The Context of the Thing

[Content note: sexual harassment/assault, victim blaming, racism, police brutality, homophobia, fat shaming]

Many debates in the realm of social justice and politics are debates about context. In what context are certain things said, and can those things ever be divorced from that context? Should they ever be?

Take this Facebook post, made by a New York coffee shop I had heretofore found entirely satisfactory:

A Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, "Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city."
Image description: a Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, “Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city.”


What is so irritating about this post is the plausible deniability. Surely, a Manhattan coffee shop could just post this image apropos of nothing, perhaps in the holiday spirit, to express gratitude towards the city’s police force. It could just be a matter of city pride; certainly we all like it when there is as little crime as possible. And so on and so forth.

But why post this image now? Why would a coffee shop that has posted nothing but photos, comics, and articles about coffee, store news, six posts about local events, and one cutesy article about Mother’s Day for the entirety of the year 2014 suddenly give a shout-out to the city police department?

I think I know why. But, of course, I can only speculate.

So it is with a lot of other statements that rankle, hurt, or even trigger. “What were you wearing?” Oh, sure, you could just be curious. After all, maybe it was my outfit and not my perceived gender that drew my harasser’s attention that night. Of course, you are very worried about me and just want to make sure that I’m being “smart.” You’re not thinking about the fact that that’s often the first question authorities ask us, and that fashion advice is the only kind of prevention they seem to be able to offer us. You’re not thinking about what happens to women whose outfits were deemed insufficiently preventative. Who helps those women? “Oh, I’m not saying it’s your fault,” you say. “I think anyone who does such a thing is wrong and bad and if it were up to me I would bring them to justice.” Would you? Okay, I’ll grant you that. But historically, that’s not what’s happened, is it?

“What about black-on-black crime?” Certainly it is a tragedy that so many young Black people die at each other’s hands, presumably because of gangs or drugs or one of those other scary things, and really, if a given group wants to stop dying, maybe they should stop killing each other. Never mind that the same ignorance that causes people to ask this question is the ignorance that keeps them from seeing everything that’s already being done, by Black people, to address this issue. Never mind that most white murder victims are killed by other white people, too, because people tend to be killed by those who are near to them and/or have some sort of relationship with them, and our neighborhoods and relationships are still very segregated. Never mind that “black-on-black crime” is a derailment from what is in my opinion a much more preventable issue–the fact that police around the country are killing Black people with virtually no consequences.

Yes, violent crime happens, especially in disadvantaged areas, and that is awful. But that the people tasked with “protecting” us, according to my local coffee shop, are murdering people, especially in a systematically racist way, deserves immediate attention and resolution, because a police officer who murders innocent people is an even greater threat to our society than an ordinary citizen who murders innocent people. Why? That should be obvious: cops have power, weapons, skills, and immunity that ordinary citizens do not. Law enforcement officials can do things like plant meth in the car of a woman who accused them of sexual harassment and then have her arrested on this country’s ridiculous drug laws.

“I don’t see anything wrong with gay people, I just don’t see why they have to be in my face about it.” No, you’re right. Perhaps you are a person who believes that sex, love, and relationships should be an entirely private matter. Maybe you’re uncomfortable when your coworker tells everyone about the vacation she’s planning for her and her husband’s anniversary. Maybe it turns your stomach to see free condoms handed out on your campus. Maybe you change the channel every time a guy and a girl kiss in a TV show and you don’t feel that it’s appropriate for children to see a man and a woman holding hands in public. But you don’t mention that because…maybe people would ridicule you for it, whereas publicly stating that gay couples gross you out is still socially acceptable. I don’t know.

Or maybe you have double standards for queer people versus straight people, and you believe that the things straight people get to do–hold hands and kiss in public, chat at work about their anniversary plans, see relationships like theirs on television, access the healthcare that they need–are not things that queer people get to do. Sometimes queer people are loud and in-your-face about being queer because they are fighting against the idea that they should have to be silent when straight people don’t have to be. Your casual remarks about “I just wish they’d keep it to themselves” are telling us to get back in the closet so you don’t have to be uncomfortable.

“Of course it’s wrong to hate people just because they’re fat, but they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy.” You may think that what you’re saying here is commendable. After all, you must really care about this person and have great concern for their wellbeing. Maybe you even have some helpful weight loss advice that totally worked for you. Really, they should be grateful that you’re trying to help them.

Okay, but the idea that “they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy” is the idea that causes people to hate them in the first place. If weight is perfectly correlated to health, and if losing weight is a possibility for everyone, then only those who do not care about their health would allow themselves to be fat, and only an irresponsible person who lacks self-control would refuse to care about their health. Such a person would not make a suitable employee, doctoral student, or partner, for instance. Such a person would be a bad influence for your children. And the idea that fatness is responsible for poor health 100% of the time keeps fat people from getting the medical care they need, because doctors assume that the problem must be their weight.

Plausible deniability is how all of these statements function. We are expected to take them entirely out of context, as isolated thoughts or ideas or feelings or beliefs that have nothing to do with what came before or what will come after, and nothing to do with the horrors that have been committed in their name. You asking me what I was wearing has nothing to do with the systematic refusal to believe and help people who have been harassed and assaulted. You innocently wondering about black-on-black crime has nothing to do with centuries of white-on-black crime, and with the casual dismissal of this crime, and with the fact that it has historically not been defined as a crime at all. You wishing that queer people wouldn’t shove their sexuality in your face has nothing to do with our erasure, metaphoric and sometimes literal. You patronizingly advising bigger people to get smaller has nothing to do with their mistreatment in all sorts of social contexts, including medical ones. Nothing at all!

But that’s not how communication works. If a celebrity becomes the center of a huge controversy and I post about my love for their films or music, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that celebrity. If a business comes under fire for its practices or policies and I post about how I’m going to proudly patronize that business today, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that business. (In fact, I once ended a friendship with someone who did this on the day the Chick-Fil-A homophobia thing went viral, and I do not regret it.) There is of course a chance that I had simply not heard of the controversy, but in that case, I should reconsider my support for this person or business once a friend helpfully comments and lets me know about what’s going on. And in most cases people do not do this.

So if you post about your gratitude to the NYPD right after one of its officers has once again gone unpunished for the cruel killing of a Black man, and as protests march right down the block where your coffee shop stands, that has a context, too.

I suppose it can feel like this is all a huge burden. Why shouldn’t you be able to just say what you think and feel without being held responsible for decades or centuries of terrible things done in the service of the beliefs that you are expressing? It’s true that what happened is not your responsibility, and every terrible thing done by people who believe the same things you believe is not your fault.

But that is why what you say hurts people, and that is why they warn you where your beliefs may logically lead. If what women wear has any relevance to their sexual violation, if black-on-black crime is more important and urgent than white-on-black racism, if queer people being open about themselves and their loves is so unpleasant for you, if fat people should lose weight before they are taken seriously–then that has implications for how we treat people and issues. If you take the time to listen to the voices of those most affected by these issues, you might see that these implications are just as horrifying to you as they are to us.

The Context of the Thing

10 thoughts on “The Context of the Thing

  1. 1

    Well, the Facebook commenters in the screenshot you posted seem to have understood the context. Of course, I’m sure there were also plenty of Facebook commenters who were, shall we say, supportive of The Bean’s implied point and will helpfully fill in the context that The Bean so deftly and carefully omitted.

  2. 2

    So if you post about your gratitude to the NYPD right after one of its officers has once again gone unpunished for the cruel killing of a Black man, and as protests march right down the block where your coffee shop stands, that has a context, too.

    But there’s another context: that in which two NYPD officers were murdered in cold blood, arguably in part due to the hateful and irresponsible anti-cop rhetoric in certain liberal circles.

  3. 3

    @ queequack: Funny that you should blame “divisive anti-cop rethoric” rather than, you know, divisive anti-black violence perpetuated by cops and sanctioned by judges and juries. Or do you consider mentioning that violence “divisive anti-cop rethoric” ?

    1. 3.1

      Why are you putting “divisive anti-cop rhetoric” in quotes, as if it’s something I said?

      It’s fair to criticize the police, and I’m not generally unsympathetic to the protesters. But there is a significant minority who have been engaging in extremely aggressive and dehumanizing language directed at the police, and this rhetoric is often excused or tolerated because the cops have institutional power or are racist or socially privileged or whatever. As anyone who follows social justice stuff knows, this sort of “logic” is nothing new; I’ve never liked it. I think it’s dangerous.

      And also – I know the son of one of the murdered officers. Not well, but we’d recognize each other on the street. Smart guy. Goes to Bowdoin College. No longer has a father. Just like Eric Garner’s children.

      Who knows – maybe the proprietor of “The Bean” is a friend, or a friend of a friend, of one of those men. What I’m saying is that while I don’t disagree with the majority of the OP, there’s more than one “context” here.

  4. 4

    There was no cop-killing spree. He killed his girlfriend and only then confronted the police. Anti-woman rhetoric probably had more to do with their murders.

    Queequack is being guilty of what is in the article. Out of context, I agree that overly anti-cop rhetoric is a problem. But in the current context it implies not valuing people executed in the streets for minor crimes.

    1. 4.1

      Out of context, I agree that overly anti-cop rhetoric is a problem.

      Again, what I’m saying is that there is more than one obvious context in which we could view that post. The executions are national news; everyone knows about them.

      As to Brinsley’s motivations, I see him as being somewhat similar to Elliot Rodger. What little we know about him indicates that he was a disturbed man and likely suffered from some form of mental illness; he apparently had a history of suicide attempts. (And bluntly, I will always have at least some empathy for such people – Brinsley and Rodger both.)

      But – as many people correctly noted regarding Rodger – Brinsley doesn’t live his life in a vacuum; he’s influenced by the culture in which he lives and by the media he chooses to consume. I suppose it’s possible that he was influenced by anti-woman stuff, although of course he didn’t specifically seek out women; rather, the shooting of his girlfriend seems to have been more a crime of convenience. And since he did actively seek out two cops to kill in “revenge,” absent more information it is reasonable to assume a specifically anti-cop motivation, whereas the misogyny angle is mostly speculation.

      To me, it’s not “anti-cop rhetoric” that’s the problem. The police should be criticized; maybe even the institution itself is questionable. (I ran across this very interesting article a few weeks ago.) But yes, I take issue with the hatefulness and dehumanization that I see (and worse, see excused) in some circles, especially online. I get the impression that for many people, there is literally no instance of verbal anti-cop sentiment that would cross their personal line, which is shitty. Individual officers are real people who can really be hurt, and I don’t think those two men will be the last to be made to pay personally for the sins of the police in general.

      None of that means that the protesters are wrong or bad or should stop. But speech is powerful; speech has consequences. It should be used carefully.

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