CHECKING YOUR CONTEXT

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“And if I call my girlfriend ‘bitch,’ she knows I’m talking about it from a place of love. She knows that. But people out of school can take that same information and try to use it against me, because the ego cannot pick up the intention behind it.”

-RuPaul Charles

A corrosive battle has begun on social media that’s drawn entertainers into arguments with activists who claim to fight for social justice.

Drag queen and host of reality TV elimination show RuPaul’s Drag Race RuPaul Charles was criticised for Drag Race quiz segment “Male or Shemale”, which was reignited last month over an interview with podcaster Marc Maron where he defended the word ‘tranny’ and then continued to defend on Twitter:

 

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Stand-up comic and actor Patton Oswalt has temporarily left Twitter due to an ongoing war with Twitter activists and salon.com, most recently over a satirical Tweet about the Elliot Rodger shootings.

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Comedy writer, actor, and host of the fantastic podcast How Was Your Week Julie Klausner was challenged on Twitter by a fan for calling herself a ‘fag hag’ in her latest podcast episode (fascinating exchange here and here including defence from gays and women alike and a text from Patton Oswalt: “welcome to the club.”)

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These criticisms are confusing because any dedicated fan or someone who has researched these particular entertainers would conclude these people are allies. Material must be measured within the context of the whole body of work. RuPaul’s record fighting for GLBTI rights speaks for itself. Patton Oswalt is known for using cutting satirical barbs as a means to promote thoughtful commentary. Julie Klausner combines pop culture and barbed wit to make hilarious, thoughtful feminist insights. An excellent example recently on Mumford and Sons and masculinity:

“It’s under the veneer of that sort of hyper-masculinity of like “I have a mustache and I eat bacon like Ron Swanson!” Yeah, you’re a nerd that’s scared of everything. Don’t tinker with what you think other people look at old photos from your dad and gleam from you, because…. that’s not what a man is.”

The cause of this divide is that each entertainer and activist come from different places.

This generation of entertainers continues using irony and transgression as a defining aspect of their art. Good comedy and drag have always challenged boundaries. The infamous Lenny Bruce standup act on the word ‘nigger’ and Louis CK’s routine on ‘faggot‘ – as uncomfortable as they are – both provide great insight into the power of words. Also, think anything John Waters directed starring Divine.

At the same time, within the new social media generation of social justice activists, ‘outrage’ activists are gaining greater traction. Trolling and ‘concern trolling’ (“I like you, but please …”) is being used similarly to conservative moral policing. Like British activist Mary Whitehouse who campaigned against “filth” on TV or the American Parents Music Resource Centre campaign against sex and violence in music, there’s a perpetual search for offensive speech usually by politicians, celebrities, and journalists. Like the lost battles of Whitehouse and the PMRC, in a world of austerity and inequality, maybe cynicism is easily channeled into small victories so that things aren’t entirely hopeless. This need for permanent outrage means more targets, and who better to be misunderstood than those with a comedic bent?

A clear insinuation from these activists is that artistic work should be sensitive and considerate, but this denies irony for comedic purposes – a core foundation of creativity. Irony and transgression challenge our conceptions through questioning them, and are a healthy thing.

In the WTF interview with Marc Maron, RuPaul stated that, as a transvestite, he’d earned the right to use it as empowering, and questioned the motivations of many opponents:

These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we are dealing with. It’s not the trans community. ‘Cause most people who are trans have been through hell and high water… But some people haven’t and they’ve used their victimhood to create a situation where, ‘No! You look at me! I want you to see me the way you’re supposed to see me!’ You know, if your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a fucking hard-ass road”

The absolute demand to be treated with respect is unreasonable because we don’t live in a perfect world of tolerance and social equality. The flaw of these criticisms is that there’s a unwillingness to differentiate between allies in the arts and genuine bigotry. Genuine bigotry flows from intent of individual behaviour perpetuated and channeled through governing, societal, and market-based institutions. Irony and transgression can be powerful weapons against bigotry within culture and institutions.

Many activists differentiate themselves from moral conservatives because they don’t ask to bans material, but “calling out” regardless of context and the constant pressure to self-check encourages self-censorship and conformity without understanding issues, which is little different. If “check your privilege” is the standard of social justice activism, it’s just as reasonable to “check your context.”

No artist is beyond criticism and there are many offensive artists, but good artists are treasures and allies. Holding them to the standard expected of politicians or journalists makes a mockery of social justice as a broad movement rather than enforced morality.

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