Signifiers for Prejudice

Posted on 20 June 2016

When I was a child I disliked pink and I disliked Barbie. I didn’t mind being female, but I did mind being forced into a stereotype that gave me little freedom, empowerment, or respect. Pink and Barbie signified these things to me.

When I hit university I knew other women who shied away from pink. Many of these women also felt the arts were where a woman earned an MRS rather than a BA. This infuriated me. Even in the 80s scholarships were offered to women pursuing science and business degrees as an entry way to “equality”, but not for those of us choosing to get degrees in English, Drama, Music, Fine Art or Dance. Arts were seen as something men wielded to change the world, and women did to fill their time as housewives. Arts became a symbol of feminine privileged uselessness.

Currently labels such as sexism and racism are beginning to stick. We are only beginning to see classism sensibly spoken about. These turns in community standards are what has certain segments of the population railing against “political correctness”. What they really want is a return to the bad old days when they could be overtly prejudiced. This doesn’t mean bigotry hasn’t found a way to go underground. People have found ways to put others down for being female, ethnic, poor, etc with plausible deniability.

Cats and Dogs

So, if you are a misogynistic bastard online and you don’t want to be called out on it, how can you vent your hatred toward women? For years the nonsensical “dogs vs cats” debate has frequently been about crypto-misogyny. Ask anti-cat people what it is they like about dogs and what it is they dislike about cats. Dogs: they do as they are told, they respect you as the boss, they are hard workers, they are strong, they’re smart, decisive, loyal, they love you unconditionally. Cats: they are unpredictable, they don’t do as they are told, they are useless and selfish, they are weak, they’re intuitive, indecisive, they are moody and cruel, they don’t love you unconditionally. Can you hear the 1950s gender stereotypes? However, hating a cat isn’t going to get the media all over you, undercutting your status as a human being.

Grocer’s Apostrophe

If you come from a middle to upper class family, very likely your parents made sure you went to good schools and did your homework. This is how they were looking out for your future. Not so long ago having a university degree was a guarantee that you were getting a job. And if you went to an expensive university like Harvard or Oxford, you were guaranteed a well-paying job. In England students who went to expensive public schools, then attended Cambridge or Oxford, cultivated an accent in those places which identified them as part of the aristocracy.

Online you can’t always hear an accent, but you can see whether or not someone has acquired sophisticated skills in written English. Children who grew up in poor families are unlikely to have had access to good schools. They may not have had the means to stay in school. Their parents may have been working too hard achieving their survival to insist on homework. These parents are unlikely to have had a good education themselves in order to offer intellectual support. So when these people start writing online, they are likely to make more spelling and grammatical errors than those from wealthier families.

When a person mocks another for using an apostrophe in the wrong place, frequently they are mocking someone for being or being like a person from a lower class. Mixed up homophones, not using ancient plural forms, comma splices, dangling participles: these will all mark a person as “not good enough” for exclusive circles of wealth without revealing the classism of those who are doing the excluding.

The New Anti-theism

In the science fiction community I have known many atheist humanists throughout my life. I am grateful for their presence. After 911 the online world saw an upsurge in vocal anti-theists. These were largely educated people who would speak loudly and vehemently that all the world’s problems were caused by religion. However, I found if I tried to pin down how much they really knew about religion, their knowledge was almost non-existent.

A meme I see around upon occasion goes like this: “If Adam and Eve had only two sons, how did they populate the planet?” An anti-theist friend will think they are being clever about the unreliability of Biblical texts. However, this comes from a Sunday school understanding of the Bible, not the Bible itself. First, Genesis has two creation stories: the Adam and Eve story is the second one. Next, Genesis 5:4 says that Adam and Eve also gave birth to Seth and other sons and daughters. Their attempt to shame only results in revealing their ignorance. That’s because this may not be about religion.

Religion is a huge term encompassing many spiritual traditions. General statements about it are frequently going to be inaccurate. However, for centuries the British have looked down upon those of the Catholic faith and caricaturised them as poor, dirty, violent, and stupid. With Imperialism this outlook was extended to the peoples and religions of the countries they had dominated. Hindus, Muslims, Animists, etc were painted with the same brush.

In this day and age the intelligentsia know that it is dangerous for their careers to be seen as racist. However, fear of peoples who have been radicalised can be covered up by attacking their religion. They do not have to say, these people should be controlled because of their skin colour. Since those at the top of wealth and education have largely withdrawn from cultural institutions of religion, they can safely be against religion knowing that this will cover those of a particular class and/or ethnicity.

Certain religions do have problems that should be looked into. However, attacking religion as a way to mask classism, xenophobia, and outright racism is abominable.

As prejudice and classism are slowly removed from our culture, we will see more and more signifiers used to maintain the old status quo. We need to be vigilant to ways in which people will keep hidden how they are excluding and harming others. We also need to question ourselves. It’s easy to put someone down for using “their” instead of “there” and not see our own classism in doing so. I know I have been guilty of this and am working to be more respectful of everyone’s humanity.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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