“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.
“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.
An NZ Herald article on Saturday titled ‘She’s Back – The Return of the Nanny State’ claimed that the National Party government has engaged in forms of social coercion to force behavioural changes as the previous Labour government did. The concept of the nanny state always misses the point. Subtle measures and incentives for ‘correcting’ social behaviour are used by whoever is in charge – whether centre-left or centre-right – but built on different concepts of both the social good and the relationship between citizen, the market, and government. These concepts typically dominate mainstream confines of both camps. This two part series addresses the rationale and consequences when both centre-left and centre-right overreach.
Helen Lovejoy: “You’ve got to lead our protest against this abomination!”
Marge: “Mm, but that’s Michelangelo’s David. It’s a masterpiece”.
Helen: [gasp] “It’s filth! It graphically portrays parts of the human body, which, practical as they may be, are evil”.
Marge: “But I like that statue”.
Helen: [gasp] “I told you she was soft on full frontal nudity! Come on, girls…”
This isn’t about lightbulbs and showerheads – rather the roots and consequences of the modern mainstream left approach to inequality and oppression prevalent in the modern public discourse – rooted in politics, journalism, and social media.
Since the 1970’s and 80’s, mainstream left wing politics in the Western world has become dominated by conservative rather than radical elements of social movements working within the establishment, whose approach has emphasised racial, gender, and ethnic identity rather than class as the cause of oppression and inequality. Chris Trotter effectively highlights the resultant dominance of the NZ Labour Party caucus by middle class managers – teachers, social workers, academics, civil servants, parliamentary staffers, and trade union hierarchy – rather than formerly working class heroes such as Norman Kirk. From this time, centre-left parties have implemented gender equity legislation, gay anti-discrimination and couple rights laws, and racial quotas while simultaneously have enacted and/ or maintained economic deregulation, privatisation, and tax reforms similar to conservative parties.
Mainstream journalism equally transformed though the inclusion of sexually and ethnically diverse viewpoints but with a decline in discussion of working class viewpoints and commentary on welfare and poverty dominated by opinion columnists lacking personal insight or solicitation of the opinions of those who do. Consider this thoughtful piece from the perspective of a working class American woman on why poorer people are perpetually in debt – an exception rather than a rule. Similar claims could be made of the blogosphere.
Without class, elections and public debate are centred on social issues: gay rights, law and order, gender rights, racial equality, and modest adjustments to economic policy – all within the acceptable realm of modern free market economics. Within the context of identity, the working class is seen as the cause of social ills and poverty as a disease – bogans, chavs, white trash and helpless victims – in which the cure is to end class and transform everyone into socially tolerant middle class consumers. The villains in this reality are not structures and cultures but individual broadcasters, politicians, and corporations. Public debate is centred on language, words, and purchasing power. Often the broad thrust of social media is similar to mainstream media in harnessing our demand for instant justice – a cyber pitchfork if you will – to fight individual enemies with invective.
The use of consumer boycotts has become a popular tool. Notable in America, these have included the movement targeting Wal-Mart and McDonalds as exclusive evils – with those including myself as a young polemicist-reading politics student having boycotted such businesses on ethical consumer choice alone. More recently this has extended to public language such as the attempted boycott of US fast food chain Chick-Fil-A over homophobic statements by its CEO; and this year in New Zealand over the John Tamihere and Willie Jackson’s infamous Roastbusters interview, the Metro Magazine joke debacle, and moves against Bob Jones for backwards comments about sexual violence towards women.
The flaws of this approach – especially Tamihere and Jackson, Metro, and Bob Jones – reminds me of The Simpsons episode ‘Itchy and Scratchy and Marge’ – where Marge founds Springfieldians for Non-Violence, Understanding and Helping (SNUH) to demand an end to cartoon violence as the cause of youth violence. Successful in its aim, SNUH tries to rally Marge to lead a campaign against Michaelangelo’s David on display at a gallery Springfield. When Marge disagrees with the premise, she is confronted with the hypocrisy of opposition to one form of public obscenity but not another – resulting in both Itchy and Scratchy being revived and David being displayed in Springfield.
The effective discouragement or attempted removal of offensive words, views, and media being broadcast within the public sphere is a noble aim but whose focus wrongly implies if individual public concepts or figures are taken down or forced to change then the problem has been destroyed. The precedent is the selective choice of targets – in which we often base on our political and cultural biases rather than consistency. Selective consumerism can channel public rage for easy, temporary victories that often fail to address the institutional, political, and cultural roots and often backfires spectacularly – like Chick Fil-A, which made more profit in backlash. That Wal-Mart and McDonalds are bigger than ever in spite of ethical consumer choice is reflective of the ability for corporates to change only as a purely market response.
Movements must have concrete aims to change laws, institutions, and culture to be effective. Gay liberation movements worldwide have been effective through focusing on concrete changes legislative changes to legalise consensual same sex acts; anti-discrimination; institutional cultural changes within police, judiciary, and the education system; now towards gay marriage and adoption. Denial and attempted public removal of opposing views – no matter how heinous they might be – can isolate otherwise flawed citizens who may not be closed to change who could be engaged through public debate to break myths.
The anger at the so-called nanny state associated with the modern left (the right will be addressed next post) is less about regulating environmentally-unfriendly lightbulbs, showerheads, and junk food and more a perception of overemphasis on immediate tolerance of diversity and correct consumer action rather than working to address myths and the roots of cultural and structural behaviour. All voices short of incitement to harm have the right to be included within the public sphere. Personally, my favourite figures on the left are those who effectively use satire to reduce the most threatening institutions, scary garbage people, and their garbage views to rubble – far more effective than boycotts. If this piece accomplishes anything, it will be more people listening to the Bugle just to get the idea.
The reaction to John Tamihere and Willie Jackson’s Amy interview follows a similar pattern as with Paul Henry and Paul Holmes: demand their removal to prevent their toxic views from entering the public sphere. Advertisers have started to pull ads and liberal male bloggers have been vocal. Those shouting loudest tend to be those who always disliked them/ never listen to their shows. Personally, I’ve thought Tamihere is a shitbag ever since “frontbums”, homophobia, and abandoning his feline HIV-infected cats when he moved house.
However, campaigning to have them removed is a misguided approach because it implies that Tamihere and Jackson are the cause of all backwards views on sexual assault and their departure will remove those attitudes from society. Tamihere represents the views and opinions of a significant portion of the New Zealand public. Rather than debate these views to reveal their inadequacies or simply satirise them, removal will isolate his listeners – even those who don’t agree with his views on sexual assault – from dialogue, make it more difficult to destroy myths around sexual violence, and make people who hold these views simply hide them in future. Most importantly, this approach does not address the roots of cultural, legal, and police misunderstanding and tolerance of sexual violence.
If the removal of Tamihere occurs, it will be because he crossed the cultural tipping point of publicly acceptable social views – of which there are many negative ones that continue to be acceptable. Paul Henry and Paul Holmes were removed because they violated public and media standards of what was culturally acceptable to say via broadcast. Notably this week Tony Veitch was named as Murray Deaker’s replacement on his popular shows on Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport. This is important because Murray Deaker’s controversial comment in 2011 and Veitch’s survival from his conviction for physical assault against his girlfriend imply that both their behaviours did not violate the cultural tipping point – especially sad in the case of the latter. That John Key appeared on Veitch’s show probably reflects this as deduced by his staff and himself. This is more of an ongoing cycle. Controversial broadcasters like Tamihere are good at channeling public opinion but usually stay within the realm of public sensibility. When one inevitably crosses the line, they will simply be replaced by another rube who follows a similar “honest battler” formula but remains within appropriateness for now. Also, any removal of Tamihere will be based foremost on the commercial imperatives of Radioworks in terms of advertising revenue rather than the goodness of their hearts. This is probably the main reason why Veitch was hired in radio after a short stint out of TVNZ, why photographer Terry Richardson is still hired by H&M, Mango, Supreme, Vogue, and Vice, and why Paul Holmes and Paul Henry eventually made comebacks.
In this emotional time where we don’t understand why these events occurred – especially for two years- the laziest action would be to pin blame on Tamihere and Jackson alone for lingering misconceptions about the roots of sexual violence. Rather, there is a need to assess the cultural and institutional roots of tolerance for sexual violence. First step is to listen to the victims and their experiences – like my friend who bravely wrote of her experiences with the police. An engaging, thoughtful approach will achieve far more in the long term than self satisfaction at the downfall of people we never liked anyway.
Auckland businessman/ village idiot David Ruck founded the Pakeha Party Facebook page as a forum to claim Maori have too many special rights or magic powers or something, inner city Auckland Facebook has fallen into two straight days of harrumphing and guffawing about it, and One News produced a story on it. Why are we talking about this?
My attitude towards racists/ sexists/ homophobes/ other bigots, or shallow minded/ sheepishly ideological people saying exactly what we would expect them to say is meh. Blogs, social media, and the internet in general has given the uninformed a greater forum than ever to broadcast bilge. Facebook liberalism has risen as a reaction to all forms of intolerance, which entails posting an article about some relatively minor slight by some populist and waiting for people to like and/ or snark. It treats any bigotry, no matter how irrelevant, as a major threat to social harmony, that must be snarked or tutted into submission. That 30,000 people clicked ‘Like’ proves there are about 30,000 people in New Zealand who are not too lazy to tentatively approve of a mild, populist, shallow myth fueled by a feeling of powerlessness – that some people are getting something we’re not. This doesn’t extend to putting on black uniforms and marching on Parliament, resulting in the banning of Fair Trade lattes, heritage buildings, and sodomy. Similar things could be said for many left wing causes that stand in simplistic opposition against as opposed to ongoing, deep, rich, coherent narrative of what they’re for. The Pakeha Party and the opposition meet our need to know that people agree with our occasional or all-consuming siege mentality that we’re outnumbered by people who disagree with us, or project our desire for people to know how progressive/ hard done/ offended by we feel. “I’m John Gutsful and I hate racism/ privilege. I need as many people to know that I think this as possible”.
Speaking as gay, half Chinese, inner city suburbanite, I don’t have the energy to get angry every time a Christian motel owner denies a gay couple joint accommodation, at every Winston Peters speech about immigrants, or when a boorish talkback host says or writes something without thinking like….. every talkback show host does daily. Those who break the law can be taken to court, and the rest laughed at. Society will always have village idiots who constantly commit the social or political equivalents of pissing on electric fences, gaining carnal knowledge of sows, and shooting duck hunters in the forest. Not having people like Pauline Hanson, Michael Laws, or Sarah Palin would deny us the light entertainment we deserve or can willfully ignore. Humour, not outrage, is the best way of disarming simplistic ideas and their key backers. This quick clip from the Bugle Podcast on anti-immigration politics in France provides an excellent example of how to take down populists.
Obsessive outrage and finger wagging over small things allows for those in power, both left and right, in politics and business, people and structures, to avoid proper scrutiny. Those who have teams of PR and communications staffers, and speechwriters to craft their message and espouse sweet nothings to make us feel at ease while they often use it to hurt those with less power and improve the power of the most powerful. In Australia, we pay way too much attention to racism on public transport and absent-minded 12 year olds at AFL matches, and not enough to Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd, who actually propose or practice about real human rights violations with asylum seekers but say it nicely.
I appreciate and love my peers for their beliefs. They’re my friends, neighbours, and colleagues: I know you’re cool with who I am as I am of you, that’s why we’re all mates. No need to prove yourselves as tolerant. For all the emphasis we place on intolerance of intolerance, our discourse contains a massive lack of empathy. Speaking for my peer group, I’ve been uncomfortable with a snarky, favourite pastime is poking fun at rednecks and bogans. Those people poorer than us who we claim to care about. For all the internet trolling, most people are generally open to an open conversation and debate in person. I’ve had colleagues in offices and student jobs alike whose views I’ve often felt uncomfortable with, knowing they would be the sort of people who would like the Pakeha Party but you can have an honest debate that doesn’t indulge in name-calling and Facebook or blog trolling. There are some it will never work with, and deserve to be tried if real harm has been caused, but real progressive social change in happens slowly through a battle for hearts and minds, not through self-congratulations and trolling.