Friday, January 30, 2015


Dashka Slater's article about a let's say hate-motivated crime on a bus illustrates the challenges of writing that type of piece. The story's both upsetting and timely - timely, that is, because it's about two different left ideologies being in conflict. Who gets your sympathy - the agender middle-class white teen who was set on fire and is now doing better but was still, you know, set on fire? or the teen who set the other kid on fire, who's black, working-class, and a self-identified homophobe? Or maybe they should just both get neatly-divided equal amounts of your goodwill - both being Others in this harsh and unforgiving world. Or maybe... setting someone on fire (the details are chilling) is sufficiently terrible as to fall outside the usual privilege analysis? Maybe?

Reading the comments - which take the author's lead in their approach - you'd think that the kid who'd lit the other kid on fire had, I don't know, failed to use the proper, liberal-arts-college language to refer to agender individuals. And not... set such an individual on fire. (Nice touch, though, how the one kid's lawyer refers to the victim as a boy in a skirt.) This isn't about cultural relativism, and how different communities understand gender, and the need (which does exist!) to be understanding of those not up-to-date on the cutting edge of gender self-identification. It's about violence. The right to, I don't know, publish offensive cartoons, shop at a kosher supermarket, or ride the bus as a gender-non-conforming teenager and not be physically assaulted.

And to those who point out that they, too, engaged in teen hijinks, and that their hijinking-while-white privilege saved them from falling into the criminal justice system... yes, that's a very worthwhile conversation to be having (and that is being had, if not nearly enough) about things like pot, underage drinking, shoplifting, etc. About attempted murder? Let me think about this for a moment... no. This is not a case where a no-big-deal act has been overblown because of racism. It's one where we can all well imagine getting angry if a white kid committed an equivalent crime and didn't get into sufficient trouble.

That said, nuance is needed, because of the issues (to put it mildly) with trying underage teens as adults. But this is a question of how a society should respond when someone under 18 commits a terrible crime. The answer to that question can't possibly be reducing everything a 16-year-old does to the status of "prank."


caryatis said...

I generally agree. It's hard to keep a straight face when confronted with a teenage boy in a skirt who wants to be called "it" or "xe"--people can't create their own gender and it's absurd to claim they can--but that doesn't justify lighting "it" on fire.

Although the other kid was not actually charged with attempted murder, and I think he should get off easy--people really don't realize how quickly a fire can spread.

caryatis said...

Actually, I just finished the article, and he was punished way too harshly. Your violence-is-bad argument is simplistic. I think you are dismissing very real concerns with trying teenagers as adults and punishing them for their thoughts.

caryatis said...

I mean (sorry, last comment) it sounds like his sentence would have been shorter if he had not told the detective he was "homophobic," whatever that means to him. How can we punish people for their beliefs and still claim to believe in the First Amendment? And can you imagine how many kids in the average high school would go to prison if we actually prosecuted every assault and battery?

Phoebe said...

I often have trouble discussing legal-type questions with lawyers, because they immediately assume non-lawyers are discussing the law. I didn't say the kid was "charged" with attempted murder, but that, going by what I read, I think he tried to kill someone. I'm not a lawyer, don't know the relevant precedents, and don't know what the appropriate legal punishment is. And I'm not rah-rah strong legal punishments for minors. Perhaps what he got was, in fact, too much. I'm talking about moral judgments. This wasn't a "prank," and there would be ways to advocate treating juveniles as juveniles that wouldn't involve making light of the occasionally truly terrible things some young people do.

Slater presents the gender angle as some kind of privileged decadence. As in, look how this one kid was so pampered and coddled that they got to choose their own snowflake gender (not to mention new first name), while this other was so underprivileged that he simply had to light another child on fire.

And yes, the gender angle changes the story. Had the victim been a gay kid, or even possibly a transgender-and-trying-to-pass one, the default reading would have been hate crime. With all the see-above caveats regarding whether hate-inspired crimes should be treated differently *in law*. But this kid, at least as presented in the story, sounds like he's arrived at the kind of identity that only exists in certain at least somewhat well-to-do milieus. Of course, one might consider that that would not so long ago have been the response to a kid being openly gay.

And in terms of fire-safety knowledge, this seems a more relevant issue if we were talking about someone falling asleep with a lit cigarette and burning down an apartment building. Once you're lighting *people* on fire, the possibility of ignorance becomes less convincing. And the part where the naive prank-doer *gets off the bus* doesn't really help his case.

caryatis said...

I don't think you're correct that he tried to kill someone--it sounds like he didn't even want to injure him. I mean, clearly lighting people's clothes on fire is reckless and should be punished, but he could not have expected the whole skirt to go up like it did. If you're used to smoking cigarettes or joints, you might plausibly be surprised by what happens when you light highly flammable material.

The legal (and moral) point is just that intent matters in determining which crime someone was guilty of, and intent at the time of the crime, so getting off the bus after the fire doesn't show anything about his intentions before.