Charlie Hebdo, the attack on the NAACP, and racism

There have been a lot of accusations of racism thrown around in regards to the work of Charlie Hebdo and the media coverage (or lack thereof) around the domestic terrorist incident at the NAACP in Colorado and I want to tease out some of these ideas that I’ve seen.

1. Accusation: Media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and not the NAACP is racist

The idea here is that the media covered Charlie Hebdo because the villains were people of color and the dead were white, while the NAACP is an organization for people of color that was attacked by a white person.  The media thinks people are more likely to respond to narratives where the heroes are white, even if they are French.

I think this accusation is wrongheaded for a number of reasons.

1. No one died in the NAACP attack, 12 people died in France.

2. One of the more compelling stories to come out of France is the story of the Muslim police officer who was killed defending Charlie Hebdo against the terrorists.

3. The villains are organized and have been established villains in popular imagination.

4. Most importantly, the victims are other members of the media.  It cannot be overstated how much the media latches onto stories of the media being victimized.  This bias in the media is the most mundane one, and one that rarely gets talked about over the left vs right bias.

2. Accusation: The media not covering and being slow to cover the NAACP domestic terrorism is racist

When you separate it from the comparison to Charlie Hebdo and just note that the media has been a bit reluctant to pick up the story, then yeah, I think this is a reasonable complaint.  This is a big deal and should be big news.  It does seem to be picking up a bit now.

3. Accusation: Charlie Hebdo made racist cartoons

Ehhh, this is complicated.  Of course it is, isn’t everything?  A lot of the commentary around these cartoons has been, in my opinion, very shallow, both in the accusations of racism and the defense from racism.  I think everyone is, of course, welcome to their opinion, this is not a personal criticism of any individual.

Political cartoons are almost always kind of racist the moment you put people of color in them.  Not putting any people of color people in them would also be pretty racist.  This is because caricature relies heavily on stereotype to get messages across quickly — all communication does, but political cartoons do even more extremely.  Now, show a bunch of edgy political cartoons to people who don’t understand the language on the cartoons or the culture that produced the cartoons and ask them how racist those cartoons are?  Yeah, they’re going to think they’re really racist.  None of that, by the way, relieves cartoonists of the responsibility to make not racist cartoons.  That said, many of the cartoons that are being called out as racist are making points against oppression of minorities or oppression within minority culture or referring to specific racist behavior of politicians or other figures.  That doesn’t make them entirely not racist, but it also makes them complicated.  They also come in the context of Charlie Hebdo being equal opportunity offenders.

However, Charlie Hebdo’s many layered context comes in the further context of France being a really awful place to live if you’re Muslim.  It’s an incredibly racist and xenophobic society.  What does that all mean?  Not any one thing, except that if you are going to read criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s interaction with race, make sure it is nuanced and culturally specific and not just, “Look at this racist cartoon.”  And just because a cartoon is racist or has racist elements, that doesn’t mean the publication or the people behind the publication were “racists.”  Finally, I personally am really hesitant to take seriously any criticism of these cartoons unless it comes from someone who is a fluent French speaker and follows French politics closely, criticism from anyone else veers perilously close to cultural imperialism for lacking enough context unless they’ve done an immense amount of research.

4. Accusation: Calling Charlie Hebdo cartoons racist means you don’t support free speech

No. Nope.  Incorrect.  There are a small group of people who think that the cartoons are hate speech and shouldn’t be allowed to be published, but the vast majority of people who think that the cartoons are grotesquely racist have valid reasons for doing so and are making points about complicated histories and relationships between people and media.  They are worth listening to even if you ultimately disagree with their conclusions.  And people thinking that speech is terrible doesn’t mean they want to regulate it away.  I think the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church should be allowed to say things.  I also think they are horrible.  These two things reflect totally different values that I hold independently in the same head.

5. Accusation: You can’t be racist against Muslims

Usually accompanied with “Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world.”  To which I say, “Show me one Charlie Hebdo drawing that is of someone from Indonesia.” Islam is not a race, but that really doesn’t matter, because the Western world has a racial idea of what it means to be Muslim.

Charlie Hebdo, the attack on the NAACP, and racism

Tonight at 7PM EST – The Ashley F Miller Show Episode 3

Join me, Kate Donovan, and Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism as we talk:

Politics: Sterilization of Prisoners in California

Media: The Lone Ranger and the representation of Native Americans in film

Guest choice: The stigma of mental illness

You can RSVP to the “event” here and, when the hangout is on-air, it should send you a link of the YouTube page, or just come back here at 7 and the YouTube link will be up.

This is filmed in front of a live internet audience — if you’ve got input feel free to get in touch before or during the show by commenting here, on youtube, or on the event page.

It will also be edited and released as a podcast.

Podcast website:

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Tonight at 7PM EST – The Ashley F Miller Show Episode 3

Someone who moves like you

Television has a huge impact on how we view the world and, perhaps more interestingly, how we view ourselves.  When Joe Biden said that Will & Grace had done more for gay marriage than anything else, it probably seemed like hyperbole, but the normalization of the Other often comes first in the form of simple inclusion.

Now, I want you to go read this essay about a woman who is autistic and discovered Abed Nadir.

And stories are a scary and messy business, full of magic and demons, taunting possibilities and rules-that-aren’t, things we can’t have and altogether far too many opportunities for a sad little girl’s heart to be ripped out of her chest, and Julia kept watching, every week. And you must understand that asking Julia to pick one Abed moment is like asking Abed to pick one reference.

You must understand that one story is infinitely bigger than zero, and it may still be very small and nowhere near enough, but it’s something.

If you don’t know who Abed is… your life is sad and you need to fix that by watching Community.

Someone who moves like you

SheThought: Pop Psychology and the Media

Super exciting, my first “article” for SheThought is up.  I am writing for like a realer blog than my own .com.  So, go read this on SheThought, there are pictures there: If you want to comment, please comment there.  I’m including it here for those lazy RSSers… you know who you are.

Today I read an article that I found infuriating, but then I’m easily infuriated, because of what appeared to be either really bad methodology in a study or really silly conclusions by the journalist who wrote the piece.  Since I can’t see the study and I can read the piece, I’ll try to avoid pointing a finger in either direction.  It was posted several months ago, but came to my attention today.  It reminded me of how important it is to be critical of the media’s handling of scientific studies.

The piece is called “The Psychology of Knock Offs: Why ‘Faking It’ Makes Us Feel (and Act) Like Phonies“.  The basic premise is that, through a study recently conducted, scientists have concluded that people are more dishonest and cynical when they wear knock off goods.

I’ll be the first to admit that this sort of thing falls well below my normal threshold of caring.  People who wear things because they are a specific brand or because they look like they’re a specific brand are a little alien to me.  It strikes me as fairly shallow behavior, but if it makes them happy, it’s really no skin off my back.  If you can buy something for $5 from a dude on the street in New York and it impresses all the ladies back home because it looks like a $500 purse, good for you, right?  How on earth does a purse cost that much anyway?

In any event, the basic methodology for the study was that they had girls come in and they gave them sunglasses.  Half were told they were super expensive awesome sunglasses, and the other half were told they were cheapo knockoffs.  They were then given a battery of tests in which lying would earn them more money.  They were also given a survey that asked them their views on the world.  The women (and it was all young women, why no guys?) who were told they had cheapo sunglasses were much more likely to lie and be cynical.

From this, the journalist concludes that people who buy knock offs are paying a hidden moral cost that makes them more likely to lie and be cynical.

Wearing counterfeit glasses not only fails to bolster our ego and self-image the way we hope, it actually undermines our internal sense of authenticity. “Faking it” makes us feel like phonies and cheaters on the inside, and this alienated, counterfeit “self” leads to cheating and cynicism in the real world.

That would be a really interesting conclusion if the methodology at all allowed you to make it, but it doesn’t.

I have some questions that aren’t answered in the article.  Did they all get the sunglasses at the same time?  Did they know other people had supposedly real sunglasses?  Were they tested by the same person who told them that the sunglasses were real or fake?  Did they get to take the glasses home, or did they think they would get to take the glasses home?

But there are problems I can see with just the information in the article:

1) The volunteers given “real” sunglasses were told they were authentic, so they’d already been rewarded and were therefore more likely to do what they thought the researchers wanted.

2) The volunteers given “fake” sunglasses had been told, essentially, that they didn’t deserve real sunglasses when the researchers told them they were fakes, and were therefore less likely to do what they thought the researchers wanted.

3) The volunteers had just been cheated, of course they felt more negative.

4) The volunteers were gifted sunglasses, they didn’t buy them knowing that they were knock offs, so it’s impossible to extrapolate the behavior to people who buy their own sunglasses.

5) The volunteers received no benefit from wearing fake sunglasses because they didn’t buy them — the entire reason people buy fake brand names is to save money, in what way is a study that excludes the primary motivating factor at all useful in studying a behavior?

6) There’s no way to be sure that the behavior is linked to wearing the sunglasses rather than linked to being given sunglasses of one kind or another.

The only reasonable conclusion from the study is that people who are given things they’re told aren’t very nice don’t feel terribly good about it.  This is, of course, not a broad and moralistic statement and it doesn’t really make good news, and that’s a big problem with a lot of science reporting.  When something interesting happens in a study, the response is to exaggerate it, make huge claims, and moralize wherever possible.  Interesting patterns are often pointed to as conclusive results and people with pre-determined moral opinions take things and run.

If you want to tell me that “[c]ounterfeiting is a serious economic and social problem, epidemic in scale,” I’d love to hear the whys and wherefores, but I’d much rather hear the facts and figures accurately explained.

SheThought: Pop Psychology and the Media