an organizer's take on feminism and progressive politics
Author: Rebecca Griffin
I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change.
That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way.
Please visit and join the conversation.
Last week’s episode of This American Life kicked off with a prologue about Ben Calhoun’s attempt to use his friend’s tactic of getting a “good guy” discount when he goes shopping. This basically amounts to saying “I’m a good guy, you’re a good guy, how about a discount?” and apparently it works for his friend 15-20% of the time.
While it was entertaining to listen to Calhoun struggle with his obvious discomfort, I found myself really wanting to hear more about the various power dynamics behind the whole concept. I immediately bristled at the entitlement behind the idea that someone would deserve a discount other people aren’t getting because he has the nerve to push for it (I’m sure most people who’ve worked in retail share my lack of surprise at the bemused response from a lot of the people he encounters).
The idea is itself gendered obviously; I’m not going to go into a store talking about what a “good guy” I am. While Calhoun doesn’t use the “you’re a good guy, I’m a good guy” line his friend recommends, it implies a brotherhood of sorts, a favor between friends that wouldn’t be accessible to most people. It’s interesting that four out of the five people he tries it on are women, and he does get a measly 5% discount from a woman at the end. But I really wanted to see how the experiment would play out with a variety of genders and races involved.
Can a young black man go to a white woman and get a “good guy” discount? What about a middle-aged woman to a young man? I can already imagine some people would come back with some women’s ability to flirt and get discounts and special treatment, but that’s exploiting a culture that objectifies women rather than an inherent entitlement and confidence people can use to make their way in the world. It reminded me of this great piece from last month about “life hacking” really being about white privilege:
A white man walked in. He surveyed the line and confidently jetted past it, over to an employee pushing a wheeled bin across the floor. He put his hand on the employee’s back. He said, “Hey buddy … can you do me a favor? I just have this one thing.”
I also just have this one thing, I thought. And, this line is for people who have one or more things, douchebag. And, you have no right to ask a “favor” that dicks over 18 people uninvolved in granting the “favor.”
I highly recommend reading how the whole thing spins out from there. We might not get to see the experiment of how this “good guy” discount would play out for lots of different people, though we all can make some educated guesses. At least I can be happy with where Calhoun lands on the concept by the end of his cringe-inducing attempt.
As the outrage at the income gap grows and more states and cities are taking action, both parties recognize this as a key election year issue. I recently heard a Democratic campaign staffer talk about the party’s eagerness to see minimum wage increases on the ballot in key states, knowing that will drive up turnout for their candidates (whether those candidates will do much to ultimately address the income gap is another question). It’s something congressional Democrats will jump on rhetorically, though the only real hope for change in the short-term is at the state and local level.
Republicans see the writing on the wall and are trying to jump in on the debate, but with a proposal that is out of step with national trends: promoting marriage.
In his speech on poverty last week, Marco Rubio held up marriage as the primary cure for that which afflicts the poor. “The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%,” said Rubio. “But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.” To be sure, Rubio is not married to marriage as the greatest tool of upward mobility – later in the speech, he asserted, “We have the single greatest engine of upward mobility in human history at our disposal: the American free enterprise system.” (If you have a problem with there being two greatest tools in human history for lifting people out of poverty, you’re probably not a Rubio voter in the first place.)
It’s sad that the US government is so invested in promoting the institution of marriage that people are often dependent on it for access to essential services like health care. Ideally our society would take care of people regardless of their relationship status, especially now that marriage is on the decline, and many people that would have been married years ago are choosing cohabitation. It’s one thing to debate the idea of incentivizing marriage, but some conservative proposals would even punish reluctance to enter into it:
Rubio at least gestures in the direction of a pro-marriage policy by proposing to change the Earned Income Tax Credit. The credit subsidized low-income workers of modest means; Rubio would make it more generous for low-income married couples, and more stingy for single parents. It’s questionable whether Rubio’s policy would actually do much to encourage marriage, and it’s certain it would have enormously noxious side effects, by impoverishing single parents and their children.
Rubio’s proposal is at least specific. Others are merely paeans to the value of marriage without any real solutions for inequality.
It’s useful that we find ourselves in a time when commitment to addressing income inequality is seen as an electoral asset, and activists can exploit that dynamic. But we have to push for action from both parties, and hold them to moving beyond rhetoric to implementation of real policies that will help all struggling Americans regardless of their marital status.
The cultural shifts that made blatant bigotry less acceptable have brought with them new–and newly frustrating–dynamics. Some cling to colorblindness and ignore institutional racism, pointing only to the lack of overt, verbalized discrimination. People use the phrase “reverse racism” non-ironically. Opponents of gay marriage use exciting (though still limited) gay rights victories as “proof” that LGBT people are no longer vulnerable.
When taking on the frenzy around Melissa Harris-Perry’s apology for mocking Mitt Romney’s grandson, Jelani Cobb has a great take on an interesting aspect of these shifts: bigots taking on the role of oppressed minority. He points out that this “appropriation of victimhood” isn’t new, but it certainly has been on the rise with the harsh and overwhelming internet reactions to offensive behavior:
Like so many of our current maladies, the culture of reverse victimhood finds its origins in the Civil War, during which a region devoted to human bondage wrapped itself in the garb of an oppressed people shrugging off tyranny. A century later, in the civil-rights era, the South imagined itself besieged by “outside agitators” disrupting the heretofore amiable relations between the races. Conservatives, then as now, simultaneously denounced “victimology.” But in the decades that followed, conservatives came to believe that the problem was not the pronouncements of victimhood from the afflicted groups—blacks, women, gays—but that they had a monopoly over the matter. Their cause became an equality of grievance. Thus we have a Tea Party movement, whose members are sincerely terrified by the prospect of government stealing their individual liberty, while utterly unmoved by the concerns of those whose history is marked by the literal rather than figurative experience of enslavement. The truly damning facet of Romney’s infamous “forty-seven per cent” remarks wasn’t that he called half the country freeloaders; it was the concurrent implication that members of the extremely wealthy audience before him were the real exploited toilers.
The appropriation of victimhood isn’t confined to issues of race and class. Last November, Guns & Ammo magazine fired a longtime columnist, Dick Metcalf, for tentatively suggesting that the government has the authority to regulate weapons. (After sacking his writer, the magazine’s editor naturally delivered a profuse and unconditional apology to his readers.) Metcalf may have been fired for violating the orthodoxy of Second Amendment fundamentalism (though he described himself as a believer in that creed), but his real offense was challenging the canard, deployed so profitably by the N.R.A., that gun owners are victims-in-waiting, soon to be targeted by a government crackdown on their weapons. The singular innovation of American gun culture, in fact, is the idea that he who is most heavily armed is most vulnerable. George Zimmerman, and not the teen-ager he shot, is, for them, the model of victimhood.
Michelle Malkin imagines decent Americans under assault by equality bullies—what she calls a “tolerance mob,” enforcing political correctness with Gambino-style brutality. Last week, Steve King, the Republican Iowa congressman—earlier pilloried for claiming most undocumented immigrants were drug mules (whose calves, he memorably declared, were sized like cantaloupes)—sent out a fundraising e-mail proclaiming himself “the last one standing” against the intolerant liberal jihad that had driven fellow truthsayers like Allan West and Michele Bachmann from Congress. The problem here is not hypocrisy—the charge typically brought by the likes of Steve King, who writes that “Conservatives are to be tolerant of liberal ideology; however the left need not be tolerant of conservative Christians.” The problem is narcissism: that of those who feel besieged by protests against ethnic slurs, undisturbed by any real understanding of the history, or humanity, of others.