they rarely convince anyone else, but it'd be a waste of time trying to make them see the futility of their actions, because the only topics worth arguing are the ones they select.

anyway. i don't know exactly what effect i expected my stepin fetchit posts to have but after about a day and a half, i ran out of things to say in that guise and my nemesis was still going strong. i decided to switch tactics, based on two things: a letter i'd received from an av club staffer to whom i'd made a complaint about mantan moreland and a short article that appeared on the site which linked to a profile in esquire magazine about film critic roger ebert and the disfigurement he has suffered as a result of his ongoing battle with cancer. the letter i received from staff in regards to mantan moreland was pretty straightforward. they said that they would not be deleting mantan moreland's account, because he was offensive but seemed harmless. i thought about this for a bit and then came up with an idea. the ebert article made it fairly clear that most of the av club staff revere the man. i decided that the best point i could possibly make would be to show the staff something they would find offensive and perhaps they might come to understand that "offensive but harmless" is something of a contradiction in terms. drop dead jawless, a play on the phrase "drop dead gorgeous" and featuring a picture of roger ebert's cancer ravaged face for an id, is what i came up with...

and the account was deleted within a day of its activation. less than 30 comments were posted under this name before some offended staffer pulled the plug. meanwhile, mantan moreland was busily plugging along, having posted well over 100 comments after less than a week and half's activity. what's even funnier is that for the most part, other av clubbers either refused to acknowledge drop dead jawless or they informed me in no uncertain terms that "the joke" was in poor taste. especially dispiriting for me was the non-response of one of my favorite commenters on the site, the intelligent and extremely prolific lone audience of the apocalypse. he ignored drop dead jawless even when i directly addressed him, yet on multiple occasions in the past he'd played along with the mantan moreland gag. i guess he's another of those who thinks that if he isn't offended by something, it simply isn't offensive. in other words: he's a douchebag.

i hadn't yet run out of things to say as drop dead jawless, so i opened another account, this time as drop dead jawless again and immediately posted a direct question to staffer scott tobias as to why my account had been deleted while mantan moreland was still going strong like some damned racist energizer bunny. i got "no idea, wasn't my call" in response. but within an hour of this exchange, drop dead jawless again was deleted by staff. then mantan moreland's account was finally removed as well.

i don't feel as though i've won anything here. i like the av club site articles and a lot of the people who comment on them are smart and funny. but many of them seem to be wholly lacking in empathy for anyone or anything outside their own circle of recognition. maybe they have that peculiar human problem whereby generalized tragedy doesn't affect them, whereas when things are personalized, they respond. but the idea of some unknown number of blacks (and it doesn't seem as though many of them visit the site) being offended just didn't register as being comparable with how personally offended many of them felt when they saw me "making fun" of poor roger ebert's travails. the fallout in the thread above was about what i expected in the long run; one poster who agreed with me but had severe reservations about the way i made my point and a lot of posts that said i was wrong and/or stupid, plus a staffer (not mr. tobias) who suggested that calling attention to an ass by being a bigger ass seemed counter-productive. the older i get, the less i understand people. i made a point in an extremely ugly way after other methods failed. nobody seemed to get the idea that the anger they felt at my seeming contempt towards roger ebert might be exactly what a black person would feel if they saw a mantan moreland post on the site.

many whites who post on the av club site come off as almost enraged by the idea of "political correctness". they see it as an intrusion on their right to free speech and a coddling of minorities which serves no purpose. but if so much "free speech" is spent attacking powerless groups, what's the value? av clubbers spend an inordinate amount of time making jokes at the expense of women and gays and blacks. what's the real agenda there? this isn't about free speech on the internet, it's about an angry majority that doesn't like the constraints imposed by civil society. maybe "political correctness" does go too far, but returning to the "good old days" when whites could (and did) say whatever they wanted about already marginalized groups doesn't strike me as the solution and the never-ending urge of some whites to go back to that time needs to be examined. things are inarguably better (if not perfect) for minorities now. is that what's troubling many whites? i have no answers, really. i wish i did, because these questions scare the fuck out of me sometimes.