Harumph

The internet is outraged.

There’s always something. Perhaps it’s a celebrity that has said something sexist. Or a minor public intellectual who’s made a bad joke or used a racist slur. I don’t know. But I do know this: first and most importantly, it’s okay it be pissed off and to call people out on their bad behavior; secondly, it probably won’t change anything.

Of the first point, because it’s worth stressing so as to avoid a slew of angry comments and hate mail, when people say and do stupid things, they should be called out on it. A lot of the time, people either don’t know that they’re behaving like assholes or they think they can get away with it; either way, they’re never going to learn unless it’s pointed out to them. So, carry on Twitter. Carry on.

Of the second point, I’m reminded of a YouTube video I was pointed to earlier this week. It was made by a guy who’s spent some time in Buddhist academia (as well as Buddhist monasteries), and his overall point in the video seems to be that people are sort of jerks. To use his term, frauds. That is, they lack personal integrity and behave like pompous, fatuous blow-hards despite the idealizations that academia is supposed to be a place of open dialogue and critical thinking. (Or, conversely, they behave like small-minded ignorant dolts despite the fact that Buddhist monastics are supposed to be, I don’t know, enlightened or something.) The video was not particularly revelatory to me because (a) well, duh; and (b) pointing out how individual people can be less-than-perfect idealized version of the people we want to be is easy. Proverbial shooting fish in a barrel easy. There are always going to be people who behave badly. That’s the nature of game. (And the game, by the way, is samsara.)

So what are you gonna do about it? The answer to that question has to do with making a crucial distinction between personal bad behavior and systems of institutional discrimination. The former is good old fashioned prejudice, prejudice that can come in the form of cultural chauvinism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, racism, ableism, and so forth. This kind of personal prejudice is easy to spot because it comes up in everyday, personal interactions we have with other people. Someone makes a “dumb blond” joke. Hello casual sexism! Someone uses the word “gay” to refer to something they don’t like. Oh, hi there heteronormativity! It’s good to call these things out, and it’s a worthwhile hobby to catalog and note our inherited and uncritically accepted biases and predispositions. I have no doubt of that.

But I also have no doubt about the fact that if we want to change the system that allows for these biases and prejudices to persist, unchecked and unchallenged, we also need to address precisely that: the systems that undergird them. There is a difference between personal bias and institutional discrimination. Here’s an example.

For about a century, little black kids and little white kids went to different schools in the US. This was justified by the logic of “separate but equal,” a legal (i.e., institutional) system put into place by the US Supreme Court in 1896. It was undone by a 1955 Supreme Court case called Brown v. Board of Education. When his state’s schools were told to desegregate, the governor of Arkansas said, basically, “Hell no.” Now, it’s easy to see his individual behavior as reflecting personal prejudice. No question about that, and we’d be right to say, “Hey, Mr. Faubus, you’re a closed-minded racist idiot. Please stop.” President Eisenhower had a different tactic. He sent federal troops to Arkansas to protect the rights and freedoms of African American citizens who wanted to go to an all-white school.

Now, here’s the thing. I don’t really know anything about Pres. Eisenhower. But I’m willing to bet that, given the facts of when he was born and where he was raised, he probably had personal opinions about people of color that would not have jived with our early twenty-first century sensibilities. I’m willing to bet that he never used the term “person of color” but probably did use all sorts of other words that start with the letter “n” to refer to African Americans. But you know what? I don’t care. I don’t care what his personal beliefs or individual attitudes were because when push came to shove, in the case of Little Rock, Arkansas, he defended a law that was explicitly designed to deconstruct a system of institutional racism.

That’s the distinction between personal and institutional discrimination. It’s a worthwhile project to be outraged and to catalog instances of personal prejudice only insofar as, in the aggregate, they reflect larger systems of institutional inequality and imbalances of power. But also know that if you want to undo those systems of power, complaining about individual stupidity isn’t going to do much without simultaneously actually working toward undoing institutional systems of power and inequality.

How do you undo institutional systems of power and inequality? That’s complicated. And because it’s complicated is why no one blogs about it. The fact of the matter is that you undo them either through large-scale revolution or though smaller acts of resistance. Large scale revolution isn’t something I can advocate (but only because I’m opposed to literally bashing people’s heads in even for the Greater Good). And smaller acts of resistance tend to be just that: small and largely ignorable by larger systems of communication. Maybe you’re working for a local community activist group. Or donate time and money to some charitable cause. Or serve on the board of your community and, when some prejudiced blowhard proposes some new policy that you know will have negative consequences for already marginalized people, you stand up and say “Hell no.” That one act of resistance, even if no one but your fellow board members notice, can mean everything.

And I know that some of you reading this have had that experience. And to you I say, thanks. Keep up the good fight.