Society lives in denial of the banality of evil. Of course, it’s bullshit.
Who, at this point, can feign surprise at this latest massacre when it sits at the nexus of so much that is familiar and perfectly in line with the U.S. that we know? We are a country where mass shootings are weekly news, where gun violence is a fact of daily life, where there is a legacy of terror against black people and communities, where white racists have long targeted black churches, where African-American life is so devalued it can be taken with impunity.
If you are shocked by any aspect of Roof’s story so far—including that he is being described in news outlets as “quiet and soft-spoken” instead of as a terrorist—you are not only willingly obtuse but complicit in his crime. There is a single conclusion to draw in this moment, and it is that we are here again, because this is exactly who we are.
It’s hard to condemn your friends in the name of higher principles, even when you’re black and your friend killed a bunch of people for being black. That’s the emotional reality of the situation.
Assholes benefit from the naive belief that people don’t routinely hide important parts of themselves, or that people don’t routinely compromise themselves. I have friends who’d be surprised how much it pisses me off that they’re creepy racists. The dilemma is that they seem reachable in one-on-one conversation. They do seem to listen. The right-wingishness does temporarily soften. There’s a human being in there dying to get out.
It all goes downhill once you’re in a group of them and they start reinforcing the shittiness in each other. At a social gathering I met some friends of friends (of course wearing black pants, a black hoodie, and a beanie). Something seemed standoffish, but there were mundane explanations, in the context of the conversation and how I was introduced. He was a hipster developer in a Trentemoller hoodie, but I like Trentemoller and vulnerability assessments are just another step in putting out a website. I’m just more conflicted about it.
Then the topic changed to race riots.
He explained that he lived in a “nice” part of Oakland, and one day the Black Lives Matter drama reached his sanctuary, and there was like a whole army of police! What struck him was that the police were there in anticipation of the protesters, and that cops were set up on top of nearby buildings in position for shooting tear gas canisters. He didn’t sound entirely comfortable with it.
Then someone who’s thoughtful one-on-one made a Discomfort Avoiding Move. As a D&D player, massive predeployments of an army make perfect sense! Gotta be strategic. The implication being that black people are an unruly mob that naturally needs to be suppressed. The first instinct is to identify with the cops. The comment was witty, if you bracket out the fact that you’re joking about racist murderers tear-gassing anybody who complains.
Fuck, I just met these people 15 minutes ago. I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t my birthday party. Is it a rationalization, or is it bad diplomacy to start out as the angry nigger? We’d already had awkward conversations not initiated by me about being vegan. It’s never just one thing. A few hours and drinks later, the conversation turned to age of consent edge cases. Because barely pubescent chicks are hot, amirite? Two women were present with their boyfriends during this conversation.
Relatively successful and progressive Bay Area progressives have racist and pedophile parts to them, openly and without shame. My contribution to the situation was to tell them about this Dave Chappelle skit after R Kelly came up, which I could tell was getting uncomfortable:
Pointing out the shitty things people say is recursive, possibly forever:
I can title a blog post “heteronormativity causes child molestation,” and it seems inflammatory and troll-ish. But normal people make light of child molestation. It’s obvious. It happens all the time. Everyone else in the situation was more normal than me. I was the least conventionally-attractive person at the table, and I’m the one who blogs about identification and queer theory. The normal people think high school chicks are hot, wink wink nudge nudge. The normal people lack empathy. Would I feel 100% comfortable deep down trusting them with children? “Schoolgirls,” “teens,” “barely legal,” “innocent,” etc. are porn cliches because that’s what normal people masturbate to. On RedTube, the category “Teens” has the third most videos (out of 37). It’s second only to “Blonde” and “Anal.”
My dad’s job made me think a lot about adults hurting children, as a child. I think everyone in America is raised to be afraid of and horrified by pedophiles, and to have contempt for them. The difference between me and others is that I learned a 100% realistic picture of who the pedophiles are: normal people. They have incredibly poor insight into how much they’re the problem, but they are.
Dehumanizing black people and little girls is not only tolerated, it’s rewarded with laughter. If you care enough to notice, you have to resolve conflicts between personal loyalties and general principles. Those conflicts are the fault of the people being assholes in the first place. They’re the ones alienating anyone who objects to their misbehavior. Nobody asked them to fantasize out loud about child molestation. Where were the girlfriends, in the situation?
It was a successful gathering from the viewpoint of the normal people, and it wasn’t a night of unrelenting insensitive crap. Those are just normal things that happen at parties. A lot of the conversation is about TV people watch. Of course they absorb all kinds of cultural pathologies.
Whatever happened, I suspect I’m the only one who woke up the next morning and started reflecting on racism and pedophilia, because those are the memories that stand out. Even though I’m less socially anxious than I used to be, I still want to withdraw. I work from home as much as humanly possible, for similar reasons.
It’s a good example of how the mental health care system tends to do a worse job for minorities. A white male clinician has a lot of self-interested reasons to gaslight people complaining about more subtle racist incidents, then pathologize the social withdrawal. What would be the reasonable way to respond if you found yourself in a situation where most people are biased against you and dishonest about it? If it wasn’t about racial issues most whites would rather avoid, they might even say that removing negative influences from your life is healthy, because nobody should just passively put up with someone that insults them. It’s just that the implications are disturbing: there’s no place for the stigmatized to go, because society has exiled them deliberately. There might not be anything wrong with them besides the stress of being stigmatized.