Gotcha!



Yesterday I came across a story about a UCSB women's studies professor who, several months ago, accosted an anti-abortion protester who was carrying an aborted fetus sign on campus. The professor was, herself, three months pregnant and found the sign offensive (and I would agree with her on that), but her reaction was inappropriate, ill-advised, and illegal. She was prosecuted, pleaded no contest, apologized, and will be performing community service.

The story came by way of a blog called "Chicks on the Right," and spent considerable time ridiculing the professor, those who have risen in her defense, the discipline of women's studies, and feminism in general, using this incident as proof positive that feminists are a bunch of sex-obsessed hypocrites who'd rather hide behind their outrage than issue a simple apology. At one point, the writer uses this clause: "that's the thing about liberal pro-choice feminists."

And that's where my hackles went up.

I'm going to make a generalized judgment here: the moment an opinion piece uses the words "that's the thing about..." you can set its conclusions aside as founded on anecdotal evidence. And while my anecdotal sample is a right-wing gotcha piece, I readily acknowledge that plenty of this goes on on the left, as well. Google the words "Sarah Palin stupid" and you'll have a page full of gaffes. Try "Tea Party racist" and the top of the results is a Huffington Post piece about a joke made at a rally--in 2012.

Once again, this is why we can't have nice things.

The internet is such a powerful research tool that any person can find, in seconds, a story, a quote, an image, a factoid to support an argument, to form the basis of an essay that will include the words "and that's the thing about..." It could be "the thing about" liberals, "tea baggers" (Bill Maher's term), socialists, libertarians, gun nuts, peaceniks, evangelicals, evolutionists, atheists, creationists, hippies, bikers, Republicans, Democrats, Monster Raving Loony Partiers, any group that the writer wants to paint with a broad brush.

And any time it happens, any time the words or actions of a single individual turn into a generalization, the writer is lying to you. This is not something you can honestly say about any group. It's not even something you can say about an individual. People sometimes say stupid things. They sometimes use the wrong words. Sometimes they even do something ill-advised and out of character: drive drunk, start a fight, deface public property, shoplift, commit adultery. Before the advent of the internet, such statements or incidents were less likely to make headlines--at least, not nationally.

Those days are gone. Across the internet, there are spies, lurkers, pundits, trolls lying in wait for actionable missteps. Any person who might be deemed representative of a hated group can, with one speeding ticket, one stumble, one blurted-out remark, become a poster child to that group's haters. "The thing about" Tea Partiers is that they believe torture is acceptable, because after all, Sarah Palin joked about "baptiz[ing] terrorists." "The thing about" Democrats is they think all conservatives are racists, because some celebrities have said so. It goes back and forth, on and on, and in the partisan echo chambers most of us live in, every quote, clip, snapshot, tweet just goes to reinforce our opinion about those people.

Those people. Them.

And now, I hope, you see the problem.

None of these groups are monoliths. Every classification I listed a few paragraphs back consists of individuals. Quakers, Greens, NRA members, AARP members--one cannot ever say that any individual speaks for the entire group. Those who step up on the public stage to make statements would often like us to think that, but it's never true.

No United Methodist leader who waffles on gay rights or gay marriage speaks for me. No Scout executive who reiterates that BSA policy excludes gay adults from leadership positions speaks for me. No Democratic politician who in any way condones torture speaks for me. No feminist who defends assaulting a teenager for carrying an offensive sign speaks for me.

And I know for a fact that the same is true on the other side of the political spectrum, because I have known evangelicals, conservatives, Republicans who would be appalled by the things said and done by other members of their groups.

Human beings are diverse. No one person can fully represent any segment of humanity. No one statement or action can be honestly attributed to all members of a group.

So let's stop already with the "gotcha" journalism. It does nothing to discredit the people it's aimed at. But it does say a lot about the writers using it.

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