Competing narratives, or, how can we tell the good guys from the bad guys?
What I wrote about instead was communications technology. How we were struggling even then to come to grips with how quickly news flew around the world and how quickly we were forgetting what we had all been upset/afraid of just last week. And because I am a big sci fi nerd, I speculated about what it would be like when people had devices in their pockets or strapped to their wrists or whatever that gave them constant and instant access to the 24-hour cable news slurry. The professor gave me a decent grade, but he couldn’t resist writing a few sentences explaining why nuclear weapons were a far graver threat to society than television ever would be.
I don’t believe I was being extremely brilliant pr prescient in that essay. People had been writing think pieces about the dangers of tabloid journalism taking over the then-new 24-hour news channels. And the notion of a TV on your wrist had been predicted in Dick Tracy comics decades before. But I still think I was correct that the proliferation of information, misinformation, has had a worse effect on society. Yes, we have terrible weapons of mass destruction that very well might wipe humans (and a whole lot of other species) off the face of the earth—but we’ve also been carrying out a mass extinction event without resorting to nuclear weapons.
However here we are, two decades into the 21st Century, and we have seen how social media bots have influenced the outcome of a U.S. Presidential election, have seen a number of people who have been dog-piled on social media driven to suicide, and seen more than one instance of on-line doxing sending SWAT team to the homes of law-abiding citizens. So I think my essay may have been much more correct that my university professor thought.
In the last week we have had two completely unrelated stories illustrate this point. First: Dallas Gay Bar Manager Fired For Refusing To Serve Transgender Woman. A lot of liberal and queer news sites shared the video of a manager of a prominent gay bar trying to eject some customers. And by the time many of us had seen the video, the corporate owners of said gay bar had already fired the manager.
Here’s the thing… when I watched the viral video, I found it far from conclusive in bearing out the transphobic narrative. There just wasn’t enough context. Clearly things had happened before the beginning of the video, and without knowing what those things were, it just isn’t possible to determine whether the manager’s actions were appropriate. Then once the scuffle began, things get even more confusing.
But, there is video, there is a scuffle, there is what appears to be a white cis man trying to kick a trans woman out of the club. And it is easy to imagine that his motivations weren’t pure.
A couple of days later, things get more interesting: Dallas Gay Bar Manager Speaks Out After Being Fired for Incident Involving Trans Woman. The bar manager’s story is quite plausible. But I understand how easy it is for bigots to construct alternative explanations that seem reasonable, so I’m not sure the manager’s story is true. Maybe he sincerely thought the ID was fake.
I am quite aware of how difficult official ID cards are to deal with. I am not trans, but back in 1992 I legally changed my name. There were several reasons for this: first, I really didn’t want to share the same first name as my viciously abusive father, but also, I had been being called a diminutive of my given middle name since I was a kid, and it just didn’t make sense for my legal name to remain a name that virtually no one called me. However, even though I legally changed my name 27 years ago, I still continue to run into situations where my birth name pops up on records, and I find myself constantly having to explain the situation. Which means that I find it very easy to believe that the trans person in this particular pair of conflicting narratives may be dealing with a simple issue of bureaucracy not keeping up with her current legal situation. There may be a reasonable explanation for why she would have several ID cards from different states at the same time.
Or maybe he only thinks the ID is fake because he’s got some unconscious transphobia going on.
The only thing that I think is clear is that his employer made the decision to fire him based on the social media uproar. The video went viral, and it seems that most of the queer news sites were leaning into the transphobia interpretation of the story, and that is bad publicity for a gay bar, particularly during Pride month (which often accounts for a significant part of the annual profits from bars and restaurants in queer neighborhoods).
No matter who was right, the mob won.
Then we had this incident last weekend: Armed Neo-Nazis Get a Police Escort to Disrupt Detroit Pride. Pictures and video from multiple sources, not just the crowd. We had a group of Neo-Nazis (they were carrying Nazi flags, wearing swastika armbands, and making Nazi salutes) taking advantage of the open-carry laws to disrupt the Pride festival. And when you show up like that and chant things about killing queers you’re not just stating an opinion: the action is clearly intended to terrorize a portion of the population. Most states, whether they have hate crime laws or not, have laws defining actions intended to “cause public alarm” as a crime. These are most often used for dealing with false bomb threats and the like.
The most alarming part of these videos and pictures are that it appears as if the police are escorting the Nazis. It appears as of the police are trying to protect the Nazis (the ones with the guns and chanting about genocide) from the festival-goers.
The police are trying to spin the story another way: Detroit Police Claim to Quash Neo-Nazi Plot To Spark ‘Charlottesville No. 2’ At Pride Parade. So the police claim that they were there to prevent the Nazis hurting anyone. And they did arrest at least three of the neo-Nazis, though we don’t know what the charges are. And they claim that they warned the Nazis several times not to start burning rainbow flags, because they would have to arrest them. (I’m assuming that the act of setting anything on fire in a crowded place would be the reason for the arrest.)
I have several problems with the police narrative. For one thing, the police chief described “both sides” acting badly. Except he isn’t referring to the Nazis on one side and the queer people on the other. He’s actually talking about an organized anti-fascist counter protest group that was there to counter the Nazis… and therefore were also technically disrupting the Pride festival. But I’ve already seen the police chief’s comments being quoted by bigots as proof that the queer people at the festival were behaving just as badly as the Nazis. Also, when saying “both sides” the police chief is alleging that the anti-fascists were yelling racial slurs at any cop who happened to be African-American, similar to how the Nazis were hurling racial slurs at them. Besides not quite believing that, I also think that the people who were marching with guns while chanting slogans about genocide are still far, far, far more in the wrong than unarmed people yelling bad words.
Maybe this is a no-win situation for the police. Because Michigan is an open-carry state, they can’t arrest people for merely carrying guns, no matter how intimidating it may be. Michigan’s hate crime law doesn’t include sexual orientation, so technically carrying a rifle while yelling into a bullhorn about killing faggots isn’t a crime in Michigan. So the only way to prevent violence is to try to put themselves between the Nazis and everyone else. Unfortunately, that makes it look like they are escorting the Nazis. On the other hand, by appearing to escort the Nazis, it sure as heck looks like the police are supporting them.
Clearly, the Nazis are the bad guys, here. But if even the police officers who recognize the Nazis as bad guys also trot out “both sides” arguments, we’ve got a problem. Queer people holding a Pride parade and festival aren’t calling for killing anyone. Asking to have the same rights as other people isn’t an attack on those people. Celebrating the fact that we have survived despite all the attempts to erase and oppress us is not an attack on anyone. This isn’t merely a difference of opinion between two potentially valid points.
I suppose I should focus on the bright side: no injuries were reported, violence didn’t break out. And even Fox News reported the Nazi actions in a negative light. I think the latter only happened because a lot of people got a picture of the one Nazi urinating on an Isreali flag. So, maybe everyone having a camera in hand was a good thing.