The Transcultural Overton Window Displacement (TOWID) on Race

Here is a tweet from an editor at the FAZ, a German center-right newspaper:

Responding to a tweet that mocked “white men” for being offended at this label, the author tweets: “When old white males feel themselves targeted by disparaging remarks targeted at ‘old white men’, this supposedly makes them self-absorbed morons? It’s pretty amazing how many people are willing to justify discrimination when it targets the ‘right’ people.” The tweeter is a legal journalist with centrist, perhaps slightly right-of-center views.

This illustrates an interesting cultural divide between Germany (and, I suspect, many other European countries), and the US. In Germany, mockery of “white” people certainly does happen — the tweet I cited above responds to exactly this.

However, there is almost always a pushback against the use of “white”, or “white man”, or “heterosexual white man” as a dismissive epithet. Someone will virtually always respond by saying that it’s hypocritical to attack white people for gratuitously identifying someone’s race or gender to dismiss their arguments. Nobody in their right mind, these critics say, would think of dismissing a female columnist’s opinion by saying “That’s women for you — always letting emotions cloud their judgment”, or “Of course this Turkish guy wants to expand welfare benefits — typical!” So why is it any more acceptable to dismiss a white male’s opinion just because of his gender and skin color? To mock white people for their skin color is no better or worse than mocking black people for theirs. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who the target is.

The important thing is that in Germany, this pushback comes not just from the right, but also from the center, and even sometimes the center-left. In the mainstream press, you almost never see a headline or an opinion piece singling out “white” people in a mocking, supercilious tone — and if you do, the response is swift.

Compare this to America. In America, there is a widespread conviction among college-educated people that discrimination can only be genuine when powerful majority groups practice it. When I went to college, in the late 1980s, it was generally assumed that there could be “no such thing” as discrimination or racism against white people, since they were powerful and dominant. To favor a “color-blind” society was seen as a mark of right-wing conservatism — it was a code for undoing affirmative action (hiring preferences for minorities) and entrenching the unfair privileges white people enjoyed from centuries of racism and slavery.

The basic idea is that minorities groups are knowingly given a pass for expressions of racial bias which would be unacceptable among white people. There’s no such thing as “reverse racism” against white people. Here’s one statement of this idea:

“Things like BET, Black Girls Rock or Black History Month are not reverse racist against white people,” Zeba Blay, a Huffington Post Black Voices writer, illustrates in a video. “Because remember, in a society where white is seen as the default race, all history is white history. But racism isn’t just someone feeling superior to another race and then discriminating against them.”

Racism and prejudice aren’t quite the same thing. Racism, rather, is best known as a system in which a racial majority is able to enforce its power and privilege over another race through political, economic and institutional means. Therefore racism can be described as “prejudice plus power,” as the two work together to create the system of inequality.

Note how the author doesn’t say this definition of racism is his opinion, he claims it’s just a fact, like the sky being blue.

I’ll call this idea “racism is always contextual” (RIAC). Or as Lenin said, the question of Who (is doing what to) Whom. RIAC thinking has not only survived to this day, it’s gotten even more deeply entrenched. As a recent analysis pointed out, white American liberals are getting “way more liberal on identity issues”.  You now see headlines mocking white people, or males, almost every week in mainstream(ish) news sources such as the New York Times and Washington Post. A few examples: The Post famously ran an opinion piece straightforwardly called: “Why Can’t We Hate Men?

So men, if you really are #WithUs and would like us to not hate you for all the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from, start with this: Lean out so we can actually just stand up without being beaten down. Pledge to vote for feminist women only. Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power.

Of course this editorial was met with “a deluge of criticism“. But that’s not the point — the point was that it ran in the first place. Nobody at the Post apparently thought, even for a second, whether they would run a similar piece entitled “Why Can’t We Hate Jews” or “Why Can’t We Hate Blacks”. Because, to them, RIAC means there is an obvious distinction between hating men (a point of view which you may disagree with or find controversial, but which deserves to be aired) and hating these other groups (a point of view no sane or decent person could possibly hold, and which it is wrong to disseminate).

Another example: the New York Times published a piece by a black professor in which he said he would discourage his children from befriending white people:

I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible. When they ask, I will teach my sons that their beautiful hue is a fault line. Spare me platitudes of how we are all the same on the inside. I first have to keep my boys safe, and so I will teach them before the world shows them this particular brand of rending, violent, often fatal betrayal.

This piece sparked outrage from many readers. But once again, it was published in the New York Times, which obviously thought it a respectable opinion worthy of being broadcast to millions.

I doubt any mainstream German newspaper would have published either of these pieces, although the left-green taz has come close once, and had to defend itself by pointing out that the opinion piece was tongue-in-cheek (g). If you had submitted either piece to a more mainstream German newspaper, it would have encountered a buzz-saw of resistance.

So, to sum up: The RIAC idea, in Germany, is confined to the left. If you endorse RIAC in Germany, you will automatically be pigeonholed as left-wing. If you reject RIAC in the USA, you will automatically be pigeonholed as right-wing.

Here’s my point in terms of the Overton window:

Overton Window

You could definitely put France in the same position as Germany. I call this phenomenon the Transcultural Overton Window Displacement, TOWID™ for short.

I don’t have any particular explanation ready to hand for this (nor am I expressing any opinion on who’s “right” on the issue), I just find it interesting. It also creates amusing cross-cultural misunderstandings: I have personally witnessed Germans mistaking a centrist American for a left-wing extremist, and Americans mistaking a centrist German for a right-wing extremist, based on this TOWID.

Others examples include a right to own guns (Germany: Radical; USA: Popular/Sensible); universal health care (Germany: Policy; USA: still just barely Radical, but moving rapidly toward more acceptance); popular referendums (Germany: Radical; USA: Policy). There are undoubtedly many more, but I need to get back to work. Feel free to add some in comments!

UPDATE: Via Twitter, here are some thoughtful tweets composed by Sarah Jeong, who just joined the New York Times editorial board:

jeonghate