Wednesday, February 15, 2017

This Whole Swastika Thing Is Getting Out of Control

If you don't go to USC, or you do, but you spend very little time on the Internet, you might not know that there was a firestorm today about a vendor on campus who was selling shirts that had swastikas on them.

I've seen pictures of the shirt. I don't know the vendor personally, but based on the images, it seems like the vendor was attempting to shed some light on the history of the symbol, and to condemn those who have used it to spread hate. Which is, like, nice, I guess? But ultimately irrelevant.

A USC student who posted about an emotional response to the shirt was immediately assaulted with an onslaught of comments from people calling her an oversensitive snowflake, mocking her for being triggered, and making a lot of anti-Semitic remarks in general. There were even more people who jumped in to play devil's advocate, to explain that the symbol is *supposed* to be peaceful, to denounce Nazism but to defend free speech and the right of the individual to sell the shirt.

Here's my thing.

I'm a black Jew who has never felt particularly welcomed by the Jewish community. So it goes--I'm not really religious anyway, so it was always more of an inconvenience to have my heritage questioned than a real point of offense. Nonetheless, I have ancestors that were persecuted in the Holocaust, and my white, Jewish mother is just as integral to my identity as my black, non-Jewish father. So seeing swastikas for me is always kind of painful. Even if other Jews don't usually recognize me as one of their own, some part of me still feels tied to that community. The experience is sort of like (though not identical to) when I hear people say the n-word. Even though it's not (usually) directed at me, and even though its usage does not directly subjugate me, I can feel the weight of its historical significance. I know that I'm only a couple generations removed from people whose lives were made absolutely unlivable by that word, and that symbol. (Also, black people were murdered during the Holocaust. As were gays, and the disabled, and a whole bunch of other marginalized groups. I digress).

But even if you AREN'T descended from people who were historically persecuted, you should have a problem with the swastika. It's not what it used to be. I know the "swastikas have seen better days" argument sounds silly when I phrase it that way, but they have. The only reason that any words or symbols have meaning is because we have assigned meaning to them. And when a meaning--particularly a violent one--becomes widely accepted and installed into the historical canon, it is imperative that we keep that in mind as time passes. I don't know if humanity will ever be able to "reclaim" the swastika, or the Confederate flag, or any other symbol that has once stood for hate, without facing repercussions.

Also--why are people (specifically straight/cisgender/white/Christian/male people) so obsessed with playing devil's advocate? Do you hear yourself? The devil doesn't need any more advocates! (And yes, I did order a shirt from Customink that has that very saying emblazoned across the chest). I get that you have been brought up to look at controversial issues from all sides, and to look at the facts. But I read a great quote somewhere about politics that essentially says: don't bring facts to a feelings party, and don't bring feelings to a facts party. When it comes to the swastika, you're in feelings territory. Climate change? Facts party. It exists. Economics? Facts party. Unemployment is a quantifiable statistic. Hate speech? Big ol' feelings party. It doesn't REALLY matter, in my opinion, that the swastika has peaceful origins, because those origins were perverted by the Nazi party. And that symbol has brought a lot of people a lot of pain. Your facts will crumble in the face of the trauma that millions of people experienced during the Holocaust, and that even more people experienced in the subsequent decades as a result of the genocide.

My final point, I suppose, is that you have to really think about what you're getting worked up about. If your Big Cause that you're fighting for is some person's right to sell shirts with swastikas on them, maybe you should reprioritize a bit. Free speech is a great thing to fight for. Hate speech? Notsomuch. No matter what that vendor thought they were accomplishing, they were acting with ignorance and privilege. And when those shortcomings were called out, they chose to continue doing what they were doing. And that's a big problem.

If you are part of any privileged group, and someone from a marginalized group says that they have been hurt by your words or actions, you don't just get to ~decide~ that you didn't do anything wrong. You need to take a step back and learn why what you did might be problematic. And if it doesn't affect your way of life, you should stop. Use a different word. Call someone by the correct pronouns.

Sell almost any other *#!&$@*! shirt.

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