Splash Damage

car splashing mud puddle

Content note: many isms including ableism, sizeism, classism, and anti-trans hostility; rape, rationalization for rape

When you insult Ann Coulter by saying she’s a trans woman or that she looks like a trans woman, you’re not just hurting her. You’re hurting all trans people. You’re promoting the idea that it’s terrible to be transgender, and that trans people are ugly and ridiculous.

When you insult Chris Christie by making fun of how fat he is, you’re not just hurting him. You’re hurting everyone who’s fat. You’re promoting the idea that it’s terrible to be fat, and that being fat is inherently laughable and disgusting.

When you insult Donald Trump by saying he’s crazy, you’re not just hurting him. You’re hurting everyone with mental illness. You’re promoting the idea that mentally ill people should be despised and shunned. You’re literally saying that “mentally ill” is an insult.

When you insult Ammon Bundy and the other occupiers of the Oregon wildlife refuge by making fun of their social class, you’re not just hurting them. You’re hurting everyone who’s poor, blue-collar, or working class. You’re promoting the idea that working-class people are willfully ignorant fools, and that middle-class people are smarter and better.

When you insult Bill Cosby or Brock Turner by saying you hope they get raped in prison, you’re not just hurting them. You’re hurting all rape victims, and everyone who might become a rape victim. You’re promoting the idea that rape is an acceptable form of punishment.

Plus, when you insult Bill Cosby or Brock Turner by saying you hope they get raped in prison, you’re hurting everyone who’s incarcerated or might be incarcerated — including people who are incarcerated unjustly, or are serving unjustly harsh sentences. You’re promoting the idea that getting raped is a natural part of prison life, part of what people are being sentenced to.

There are terrible people in the world. There are people who abuse their power, who perpetuate bigotry and hatred for their personal gain. We should push back against them wherever and whenever we can. But when we push back against terrible people, we need to not be terrible ourselves. We need to not perpetuate damaging stigmas against people who already get treated like crap. We need to make sure our invective doesn’t splash onto people who didn’t do anything to deserve it.

In some cases, this sort of splash damage means participating in the very awfulness you’re supposedly fighting. Ann Coulter has targeted trans people with her hatred; Donald Trump has targeted the mentally ill. If you despise these people, why on earth would you want to perpetuate the exact same bigotry you despise them for?

It’s pretty simple. If you don’t think it’s terrible to be transgender, fat, working class, or mentally ill, don’t use those identities as insults. If you don’t think rape is an acceptable form of punishment, don’t say that you hope convicted rapists get raped.

I can see why it’s tempting. When we’re furious, we tend to reach for the first, easiest invective that comes to mind. But when we do this, it doesn’t just hurt the people we’re angry at. It hurts people we’re not angry at, people who have done nothing to deserve it. And it’s not necessary. When people’s ideas are hateful and bigoted, we should say so. When people’s behavior is corrupt or brutal, we should say so. Let’s aim our critiques and invective at the terrible ideas and actions. Let’s not perpetuate the same kind of bigotry we’re supposedly fighting. Thank you.

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Splash Damage
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3 thoughts on “Splash Damage

  1. 2

    TW: capital punishment

    I love this!

    I think some of it comes down to wanting to punish our (very loose “our” here) enemies more than we want to help the people they hurt. I mean, aside from being generally more humane by doing so, we could also be so much more powerful protecting people from Anne Coulter if we weren’t allowing ourselves–in our sloppiness–to let some of that damage flick off onto the trans people she hates as much as she hates us. If we weren’t wasting swings at the physical shape Chris Christie happens to be, more people might pay attention to how downright ghoulish it is to hold up emergency vehicles because a nearby mayor had been insufficiently politically useful, and he might not still have the power to keep doing that kind of thing.

    But we waste our opportunities, because we’ll hurt the people on whose behalf we’re supposedly soooo upset if it gives us the chance to feel like part of the punishment squad. I don’t want to get into triggery specifics, but it’s like the process of deciding which crimes get the death penalty. Sometimes advocates for victims of those crimes don’t actually want them to be capital crimes because it has been shown to lower the victim survival rate, and lawmakers are too focused on seeing the offenders get punished than on ensuring the victims survive.

    Does anyone have advice for how to approach people who are more into punishment than protecting the people they’re supposedly mad on behalf of? Because there are so many of them and while I know they’re frustrating and the ROI is ridiculously low, it seems like someone has to have managed to get through to at least one or two, right?

  2. 3

    I am definitely someone who could do with a bit of reminding on this point. Last night I ill-advisedly got into a Facebook comment argument about Trump, and attacks against Trump in particular, in which, in retrospect, I was not taking the other person’s point about “splash damage” as well as I should have done. The resulting discussion ended up upsetting some readers, and I’m very sorry for any hurtful comments I made as part of that discussion. I usually make an effort to hear and understand what the other person is saying, even in an argument, and I didn’t a good job of that this time.

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