On flossing

So I want to talk about flossing, not because I have very strong feelings about dental hygiene, but because there’s been some interesting developments in what we know about flossing in the last few weeks that I think serve as a good model for one of the biggest challenges in talking about scientific and scholarly knowledge.

I’ve talked before about how powerful conventional wisdom is – as humans, and especially as scholars, we like to believe that we approach each new question with fresh eyes, weighing up the evidence on both sides to come to a conclusion, but in reality, we measure new knowledge against what we already know.  It’s a particularly flawed system because the information we’re given when we’re younger is often oversimplified, if not flat-out false, and obviously the more we study a question, the more we should find out, so future information should always be better than past information.

Which brings me to flossing – we’ve been told for decades that flossing is ‘good for you,’ by which is generally meant that it reduces long-term plaque buildup on our teeth better than just brushing and regular dental screenings and cleanings.  A few weeks back, an Associated Press journalist ‘took down flossing’ (as Poynter puts it), publishing a lengthy review of available studies and a freedom of information request which revealed that the DHHS had actually quietly removed flossing from its recommendations.  The article even implies that the decision to remove flossing may have actually been the result of the FOIA (which the AP reported had submitted the previous year, citing that all DHHS guidelines need to be based on scientific evidence and requesting the evidence base for the flossing recommendation).  As news agencies tend to do, the story blew up in newspapers, talkshows, and online, with headlines bordering on just announcing, “EXTRA! EXTRA!  EVERYONE STOP FLOSSING IMMEDIATELY!”

The people who actually work in dental health then started responding, pointing out that clinical studies on flossing are difficult to execute because they rely on self-reporting and at-home treatments, which are always the weakest options for getting consistent results, and that any long-term study might actually violate the rules for human testing because if, after 20 years of telling a control group not to floss, it turns out that it did cause them to develop periodontitis, the study itself would be liable for their condition.  They also noted that there’s still sound logic for flossing, that it breaks up plaque formation on parts of the tooth not reached by brushing, and that the description of available evidence as “weak” and “very unreliable” by the Cochrane Library (the group that reviews scientific studies, whose analysis started this whole discussion) are precise, hierarchical categories used to describe and rank scientific studies, and that the repetition of these terms in news reporting about the Cochrane Library’s report are unrepresentative because the general public takes these terms to mean something different.

Now, to start with, there are a ton of things wrong with the current system for funding and reporting scientific studies, and a ton more in how the media reports scientific reports.  There’s a great primer on this from John Oliver’s show, and some more info specifically on how the media reports healthcare/nutritional information from Adam Ruins Everything.  But these issues don’t really explain why we believed in flossing or what we should do about it because, as any good scientist will tell you, science is incremental, and scientific studies only focus on one or a few specific aspects of a much bigger issue or question.

As someone who works in research administration, one of my jobs is writing and copy-editing scientific grants, and every grants I’ve ever worked on opened with something to the effect of, “____ is a huge public health threat in the US today,” often without even a citation at the end (insert the general topic under which this grant falls – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.).  I’m sure most studies on flossing read the same way – I’d bet most of them opened with the statement “regular flossing seriously reduces the risk of periodontist” and then went on to discuss some particular aspect of flossing that that study would test.  The big issue gets treated as an axiom – something assumed to be true for the sake of the argument which follows – but without anyone admitting that it’s axiomatically true, not evidentially true.

It’s important the general public understand the serious problems with the state of scientific research today, but I’d argue it’s just as important – if not more so – that we all understand just how limited we are in addressing these axioms.  Again, the debate about flossing hits most of the high points – on the one hand, we can use literature studies to highlight gaps in significant evidence, and on the other hand, we can use logic and anecdotal evidence to try to explain deductively why the axioms might be true, but both options are hindered by our natural predisposition towards conventional wisdom.

Literature studies are often rejected by the very fields they investigate because even scholars and scientists have problems overcoming the sway of conventional wisdom.  In the case of flossing, the Cochrane Library report dates from 2011, but obviously wasn’t widely circulated or reported on until this one journalist highlighted it five years later.  The responses to the AP article by dentists and other oral health experts all have more or less the same tone – the Cochrane Library findings are interesting, but not interesting enough to overcome my feeling (as an expert) that flossing works, and besides, the risk of us being wrong is too severe for us to even consider behaving differently.  But that’s not the scientific method – that’s intuition and habit, albeit intuition based on relevant personal experiences.

A similar debate has (very quietly) taken place across the last several decades about the efficacy of dieting and weight loss.  Literature studies dating back to the 1990s have suggested that long-term weight loss is just not possible, and these findings get revived every 5 to 10 years (like from UCLA and Melborne), and yet nothing could be farther from the message most of us hear about weight loss and health, not only from the media, but from the medical establishment, as well.  Why? Well, the six billion dollar dieting industry probably has something to do with it, but in responding to these studies, scientists often take the same tone as with flossing – this doesn’t feel true, and besides, the risk is too real if we change things.

The reliance on logic to bolster axioms goes hand-in-hand with the power of conventional wisdom.  Again, as humans, we often think of logic as an objective, self-regulating *thing* – that if something is logical, that means something about its realness that extends beyond our own perception.  However, logic is a system that we invented to try to systematize understanding things that aren’t easily perceived, like abstract concepts.  It’s still grounded in our perception, and it can vary greatly from person to person.  Indeed, if you listen to people argue, often the argument will boil down to both people stating their logic, and then getting angry that the other person doesn’t accept it or continues to believe their logic is a better fit.  That’s because logic isn’t abstract or objective – it’s based on what axioms we presume at the outset, what laws we lay out to work within.  If these axioms aren’t specified, or if we want to question the axioms themselves, the whole system breaks down.

To take the example of flossing, it may sound logical to say rubbing a piece of waxed filament between your teeth breaks up plaque formations, but it’s also logical to argue that since plaque forms first on a molecular level, using floss to break it up would be like using the side of a skyscraper to push a balled up piece of paper across a street.  Being able to formulate an argument that sounds logical to support an idea doesn’t make the idea true – that’s the very definition of a justification.

Unfortunately, there’s no real solution here, but at the very least, these issues about testing or understanding axioms demonstrate that how desperately we need new and better language for discussing scientific and scholarly findings.  We often talk about scientific findings as if they were the very definition of facts – indisputable, consistent, not open to interpretation or variation by perception, but that’s just not true.  All scientific ‘facts’ are based on some axiomatically thinking, and like with any logical proof, we need a way to go back to the start, lay out exactly what those axioms are, and discuss whether they are still sound and reasonable assumptions.  At the very least, we need a way to be able to identify them as assumptions.  In the short term, it’s probably fine to carry on flossing, but not if it means we all stop asking why exactly we’re doing it.

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Does Trump appeal to Evangelicals because they’re Evangelicals?

Sorry updates have been a bit sporadic – they will likely remain that way because … well, because my brain is pretty scattered at the moment and writing is hard.  My cross to bear and all that, I know.

Also, I know I say this during every election, but I really do try to keep this blog as apolitical (and internationally-focused) as possible, but the US election is inevitably big news, and religion always seems to play a major role in it.

I resisted commenting to Donald Trump’s or Ted Cruz’ ‘plans’ for American Muslims, mostly because I couldn’t formulate a better response than just a bunch of angry, high-pitched screeching, and if nothing else, it’s hard to transfer that to the written word without it losing some of its impact.  I guess I could have posted a vlog, but I don’t think I’m really to go that modern yet.

However, the current discussions online center on how and why Donald Trump has won over the religious right, and that’s a discussion I feel I can enter into with actual English words, instead of just guttural noises.

Samantha Bee gave a great monologue on the topic last week, and Cynthia Burack, a political scientist at Ohio State, wrote a followup for HuffPo speculating on how Trump support has developed within Christian right circles, noting that some of the same prophetic language is now being used for Trump as was for George W. Bush in 2000.

It’s an interest point of inquiry, but unfortunately Professor Burack can only provide a couple of examples of where this new Trump-is-prophesied language has shown up.  I would also argue that she’s a bit quick to dismiss Trump’s reference to “2 Corinthians” (for non-Christians, it’s supposed to be “second Corinthians,” as in “Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians”) as representing his lack of familiarity with the Bible – however, not because the slip-up alienated him from Evangelicals, but because actually, the internet is now full of Evangelicals defending him and lambasting ‘the mainstream media’ for making such a big deal of it.  The general theme of these defenses all seem to be the same – that while it’s weird that he called the book “2 Corinthians,” the important part is that he understood the importance of the verse he cited, that true freedom and liberty come from the Lord (and baptism in the Spirit).

It seems to me a fairly weak defense, especially as, from everything I can find online, Trump doesn’t believe in second baptism.  It seems just as reasonable to assume instead that he picked the verse because it has the word “liberty” in it (or “freedom,” depending on the translation) and he was speaking at Liberty University, and running for President of the Free World (sidenote: the rest of the world actually does find it both insulting and hilarious that we call ourselves that, so we might want to stop).  So he had his staff do a google search for “Bible liberty” and that’s what came up (case in point, the chapter as a whole is definitely not talking about “liberty” in the sense of individual freedom, but rather the freedom that comes with spiritual enlightenment, as the rest of it is all about reading and understanding the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament that were supposed to have been written by Moses).

The fact that Evangelicals feel the need to defend Trump’s mistake, however, as well as the slow emergence of prophetic language being used to endorse him reveals something about why these voters are supporting Trump, which Samantha Bee suggests at the very end of her segment, that they’re support isn’t necessarily tied to their religious identity. Indeed, I’d be inclined to ask the question – does Trump appeal to Evangelicals because they’re Evangelicals?

Along with Muslims worldwide, American Christian Evangelicals are one of the religious communities most often presented as defined exclusively by their religious identity.  In the case of American Evangelicals, it’s not hard to understand where this characterization comes from – they often go out of their way to support it.  Go on any Evangelical website, and you’ll find guidance on what’s the correct religious way for Evangelicals to date, eat, dress, celebrate holidays – basically implying that there’s a correct Christian way to do anything and everything.  The reality, however, is far more complicated because humans are far more complicated.  An Evangelical Christian may also be a parent, a professional, a sports fan, and a huge fan of the Grand Theft Auto series.  All of those things are going to affect their decision-making processes.  

The same goes for picking a candidate – that Evangelicals are supporting Trump doesn’t necessarily mean he’s done anything to resonate with their religious beliefs.  Throwing the odd Biblical reference into his speeches will probably help them to justify their support of him, but ultimately, there are a whole host of other options for why these people might be supporting this candidate that have nothing to do with their religious identity.

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Oppression Jousting: Why We Pit Minorities against Each Other

Carrying on from my last post, I want to talk some more about the ICM survey of “What Muslims Think” (in Britain).  First, it looks like the survey is no longer available on ICM’s website; however, I did find a cached version of the raw PDFs of the data here, for anyone who wants to check it out.  There’s also a good discussion of why pollsters pick limited sample sizes and how that skews results over on UK Polling Results.

The survey result that’s gotten the most attention by far is that more than half of respondents said that they disagreed with the statements, “homosexuality should be legal in the UK” and “gay marriage should be legal in the UK” (52% for the former and 56% for the latter).  While it’s certainly an interesting result, in some ways, it’s actually a more interesting question.  It’s one of very few ‘special interest’ questions that doesn’t have any obvious link to Islam or Muslims (there are, by comparison, no questions about inter-religious marriage, despite questions asking how the respondent feels about various religious communities, and a very lengthy section about their opinions on Judaism, which no one seems to be talking about, probably because it’s largely positive).  In a lot of the reporting about the survey, these questions are used to highlight that British Muslims are out of step with British public opinion more generally, but these are also the only questions that mention a specific political opinion, and follow directly after the statement “Britain is a country of bad moral behavior,” making it sound more like the questions on LGBT rights were meant to illustrate examples of Britain’s ‘bad moral behavior.’

Setting aside the issue of small and skewed sample sizes, it’s worth pointing out that by not supporting same-sex marriage, British Muslims are, at best, out of date with British public opinion.  Even as recently as 2004, polling in Britain showed only 52% support for same-sex marriages, and four years earlier, before the introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act, it was 50/50. So claiming that non-Muslim Brits love queer people or that supporting LGBT rights is somehow as characteristically British as tea and cricket is seriously rewriting history.

However, I think the inclusion of the questions about homosexuality in a survey focused on “what Muslims think” reveals a larger problem with how dominant communities address oppressed communities; namely, the tendency to want to pit them against each other in order to distract from the real source of their oppression.  As far as I know, there’s no general term for this, so I’m going to suggest “oppression jousting.”  It’s interesting that, in Britain’s case, it’s Muslims versus queer people, as there’s a similar current in American public opinion about LGBT rights, that people of color, and in particular African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to be homophobic than the general population (a belief usually explained by citing the position of these communities’ dominant religions, in particular Catholicism and Southern Baptists).  Interestingly, polling has always struggled to back up this belief, but it’s still pretty commonly held.  The underlying claim seems to be that these communities are dragging down the average, so that the remaining population (and in particular, the white community) should be seen as less homophobic than polling or legal action would suggest.  

In addition to there being very little evidence to support oppression jousting as really making a statistically significantly difference in rates of prejudice for the population as a whole, focusing on the potential divisions between minorities is also a red herring if the ultimate goal is ending prejudice and establishing equality, as, by definition, minority communities have the least political power to apply to this problem.  Even if Britain wanted to focus all of its social and political efforts on ending homophobia in the British Muslim community, that would probably have very little effect on LGBT rights because the British Muslim community is already politically sidelined.

That’s not to say that it’s not worth addressing prejudice within minority communities – it’s worth addressing because prejudice is always worth addressing – but it’s not an effective use of resources to end oppression because the minority communities aren’t the ones doing the oppressing.  Indeed, in some ways, it’s particularly disappointing to see Britain falling prey to oppression jousting when it comes to LGBT rights because there are strong links between British imperialism and the rise of homophobia worldwide.  For better or worse, British imperialism remodeled many cultures’ views on gender and sexuality, including, in the case of many Muslim countries, creating a concept of government-regulated civil marriage.  Closer to home, although there have been Muslims living in Britain for centuries, it wasn’t British Muslims who passed the Buggery Act.  They weren’t the ones who executed men even as late as the 1860s for homosexuality.  They weren’t the ones who sent Oscar Wilde to jail, or chemically castrated Alan Turing.  Prejudice can come from anyone, but oppression can only come from positions of power, and that’s where we need to keep our focus – not on the knights on horseback, but on the king who’s making them fight.

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Survey shows dozens of Muslims think things we’re uncomfortable with!

The Wall Street Journal ran a headline a few days ago that was simply, “Britain’s Muslim Problem,” proving once and for all that the WSJ has be fully integrated into the Murdoch news machine, which is sad, but also a bit hilarious, as it clearly isn’t trying very hard to cover up its bias.

For example, the article starts by saying, “at least 800 British Muslims have left the country to wage jihad with Islamic State. Another 600 were caught trying to join the group.” Setting aside for a moment that it gives no citation for those numbers, that’s a total of 1400 people. The population of British Muslims is roughly 2.7M, as of the last census. That means that the WSJ is warning us that 0.052% of Muslims have been radicalized (which is approximately 0.013% of the total population of Britain). Even if they want to claim that this is an annual rate, that means that it would take 1,929 years for the entire population of Muslims to be radicalized, assuming the rate and population remain stable. Presumably by the time the entire Muslim population of Britain is radicalized, they’ll be ‘waging jihad’ over those shiny, aluminum jumpsuits we all wear in the future.

Unfortunately, startling statistics about 0.013% of the British population isn’t all they have. They’re also citing a survey conducted recently by ICM for a Channel 4 documentary, entitled “What Muslims really think,” to air later this month.

First, for the uninitiated – “documentary,” when attached to the words “Channel 4” doesn’t really mean what you’re thinking. Channel 4 is well-known for producing scandalizing documentaries, often exploiting minorities and vulnerable populations to do so, producing what often amount to modern-day freakshows. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the satirical version produced by That Mitchell and Webb Show a few years back, called “The Boy with an Arse for a Face” (trigger warning for language that would match something with that title). So that the survey is for Channel 4 is already not a vote in favor of its even-handedness. Moreover, the survey included only 1,047 respondents, and as several people have pointed out, focused on neighborhoods that had at least 20% Muslim population, which are also some of the poorest neighborhoods in Britain. The survey is corrected for socio-economic status, but only within the sample group, meaning they didn’t find additional respondents to balance out the difference, they just weighted the responses from the existing pool of middle and upper class participants more.

There’s a lot to talk about with the survey – most reporters have focused in on the result that half of the participants said that they did not support the legalization of homosexuality or of gay marriage, which I think I want to treat in a separate post – but I think one of the most overlooked aspects is the issue of sample size.

For example, the WJS notes that the survey found that “7% of respondents support the establishment of an Islamic state.” To start with, only 1% of respondents, or 12 people, said they would support “a fully-separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to Sharia Law and government.” Another 17% percent, or 187 people, supported integrating in some ways, but maintaining a Islamic lifestyle as much as possible. The overwhelming majority (49%, 532 people) said they would like to “fully integrate with non-Muslims in all aspects of life.” While that suggests that the majority support integration, we’re still only talking about the opinions of 1,047 people for a population of 2.7M (that’s 0.039%, for those playing along on our home game).

Survey sizes obviously have to be smaller than the full population, but when you get down to survey populations that small standing in for actual populations that large, it leads to the interjection of way too many alternative variables. For example, it’s entirely possible that all 12 of those people who claimed to support a Muslim state in Britain were far-right nutjobs pretending to be Muslims. You could easily convince 12 people to do that. Or they could all be from the same family, or have studied under the same Imam, or they could have all just made some weird pack to answer the survey in as extreme a manner as possible. When it’s only 12 people, there are just way too many other options for how those answers might have come about.

Plenty of other people have talked about the problem with humans’ difficulty in understanding the relationship between large numbers, but when it comes to population-wide observations, we really do need to train ourselves to see these things in context. A less than 0.1% sample size is just not significant, unless you can provide some really compelling evidence for how this cohort was assembled. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same as me just stopping people on the street, asking their opinion, and then claiming that that’s “what Americans think” or “what white people think.” It’s not just not informative, it’s actually mis-informative, because it’s presenting something essentially anecdotal as statistically significant.

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White Supremacy and Global Capital

Sort of related to what I was talking about earlier with regard to the wSieci cover, here’s a great discussion of how global capitalism has strengthened the far right and white supremacy in North America and Europe:

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Defending Europe: Part II

Welcome to Part II of my discussion of wSieci’s “Islamic Rape of Europe,” where I talk a lot about maps.  Part I is all about the racism and white supremacy represented in the cover – check it out before you comment, please!

So aside from being a terrifying expression of the re-emergence of white supremacy in Europe, the wSieci article also brings up one of the major problems with any discussion of protecting Europe from the rest of the world – Europe and European aren’t special categories of people that need to be protected against all other peoples.

To start with, we need to ask, what is Europe?  The obvious answer would be “a continent,” but actually even this isn’t really true.  A continent is defined in geography as “any of the world’s main continuous expanses of land,” by which definition, Asia is a continent of which Europe is a subregion, same as the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent.  

Europe is still considered one of the seven continents, mostly because it was Europeans that designed the maps we all use today.  Indeed, since the 15th century, we’ve been literally inflating Europe in our view of the world.  Even if we want to accept Europe as a distinct subregion, we run into the same problem as with defining where is the Middle East or where is Central America – we can all make a vague gesture to the right region on a map, but defining the precise borders is much harder.  In some ways, it’s ironic that the wSieci cover comes out of Poland, as Eastern and Western Europe have experienced considerably different histories in the last two centuries, and Eastern Europeans actually face considerable zenophobia in Western Europe as not being ‘really’ European.  From my own experience living in Britain, I know plenty of British people who would be horrified by the idea of Poland ‘protecting’ what it is to be Europe.

Even if we can define what “Europe” is, we’re faced with another problem in trying to treat “Europeans” as an endangered species.  The wonderful irony of Western imperialism is that both Europeans and white people genuinely are going extinct.  One of major reasons why Europe should accept the incoming tide of refugees (besides, you know, basic humanity) is that the EU has some of the lowest birth rates in the world, and without either a considerable increase in their birth rate or an intake of new citizens, their population will just continue to decline, dropping by roughly half by 2060.  For centuries, white populations have conquered and intermarried on other continents while trying to maintain strict exclusionism for their own countries, the end result of which is that “being white” is dying out.  

But that doesn’t make white people an endangered species because race is not the same thing as species.  There are plenty of humans in earth, and the distribution of physical characteristics is in constant flux, due in part to their tendency to migrate around the world.  Indeed, Eastern Europe has already gone through several centuries of migration from eastern Asia, particularly from the Mongolian plateau.  The influx of Mongolian tribes accounts for some of the differences in appearance between Eastern and Western Europeans – people who “look Eastern European,” a facial structure made famous by Mila Kunis and Milla Jovovich, look like the result of centuries of intermixing between Scandinavians, Germanic tribes, and Mongolian tribes.

And those tribes didn’t understand themselves as invading some sacred city on the hill by settling in Europe – in fact, for most of the Middle Ages, Scandinavian, Germanic, and Mongolian tribes were all viewed as equally barbaric by the people of the Mediterranean, both in southern Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East, which had remained the center of culture for a millennium.  The idea of Middle Easterners “contaminating” Europe would have made no sense to Europeans in the Middle Ages – although they considered Muslims the enemies of Christianity, they were desperate for the luxury goods and ancient knowledge found in Constantinople and ‘the Orient,’ and parts of what we call Europe today were under Muslim rule throughout the Middle Ages, including Sicily, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal, and at various points, parts of Southern France.

There’s no real scholarly agreement as to when the idea of “Europe” began – there is limited evidence for the use of the term in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it seems to be predominately a post-Napoleonic idea.  To put that in perspective, there’s been a United States longer than there’s been a “Europe” as we use the term today.  While we’re at it, Tiffany & Co. is older than the united Italy we see on a map today, and there’s only been a united Germany for 99 of the last 150 years.  All of this is just to say that while we think of “Europe” as a constant thing that goes back centuries, it really isn’t, and the fact that “European” as an identity is still evolving should not be surprising – it’s always been evolving, and will continue to do so no matter what, either becoming a new hybrid society or dying off and making way for something new, whichever comes first.

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Yet another reminder that we should all be afraid of white supremacy.

Trigger warnings for discussions of racism, sexism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, and rape.

So a Polish ‘far-right’ magazine wSieci published its most recent edition with a picture of a woman, wrapped in the European flag, clearly in pain, being roughly grabbed by several dark-skinned arms, under the title “Islamic Rape of Europe.”

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The cover actually prompted me to want to talk about what the concept of “Europe” even is, and whether it’s still useful today, but I wanted to start off with some caveats that are already proving longer than expected, so I think I’ll break this into two posts.  First, the super depressing discussions of racism and political correctness.  Tune in next week for part two, which will mostly be pictures of maps.

First, the cover is both racist and sexist.  Not open for debate.  Islam is a religion, not a race, and European is not synonymous with white.  That woman could be Muslim and all of the arms grabbing at her both European and non-Muslim.  Also, women are in constant danger of rape and sexual assault, but these attacks are much more likely to come from their own communities or even from direct blood relatives, and non-white women face a higher risk of sexual assault and rape than white women [depressing stats].  Limiting immigration is no more effective for reducing the rates of sexual assault as it is for reducing our carbon footprint or rebalancing the economy – it’s possible it might make some very small difference, but there are definitely better places to start.

Second, the racism and sexism depicted here are part of a much broader tradition in white supremacy – the claim that racism is necessary to protect white women (there’s a good primer on the subject for the American context here).  Again, not open for debate and also complete nonsense.  Firstly, as a white woman, I don’t exist to serve as an baby incubator for my race.  Secondly, again, presenting rape culture as a race issue is just straight up false – rape and sexual assault occur predominantly within existing power structures.  Indeed, the race component of rape runs the other direction – as we’ve seen time and time again in the relationship between ‘fratboy culture’ and the frankly terrifying rates of sexual assault on college campuses, the *more* privileged a group is, the more likely they are to assault someone, probably because they’re not used to having their choices questioned.

Finally, the cover is not just politically incorrect, although a truly shocking number of websites and news outlets have called it just that.  It’s worth pointing out that the term ‘politically correct’ doesn’t even really mean anything – or more to the point, is often used to harken back to a period of ‘forced’ multiculturalism that never actually happened.  As discussed here, the term started out as a literal description of the potential political outcome of personal choices, particular consumer choices, akin to the modern concept of buying free-trade goods or ‘buying local.’  The adoption of the term by mainstream media and the American right more or less parallels the very limited attempts at increasing multiculturalism and reducing public displays of racism and sexism in the late 80s and early 90s – basically the most ‘politically correct’ we ever were as a society was Captain Planet and Sesame Street.  

The use of the term by mainstream media also did much to pollute the distinction between censorship (that is, a government action that serves to silence dissidents) and backlash (ie responses from people or organizations that have no government backing).  People can be offended by racist language and, as a group, decide to ban it from workplaces or educational institutions – that’s still not censorship because the government wasn’t involved.

The problem with labeling something like this magazine cover as ‘just politically incorrect’ is that it both diminishes this image’s connection to the history of white supremacy and *way* raises the bar in terms of what isn’t ‘just politically incorrect.’  So long as we have this middle category of ‘diet racism’ (to steal a term from College Humor), it makes it easier and easier for us to desensitize ourselves to racism.  After all, no one wants to be ‘too P.C.’  By couching the discussion in these terms, white supremacy is able to make itself the victim, that making it seem as though being disgusted by this image and what it represents is a personal choice or a sign of hypersensitivity, or, worst of all, censorship of free speech (which again, it could only be if I were a government and I were banning this image).

The power that white supremacy has in cultivating the narrative in this way is exactly why we should all be scared by its continued strength in North America and its re-emergence in Europe – by its very nature, white supremacy already has considerable social and cultural privilege defending it, and by co-opting language of victimhood and oppression, it cuts off the last remaining outlets to dissent we had to address it.

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