T-shirts: Defining the Pale

The 19th-century diplomat Prince Metternich once said that while he might feel some sympathy for Adolphe Thiers, the utter bastard who massacred a few thousand people in order to crush the glorious Paris Commune, he would not wear a T-shirt showing his face. He said the same about Augusto Pinochet, who led a bloody military coup against the elected but left-wing government of Chile.

More interesting than the sartorial decisions of a German-Austrian politician, however, is the suggestion that the same attitude should be taken by those on the sensible side of politics about that much T-shirted figure, Ernesto Guevara.

Now I thought this was interesting. What it seems to me to be about is something along the following lines: there is in some sense a range of divergent political opinions on which people can differ while remaining civil. But some political opinions are ‘beyond the pale’ and should not be respected or accepted on T-shirts.

The far-right is the main and most obvious Beyond-The-Pale (henceforth BTP) position. Someone walking around with a swastika or a portrait of Hitler on their clothing, or a statement of support for the BNP, is liable to get into a spot of bother with many of their fellow-humans.

But the boundaries of the pale are rather hard to specify. Che, Pinochet, and Thiers are all, perhaps, grey areas – what about Mussolini, who was a Fascist but not quite as much of a crazy racist as Hitler. Franco? Livni, who organised the recent massacre in Gaza? Truman, who dropped the A-bombs? The KKK, I think, are clearly out, but what about Silvio Berlusconi? And of course the Hammer and Sickle is very controversial, but for some that’s because it refers to communism per se, for others specifically to Stalin and his soviet union. I’ve been in non-communist flats with mugs showing the face of Mao Zedong. What about Lenin? Trotsky? Marx? Ahmed Ben Bella, who led independent Algeria? David Ben Gurion, who founded Israel? The delimiting of this pale is very contested and not at all clear.

I would suggest that the key idea is in a sense interpersonal. To take Hitler as a starting point, one might suggest that a Jewish or homosexual or Roma person seeing Hitler on your T-shirt has a right to feel personally very insulted because the message it sends is “I applaud this man who would have killed you”, and hence “I would applaud killing you”, “I do not recognise the value of your life.” Similarly, the same message might be sent to black people by someone wearing a KKK T-shirt.

We can then see in some sense where things which are BTP differ from mere disagreements: if my T-shirt shows Cameron and yours shows Brown, we can recognise each other’s views as wrong but held by people who have a right to hold them and a right to be listened to. If my T-shirt is saying ‘you have no right to exist’, then it certainly can’t say you have a right to be listened to. And if you’re denying me my right to be listened to, I can hardly be expected to accept your right to be listened to. All that then needs to be added is a sense of general solidarity with humans, so that I, neither Jewish, gay, or Roma, nevertheless feel that a Hitler T-shirt is a statement of disrespect to people who are, it is also a similar statement of disrespect to me, and out of respect for them, I should despise it and its wearer.

Incidentally, if there was to be a justification for limiting freedom of speech (legally or socially or whatever) to prohibit hate speech, then I think it would probably go something like this. Respect for the right to speak and be heard demands reciprocity: hate speech is a denial of the right to speak and be heard (because denial of the right to exist) to some members of society, and through social solidarity to all members of society. It thus forfeits its own claim to such respect. To accept hate speech is to accept a redefinition of who is included in freedom to speech to exclude certain groups, and hence is a greater threat to such freedom than is hate speech’s prohibition. That would be how it would go. I don’t know if that’s a good argument but that’s how I think it would have to go.

Aaaanyway, this of course brings us to the tricky bit. I can be outraged by a Hitler T-shirt indirectly, through sympathy for jewish, gay, or roma people (or for the disabled, other ethnic minorities, etc. etc.). But can I not also be outraged directly, out of a feeling that had I been living in Nazi germany, as a ‘red’ I might have been first to the camps? Can a right-wing conservative, on the other hand, be outraged by a Stalin T-shirt out of a feeling that had they been living in the Soviet Union, they as a ‘counterrevolutionary sympathiser’ would have been quite likely a target of some purge or another?

The tricky thing here is that if the pale is defined too widely, it becomes meaningless. In particular, if it includes virtually every political grouping ever, then it’s meaningless. And if we condemn every political movement that ever killed anyone, that’s what will happen. Why, after all, do I not feel outraged by people not just stating their support for, but actually voting for, the labour party, given that were I in Iraq, I would quite possibly be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting blown up?

One answer would be a somewhat ‘mentalist’ one, that suggests that things should be BTP only if they explicitly conceptually deny the value of someone being alive. Hitler, for example, didn’t kill the Jews while suggesting it was a regrettable necessity, but rather that their extermination was greatly to be desired for its own sake. Whereas the British Army in Iraq kills only reluctantly, admitting that it would be better for its victims to remain alive, but sadly they cannot.

This might be quite close to how the pale is actually defined nowadays: anything committed to an explicit ideology of equality and human rights is within the realm of permissible disagreement, whereas only the explicitly racist and genocidal is BTP. Yet it doesn’t quite seem satisfying to me.

For a start, it seems too lenient on homophobes and misogynists. “I am going to kill you, faggot, but I do so reluctantly – it would be better for you to survive, and to live as a straight, but since you have abused your nature your death is sadly necessary”. Compare “I would love to let you live, woman, and remain at home, modest and illiterate, raising children, but because you have abused your nature by going outside in a miniskirt, your death is sadly necessary.” Indeed, why not even accept the KKK: “I would love to let you live, if you would only return to your fit role as servant, but because you insist on being uppity, your death is sadly necessary.” In all these cases, we must feel that the grounds of the necessity of death are themselves of the right sort.

But the reason why it’s necessary to kill someone seems to bring us back into acceptable disagreement – maybe?

One possibility would be to say that killing (or maiming, raping, doing some serious harm to) is only justified in order to prevent the killing (etc.) of others. This seems to deal with the homophobes and misogynists and the KKK, because the reason they appeal to is not to prevent death but to preserve the natural order. And it makes a sort of sense: the message sent by a T-shirt showing someone who killed in order to save lives is not “you (the possible victim) have no right to exist” but “your right to exist does not trump the right to exist of others – and sometimes I think this guy on my chest has the authority to make that decison.”

But…this still seems open to a certain objection, namely that it takes people’s motives at their word. Consider the invasions of Afghanistan – if you think one was justified, then consider instead the other (USA or USSR). The claimed justification was to maintain the world’s safety and the freedom of the Afghan people, and to kill only where necessary for that goal. But in actual fact, it was an attempt to project and maintain power and influence, and the people killed were no more ‘necessarily’ killed than the average victim of a murder-robbery.

But the untangling of people’s “real motives” is precisely what everyone disagrees over, so how can it be the basis for people to draw the boundaries of acceptable disagreement?

Essentially, I suppose what I’m arguing is that we don’t really have a good way to delimit the pale, nor a good way to distinguish ‘reasonable disagreement’ from what is ‘beyond the pale’. Any attempt to suggest that someone is, not just wrong, but wicked and despicable for their views (or their T-shirt) is very fuzzy and depends a lot of what individuals happen to think. God that’s a crap conclusion. I apologise for this pathetic mess of a post. I’ll try to do another soon with a punchier and more helpful conclusion.

6 Responses to “T-shirts: Defining the Pale”

  1. Emperor Penguin Says:

    That he would like to relay to you the humble apologies of his previous incarnation, Prince Metternich, for causing, through a throw away ramble of his, so much trouble for you. He can reveal that his antipathy for Che supporters stems from little more than the observation that the vast majority of those willing to drape themselves in his image are morons, perfectly willing to caper under the banners of Stalin and Mao and proclaim North Korea one of the world’s last bastions of freedom and whose adoration of Che stems less from the careful weighing and lesser of two evils moralising you prescribe than the fact that he looked kind of cool. So long Comrade, I’m off to eat some tasty krill.

  2. Emperor Penguin Says:

    Apologizes again because he now feels his response to your very articulate and thoughtfull post, which made numerous sensible points, was a little on the churlish side. You are certainly right that what is beyond the pale depends very much on the eye of the beholder. Lincoln might well be hailed as one of the greatest of US Presidents for his role in abolishing a most disgusting institution although southerners who lived in the areas his generals effectively committed war crimes in might think differently, not to mention those who think his moral stance provided hypocritical cover for the perpetuation of said insitution under another form in the north (a fact much remarked on at the time). He did after all base his arguments, or so I heard, on Genesis, ‘eat in the sweat of your brow etc.’ All statesmen, as you remarked in the first post, probably have some blood on their hands, or if not, by their actions caused unecessary suffering, or negated their supposed good deeds by support of policies and insitutions that appear just as bad and so on. From this one might conclude that those with their hands on the mechanisms of coercion are not fitting subjects for t-shirts. Moreover, as I change my exact political stance a lot more than my like/dislike of certain colours and fabrics they are also liable to be a bad investment.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I feel you are too apologetic, and apologise for prompting such apoplectic apologeticism.

    Lincoln might also be considered beyond the pale because he was a raving racist. But what can you do?

    Your investment advice is probably sound – except for people living in a society where clothing can be easily exchanged through a moneyless transfer system to satisfy people’s changing needs or need for change without endless wasteful production.

  4. Emperor Penguin Says:

    Well you are fully welcome to my Che t-shirts then, with no charge whatsoever, on the condition that you furnish me with a similiarly dashing garment depicting something lacking any obvious connotations of violence. I am given to wonder why, when our society satisfies your above condition, wasteful production continues.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Maybe because doing something as an individual or pair of individuals is much more difficult than doing something as part of a socially organised system?

    Do you actually have Che t-shirts?

  6. Emperor Penguin Says:

    Yep. Although not in my wardrobe here. Given to me by pretty politically unaware (and capitalist) relatives of course.


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