Sunday, August 14, 2011

Arrrrgh Party Foul!

I just got back from a party --- yes, it's 5 in the morning --- and am still seething over a stupid argument I had with a postdoc, one I haven't mentioned much yet. I now officially don't like him: he's confrontational in ways I am not, his deadpan humor does not mesh well with mine, so we are constantly offending each other or having to explain that we are kidding, and he is, as one of the other postdocs says, a bit of a "shit-stirrer." I think I shall call him the Agent Provocateur. I would totally post my question to facebook if it didn't mean I had to block it from the people who are here in Postdoc City.

In the middle of a looping, random discussion of vaguely Marxist leanings, Provocateur said that, when you look at history, fundamental change has never happened and never would. I jumped in immediately and said, "of course things have changed, in lots of fundamental ways. Look at slavery; the US had slavery and now it doesn't." He totally took me to task for this: you can't say that anything fundamental has changed and blacks are any better off now; look at poverty, look at racism, look at all the economic fundamentals.

Well, yes, but --- things did change. We have the 14th Amendment; it was once legal to own another person and now it is not legal. They gained civil rights, they didn't have the right to own anything, to marry, to name themselves or move freely about the countryside. These are huge; they are on the books, they are there in law if not always followed scrupulously on the ground in this country, and they used to not exist.

-You really think black people can live where they want, move where they want, have the money to do anything? Have you seen the south? By now several people are involved in this argument and it has gotten heated and I am the only person on my side.

(And then Provocateur asked about incarceration, and yeah, he has a really good point there if we consider the numbers of black men locked up, but then he also mentioned the spring African American diversity festival, at which there were not white attendees, and I was like, really? You are going to declare segregated --- unofficially segregated --- attendance at a state fair type thing to being forced to work in the cotton fields for 14 hours a day?)

I was also trying to explain how wage slavery --- even in the shitty, dirty, repetitive jobs we have today, like floor-mopping and chicken-gutting --- is just not the same as slave labor, but this change is almost more about advances in technology than social activism and everything was getting muddled.

And despite my repeated shoutings that this was not a light-switch situation where the only options are everything is great vs. nothing has changed, we got to the point where I got called a racist and an apologist for slaveowners ---- and it is interesting that this is the point where the actual southerner was joining in ---- and also I'm not sure how this person went from racism is terrible and endemic to the south today to that means it is worse than under slavery to that means I am apologizing for slavery.

Instead of having an interesting conversation about whether you count change by the top, middle, or bottom members of a social group (meaning: do you measure progress by the lucky and wealthy few, like the fact that we have Obama as president or I have some friends in my grad program who are going off to become professors, the plight of a (still, barely) emerging black middle class, or the most exploited and weak of people from the ghetto or the prison system), it devolved into a shouting match where I was being challenged on my stats for how many black people were lynched during Reconstruction.

And I kept thinking about my grad school friends who are black --- true, it's not a large number! --- and thinking, you have got to be kidding; surely they would not let you claim that black life today is fundamentally no different from that under slavery. And then I thought of my sociology friend: what would he do? Would he punch him in the face? Because I really want to punch him in the face. And finally someone --- a friend of the host, so someone I don't even know --- managed to intervene on my side forcefully enough that the conversation ended, if not really ever resolved. We also went down to crazytown through the whole "comparative oppression" thing where women's progress and gay liberation progress get compared to black progress and since other groups have come so far, so fast in comparison to black rights that this shows there really hasn't been enough movement past slavery, and I wanted to point out how making this argument slides the terms of the debate as well as directly contradicts our first sticking point but also got sidetracked by my point that "women" and "gay" can very well overlap with the category "black" so how well can you compare these experiences really?

Arrrrgh. Also this guy kept weaseling on what he had said and hadn't and even what we were arguing about, which he has done before on less volatile subjects, and this pissed me off.

Okay. Exhaustion has set in. You can weigh in down in the comments. Or simply vote on the face-punching.


Bella said...

Wow. Don't punch him in the face yourself---hire someone to do it. Hire someone to do it while wearing a disguise. Give him (or her!) a bonus if (s)he breaks the guy's nose.

nicoleandmaggie said...


Hope you got some sleep.

And no, don't punch anyone in the face. You don't want to experience incarceration yourself.

And the guy was wrong... but how much does it really matter? (If I were to be making his argument, I would stick to illegal immigrants who actually are in slavery situations... but it's a smaller proportion of the population, and the companies/owners who do that do get prosecuted when they're caught.)

Maybe he can take his cause to furthering the rights of all the oppressed. Unless he truly believes that no change will ever happen in which case it's pointless. Next time that happens, maybe you can nudge him towards public service... get something useful out of the argument. Ok, if that's what you believe, what are the consequences and what are you doing to make things better?

Feminist Avatar said...

Well, just to play devil's advocate, we do sort of have this same debate in feminism. Are women today more or less oppressed than in the past? Are modern forms of oppression better or worse than earlier historical forms? What about patriarchal equilibrium, where women's status doesn't change, despite wider social change etc.

I am not sure there are definitive answers to these questions, although I tend to lean towards the 'things are better now' line of thinking. We at least have a conception of equality that should apply to all, and that's a big deal in historical terms.

lostinacademe said...

Wow. I like Belle's suggestion that you have someone punch him in the face. Pay cash though. You don't want a paper trail that can lead back to you.

And I think this works well for this post and the "scaly vs. slimy" post--I don't like slimy things. And it seems like he qualifies.

lostinacademe said...

Sorry--Bella's suggestion. I should learn to read the difference between two different people. Sorry to both Belle and Bella.

heu mihi said...

I'm going to go out on my own here and say:


I hope that your offices are far, far apart.

Dr. Virago said...

OMG, I hate this guy. And it doesn't matter whether I agree with him or not, or even what you were arguing about, I hate him for his arguing *style. I hate him for this: "this guy kept weaseling on what he had said and hadn't and even what we were arguing about, which he has done before on less volatile subjects."

That is *classic* slimey-guy arguing technique. Get into a relationship with a guy like this and he'll use it against you in relationship arguments. I still have not learned how to combat it; but thankfully, I don't have to know in my relationship with Bullock!

I had an argument at a party with someone I don't know very well -- a grad student at another institution -- and it went the way all such arguments should. Neither of us really ever agreed with each other, but we each respectfully listened to the other's side. And we were polite. Plus, extra bonus: he was *really* easy on the eyes.

May all your future party arguments go as mine did! :)

haphazardmusings said...

I echo what Feminist Avatar said...The answers to such questions are rarely (forgive the term) black and white. In some ways, yes, African-Americans are far better off than they were just 145 years ago. OTOH, when you compare their overall existence to that of persons from other demographic groups, it is dangerous to conclude that "Well, our work is done here. You guys have everything you need!" The same sorts of arguments are used to silence women when we point out inequalities situational and societal.

However, I think one can make these points without being a complete dick about it. Also, defining change is hard because you have beliefs and then you have practices. There are still an awful lot of bigots, misogynists, etc. among us, but practices (fundamentally) have changed.

This guy seems like a jerk. Don't punch him in the face, but find ways to make his life miserable. Or, write him off and don't waste anymore neural connections thinking about this assclown. :)

Bardiac said...

Face punching is probably a bad idea. But so tempting!

Things are very much better. He needs to read some slave narratives. And yes, things are still not just and equitable. Duh.

On the other hand, nothing has changed. People are born and die. Some have kids along the way, some don't, but all die at the end.

But along the way, hugely better not to be a slave, not to be split from one's family without choice, forced to live where someone else says.

Now I want to punch him more.

Earnest English said...

What an idiot that guy is! I totally understand wanting to punch him in the face.

I was pissed at the point where he said that there was no change and never would be. This is a wonderful cynical posture to take that I think exists a lot in academia and other places where intellectual hipsters hang out. Fundamentally, though, he believes that change cannot happen, which lets him off the hook to have stupid drunken (I'm guessing) arguments at parties rather than getting off his sorry ass and actually working for change or talking to some actual African American people who might have something important and vital to say about their own quality of life. (Here, I'm guessing he isn't black.)

I hate this posture because it means that it's okay to not do anything ever because change is impossible. Well, in his world, yes, change is impossible because he won't change his comfortable and comforting point of view. He's not listening to anything, so it doesn't matter what you argue, because if change is possible, then he has to do something other than argue with you at a party.

He's wrong by the way. Change is possible, but it's slow. Very slow. And he's really really really not helping. He needs to serve others and shut the hell up.

Don't punch him. He's already aching. Okay, punch him.

Tree of Knowledge said...

He's an idiot and a jerk, and you are right. In your shoes, I wouldn't be able to punch him myself, but I would enjoy it when someone else did. What I would do is imagine cutting his head off a la Xena Warrior Princess. Husband thinks it's weird that I do this, but it keeps me from acting on my desire to throttle someone.

And I find it really weird that you got accused of racism when the other side seems to be arguing that the experiences and opinions of black people today don't count for the purposes of this argument. And anyone who engages in oppression Olympics is at best naive and at worst a horrible person.

Dr. Koshary said...

Shit-Stirrer sounds like a failure of a human psyche. At least, as Virago suggests, you don't have to put up with this c*** in a relationship context. I agree with everyone that he is a) fundamentally incorrect in his assessment, although I can see how a less assholish polemicist could draw some theoretically similar conclusions, and b) a huge, stinking bag of douche in his communicative style. Probably not worth it punch him in the face.

OTOH, if you really want to punch him in the face a week from now, you could always pay me to drive up to Postdoc City and punch him in the face, like Murder, Inc. Surprise the fuck out of Shit-Stirrer to have some dude he's never met before bop him in the mouth and walk off. (You'll pay for my gas, right?)

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, I like this idea of hiring out a surprise face-punching! *Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!!!*

Of course, it seems kinda wasteful to commission a single face punch --- maybe I should get together a list and do a bulk discount thing!

J. Harker said...

I will do it.

Free of charge.

Hell, I might even pay for the privilege.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

LOL. Hire Harker! Please!

But my other thought is this: Hubby's best friend in CA is black, and we were talking about this experience he had. He was in a big group of people, and someone posed the question, "If you could be born during any time in history, when would it be?" A bunch of white people were saying, "Oh, the renaissance" or "How about after WWII?" Or other big time periods. Whatever. Hubby's friend was asked, "When would you have liked to be born?" He said, "Now." They looked at him, puzzled. "Now?" they asked. He replied, "When has it ever been better to be a black man?" That gave all of us a little perspective. He agrees that things aren't perfect -- even in the liberal bay area -- but historically it's never been a great time to be black in western civilization. But now? It's getting better. By the time this guy's son is 35 -- our age -- I hope it's a LOT better.

Funny about Money said...

Plus ca every which way from Sunday.

Every academic department has at least one of these. They land large grants, rise to be chairs and deans, and make your life miserable. Read something like The Lecturer's Tale and you'll think it's about your college and, no doubt, your department. That's how hackneyed every department is and every picturesque character in every department is.

I'm so glad to be out of academia. Wish I'd escaped before bruxism wrecked my teeth. ;-)

J. Otto Pohl said...

You are so politically incorrect. I am surprised you are allowed to work at a US university. You may have to come join me and work in Africa. ;-)