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And Now For Something Relatively Frivolous

Kevin Drum has been speculating about the origins of highway names -- specifically, why numbered highways in the southwest U.S. get a "the" stuck on them, e.g. "take the 10 to Phoenix." I have no idea what the origin of this practice is, but I do have a comment on a subtle issue of framing. Most people are raising this as a matter of dialect differences between southwesterners and non-southwesterners. Under this way of thinking, "take the 10" is the southwestern translation of the northeastern phrase "take 10," and vice-versa.

I would propose that the mysterious "the"s are actually features of the highway names, properly common to all U.S. dialects. That is, the name of the road in Phoenix actually is "the 10," and it changes its name to just "10" somewhere east of here. I base this on my own experience: I grew up in the "the"-less northeast, but a couple years ago I moved to Arizona, where highways have "the"s. Initially, I referred to highways without "the." But after hearing locals talk, I took up the "the" -- but crucially, only for highways in Arizona. I am equally comfortable saying "take the 10 to the 202" when giving driving directions for Phoenix and saying "take 495 to 290" for driving directions in Worcester, and equally uncomfortable with "take 10 to 202" and "take the 495 to the 290" (and this applies regardless of whether I'm talking to Arizonans or Pennsylvanians). Contrast this with other dialect shifts I've experienced in moving from western Pennsylvania to eastern Pennsylvania earlier in my life -- I stubbornly continue to use the pronunciation "crick" for creeks in any part of the state, and I made the change to calling all carbonated beverages "soda" no matter where they were sold. So the fact that I've taken up "the" strictly for highways in the southwest suggests that (at least for me) it's a feature of the highways themselves, not of the dialect we use to talk about them. So when I initially called it "10," I was speaking incorrectly rather than just correctly using an out-of-state dialect.


LiveJournal feed

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Wildfire And Houses

One more to clear out of the queue: Here's a good article making the point that whether your house burns down in a wildfire has far more to do with the condition of the house and your own yard than it does with the mix of suppression, controlled burning, mechanical thinning, and "wildland fire use" (letting existing fires burn) on land a mile or more away. It's interesting to note, however, that there's no mention of the Australian "stay or go" strategy. The idea behind "stay or go" is that if you have prepared your house well and are able-bodied enough, it's actually safer (for you and your house) to stay at home during a fire. The house will shield you from the main fire front, and then you'll be able to go around putting out embers that could burn it down between the passing of the fire front and when you'd be allowed to return if you had evacuated.


What Is Violence, And Does It Matter?

(Here's another one that's been in the hopper for a while.)

"Violence" is a word that gets used a lot when talking about horrible things. But I must confess I'm a bit at a loss as to which horrible things it properly applies to -- and what difference it makes. I first started thinking about this several years ago when I read Nancy Peluso and Michael Watts's edited book Violent Environments, which is a collection of articles about political ecology. The book collected a lot of horrible things that had happened to people -- from being propagandized about genetically modified food to being caught up in African civil wars -- but it wasn't clear what the definition was by which they labeled these horrible things, but implicitly not some of the other horrible things documented in other political ecology articles, as "violence."

There are also the discussions in environmentalist and animal rights circles about the tactics of groups like ELF and ALF, who make a point of drawing a line between property damage and physical harm to people. This line is framed as a strategy of "non-violence," and discussions ensue about whether property damage is violence and whether violence, however defined, would be justified in defense of the earth or animals.

Dictionary definitions are little help. Practically anything bad that happens can be framed as fitting one or another of the definitions of "violence." Perhaps this is because the rhetorical power of the word "violence"

I was reminded of my nagging questions about the word by this post. After describing the ordeal of Juana Villegas DeLaPaz -- an undocumented immigrant forced to give birth in immigration detention and then separated from her baby -- Cara says:

This? This is violence. If you disagree, either your definition of violence is far too narrow, or like our government, you feel that violence against an undocumented woman of color simply doesn't count.

The implication of Cara's comment is that it's very important whether you'd label what happened as "violence" -- and if you don't, you're in some way minimizing or excusing what happened. The thing is, I don't know what my definition of violence is, so I don't know whether what happened to Villegas DeLaPaz counts as "violence." I've seen the word applied to so many different things that I've come to interpret it as just adding an extra layer of moral condemnation, not as describing any particular facts about the violent event.

Perhaps more importantly, I don't know if it matters. Even without a clear definition of violence, I can easily agree that what was done to Villegas DeLaPaz is a horrible moral violation. The extreme degree of suffering inflicted on her is sufficient to establish the wrongness of what happened to her. So I don't see in what way my evaluation of it, my diagnosis of what caused it, or my thoughts as to how to fix it would change if I were to determine that it actually does or does not merit the term "violence." Similarly, I don't think my evaluation of the various case studies in Violent Environments or of ELF and ALF's actions turn on whether they fit a definition of "violence."

It Matters Whether It's Really Just A Cracker

(This post was written a couple weeks ago, but I never got around to publishing it.)

It seems to me that claims about religious tolerance* often depend on a sort of relativism that does a disservice to the actual content of the religions being tolerated.

Take, for instance, the comparisons being drawn between the Danish Mohammad cartoons incident (in which some Muslims were outraged at Danish editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad) and the recent communion "cracker" controversy (in which some Catholics were outraged that a kid walked out of Mass with a consecrated host, and even more outraged that P.Z. Myers announced his intention to desecrate more "crackers"). Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, came in for criticism for thinking the outrage was justified in the first instance, but not in the second. Others attempted to find content-neutral differences between them, such as Mike Dunford's proposal that the Mohammad cartoon outrage demands greater restrictions on nonbelievers than the cracker outrage. The presumption in both cases is that if there is no such content-neutral difference between them, then it's hypocrisy to treat them differently.

The hypocrisy charge would make sense if all that were at issue were interests -- Catholics' interest in not feeling offended and Muslims' interest in not feeling offended should be given equal weight. But the offense in question is premised upon factual claims -- about, for example, the holiness of Jesus or Mohammad. And it's not hypocritical to give more weight to truth than to falsehood.

So surely it's a relevant fact whether the consecrated host actually is the body of Jesus (and that Jesus is a worship-worthy divinity), or whether it actually is still just a cracker. If Catholicism is correct (and hence Islam is wrong except where it overlaps Catholicism), then it really is a bad thing to play a prank with a host**, but it really isn't a violation of any divine command to draw cartoons of Mohammad (and vice-versa if Islam is correct, while if atheism is correct neither is very bad). And the truth of one religion's doctrines seems like a perfectly good reason to believe that one act is horrible sacrilege while the other isn't. Presumably the outraged Catholics and Muslims have some sort of reasons which they believe establish the truth of their doctrines. It's strangely enervating to Catholic and atheist belief alike to demand that they confine their arguments to those which presuppose that the truth of Catholicism or atheism is entirely undecidable or outside the bounds of discussion.

Governments may certainly be restricted to content-neutral tolerance of differing viewpoints. But most of the people discussing these issues are not governments, and are not even proposing governmental action. As private citizens, we are well within our rights to say "playing pranks with a host is very bad because it actually is the body of Jesus," or "playing pranks with a host is no big deal because it actually is just a cracker." The catch, though, is that to win that argument you then have to convince others of the substantive truth of your beliefs in order to get them to change their ways -- and I'm sure finding some substance-neutral rule that would block host-desecration is going to be a lot easier than converting Myers to Catholicism (and vice-versa for substance-neutral permission versus getting outraged Catholics to give up their religion).

Obviously arguments depending on the truth of the doctrines involved aren't the only considerations. I think there's generally a duty to avoid gratuitous causing of offense to others purely for the sake of causing offense to others even if you're certain that the basis for their taking offense is groundless, and I think Myers crossed that line somewhat. (It's along the lines of the juvenile "for every animal you don't eat, I'll eat three" anti-vegetarian bumper sticker.) And outrage to the point of (real or attempted) intimidation -- the original host-stealer and Myers have received death threats -- is also not acceptable.

* I think my point here does not necessarily apply to other forms of tolerance, or even to what are roughly called "ethnic religions." My argument depends on the fact that Christianity, Islam, and atheism inherently make universalistic claims -- if God exists, he exists for everyone. On the other hand, there's nothing contradictory to the principles of, say, same-sex marriage to believe that a same-sex marriage is the right family structure for Bill and Steve, but not for me and my wife.

** Or at least I'm assuming so for the sake of argument, though I've seen some people say that within the context of Catholic doctrine, taking a host home without eating it is not actually a big deal. I wouldn't know how to adjudicate such a dispute, since even in my most religious days I never believed in transubstantiation.

Ecological Imperialism And Immigration Restrictions

Historically, environmentalism has had to battle a temptation toward messianic totalitarianism. I'm not talking about the figurative totalitarianism that causes trust fund conservatives to hyperventilate over the idea of being forced to drive a hybrid and eat irregularly-shaped tomatoes. I mean actual totalitarianism, stomping on social justice in the name of saving us from certain destruction. (It's a temptation that isn't as present in most other progressive movements -- as much as, say, feminists and civil rights activists may at times dismiss the other's cause, the problem is that our society is all too capable of going on and on as a sexist or racist system, rather than it being that we're swiftly approaching an apocalypse.) Garrett Hardin is among the most noted offenders, proposing a "lifeboat ethics" by which environmental sustainability demands that we withhold aid to victims of famine lest we simply encourage them to keep breeding.

I'm reminded of this issue by a story (via RaceWire) about some researchers at Monash University who claim that the only way for Australia to achieve its climate goals is to close off immigration. (In my discussion, I'm relying on the above-linked news story, because I'm not paying $16 to read the whole study it's referencing.)

The basic logic of these stop-immigration-to-save-the-earth claims goes like this: Affluence involves activities and possessions that generate climate impacts. When a person moves from a less-affluent society to a more affluent one (e.g. Indonesia to Australia), even if they end up on the bottom economic rungs of their new home society, their lifestyle will be more affluent and hence more climate-impacting. Therefore we should keep them out, confining them to their low-affluence lifestyle and thereby saving the planet.

The problem here is not that (more) open borders are an important progressive value that's being trampled, nor is it (just) that it puts one more argument in the quiver of general-purpose nativists and bigots against immigrants and racial/ethnic groups that include large numbers of immigrants. The problem is that for this argument to make any sense, oppression of foreigners is a necessary mechanism. In order to reduce the amount of change we in the affluent nations have to make to ensure sustainability, we have to make sure that all the poorer countries' people stay poor. If our hypothetical immigrant were to get lucky in Indonesia and find a way to earn the money to live a lifestyle of comparable affluence to what they would have in Australia, the benefit of keeping them out would be erased. And if they found a way to enjoy a form of affluence without emitting a comparable amount of greenhouse gases, the need to keep them out -- which is premised on the difficulty of making cuts in emissions in the affluent country -- would be erased. And that's why the political conclusions are always enforcement-first -- seal the border so they don't come in and start living our lifestyle. Any more progressive response to immigration -- involving changes in international and national political and economic systems so as to take away the severe "push" factors of poverty and political-economic instability -- would undercut the environmental rationale for immigration restriction.

The environmental argument against immigration thus boils down to ecological imperialism. In the name of saving the whole world, already-oppressed people are told they must bear the biggest costs. While environmental immigration restrictions would probably be applied to all countries of origin in order to preserve an appearance of fairness, it's clear that it's poor country immigrants -- not, say, someone like me who would be getting a high-emissions Australian lifestyle in exchange for a high-emissions US lifestyle -- who are the real "problem."

Nevertheless, the particiular framing of the Monash study does highlight one important absurdity of the current climate change thinking, an assumption embedded in both the Kyoto protocol and all other proposals for international agreements I've seen that have been taken at all seriously by real decision-makers. That assumption is that carbon emissions (or climate impacts more generally) are the property of nation-states. Whatever the targets and whatever the mechanisms, the agreement is based on the idea that each nation-state has a given entitlement to emit that it must not exceed. This assumption flies under the radar as long as we can further assume that the nation-state as a territory is more or less equivalent to the set of people living in it. But the further assumption gets mixed up in the case of a high rate of immigration or emigration (or high or negative population growth).

In the case of the Monash study, their anti-immigration conclusions are driven in part by this nation-state allocation of emissions rights. The allocation system encourages each country to care only about its own domestic emissions. A pure focus on the number of tons of CO2 emitted in your own country does shift the argument somewhat. In this case, Australia could accept that their erstwhile immigrants ended up living it up -- with all the emissions that entails -- back in Indonesia, as long as their emissions are kept off of Australia's accounts. This type of legalism blunts the clearest problems of ecological imperialism as expressed in the typical environmental anti-immigration argument, but only at the price of becoming environmentally absurd.

I should note, however, that there is one narrow sense in which an environmental anti-immigration argument can make some sense: territorially fixed resources that are in adequate supply in the sender country. The best example here for Australia would be water. While greenhouse emissions affect the whole planet, people basically have to stick to drinking from their own local watersheds. Therefore it's possible to say, in a non-ecologically-imperialist way, "the watershed you want to move to doesn't have enough water for you, so you'll have to stay where you are (which does have enough water)." This is, in effect, what the Arizona is eventually going to have to start saying to all the northern snowbirds and Californians who want to move here.

However, just because it's possible for there to be a non-ecologically-imperialist invocation of territorially fixed resource scarcity doesn't mean any use of it is OK. If for example the reason the destination watershed is at capacity is because its current inhabitants live a profligate affluent lifestyle that involves water parks and artificial lakes, while the reason the source watershed has adequate water is that everyone there is too poor to use it up, then restricting migration is ecological imperialism for the same reasons as given above.


Polysemic Cartoons and Editorial Ethics

I think there's a clause in my blogger contract that says I have to post about the cover of the latest New Yorker, which is a cartoon of Barack Obama in a turban, fist-bumping Michele, who's wearing a Black Panther type outfit, while a picture of bin Laden hangs on their wall and an American flag burns in the fireplace (you can see it at any of the links below).

My inclination is to read the cover much like Ampersand -- as a satire that mocks the racist and anti-Muslim smears against the Obamas. Others, however, have different readings -- either that the cover simply reinforces, rather than breaking down, those smears, or that it's bigoted in less obvious ways (I find womanistmusings's argument -- that the cartoon errs in mocking the smears by making the Obamas look ridiculous while the actual smear-merchants remain invisible off-stage -- particularly insightful).

There seems to be an unstated presumption in most of the discussion of the cartoon that there is one correct reading -- either it really is pro-Obama satire, or it really is anti-Obama bigotry. I would rather say that this is a good example of the postmodern idea of polysemy -- that any one text* is open to multiple readings (an idea I'd hasten to distinguish from pansemy, the idea that a text is open to any reading at all, which is not to say we can ever be certain we know the limits of the possible readings of a text even within a single historical-cultural frame). Neither the intent of the author nor the inherent features of the text determine the one correct meaning, and the fact that many people have authentically come to both the satire and bigotry readings, and that neither reading has evaporated in the face of understanding the other, shows they're both within the bounds of the cartoon's polysemy.

Since I've invoked postmodernism, you may think I intend to just leave it there -- the text has multiple readings, none more legitimate than the other. But I think polysemy presents an ethical dilemma to the text-maker and text-distributor (at least insofar as they can be expected to forsee certain readings, and in the present case I think we can expect that of the artist and editor of the New Yorker). Different readings have different value -- here, the "satire" reading has positive value, while "bigotry" readings have negative value (according to my understanding of objective moral truth). So it's up to the artist and editor to weigh the values of the different readings against each other in order to decide whether a given item needs more work or should be cut entirely. It's possible that one or more readings have so much positive value that it's worth publishing something despite it also having some negative value readings. (I'm not necessarily arguing for any particular algorithm for weighting the various values and disvalues -- one could even make an argument that certain values or disvalues -- for example, the disvalue of reinforcing anti-black racism -- ought to be trumps that prevail over any amount of countervailing value.)

In the specific case of the New Yorker cover, I think the artist and editor made the wrong choice. I think the satire in this image is pretty uncreative and low-value. It doesn’t make any new connections or re-contextualize the smears to expose new ideas about them, it doesn’t do a reductio that makes the smears look more absurd than any thinking person already knew they were, and it’s not funny at all. So from the perspective of the editor, the satire reading should have carried very little weight when balanced against the disvalue created by reading it, as so many people have, as racist and anti-Muslim.

* As my previous post suggests, I think even the Bible is polysemous. It's sometimes said that the roots of literary analysis in Biblical hermeneutics explains why the idea of polysemy took so long to gain currency -- from a faithful Christian perspective, the Bible really does have just one meaning. But I think here, the assumption of Biblical monosemy rests on a suppressed pragmatic step in the argument. The Bible has just one meaning insofar as the Bible is being used as a tool to discern God's will (since I assume Christians' real allegiance is to God as expressed through the Bible, not to the Bible which happened to need God to write it). The one true reading in such a case can be theoretically verified by the external criterion of whether it results in a correct understanding of God's will. But using it to understand God's will is not the only thing a person, even a faithful Christian, can do with the Bible. Similarly, if our goal were to discern what was in the artist's head when they drew the cartoon, then one reading -- the satire one -- would be more correct than others (though there may still be some polysemy if the author was conflicted). However, worrying about the author's intent is in some ways backward for looking at art. We value art for its own sake for the meanings we get from reading at it, and the author's intent is just a means by which art is produced -- as opposed to valuing the author's intent and seeing the cartoon as just our means to learning the intent. (Which is not to say that artists can't be frustrated that they intended people to make a certain reading of their work but instead the audience made some other reading that the artist considers lower-value. On the other hand, the artist may be pleased that the audience discovered interesting meanings in their work that they didn't consciously put there.)


Nobody Cares About The State Of Your Soul

One of the enduring philosophical questions is: are humans basically good, or basically evil? I don't believe that humans are basically good. Nor do I believe they are basically evil, or that some are good and some are evil, or that each person is some mix of good and evil, or that we're amoral. Instead, I reject the premise of the question -- that it's worthwhile and meaningful to make summative evaluations of the moral worth of a person. Actions are good or bad, and situations are good or bad, but to say a person is good or bad is a category mistake.

For this reason, I have little patience for discussions about whether, for example, we can consider Thomas Jefferson a good person despite the fact that he owned slaves and whether historical circumstances can excuse him. Jefferson's worth is a meaningless question, like asking how much phlogiston his body contained. And I'm not excited about the recent resurgence of virtue ethics in philosophy.

The insistence on making summative judgments about a person was, if not created by, at least abetted by Christianity. The central question in Christianity has been: are you going to heaven, or to hell? The state of your soul depended on your moral worth (whether acquired through works, faith, predestination, randomly bestowed grace, or reciting the Sinner's Prayer), and everything in the world would culminate in the Judgment, when Jesus would separate the sheep from the goats*. This sort of thinking has become so ingrained in our culture that even people who don't believe in orthodox Christianity still frequently think this way.

On the other hand, Jesus quite clearly instructed his followers not to judge. That command gets taken too often as a command not to criticize, to cut everyone lots of slack. But I think it's better to interpret Jesus' message as saying that we shouldn't make summative moral judgments of others' worth, of the state of their soul. Such judgments serve no purpose in the mortal world (and hence no purpose whatsoever if you're a Universalist or don't believe in an afterlife).

There's a strong tendency for people today to want to shift debates into discussions about the status of their soul, about their overall evaluation as a person. I noted it here in objecting to talk about having one's feminist card taken away, and here with respect to white people missing the point about accusations of racism. It shows up in discussions of criminal justice, where the population is (explicitly or implicitly) divided into Criminals and Law-Abiding Folks. Depression does its damage in part by leading the sufferer to think of themself as a "bad person" or "worthless person," while hubris hurts others by convincing someone that they are a good person and hence can do no wrong. I was inspired to write this post by the discussion of this post by Jeff Fecke, where commenters K.A. and Helen make good points about the fallacy of seeing rapists as a separate species of monster, and belledame sums it up by saying "I don't care what's in your soul. I care about what you DO."

*This used to be one of my favorite Bible passages, since it puts the focus on doing good to other people rather than correctness of ritual observance toward Jesus, and I could set aside the soul-judging as a metaphor for act-judging. But hearing it again recently, I realized that it runs afoul of the problem raised here by Hugo Schwyzer -- it erases the fact of doing good to other people for their own sake and instead makes your deeds good or bad because of what they did to/for Jesus.


"Click" Moments

I think Feminist Gal, and Sally in comments there, make a good point: "'click' moments," times when a person suddenly realizes that some old philosophy is false or some new one is true, are much rarer than we like to think. This matches my experience -- while I wouldn't presume to call myself a feminist yet, and so my "click" moment on that front may simply be in the future, my recent rambling account of my religious evolution is devoid of "click" moments, and if asked when I became a vegetarian I don't think I could narrow it down even to a specific year.

The human brain likes to think in narrative, and so we're drawn to those threads in life that exhibit clear dramatic arcs and momentous turning points. We retell those events that make good stories, and massage our own recollections to make a better story. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- I'm attracted to the somewhat existentialist idea that part of the way we figure out who we are and where we should go is reconstruct the story of what we've been up to so far, reassigning significance to events (and thereby actually changing their significance because our reconstruction changes those events' impacts on our future actions).

The idea of the "click" moment treats the philosophy in question more like a logical proof. With a logical proof, it makes sense that once you see its soundness, you have no choice but to suddenly agree with it then and there. But many philosophies that we might expect to "click" are more like ways of life. While they may surely be logically justified, they are broader and their implications are more intertwined into everything else -- they lack the clean simplicity of a logical proof. And ways of life don't just coerce us with the power of the better argument, a sort of cognitive offer we can't refuse. Ways of life are accepted through a process that also involves getting comfortable and familiar with them, and gaining practical skills of living in them (though this process may certainly be peppered with small or large epiphanies that can take on the character of "click" moments).

It's a potential pitfall to go around expecting or hoping other people will have "click" moments. It can easily lead to focusing too much on finding just the right argument, the mot juste that will cause the scales to suddenly fall from your adversaries' eyes, bringing them suddenly over to your side (either creating such a thing on the spot, or assembling an arsenal of certified "click"-inducers). It can enable a sort of "share your 'click' moment" rite of passage that elevates those with the best -- in the sense of making the best story -- "click" moments (or encourages them to elevate themselves) into spokespeople and subtly marginalizing those who don't have such good stories. And it may even encourage the canonization of certain arguments or experiences as certified "click"-inducers, such that people who have been exposed to them but haven't "click"ed over to the target philosophy can be dismissed as willfully ignorant or a lost cause.

On the other hand, too much concern for the slowness of philosophical change can lead to softpedaling people's accountability for pushing themselves to change. Just because it may psychologically take time to accept and adjust to a new way of thinking doesn't mean that the person isn't still in the wrong while they're transitioning.


Oppression Vs. Privilege

Ampersand says that by his current working definitions, oppression and privilege are simply the opposites of each other. He defines them as follows:

Oppression is a system whereby:

1) A group “A” is systematically mistreated in comparison to non-As in a given social context.

2) The distinctive traits of group “A” are viewed as exceptions to the “unmarked” or “default” traits of a “normal” member of society.

3) Members of group “A” are effectively prevented from holding a significant number of high leadership positions in society’s controlling institutions.

Privilege is a system whereby:

1) A group “B” is systematically, unfairly advantaged in comparison to non-Bs in a given social context.

2) The distinctive traits of group “B” are viewed as the “unmarked” or “default” traits of a “normal” member of society.

3) Members of group “B” hold a near-monopoly on the high leadership positions of society’s controlling institutions.

My first thought, left in the comments at Alas, is that I would remove point 3 from both definitions — lack of leadership positions is a likely consequence (and a common reinforcing mechanism) of oppression as defined in points 1 and 2, but I don’t see why it needs to be elevated to definitional status. Also, it’s potentially distracting, since it implies that "number of As in leadership positions" is a simple measuring stick for level of oppression (and there are cases where I’d say oppression is still present despite things being fine on the number-in-leadership front — Christians being privileged over Jews comes to mind).

Second, I would change "non-A" to "B" in the oppression definition, because oppression is always relative to a specific oppressor group. For example, black people are oppressed because they're systematically mistreated relative to white people, but not necessarily relative to any other non-black group such as Native Americans.

Finally, I think that while points 1 and 2 are both part of both definitions, I would reverse their order in the case of privilege. As I see it, the core of the concept of oppression is the harm it does to the oppressed -- being oppressed means bad stuff happens to you in a particular way. In the case of privilege, on the other hand, I think the mechanism is what's central. Privilege is about being seen (by yourself and others) as unmarked and normative, and feeling entitled to have the world operate on that assumption. Advantages flow to the privileged person, and harms to the oppressed, as a consequence of that mechanism. When one person tells another "check your privilege," they aren't saying "think about how good you have it!" so much as they're saying "remember that not everybody is, or should be, like you!" It's a subtle distinction, because the two parts do go together, but I think the words are not quite opposites because they stress different elements of systemic inequality.