Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Context Makes the Difference Between Good and Evil

Here's a wince-inducing op-ed a friend of mine posted on social media today, and due to a temporary moment of confusion caused by looking at multiple browser windows open across three different computer monitors, I honestly thought this was a (not very funny) Onion article until I noticed the font and formatting differences and realized "Holy crap, this is real."

AZ Central published a piece by Rashaad Thomas titled "Phoenix restaurant says this is a photo of cola miners. But I see offensive blackface".

Short version: historic photos of coal miners after work need to be taken down, because white guys covered in coal dust look exactly like white guys wearing blackface, which is racist, which means vintage coal-miner photos are racist too.

Actual quote:

Who determines what's offensive?

For me, the coal miners disappeared and a film honored for its artistic merit, despite being the most racist propaganda films ever, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) surfaces, in which white actors appeared in blackface. The white owner saw coal miners in the photograph. Therefore, it was not offensive.

Fact: The photograph shows coal miners’ faces covered in soot. The context of the photograph is not the issue.
This is the same logic which inspired certain idiots at Facebook a few years ago to insist that the infamous "napalm girl" news photo from the Vietnam War is actually child pornography: "Fact: the photograph shows full frontal pre-pubescent nudity. The context of the photograph is not the issue." Except that's not really a fair comparison because at Facebook it was an algorithm, rather than an actual human being, which erroneously flagged Napalm Girl as pornographic.

While discussing Thomas' article, another friend of mine pointed out that "idea that context doesn't matter is really a pretty scary one, because it can be used to shut down entire topics of discussion." But it's even worse than that: if you take such logic only a tiny bit further -- not even to the point of exaggeration for ludicrous effect -- without context you completely lose the ability to distinguish between good and evil, or right and wrong.

Lemme tell you about a certain scary incident involving me and one of the staff photographers at my last daily newspaper job: one afternoon we were walking through downtown New Britain on our way to some assignment, and stopped at a four-way intersection and crosswalk waiting for the light to change. When "don't walk" changed to "walk" I glanced up and down the street, saw no cars coming, and started to step out into the road/crosswalk. But I didn't think to look behind me, which is why I did not notice a speeding car coming up that street, clearly intent on making a right turn into the crosswalk. Fortunately the photographer did see this, and grabbed my arm and yanked me back just in time so that when the car sped around the corner in front of me there was maybe a half-inch of space between it and my body--though maybe a bit less than that. 

Needless to say, I was very grateful to the photographer, and also pretty badly shaken by the close call, and it took a few minutes, most of the rest of our walk to the assignment, before I got over it enough to focus on matters at hand rather than be all "Ohmygodohmygod" and "If you hadn't ... [shuddery silence] ... right now I'd be ... [shuddery silence] ...."

So, yeah: I'm sure we'll all agree it was damned lucky for me, that the photographer was there to do what he did. And for what it's worth, there have been a couple of occasions when I was able to do something similar for other people, and depending where you live you've likely done so too, because anyone who's spent time enough time in certain city environments will eventually wind up on the giving and receiving ends of such incidents on occasion.

But if you take Thomas' argument about the coal miners to heart -- context is irrelevant, and any one person's context-free opinion overrides all else -- you could describe the photographer's actions this way:

One day, a physically small and weak woman was walking through a high-crime neighborhood when suddenly, a much larger and stronger man grabbed her and refused to let her walk away even though she clearly wanted to. She was badly shaken by the incident for some time afterwards -- and he'd grabbed her hard enough for that spot on her arm to be sore for awhile, too.

Fact: such behavior is often engaged in by criminally aggressive men who override women's individual autonomy for their own desires. The context of the incident is not the issue. (I'm not saying the photographer was necessarily a bad rapey-type of guy who deserves to be arrested, mind you; I'm just saying what he did should NOT be held up as an example of acceptable behavior, especially not from a man toward a woman. Because there are just too many times when such behavior is not ONLY not acceptable, it's downright harmful.)


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