The Trump administration, lookism, and the Saudis

I’ve been guilty of this too, and I apologize.  It strikes me that it has become politically acceptable among some of the high status people in my Twitter feed to make fun — if only implicitly — of the ugly, idiosyncratic, puzzled, sweaty, or otherwise mockable images sometimes presented by members of the Trump administration.

I’ve also seen a tendency to use images to play on some of the ruling Saudis as fitting stereotypes of sinister or perhaps comical, or some combination of the two.  At the very least, “orientalism” is making a comeback, and with some of the people who have been objecting to Trump’s own stereotypes.

I do not see these as positive developments.  It is inevitable that, to some extent, we judge people by their looks, and in some instances it may be practical and indeed necessary as well.  That said, I doubt if it is a good idea to publicly mock the ugly and the mockable for being ugly and mockable.  Even if they are evil, or doing the world harm.

Many people (rightly) criticized Trump’s campaign imitation and mockery of what seemed to be a spastic individual.  Let’s say Trump had done the same imitation of a spastic who had been convinced of robbery and murder.  Would that have been better?  Well, maybe better but still not good.  Don’t mock the looks, even of wrongdoers, even if those are looks of stupidity or boorishness, and of course members of the Trump administration have not been so convicted.

What if there are some people born looking sinister (by our standards), but are perfectly nice and friendly?  Or say there were witches, and witches were bad, and most witches had long, crooked noses, but some other people did too.  Should we caricature/criticize witches for this appearance?

Furthermore, the standards for ugly and mockable are in fact not always so clear, and trying to cement them in with our mockery is problematic.

This also should be a lesson as to how easily people can slip into enjoying racist, sexist, and otherwise objectionable memes.  Returning to the Saudis, it is especially easy to use this particular photo because stereotypes of Arabs still are permissible in some parts of American discourse:

Would that photo have been retweeted so many times if it simply had looked like a normal Western bureaucratic meeting?  And yes, you can use this photo to show Trump is a hypocrite, relative to his earlier pronouncements about the Saudis, but of course the picture communicates much more, namely that the Saudis have a very different and sometimes strange-looking (to us) culture.

We should not hesitate to criticize what we think is wrong.  But criticizing the appearance of various wrongs, as embodied in the looks of various people, is going a step further.  Don’t let the wrongdoers distract you from the reality that your use of images may be promoting an unjust generalization, or in fact mocking people for non-objectionable cultural elements.  In other words, the use of images may be promoting “lookism.”

This is one of the most serious problems with photos on Twitter, namely that we are not good enough to use them carefully.  Right now, the unjust philosophy of lookism is on a rampage, bigly.


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