Sunday, March 31, 2013

No I will not take a chill pill

I started to compose this post several weeks ago during the Oscars fiasco and tweeting aftermath. Then I hadn't gotten it quite right so it has languished in the drafts folder. But now all my draft posts are coming out to play, because why not?

This particular incident was a time of rapid education for me. As a white Australian woman fairly newly arrived in Canada, my field of reference on this was very limited. I could immediately see how the Oscars commentary and the ensuing offensive Onion tweet was sexist but I didn't immediately see how it was racist. I have now been exposed to a great many great thinkers and writers on the subject of race and feminist intersectionality via Twitter, and my understanding around this has taken a leap forward. I still have SO much to learn but it was a watershed moment for me.

So here is a wrap-up of as many good posts on the subject as I could find.

Alyssa at thinkprogress had this to say about how we discuss comedy and why it's problematic
Hadley Freeman wrote in the Guardian about the need for offensive comedy to have an underlying point, especially if it's aimed at minorities- otherwise it's just bullying.

Lindy West at Jezebel expressed her 'sexism fatigue' and her frustration at having to constantly explain why and how something is sexist to people who don't actually seem to want to know.

This post at Derora Noo on why she's tired of being a good sport.

Jose Vilson talks here about the inherent racism in the Onion's tweet and how we see our children of colour.

Margaret Lyons at Vulture argues that this kind of sexism does matter.

Here's T.F Charlton explaining why the Onion's tweet was so hurtful.

Laura Hudson says the Onion tweet was well-intentioned, but wrong.

Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony says the Onion tweet was infuriating but not at all surprising.

Pia Glenn wrote this about why she often pushes the boundary of good taste, and will even defend rape jokes, but not this.

Rania Khalek at Dispatches From the Underclass addresses the arguments about free speech, the intention of the Onion's tweet being irrelevant and the arguments that it wasn't a racist attack. I love the sub-heading of her blog: amplifying the voices of the voiceless. This, to me goes to the heart of the issue. Those with the biggest platform bear the greatest responsibility for using their power and privilege wisely. Women, gay people, people of colour - these are the groups that are so often denied a voice. So when white men say "what's the big deal?" as though it's anywhere near a level playing field, it just shows how blind they are to their own privilege and how much harder they need to work to listen to the voiceless.

And although I am loathe to link to this kind of opposing argument, because I don't think it holds any logical merit, of course you can read for yourself if you are so inclined. (yes this is a completely partisan blog, and I  make no apologies for that!)

Satire is about debasing the status quo - poking fun of something in a knowing way, so that the underlying intent is to skewer the system on which the satire is based. This works well when the satire is directed towards structures, groups or individuals who hold a great deal of influence and power, because it works towards addressing the imbalance. When you make fun of people who already cop it day in , day out, with little redress - it takes the leap from satire into plain nastiness.

When those groups who you are aiming your 'comedy' at have far less ability to reply in kind, when their voices are routinely shut down, devalued and they have far fewer channels to command attention, then all you are doing is contributing to keeping them down. I noticed a distinct lack of jokes aimed at the majority of power players in the room - wealthy white men. The only way Macfarlane poked fun at himself was to acknowledge that people would find his humour crude and offensive - a fact which he seems to take pleasure in, and therefore qualifies as acceptable humour. I didn't say it was funny, but it's fine because in making fun of himself he's not undermining anything or anyone. He clearly holds the power - he has a captive audience of a billion people - so making a self-referential joke about his terrible jokes is not going to put a dent in his confidence.

I'm also curious as to why some people seem so disturbed and frustrated, even angry, about the "outrage". If some one has a right to be offensive, in the name of free speech, as some people claim, then surely others have the right to be offended and to express this? Outrage is often mocked as though people have an obligation to find the same things outrageous. Every one just calm down, goes the argument, find something legitimate to complain about. Usually it's white men writing this, and one has to assume that they appoint themselves judge and juror as to what constitutes a "legitimate" source of outrage.

We all know words are powerful - I hope that's a basic fact that we can agree on. So why, when something is labelled a "joke", does it get a free pass? If something is supposed to be funny, do we let it slide? If any act of racism or sexism is cloaked in a "joke", should we say nothing? Evil prospers when good people do nothing. Words build a climate, an atmosphere. Speeches change minds. Attitudes spread. All of this matters. Every little bit. It's not up to me to argue whether I found something personally funny or not - but if a significant group of people, especially those who are used to being marginalised, speak out and say 'this isn't right' - then it doesn't matter whether I think it's funny or not, there is an obligation as a society to listen.

Intent doesn't make a thing racist/sexist or not -  in some instances it may make some difference to the way a comment is received but often times it makes no difference. Your intent does not equal the outcome. The outcome is based on the audience's perception. Jokes are subjective, I accept that. Harmless? No. Lots of things are subjective, from how we treat each other to whether a particular colour is more blue or more green. But the fact remains, as a society we strive for a general consensus on what's fair and reasonable. And hopefully over time we try to get rid of the rules that are less fair, and move towards equality. And in doing so we have to decide as a group, even on subjective topics, what's fair and reasonable. Think about the history of violence and oppression against women and racial minorities in the 20th century. Many atrocities were considered 'reasonable' by a portion of people in order for them to be accepted. I'm not suggesting that some off-colour jokes are *as bad* as, say, women not being able to vote, but the attitude that comes from one feeds the other. There comes a point at which an individual's right to free speech and liberty butts up against the greater good. So while I defend a person's right to have their opinion, even if it's a badly-formed one, when the pulpit from which he speaks broadcasts to an audience of a billion people? I think it's right to stand up against it and say, subjective or not, I disagree, and my opinion counts. As does the many many others who have voiced their displeasure. It's not right to sit back and brush it off as 'comedy' when such comedy does real damage. It's not a simple matter of 'causing offence' and hurting some one's feelings. These attitudes are ingrained, marginalised people are further marginalised every day as a result of these words. We shouldn't feel pressured into laughing them off at the risk of being labelled uptight, humourless, or thought police.

When some one tells me not to over-react, not to make a big hoo-ha about it, you can bet that's pretty much exactly what I am going to do. No I will not take a chill pill.

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