Collected thoughts on modern thought, right now, today.
What is happening to Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer and other successful, cis, hetero white comedian-people is not censorship. Censorship means being prevented from speaking. These people are speaking and other people are speaking back. What’s actually happening is not censorship but more free speech than ever before! Marginalized communities, who didn’t have the resources, attention or megaphone to be heard by, or at the same volume as, privileged celebrities now have those tools. Their voices are being heard, and guess what, they don’t like ignorance. That ignorance is being corrected, like a teacher obliterating your book report with red pen. You still wrote the damn book report: you just got a C on it. Or an F.
“Politically correct” is an insult. It implies an artificiality, a pose, a fake concern. To be politically correct is to avoid offense by lying instead of speaking honest, secretly “correct” ideas. The critics of political correctness think that they should be able to speak on their opinions without consequence, regardless of the hatefulness or ignorance of those opinions. And couching the damage of those opinions as “taking offense” instead of “causing harm” implies an exaggerated sensitivity — it victim-blames, rather than considering any level of personal responsibility. The existence of political correctness as a concept also devalues the concerns of the marginalized — that they are wrong but must be pandered to, that they can’t possibly be correct-correct, as the notions and ideas of privileged people (Jonathan Chait, etc.) must be just by virtue of existing. Political correctness is a bankrupt concept devoid of humanity and empathy, a pale straw man for people who are afraid to listen. Putting this under some weird banner of neo-liberalism (or any white, Western, academic/political framework) ignores the shape and intent of the communities who are actually speaking out.
A lot of this boils down to: “Hey, that thing you said? It’s shitty. You might be a shitty person, too. Do you actually understand what you’re talking about?” “That’s impossible, YOU’RE a shitty person!”
It is clear we are in the midst of a national (and international) sea change in public discourse, as social media tools, particularly public-facing ones such as Twitter and Tumblr, have solidified communities, enabled movements and allowed voices to be heard in a way that has created genuine change. While some of this is capitalist butt-covering — no one wants a boycott — modern capitalism has presented us with an oligarchal ruling class who have sucked up all the money except a subsistence-grade fraction and using its own weapons against it are an act of subversion and a reclamation of democratic agency.
Yes: groups with bad ideas could spook corporations into doing things, and which ideas are good or bad should be a matter of debate, not megaphone-volume. Conservatives would argue that is, in fact, what’s happening: they would also argue that we bear no responsibility for climate change, that women should not control their bodies, that black and Latino voters are committers of fraud, not to mention disproportionate crime; in other words, that anyone who is in fact not a white, straight, faithful Christian male is suspect, and should not have a voice in the political dialogue or even equal rights. So far, stuff like Macy’s parting ways with Donald Trump has been undeniably good for America. If TV shows, movies and other entertainment products with diverse casts and creators are more prominent than ever before in part because they will draw in wider audiences and make more money: great!
A recent University of Washington study essentially confirmed that masculinity is as fragile as an eggshell — that having a narrow, arbitrary paradigm of male personhood prompted men to compensate or even respond with aggression. Listen, I grew up hiding my Fiona Apple cassettes at summer camp so dudes wouldn’t make fun of me: this is gross and real and baked into many men by pop culture and parenting from an early age. We are also in a culture of winners and losers instead of collaborations — where we have arguments instead of dialogue, where political candidates exist as extremist opposites, where everything is a sport — which makes being challenged a confrontation instead of an opportunity to learn and grow. These movements and ideas are a lot to take in quickly, and many people are not open to a changing worldview. It is scary to feel wrong, to feel ignorant, to not understand the world in very rigid terms. Defensiveness is natural — and yet destroying that knee-jerk impulse is the only way forward.
That it is not to say that any challenge to one’s ideology is right and your existing ideas are wrong: there is a full continuum of ideas and disagreements within every social movement, and individual actors for good causes can be as recklessly sure of themselves and their positions as their opponents. There is plenty of narcissism (and faves, likes and reblogs) involved with being a 20-something social justice warrior — with appearing “right” instead of making progress. I really admire Deray McKesson, for one, for constantly refocusing his followers on the work and the mission.
But we people of privilege (of every level) have to listen. We have to step back and think. We have to admit that we don’t know everything. We have to accept that we might be wrong, or at least that someone else’s truth should co-exist with ours. It is amazing what kind of person you can become when you begin to put aside your ego and the fear that comes with it.
And then some things are actually facts. The Confederate flag is a symbol of a traitors’ war waged for black oppression. Every serious scientist on Earth recognizes that climate change is a global crisis that needs immediate action. Teenagers who are taught only abstinence have sex anyway and get pregnant. Police are disproportionately arresting and killing black men. Realize that, say, Fox News is actually an entertainment division, just like the 20th Century Fox movie studio, and has no obligation to report the truth or do any journalistic work at all.
I see many activists in Feminist Twitter or Black Twitter and so on who have suffered enough and don’t have the time or patience to educate our ignorant white male asses. Instead, they’d like us to Google or read a book. I don’t blame them for this frustration (how could you?) and believe it is firmly on the privileged to recognize their privilege and work to understand the inequalities that exist in America and worldwide.
One way of thinking about this is to consider the ideal, equal world that might exist when all these fights are over and work backward from there. Would we exist in communities that maintain their individual cultures and differences while working to understand and respect those of the others? To be more Beastie Boys than Iggy Azalea? How do we approach that point? There has to be a level of dialogue and mutual respect that does not dismiss, say, “white people” as one thing and “black people” as another. At the same time, a movement like “not all men” misses the point: which is that the toxicity of some men must be recognized and addressed by men, and saying I, personally, am not a dick-having garbage-monster is a distraction from an ultimately male problem. (See: defensiveness.) I think all sides could work on speaking and listening in ways that build toward understanding and less animosity, but the onus of doing the work is on the privileged.
How? The song “Accidental Racist,” for instance, was roundly criticized. But it offered two adults trying to have a conversation, which is more than we can say for most trending topics. It is privileged, and let’s be honest, the narcissism of youth, to assume everyone has had access to your knowledge and education, or would even know to look for it. LL Cool J is 47 years old and has presumably not kept pace with the consensus opinions 23-year-olds established on Tumblr last week. Where are the resources for his education? Where is the Wiki page or the syllabus that might shine a light? (I know many online articles have worked to lay many of these issues out: they need to be shared and made unavoidable.)
This is about education: Jerry Seinfeld does not recognize race as a problem because he’s never had to. He lives in a bubble. A path needs to be offered for bubble boys to find their way forward into understanding and ally-hood: if, facing the truth, people decide to reject it, that’s on them. But I don’t see it as progressive or useful to burn a bridge instead of presenting that as the first option. Let me put it this way: if someone’s not in the struggle, it can be frighteningly easy to not see it at all. Or it was, but that’s changing every day.
Having conversations bring us back to the trolls, who have really ruined the ability of earnest allies to ask questions or have disagreements, even, without coming off as confrontational frauds. I would love to see a safer space for these interactions arise, but in the meantime, listening is more important. I have a lot of reading to do, you probably do, too.
Pop culture politics
I don’t find inspecting every single pop culture moment — every TV scene, every song lyric, etc. — for ethical clarity to be purposeful, but there is a difference between holding a magnifying glass and having an undeniable reaction to the culture in front of you. As the critic Wesley Morris has said, it’s not that he wants to write about race when he goes to a movie: it’s that the movies keep making him do so. Again, for the 431st time, no one is silencing these kinds of pop culture moments: they are criticizing them, so that artists and audiences can learn and grow and get better. That is what criticism is for! So we can all better understand art, and through it, the human experience! The human experience of some people is being ignorant assholes, or even carefully walking a line that troubles some but pleases others. (I stopped watching “Kimmy Schmidt” because the jokes were too racist for me but I am unbothered by Amy Schumer, your mileage may vary.)
Also, please: no more essays on separating the art from the artist. If the artist’s actions (of any sort) feel relevant to the art, say so. If you like the art anyway, say so, or just continue to quietly enjoy it. That’s it! The feminist police are not coming to take your Mark Kozelek records away: it’s 2015, and no one cares what anyone else listens to.
This is what a correction looks like
Privilege is being checked, finally, rapidly, and the long push against true egalitarian balance is escalating. The claimed war on Christmas is in fact a balancing of culturally oppressive Christian hegemony to acknowledge Jews, Muslims, atheists and other beliefs. Video games are offering playable characters who aren’t white males because “white male” isn’t neutral or a default. After an exhaustingly long era in which Western culture represented and was made by a specific audience, it is expanding to offer a broader, and more authentic, picture of a modern world. This does not mean it is getting harder for straight white men. It means it is starting — just starting! — to be as appropriately difficult as it should’ve been all along, after centuries and millennia of the advantages conferred by colonialist patriarchy.
Sorry, bros. You’ll always have football, until it’s banned for causing brain disease.