Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Tired Refrain of "Great Harm"

If you don't know history, it is said, you are bound to repeat it.

And, I would like to add that those who do not know history are often scared of progress. This Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks to the men and women in our nation's history who were not scared of social progress, and who were not scared of the future.

Progress on social issues will occur. I think that it is in our nature, as humans, neither to remain stangant nor oppressive. We cannot guarantee that social progress will happen swiftly or without struggle. But, generally, progress happens.

Those who do not remember this general rule, those who resist progress, are bound to be seen by history as bigots, fools, and just all-around bad guys.

People resist social progress on many different grounds. Religion and morality are some common grounds of resistance. I don't believe that all people who resist progress on these grounds are acting with malice. They were brought up with certain beliefs, or acquired them over time, and in their arguments they are merely appealing to what they believe is their god's word. Some resisters of progress, however, do act with a somewhat evil intent. Such people are often outright bigots (admittedly or not).

Today, thought, I want to talk about a different category of resister, what I like to call The Great Harm Resister. These resisters of social progress base their justification of stagnancy on the grounds that:

"Great harm will befall society if ________ group of people receive _______ rights."

I am not implying here that all progress is beneficial to society or that all progress will not cause some harm. But oftentimes, the "great harm" argument really means this:

"Those who currently receive the rights in question will be harmed in some way if _______ right is also given to _______ group of people."

Yet, in their self-absorption, egocentricity, and/or dishonesty they claim that ALL of society will suffer. Because they seem to believe that "all of society" is composed of people just like them?

A *fun* variation of this argument is also:

"If _____ right is given to _____ group of people it will harm that group of people the right is given to."

That is an even more invidious argument as the denial of rights is for the denied group's "own good." There we have one group who has put itself in charge with looking out for everyone. As though that group could be trusted to do so fairly.

Let's take a walk through history and remember some of these arguments...

1. Women's Suffrage.

Remember when women couldn't vote? Yeah, neither do I. Thank you women and men who supported women's suffrage! Those who opposed giving women the vote were called "Antis," which I think we should co-opt and use for present resisters to social progress.

Although the first serious proposal to give women the right to vote in the US was in the mid-1800's, women did not receive the right until 1920.

Here was some "enlightened" speak from anti-voting equality advocates:

Rep. Thomas Girling argued that granting women the right to vote would

"cause irreparable damage at great expense to the state."

A Senator asserted that,

"disaster and ruin would overtake the nation."

But wait! Women also joined the fun! Look at this early British female anti-feminist's reasons that women should not vote:

"Because all government rests ultimately on force, to which women, owing to physical, moral and social reasons, are not capable of con­tributing."


"Because there is little doubt that the vast majority of women have no desire for the vote."

Because, like, voting is haa-ard. Tee-hee-hee.

Women opposing suffrage remind me of women today who try to earn the favor of men by not being feminists and not supporting gender equality. They proudly proclaim "I'm not a feminist!" and receive their obligatory pat on the head from whatever man they are trying to please.

But anyway, back to Great Harm. Does anyone see the Great Harm that has occured to our nation and/or women because they were granted the right to vote? Now, keep in mind that women have only had the right to vote for 87 years. Perhaps we are not yet able to discern the damage, disaster, and ruin that is occuring in our nation that is a direct result of female voters.

2. Slavery

Some of my (un)favorite arguments for slavery were of the "Great Harm Will Befall Slaves If They Are Freed" type.

Specifically, the argument went that Black people from Africa were "naturally inferior" to other races. Therefore, they were unfit for citizenship and freedom.

For instance, a Black person's:

"want of capability to receife a complicated education renders it improper and impotitic, that he should be allowed the privileges of citizenship in an enlightened country!"

So, it seems that this author was arguing that slaves thought freedom was, like, too hard. Freedom would only confuse the slave and, therefore, harm him [or her].

But not only that, the abolition of slavery would harm society:

"The first and most obvious effect, would be to put an end to the cultivation of our great Southern staple."

Readers, has the end of slavery harmed society, our nation, and/or African-Americans? Remember that slavery has only been abolished for 140-some years so perhaps we can't yet see the harm.

3. Anti-Miscegenation

Miscgenation as Wikipedia states is "the mixing of the races" such as through marrying, cohabitation, or sexual relations. As late as 1967, some US states had valid anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting the inter-marriage of whites with other racial groups. Non-white racial groups were, of course, often free to inter-marry. It was the white race that some were concerned about becoming "tainted."

Observe this Judge's Great Harm to Society argument:

"Civilized society has the power of self-preservation, and, marriage being the
foundation of such society, most of the states in which the Negro forms an
element of any note have enacted laws inhibiting intermarriage between the
white and black races."
(From Perez v. Lippold)

The following argument, from the Tennessee Supreme Court, is of the "Great Harm Will Befall Society Because Children Will be Harmed" type:

"Interracial marriages would be a “calamity full of the saddest and
gloomiest portent to the generations that are to come after us."

And here is a "Great Harm To The Marital Institution" Argument said by a US Representative:

"Allowing interracial marriages 'necessarily involves the degradation' of
conventional marriage, an institution that 'deserves admiration rather than

Readers, do you think that "inter-marriage" has caused great harm to society, our current generation, and marriage in general? Or has it merely harmed some white people's notion that the white race is superior to other races? Keep in mind, that miscegenation has only been legal in the US for 40 years. Perhaps we can't yet see the full effects of the harm.

4. Women Running Marathons

This category is a bit more flippant than the others, admittedly. But there was a time when women were not allowed to run marathons, and when they were, in general, discouraged from participating in endurance sports. The reasoning behind this discouragement and (sometimes) ban, was that supposedly women were not physically capable of running long distances.

That is, Great Harm Will Befall Women if they run more than a mile or two. As a woman who has competed in many marathons, and has logged more running miles than many men have, I find this old "warning" amusing.

A woman first ran the marathon in 1896, when she ran and finished the Olympic course that she was barred from officially entering. As late as 1972, women were excluded from one of the world's most famous marathons: Boston. The first woman to run the Boston marathon was Katherine Switzer, who "snuck" into the race by using the initials of her first name. When race officials realized that a woman was running the race, they tried to physically remove her from the course.

The picture of race officials trying to remove her from the course, to me, is a striking image of men desperately trying to maintain a status quo.

Now, of course, physical differences exist between men and women. But they are not so great to warrant the restriction of a woman's race to 1.5 miles while allowing men to run 26.2 miles! Hundreds of thousands of female marathoners have proven that.

Readers, can anyone think of some more Great Harm Myths?

No comments: