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Reflections on Ashley Judd, Hunger Games and Trayvon Martin: Misogyny and Racism

By Dennis Loo (4/12/12)

First of all: kudos to Ashley Judd for her reasoned, eloquent, and principled response to the hysterical misogynistic reactions in the media to her face being puffy in March 2012 (due to steroid use to treat her illness). Patriarchical women and men in the media were absolutely sure that this was evidence that she’s had plastic surgery, with plastic surgeons explaining exactly which procedures she must have had, with some of these genuises in the media saying that she’s a “cow,” a “pig,” and that she “better watch out” because her husband “is looking for a second wife.”

As she states at her website:

I ask especially how we can leverage strong female to female alliances to confront and change that there is no winning here as women. It doesn’t actually matter if we are aging naturally, or resorting to surgical assistance. We experience brutal criticism. The dialogue is constructed so that our bodies are a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others – and in my case, to the actual public. (I am also aware that inevitably some will comment that because I am a creative person, I have abdicated my right to a distinction between my public and private selves, an additional, albeit related, track of highly distorted thinking that will have to be addressed at another time).

If this conversation about me is going to be had, I will do my part to insist that is a feminist one, because it has been misogynist from the start. Who makes the fantastic leap from being sick, or gaining some weight over the winter, to a conclusion of plastic surgery? Our culture, that’s who. The insanity has to stop, because as focused on me as it appears to have been, it is about all girls and women. In fact, it’s about boys and men, too, who are equally objectified and ridiculed, according to hetereonormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of their personhood. It affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self image, how we show up our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human beings. Join in – and help change – The Conversation.

(I always liked Ashley Judd. I confess to not knowing of her off-screen life as an activist. There was something about her on screen that was different: a kind of quiet self-confidence and lack of pretense. But now that I've read her words, I know why.)

Imagine a society where someone like Ashley Judd was on the radio or TV daily instead of the likes of women-hating, I-wanna-see-you-in-a-porn-on-YouTube Rush Limbaugh, shut-up-I’m-cutting-your-mic-and-you’re-a-baby-killer-who-should-die-Bill O’Reilly, the hysterical-weeping-chalkboard-scribbling-conspiracy-kook-Glenn Beck, or the viper Ann Coulter?

Imagine what difference this would make in the caliber of sentiments and behavior in the society and what was considered normative instead of the misogyny and racism that people such as these multi-millionaire talking head “celebrities” propagate daily and thereby set the tone for all too many in the society?

But that’s not all.

As Dodai Stewart wrote at Jezebel on March 26, 2012 in an article entitled “Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed”:

"The tumblr Hunger Games Tweets has collected a smattering of Twitter postings, with the goal of exposing 'Hunger Games fans on Twitter who dare to call themselves fans yet don't know a damn thing about the books.' What people are saying is disappointing, sad, stomach-churning, and just plain racist.

why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined it for me

"This young woman considered the movie 'ruined.'

cinna and rue werent suppose to be black. why did the producer make all the good characters black smh.

"This girl wants to know why they 'made all the good characters black.' Good people cannot possibly be black. Black people are villainous. Duh.

EWW rue is black? Im not watching.

"Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn't as sad #ihatemyself

"At least this person had the good sense to hate himself.

"The posts go on and on and on. It's not just a coup[l]e of tweets, it's not just a coincidence. There's an underlying rage, coming out as overt prejudice and plain old racism. Sternberg is called a 'black bitch,' a 'nigger' and one person writes that though he pictured Rue with 'darker skin,' he 'didn't really take it all the way to black.' It's as if that is the worst possible thing a person could be."

Recently, as I’ve written and others as well, Geraldo Rivera came out and declared that Trayvon Martin died because he was wearing a hoodie. Never mind to the good reporter with the big mustache from Fox News that Trayvon was doing nothing wrong and that George Zimmerman decides that he has to shoot the “fucking coon,” as Zimmerman put it. No, Trayvon didn’t die because Zimmerman’s a racist, emboldened by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Trayvon died because he was wearing the wrong clothes!

Ashley Judd’s getting fat! She’s a pig! The kid’s wearing a hoodie, quick shoot him! The character in Hunger Games I fell in love with was black, oh no!! How could you?!

Why do the worst kind of Troglodytian sentiments seem to be coming out of the shadows and basking in the sunlight, celebrating, even braying about their views before the whole world?

These eruptions of more and more naked expressions of racism and misogyny are emerging because there has to be some way to justify the inequities that neoliberal policies bring. If social Darwinism is the ruling ethic and only the alleged “fittest” survive, then how else are we to account for those who are kicked off the island other than to say that they are not as good? This has to be the reason because if it’s not, then the whole system that condemns so many to second-class citizenship, to ridicule, to beatings, to premature death, and to being killed, is itself to blame. 

As I wrote in Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

If the existing authorities embark on a radical turn in policy but mask the magnitude of their actions with persuasive rhetoric, and if the mass media go along, then how can we reasonably expect society’s mainstream to break with the leading authorities? Is the average person, or are even the most highly informed citizen, going to be ready to break with both the leading political parties and the mass media by concluding that their reading of the situation trumps that of the leading institutions and individuals? The mainstream will not do so unless and until a powerful enough alternative political and moral authority emerges that contends against the existing authority. Such an unusual scenario happens, when it happens at all, in part because the alternative authority does its work very well; but it mainly happens because the existing authorities become unable to hold things together. As a rule, people in any society are reluctant to break with convention. Conventional ways of doing and thinking must be at or near the breaking point, while simultaneously beset by a major challenge from an alternative path and alternative leadership, in order for a significant portion of the people to rupture from the existing system and its leaders. This is not a process that happens slowly and gradually, even if there are some building actions involved. It is a process that occurs in a concentrated span of time, in an accelerated fashion, under conditions of crisis.

This is what happened for a time in the 1960s when the existing authorities suffered from a “credibility gap” and the Left exercised broad influence, even though its actual numbers were small. As one indicator of this, during the high tide of the 1960s, a large majority of college students endorsed the idea of a revolution. The way that people defined revolution varied widely, but the mere fact that eighty percent (in at least one poll) believed that revolution was necessary was indicative of the mood of the times, the degree of crisis of the system, and the strength of the Left relative to the Right.

The problem in the US today, in brief, is not mainly that the people are bad or indifferent or gullible or immoral or consumed personally in pleasurable pursuits, though these elements exist in abundance. The main problem is that the established and widely recognized opinion leaders upon whom people rely and from whom they receive their overall orientations have been installing neoliberal policies in the driver’s seat. The American psyche’s degradation, to the point where Americans in all too many instances are going along with explicit and monstrous violations of international and national laws and widely and readily understood principles of morality and decency, is not primarily a product of average Americans forsaking their consciences. Leaders are primarily responsible. The soldiers guilty of committing atrocities at places like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram do not commit their acts because they are particularly depraved individuals; they were and are doing what they were and are expected to do and are ordered to do by their superior officers. This does not make those frontline soldiers guiltless of awful crimes; it does, however, make them relatively less guilty than their superiors.

Social psychologists have shown in experiments designed to measure people’s willingness to go against the group that most people will adopt the group answer, even when they know indisputably that the answer given by everyone else around them is wrong. In experiments, for example, where five people sit around a table and are asked to answer very simple questions (such as which straight line is longer even though both lines are obviously the same length), and when four of the respondents have been secretly instructed by the experimenters to give the same wrong answer, about eighty percent of the time the fifth respondents adopt the group’s wrong answer. Most people do not wish to be socially isolated and will do what they know is wrong, even deeply immoral things, rather than be isolated from the group. Breaking with the group not only means possible social isolation, the consequences for which can range from being made fun of to being killed, but it also means that you have to be willing to stand out and say to the others that they are wrong and you are right. Most people are not comfortable assuming that stance.

When people come into a group and see that everyone else is behaving in a particular way, they assume—erroneously—that everyone else is acting that way because they have all consciously decided to act in such a manner. Not wanting to assume that they know better, most people will then adopt the group’s behavior. Social psychologists call this process of reasoning “pluralistic ignorance.” It is more commonly seen in the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” in which the only person in the crowd willing to point out that the emperor is stark naked is a little boy; all of the adults are too embarrassed and afraid to point out the powerful emperor’s obvious nakedness and instead celebrate his (nonexistent) marvelous new clothes.

People are first and foremost social beings. While Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” captures something critical about what it means to be human, an even more accurate descriptor would be “I adapt, therefore I am.” Most people in any situation go along with the group norms not primarily because they agree with those norms but because they are adapting themselves to what they see most of the others around them doing. This rule of human behavior exists not primarily because people are sheep but because we all recognize that our survival depends on being in good standing with others. In a recent study that reproduced the famous Solomon Asch conformity experiment (with the difference that in the recent study MRI’s were taken of the participants’ brain activity), when people gave answers that agreed with the group, even though the group’s answer was obviously wrong, their brains showed no emotional distress. When they gave the right answers but those answers differed from the group, however, their emotions were triggered. In other words, when we are doing the wrong thing, so long as that wrong thing agrees with what the group is doing, our brains do not evidence emotional distress. But doing the right thing when it means departing from the group’s actions is emotional. The study further found that the group’s stance actually influences people’s individual perceptions.[i]

As social beings, we also follow leaders’ examples. When recognized leaders provide examples that are egregious, those examples set a negative tone for most people. When leaders set a positive tone, they have a similarly powerful impact on those who follow them, this time in a positive direction. How far a leader can go, it is true, depends on what his or her social base is capable of handling. A leader does not have unilateral power to determine what a group will do. But the initiative rests with leaders to determine which of the contradictory aspects of his/her group come to the fore. Stanley Milgram found that in a particular variation of his famous obedience experiment:

The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority -- In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and [electrical] shocks [to the subject in another room]. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, thirty-six of forty subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.[ii]

That is a variant of the Milgram Experiment that has not received the amount of attention it richly deserves.[iii] I discuss the Milgram Experiment further later in this chapter.

One measure of the difference between admirable leaders and those who are not is whether they appeal to the better, higher sentiments of the people or to lower sentiments and narrower concerns. In either instance the leaders are resonating with some strain of their social base, but the direction in which the whole group moves depends upon the leaders’ initiating actions. Rather than spending their energy bemoaning the backwardness of Americans, people would do better by actively engaging themselves in providing leadership and setting examples for others to follow. The so-called problem with “the people” always primarily involves the role being played by those in leading positions, whether they are the official authorities or those leaders among the groups who are trying to change the direction of the group/society (Pp. 331-334)

It comes down to a question of two inter-related factors.

First, what is the nature of the system that is in place that determines the relations that will exist between people? All systems have systems' logic and systems do not operate the way that they do primarily because of the individual personalities, choices, and attitudes of the individuals within them. The reason why sociology and anthropology exist as social sciences at all is because society exists sui generis, as Emile Durkheim put it: as a thing in itself independent of the particular individuals who are its occupants at any particular point in time. An example of this would be the answer to the question: if the president of the nation were to die, would the presidency disappear? Everyone knows the answer is "no." The presidency goes on. The system goes on. "The king is dead. Long live the king."

Second, what are the standards being set by the people in leading positions within the system?

The temper of the times is set by the actions of those who establish the norms from which others take their cues. When greed, material riches, and selfishness are the norm and when the law becomes whatever the leaders say it is, then the whole society suffers. When a society’s system endangers the lives of its people and the viability of the planet, and when that system’s leaders refuse to take the steps that must be taken to avoid disaster, then new leaders, representative of a different system, must step forward and create a new norm. They must set the standard and call on other people to adopt and adhere to that new standard.

It is not a question of having to get everyone to stop being selfish or expecting everyone to become heroes; it is not a question of advising everyone to “do their own thing”; it is a question of what standard is being set by the society’s opinion-makers. It is the standard-setters and the system’s logic that determine what most people will do and which end of the behavioral spectrum is favored. If the standard setters are adhering to an altruistic position, this does not eliminate the presence of greedy or otherwise antisocial and pathological individuals; it just makes them outré for the majority of the society. What we have now is the opposite situation, with most of the leading individuals in the political and economic arena moved by greed and personal advancement and with a system in place that is based upon promoting these antisocial behaviors and attitudes. (Emphasis added, p. 345)

Most people think that systems are wholly or mainly the product of the individuals who make up those systems. But this is a mistake; it overlooks the fact that systems don't operate on the same level as the individuals within them. We are everywhere and always connected to structures larger than ourselves. Patriarchy, as Ashley Judd points out, is a system that is being acted out - personified by - various individuals. Racism is a system of thought (ideology) and practices that individuals who are not consciously rejecting it personify and act out, as George Zimmerman did when he chased Trayvon as someone suspicious and someone who didn't belong and then shot him dead.



[i] Sandra Blakeslee, “What Other People Say May Change What You See,” NYTimes.com, June 28, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/28/science/28brai.html, accessed June 30, 2008: “The researchers found that social conformity showed up in the brain as activity in regions that are entirely devoted to perception. But independence of judgment—standing up for one’s beliefs—showed up as activity in brain areas involved in emotion, the study found, suggesting that there is a cost for going against the group.”

[ii] Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience,” Harper’s, December 1973, 62-77. The article can be found also at “The Perils of Obedience,” http://home.swbell.net/revscat/perilsOfObedience.html, accessed February 14, 2011.

[iii] Subjects administered electrical shocks to a stranger in another room when the stranger failed to answer a question correctly. The experiment was to see if subjects would follow authority’s injunctions to continue the shocks or refuse to obey. Milgram was pilot-testing his 1960 experiment in the US, planning to take it to Germany to test Germans who he thought were particularly obedient because of their allowing the Nazis to rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Milgram never did go to Germany because he found his answer right here at home: Americans, just like the Germans, were all too willing to follow authority.

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