eye contact and the impossibility of respect

Aeon published an essay on equality and respect by Richard Reeves. It’s good philosophical writing, clarifying what exactly we mean by the terms.

The part I want to comment on is the section on eye contact:

Societies that are equal in terms of relations are those in which there is mutual respect, where – as the philosopher Philip Pettit put it in 2010, alluding to a line by John Milton – ‘free persons … can speak their minds, walk tall among their fellows, and look each other squarely in the eye’.

Look each other squarely in the eye. That’s the heart of it. If I lower my eyes out of deference, I render myself your inferior. Black slaves who dared look their owners in the eye could be whipped for ‘insolence’. If we consider ourselves morally worthier than someone else, we are said to ‘look down’ on them; and they likely notice. If we simply fail to look a person in the eye – my bus driver perhaps – the danger is we miss their basic humanity, their essential moral sameness, the basic equality that exists between us. And then I might throw an insult, or something much worse, at them.

We are equals when we meet each other’s gaze. This requires and reflects mutual respect, and is why being ‘disrespected’ is socially painful. When in 2016 the US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton described half of Donald Trump’s supporters as ‘a basket of deplorables’, the political damage resulted from her apparent lack of respect for millions of her fellow citizens. Never mind that she was quite specific about the group she was referring to (Trump’s ‘racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic’ supporters), or that the phrase was taken out of context before being bounced around every social media echo chamber. Her words confirmed a sense among many working-class white Americans that the professional elite looks down on them. Meanwhile, Trump seemed to look them squarely in the eye.

The “we” here doesn’t speak for autistic people, but it sets the stage for social discrimination against us.

In the quoted passage, Reeves can definitely speak for himself when he says that failure to make eye contact with a bus driver presents the danger of forgetting the person’s basic humanity. It’s something that should always be in mind, for everyone. It’s extremely telling when normals admit how frequently they fail to do this. Apparently, if someone is interacting with Reeves as part of their job, doing something kinda mechanical, he may start treating them like a machine. This is extremely common behavior.

Let’s talk about intersectionality and impossible dilemmas. I’m black, and I’m a lot more comfortable wearing a heavy hoodie. It’s the same reason weighted blankets are calming. Dressing this way as a black person means that I sometimes frighten passersby, just by existing. It’s only that much worse because I’m shifty-eyed or refuse to make eye contact in the first place. But then if I do make eye contact and act like a human, I’m uppity and that definitely pisses people off. With some people, there’s literally nothing I could do that would be right and make them comfortable, and the whole thing is a stressful ordeal.

The white people just don’t want to admit that the basket of deplorables is half of them or something. The passage only makes sense if you assume they’re a small fraction rather than the majority. The racist majority of American white people took offense to being called what they are. News at 11.

Speaking of weird pronoun use (also an autism thing), I thought this use of “I” by a British guy white guy was a bit odd:

Self-respect and mutual respect are tightly intertwined. If others do not respect me, it is hard to respect myself; and vice versa. This is why the American philosopher John Rawls listed ‘self-respect’ as one of the basic goods in A Theory of Justice (1971). Generating self-respect as a person of colour in a racist society, in which I am not respected by many of my fellows, is hard – but essential. Relational equality requires, then, a combination of independence (for self-respect) and inclusion (for mutual respect).

I looked the guy up and he’s definitely not a “person of color.”

Logical deduction: if it’s hard for colored folk to respect ourselves, and the respect of others requires self-respect, then it’s hard to respect people of color. What a convoluted way of admitting to this personal difficulty! In the middle of a passage where he seems to be identifying with us. Of course this is not a charitable reading. But would it be surprising, if he admits that he struggles to respect bus drivers?

The genius of racism as a self-reinforcing system can’t be overstated. White guys are trained to go through life interpreting my autism as a gesture of submission to them.

There’s a deeper emotional problem in our society that makes people so ready to make all these negative assumptions after literally 5 seconds of social interaction. Are the fear and paranoia worse because normal people think lying is cool, in all their supposed social sophistication?

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