“If I said, “Boy, I really love corn dogs!” it doesn’t mean I actually love a corn dog. Because love has nothing to do with corn dogs. But it’s just language. It’s a state of mind. You take for granted that my intention is really to express that I enjoy them a lot and I want to eat one right now. That’s what it’s meant to do. But if you have an agenda and you want to take my sentence apart, you could certainly say, “Oh, my God! You love a corn dog? What do you mean by that? Do you want to marry it? Do you want to put it inside of you?” It’s like, “That’s not what I meant and you actually know that’s not what I meant and you’re only using it because you have an agenda so that you could get attention for whatever reason you have.”
We face daily pressure to behave according to gender, race and sexual norms, so it’s ironic that we use the same progressive values that aim to challenge these norms as a new standard of conformity.
In my pretty middle class, inner-city suburban existence, progressive values are mostly a given and something we strive to prove on a daily basis, not only as a personal aspiration but also for social credibility. It usually takes little to align this social-political algorithm, just the occasional Facebook post of a Ta-Nehisi Coates article or an Instagrammed Green Party ballot selfie every election.
Equally important is to avoid accusations of the opposite: racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia or transphobia, the recriminations of which are amplified in the digital age. As a result, personal ‘brand’ purity has become a dogmatic virtue. Our social media identities increasingly resemble political agendas, where our worth and effectiveness is measured by our ability to identify and call out marginalisation and privilege in face-to-face and online feeds. We’re easily wound-up and prone to react, with the onus always on the other, readily diagnose statements with ‘White, cisgendered straight male privilege’ – the predictive text judgement of these times – and respond to skepticism with privsplained logic akin to Hare Krishna or Scientologist street-bothering screed. Our focus has shifted from concrete political, legislative and social change to battles over academic and campus experiences. So dedicated to our new approach that proven allies who oppose our blanket judgements are criticised as enemies and the context of good satirical TV comedy is misinterpreted humourlessly.
These social media scraps against moral depravity is, in my view embarrassingly similar to those of the moral right – the same talkback callers, social conservatives and religious activists whose moral panic on welfare, sex and violence on TV, sacrilegious art and the role of certain musicians in social breakdown we snidely deride. Like them, we fear morally permissive values as driving bad behaviour and seek open confrontation to judge perceived transgressions. Like many born-again evangelists, there’s a tendency to blame others for preventing utopia. While certainly a combination of class, race, gender and sexuality reflect certain overall privileges or disadvantages, privilege, to me, is like meditation or prayer – a good exercise in self-reflection and contemplation of the state of the world. Yet, diagnosing others according to broad formulas that often rely on blanket assumptions simplifies complex individual human motivations and experiences and can easily misinterpret opinions and language without context.
Actions motivated by moral zealotry are always driven by political agendas. As social media users with the ability to play the role of moral arbiters in public, too frequently we act disproportionate to the situation and context to justify our political outlook and to accumulate gravitas as legitimate commentators – including those white, straight, middle class cisgendered males who appropriate others’ experiences. In a New Yorker article on this issue, the generational gap between an English lecturer at Oberlin College in Ohio and her students was noted: “Her generation, she said, protested against Tipper Gore for wanting to put warning labels on records. “My students want warning labels on class content, and I feel—I don’t even know how to articulate it,” she said. “Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” Moral politics is ironically turning us into the very people we oppose.
Humanity chafes under moral conformity and history shows progress tending towards the blurring of gender, sexual and racial norms. Feminism, LGBTI and ethnic rights movements have made gains because they have rebelled against such conformity. Not only through protest but by developing concrete goals for bold political, legal, economic and cultural change, working with similarly-minded allies – many of whom they disagreed with on many issues – they have gradually won widespread public support.
Surely, genuine public belief in progressive ideals is more preferable, which depends on opposing moral panic of any political stripe. While real bigotry is inexcusable and should be challenged, not every perceived slight is worth a reaction nor every bigot merely the value of their transgression or their perceived privileges. Rather than replace one set of moral norms with social algorithm and forumla as another, real change must question all norms.
David Cunliffe didn’t make the best choice of opening words, yet the quotes that followed,“Family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men” and “Wake up, stand up, man up, and stop this bullshit”, were certainly well expressed and on-message. Women’s refuge, whose interest is reduced gender violence, endorsed his speech. However, those whose interest is increased ratings – viewership or political opinion polling – focused mostly on the preceding quote “I apologise for being a man”. Mainstream media outlets overwhelmingly led with that quote, Cameron Slater joked that Cunliffe’s deceased father would be ashamed, and online news comments sections became bastions of conservative males shrieking the battle cry “not all men…”
The substance of the Labour policy of $60 million over four years for more frontline services in emergency housing, prevention, education, and judicial reforms to assist survivors of gender violence was outwardly substantive, especially given the degree of secrecy around gender violence. According to Women’s Refuge, 80% of gender violence goes unreported and, according to the Ministry of Justice, about 90% of sexual assault is similarly unreported. Nor are modern judicial systems well-equipped to fairly assess claims. In Australian journalist Anna Krien’s book Night Games, a coverage of the trial of an AFL player linked to Collingwood Football Club that explores objectification and permissive culture with the AFL, she notably highlights legislative and judicial practice favouring the opinion of defendants over victims, unlike crimes such as theft or robbery. Comparatively National policy, though offering more support to victims through case management and GPS tracking, doesn’t focus as strongly on addressing root causes.
Like the Cunliffe apology quote, media reporting of gender inequality tends to trivialise issues through emphasising the more emotional, entertaining aspects. Labour’s attempt at equal gender representation in caucus was labelled as a “man ban” without proper consideration of the lack of female voices in parliament, let alone in many areas of the public sphere. Similarly with the Roastbusters case, rather than foster public debate led by women about addressing gender violence, the media focused on the downfall of John Tamihere as a combination of “mission accomplished” and the reaffirmation of “not all men…”; the purging of responsibility to allow the audience to feel good.
A huge factor in this inability to discuss gender inequality in the public sphere is due to the successful right wing narrative dominant with regards to all inequality: an absolutist ideal of meritocracy that claims hard work is rewarded, all must play by exactly the same rules, and all results and actions are isolated to the level of the individual. For example, the general argument against the Labour ‘Man Ban’ was that women should be promoted on merit. Similarly on the Cunliffe apology, John Key criticised Cunliffe, saying the apology was “… a bit insulting to all men in New Zealand, because the vast overwhelming bulk of them are good, loving husbands, uncles, brothers”, and supported by many in the blogosphere and in news comment threads across the nation. The problem with such analyses is that they ignore the hidden individual, cultural, and institutional relationships and biases that distort the idea of merit towards outcomes. Between For women, income levels lag behind, they still carry out the overwhelming share of unpaid childcare, household duties, and caring for relatives is done by women, adult domestic violence is committed overwhelmingly against women, and representation in politics and prominence in many other areas of public life is still behind men.
If anything, Cunliffe’s poorly expressed quote indicated that he saw addressing gender violence as a collective responsibility where men must shoulder a burden rather than absolve themselves of any responsibility to ending it on the basis that they’re not individually violent. That the idea of being a man is not just a man only responsible for “him and his own”, but also understanding that the whole issue of gender violence is not isolated to the actions of perpetrator and that social problems require a great deal of collective responsibility and input from all parts of society.
If the last year is anything to go by, the public cannot expect media or politicians to be the sole means to address gender violence. Change in attitudes and solutions to gender violence will ultimately come from grassroots collaboration of activists and women’s services and advocate groups towards finite policy and legislative change. Here, politicians are effective insofar as they either empathise with advocates for change or are forced to make changes by public demand.
“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.”
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:
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.”)
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 ban 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.