On June 16 of 2015, a friend and I found ourselves in a New York hotel, feeling somewhat compromised after a late night and much revelry. Thanks to our throbbing heads, the spectacle of Donald Trump’s glass elevator arrival – in order to give the first of many bombastic and often fact-free speeches in support of his Presidential ambitions – invoked many sighs and “oh my god”‘s, but not much discussion.
When we did talk of it later, and in conversations that took place in subsequent months with him and others, it was oftentimes with a tone of incredulity, in that the chances of a Trump victory – or even nomination – seemed vanishingly small, and his attempt to seek the nomination therefore a simple manifestation of an ego the size of a planet (hello Marvin!).
We all know better now, of course. By which I don’t mean that the ego stuff is false – he certainly has it, and is flaunting it like only a narcissist can. But when I arrive back in NYC on June 16 this year, Trump will have been the confirmed Republican nominee for nearly two months already, with Hillary Clinton the only remaining potential “loser” for him to defeat (once Bernie Sanders gets out of the way, that is).
And one year on, the thing I want to briefly touch on is the narrative that Trump’s ascendancy has provoked in some quarters, whereby voters are being described as “irrational” or “stupid”. Some surely are either or both of these things, but there’s no reason to think – and no plausible mechanism whereby – voters suddenly become more irrational and/or stupid, en masse, in the period since the last election, or even over a generation or two.
Describing your opponents or “enemies” via abusive terms helps us to keep “our” tribe together, and helps “them” to do the same, but it involves no attempt to explain why people might make ostensibly irrational choices, nor to help us figure out how to minimise the chances of their doing so in the future.
One part of this Trump campaign (including the behaviour of his supporters at rallies) that needs explanation is not only how you can get away with talking nonsense so much of the time, but more crucially how it can be that you can get away with blatant racism and sexism while campaigning as a Presidential candidate.
Edsall here gives what I think is a crucial part of the diagnosis of Trump’s success. Decades of shaming racists, nativists, sexists, and homophobes into concealment, instead of arguing with them, has been unwise but strongly institutionalized politics and now the bill has arrived.
It’s been said before, but “call-out culture” and mob shaming on the Internet might satisfy our tribal lusts, but if you’re looking to change thinking and behaviour, you might want to consider a different tactic.
As with “shirtgate”, where Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor was in the news for wearing a shirt depicting naked scantily-clad women, the Tim Hunt case has prominently featured Richard Dawkins, telling us how to understand feminism and the issue of sexism in science.
In his letter to The Times (paywalled, so – sorry – I’m linking to the Daily Mail‘s quotes of the letter), Dawkins says:
Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but “disproportionate” would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.
‘A writer in the Guardian even described it as “a moment to savour”. To “savour” a moment of human misery – to “savour” the hounding of one of our most distinguished scientists – goes beyond schadenfreude and spills over into cruelty.’
Yet this is a moment to savour. Hunt has at last made explicit the prejudice that undermines the prospects of everyone born with childbearing capabilities.
In other words, it’s not the Hunt resignation that the author is savouring, but rather the opportunity it provides for discussing the ingrained sexism that is still experienced by women in professional settings such as laboratories (not to mention elsewhere).
When the speaker of the offensive remarks has felt the need to apologise, fully acknowledging that the remarks were inappropriate, seeing a senior male scientist like Dawkins describing reaction to those as a “feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness” is unlikely to reassure anyone who has concerns regarding perceived or actual sexist treatment of women in the workplace.
Yes, it’s true that some on social media had strong words to say about and to Tim Hunt. I don’t think it clear that this forced his dismissal, though. As usual, one can find evidence to support the case you want to make – Hunt and his wife claim that he was “hung out to dry” by University College London, and UCL say that he resigned (from an honorary, not paid, position) before they had a chance to speak with him about the incident.
He says he was joking when he made the remarks. And it’s true that many of the quotes of his remarks have left out the “now seriously” he utters in the second paragraph below:
It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?
Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.
But the issue is not whether he was joking or not. No reasonable person could doubt that he was intending to make a joke. The issue is what jokes you regard as appropriate or not, in which contexts. In a professional context such as this, addressing a room full of female scientists who have most likely encountered plenty of glass ceilings, this was a stupid and insensitive joke to make.
Furthermore, what Dawkins and others are perhaps not reading is the non-baying-mob part of the Internet, for example these tweets from someone who interviewed Hunt just after he made the remarks in question. Here’s one of the tweets:
And #timhunt said that while he meant to be ironic, he did think it was hard to collaborate with women because they are too emotional 1/6
Blum goes on to record that Hunt said “he was trying to be honest about the problems” – meaning he perhaps does have the sexist attitudes that the “joke” was purportedly ironising. If so, why should UCL want him in an honorary position?
I don’t know all the facts – very few of us do. And yes, I agree that social media can bring an unreasonable mob to your door. Another speaker at the same event (who confirms Blum’s account) Blum perhaps puts it best, though, in saying:
I do have sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge of a media storm. But if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones. Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.
The real point is our failure, so far, to make science a truly inclusive profession. The real point is that that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door. The real point is that to pry that door open means change. And change is hard, uncomfortable, and necessary.
While I realise that there are already hundreds of column-inches devoted to the issue of Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor and his shirt, I’m afraid I’m going to add a few more – mostly because most of those contributions have been in the international media, and 65% of my readership is in South Africa.
And it’s the South African responses that are annoying me, particularly on Facebook. They – like much of the international commentary, to be fair – are setting up an entirely false dichotomy between “feminist rage”, involving allegations of hypocrisy (“first you say we can wear what we like, but Taylor can’t?”); bullying (“Taylor harassed into a tearful apology”) offset against “the things that really matter”, whether it be the science itself, or the real root causes of sexism.
We don’t only have those choices. There are myriad positions available between them, and various combinations of them that are possible too – it’s entirely plausible that someone might, for example, be concerned about the signal that Taylor’s shirt might send (how it might be perceived, rather than how it’s intended), and also be gobsmacked by the scientific achievement of Rosetta.
And then, one can have this conversation without bullying – and talk about both these things at the same time. It’s not well-established that significant amounts of bullying even happened, depending on how you define bullying, of course. But because everyone is saying that’s what happened, it seems folk feel entitled to treat it as fact, even hyperbolising to the extent that Boris Johnson can speak of Taylor’s apology being “like something from the show trials of Stalin”, and his being
subjected to an unrelenting tweetstorm of abuse. He was bombarded across the internet with a hurtling dustcloud of hate, orchestrated by lobby groups and politically correct media organisations.
Of course you can find examples of Taylor being abused. My question is whether that was the typical or common response, or instead whether most commentators – perhaps outside of the filter-bubble of your prejudices (whether they be against “feminazis” or “misogynists”, both of which can be misidentified) – simply used the shirt as a springboard for a broader conversation about sexism in science, without vilifying Taylor?
In other words, is it true that the Left has “turned into Rick Santorum” – and even if it’s true, is this a good example of that, or is this case being misrepresented, meaning that we don’t get to talk about sexism in science for fear of being spoken of in this sort of supercilious tone:
Do not blame feminism for the pompous idiots whining about a Rosetta scientist's shirt. True feminism is bigger and better than that.
Because you can criticise without “whining”, and you can celebrate the science while still criticising, less or more hyperbolically. When all the conversation is about how everyone who is criticising is “whining” – and everyone who is not is somehow complicit in sexism – then we don’t get to talk about both things (the science as well as sexism). And I’d hate to lose either topic.
To spell out why Dawkins is wrong, above: The problem here is that it sets up a simple false dichotomy, and again demonstrates the limitations of Twitter as a medium for expressing complex thoughts. (Which should make smart people, like Dawkins, more careful of what they say.)
The false dichotomy is in presenting the option of true feminism (whatever that is) in opposition to the “pompous idiots”, without recognising that there are permutations of feminism that are legitimate, and can be nevertheless be concerned about the shirt. (We’ll leave aside whether Dawkins gets to be the arbiter of what feminism is.)
There’s also an obvious straw man, on two counts – one, that everyone is whining (rather than expressing concern); and two, the implication that there’s a zero-sum game between talking about the shirt and talking about the marvellous scientific achievement of Rosetta.
Of course some treatment of Taylor can be over-the-top. But dismissing all concerns as whining from pompous idiots is oblivious, shoddy thinking.
And talking about “feminism” or “feminists” without allowing for these nuances involves painting with far too broad a brush. For me, the shirt is the springboard to a conversation that’s worth keeping going, and some “feminists” (or just humans concerned with fairness and so forth) are simply using it as that.
Other “feminists” are indeed over-reacting to the shirt as a token or instance of sexism, which then does (or can) detract from both the larger and more important issue of sexism in STEM, and can also detract from conversations about Rosetta. As I ask above, it’s legitimate to ask – not simply assert – that they are typical.
The Dawkins tweet, and comments saying that “feminists” are over-reacting, assume that everyone is in the second, hyperbolic and reactionary camp.
That’s a caricature, and to me, it’s a caricature that suggests an anti-feminist bias.
You’ve no doubt seen plenty of social media commentary on Ubisoft’s decision to drop the playable female character from the new Assassin’s Creed title, saying that keeping such a character would involve “double the animations, double the voices, double the visual assets… really a lot of extra production work”.
As is often the case, the blogosphere and Twitter could be accused of not allowing for the possibility that there’s any reasonable justification for Ubisoft’s decision, judging from the temper of the posts and tweets I’ve seen, few of which express any sympathy for the company (leaving aside the obviously sexist comments from people saying that “women can’t be assassins” and the like).
As news of Elliot Rodger having killed 6 people, then himself, spread across the Internet this past weekend, the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen started to trend. On the surface, the reason for the widespread uptake of this hashtag is easy to comprehend, given that Rodger had announced his intention to
“enter the hottest sorority house of [the University of California–Santa Barbara], and … slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blond slut I see inside there.” To “all those girls I’ve desired so much,” he says, “you will finally see that I am the superior one, the true alpha male.”
To those women (and men) who were using the hashtag sincerely (as usual, there was some satire, some trolling, etc.), Rodger’s actions and the apparent motivation for them provided a useful opportunity to note that sexism and misogyny – whether of the extreme sort that leads to things like beating and rape, or the more widespread sort that is documented on sites like Everyday Sexism – is something that is far too common.
It doesn’t matter that you might be able to cite an instance, or a handful of instances, of a woman who doesn’t appear to be the target of sexist attitudes. It also doesn’t matter that you might be able to cite an instance, or a handful of instances, of men who are the target of sexist attitudes.
Of course it’s true that men are also discriminated against. That is a problem, and one that isn’t given its due attention. But it’s a separate problem, and one that doesn’t diminish the fact that women are, in general, discriminated against more pervasively and acutely than men are.
As with race – particularly in a country like South Africa, but also more generally – a history of discrimination doesn’t get obliterated when legal equality arrives. Social attitudes are sometimes slower to change than jurisprudence is, meaning that you have a larger and more receptive audience for misogynous sexism than you do for misandrous sexism. This could manifest in advertising that objectifies women, or in unequal pay, or in the possibility that you get promoted more slowly as a woman than you would as a man.
Exceptions to this pattern say little about whether the rule is still accurate, until we reach a point where the exceptions start becoming, well, unexceptional. Nevertheless, it should be permissible to question whether this case – Elliot Rodger – is one of somebody acting out of a misogynistic mindset. It might be, for example, that he was simply disturbed in some more general fashion, and that the sexism aspect is a distraction from that more general motivation.
As is typical, a case like this turns the majority of columnists, tweeters and bloggers into psychologists, all offering their non-expert diagnoses of what Roger’s problem was. I’ll try to resist that, because I think it’s irrelevant to the message and the motivation of #YesAllWomen, and also irrelevant to how a competing hashtag #NotAllMen, missed the point about the role a hashtag like #YesAllWomen can play in raising awareness of a genuine social problem, as well as reinforcing solidarity amongst those who experience the discrimination the hashtag catalogued.
An exact diagnosis of Rodger is irrelevant because it’s a pretty safe bet that that misogyny was a large part of his motive, both because it’s a regular feature of his manifesto (which, incidentally, also offers an explanation of why he killed men as well as women. He hated them because they were more successful at attracting women than he was, and this seems to amplify, rather than detract from, a characterisation in which women are objects of conquest), and because of the everyday sexism that I’d suggest any honest observer would agree is real.
#YesAllWomen was noting, and bemoaning, this most recent and tragic expression of these sorts of attitudes. Twitter is a place where we broadcast in 140 characters or less, and a place where rhetoric counts greatly in terms of political effect. #TheVastMajorityOfWomen dilutes the message, regardless of whether it’s more accurate or not (I don’t think it’s more accurate, myself.) The hashtag was a rallying cry that summarised something that is indisputably real, regardless of whether there are details to be nitpicked over or not.
Also, it was a political moment. To accuse those who deployed the hashtag of opportunism or grandstanding misses the point that it wouldn’t matter if it happened to be the case, after detailed analysis, that the Rodger case was not a perfect fit for this broader protest. Yes, all women (leaving aside the nitpicking, as I say above) experience the effects of a patriarchal attitudes, and those attitudes can sometimes lead to tragedy just like this – regardless of whether this (Rodger) is the best way of making that point.
So, it’s in this context that the #NotAllMen hashtag lands, with (some) men rushing to defend themselves against the notion that they are responsible for the sexism that women are subjected to. But unless someone had said that you – Jacques Rousseau, or Keyser Soze, or whomever – are responsible for this sexism, #YesAllWomen isn’t aimed at you, and there’s no need to defend yourself. There’s no reason to take it personally, except as an opportunity for a self-assessment regarding whether you might in fact be complicit, and to what extent. Your actions thereafter, if any, should follow from that self-assessment.
Any sensible person already knows that #NotAllMen are like Rodger, or a diluted version of him. Objecting in the general sense that #NotAllMen does can only serve to give the impression of disagreement with the general point that sexism against women is prevalent, and that this sexism can be part of the reason that men like Rodger end up doing what he did.
It is a pity that conversations about discrimination need to start with qualifications and mea culpas – I would prefer to operate in a world in which any idea can be discussed without running the risk of being misinterpreted through assumptions of bad faith and so forth. But that’s not how politics works – discussions like these happen in a context, where the reception of a message is influenced by that context.
Regardless of what you might be intending to indicate by using #NotAllMen, you’re either saying something so obvious that it perhaps doesn’t need to be said, or saying something that takes attention away from a far more important issue – the issue captured by #YesAllWomen. The hashtag bemoans a real social malady, and our responses should take care to acknowledge that, rather than use it as an opportunity for nitpicking.
I recently discovered Betteridge’s Law, which is a rather cool adage that states “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no“. And that’s the point of view many of you might have with regard to the headline I chose for this blog post. You might say, atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s) – it entails no other propositions.
If we mean the strict logical sense of entail, i.e. that atheism necessarily leads to anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth, you’re right. But you’re perhaps also evading a more important point, which is that if you’re an atheist who isn’t opposed to sexism, racism and so forth, the fact that you happen to be an atheist does little or nothing to combat the possibility that the viewpoints are at least in tension with each other, or even in direct opposition.
Two ideas don’t need to form a contradiction to be in opposition. And to my mind, atheism will (and, should) typically entail anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth. And this is because prejudice of these forms is not only an manifestation of irrationality, but also more specifically a form of irrationality that is typically buttressed by moral codes that rank certain values or characteristics above others on largely arbitrary grounds.
Whether it be wearing a certain funny hat, belonging to a certain tribe, uttering certain sacred words, eating a particular food and not another – all of these are tokens that would normally be arbitrary, but are granted significance via a system of belief. They aren’t justified by evidence and reason, but rather become justified by the positive feedback loop of religious practice.
Without those forms of thinking, any idea that people with a certain level of melanin in their skin are superior or inferior to others, or that people with penises are better/worse than people without them, would struggle to get off the ground. We’d be far more inclined to say “that makes no sense – we’ve no reason to treat x worse than y”, because we’d have fewer psychological frameworks in place allowing for arbitrary discrimination.
So, while atheism might not necessarily lead to being anti-discrimination (of arbitrary sorts), I do think it’s not only compatible with anti-discrimination, but more than that – it’s more likely to lead to it than not. And for clarity, and to avoid needless argument, I am not making the claim that religion always, or necessarily, does lead to these forms of discrimination. I’m making the far more limited claim that it’s one way in which some people prop up their prejudices.
Focusing on one manifestation of an issue can sometimes obscure other manifestations. Or, it could even obscure the fact that what we’re dealing with is a systemic issue or even problem, with multiple manifestations. To (briefly) return to a theme we’re all sick of, treating certain cultural beliefs related to respect as normative in the case of The Spear is one thing, but if someone were to claim that the same cultural norms justified abolishing equal suffrage, we’d be less sympathetic.
Arguments that use some established norm or cultural preference to motivate for a certain conclusion are open to these charges of inconsistency – both in terms of when the arguments are leveled, and in how we respond to them. Political correctness and the expectation that we respect the views of others tend to censor us – at least until the stakes seem high enough that silence is no longer appropriate.
At some point last night, a debate on “jugcam” started raging on Twitter, which I’m probably well-advised to stay out of. But seeing as nobody is around to give me that advice, here are a few thoughts on the matter. First, for those who haven’t heard about jugcam is, it’s a Twitter meme involving the broadcasting of photographs of the breasts (more accurately, cleavage) of female cricket spectators. Some women are offended by this, claiming that it’s a violation of their privacy and that it could inhibit them from wearing bikinis or other revealing clothes to cricket stadia.
What this might immediately bring to mind is the furore and 2010 lawsuit involving “Girls Gone Wild”, where “Jane Doe” sued the makers of the show for damaging her reputation, after her breasts were exposed during the filming of an episode of the show. But the cases are not at all symmetrical, in that Jane Doe had near-certain knowledge of this sort of thing happening with some regularity at parties filmed for GGW, and also knew that the filming was taking place. This is not to excuse the person who pulled her top down, or to express a view on whether Jane Doe was violated in any way, but simply to say that the case is different to that of a woman sunning herself while watching cricket.
Having said that, it’s always been the case (well, for many years now) that the cameramen and producers of the live cricket feed for television tend to focus on attractive females with some regularity. Lingering close-ups of cleavage are a common occurrence, and frequently involve whole-body shots – making identification and potential embarrassment that much easier. By contrast, many of the jugcam shots are simply of cleavage, making claims of any sort of violation more difficult to sustain. Many do also include faces, though, so are at least potentially violations of privacy.
One difference between GGW, the TV camera feed and jugcam is that these involve a sliding scale of implied consent. You fully expect to be filmed at GGW, you partially expect that you might be filmed by the TV cameras, and you don’t (or hadn’t, until now) expect to be photographed by random strangers while watching cricket. And the latter typically involves the opportunity to give actual consent – especially if you’re the focus of the photograph, rather than merely a character somewhere in the background of one.
So I can sympathise with the idea that there has been a failure of courtesy on the part of those who take these jugcam shots without obtaining consent. But treating this as an analogue to rape, or linking it with SlutWalk, is taking things too far. SlutWalk (which I’ve criticised here and here) is about protesting victim-blaming, where those unsympathetic to the exploitation or abuse of women imply (or make explicit) the claim that women invite sexual abuse through what they choose to wear. With jugcam, there’s no suggestion that these pictures lead to sexual violence, merely that they are creepily invasive and that they objectify women.
But if you go to a stadium containing 40 000 spectators, where the goings-on are being broadcast on television, many people are going to see you. Many of those might find you attractive, and enjoy looking at you. This applies to both men and women, although men are far less likely to mind the attention given their artificial (and unwarranted) social privilege. To think that you welcome sexual abuse based on what you wear is obviously offensive – but to think that people shouldn’t look at you if they find you attractive is insane.
These thoughts (of finding someone attractive) and the subsequent behaviour (of looking at them) are entirely normal, and to regard them as constituting objectification is political correctness gone mad. We would not be able to meet, marry and/or procreate without these impulses. As I commented with regard to the Foschini T-shirt episode, it’s dangerous for us to keep amplifying our feelings of offence and responding with increasingly hyperbolic outrage – the real offences could simply get buried over time by self-important bleating. Furthermore, an excessive focus on symptoms of patriarchy might do little to address the underlying causes – not to mention the possibility that even focusing on patriarchy itself could obscure the more general (and more important, to my mind) fight against inequality in all forms.
Jugcam goes further than simply looking, though – it involves public exposure via Twitter (and websites). Do those wielding smartphones have an obligation to ask for permission to take photographs that TV cameramen do not? Paul Jacobson says no, arguing that
we live in a time when we are increasingly online, socially connected and capable of publishing a dizzying amount of content on the Web for virtually anyone to see. … We are getting to a point where you can’t go anywhere without seeing smartphones or other devices being used to take photos, record video and publish that content to sites you have no control over.
When it comes to the #JugCam meme (which is an organized version of what guys have probably been doing at sports events for some time now), we have to start making decisions about how we behave in such a connected world. I know how this next bit sounds but I think it has to be said and really does have some merit as an argument: women who wear bikini tops at public sports events like cricket matches must be aware that their photos could be taken and uploaded for broader consumption. I’m not saying its ok for that to happen, it is a little creepy, but it happens. Arguing that people (ok, men) shouldn’t be allowed to do this in public spaces without express permission is a little disingenuous. If a woman is opposed to being photographed in a bikini top and having her photo published online then she should reconsider wearing a bikini top at these events. Women should also be free to express outrage at their photo being published and demand that it be removed but whether that actually happens will likely come down to a decision based on the rights to freedom of expression, dignity and privacy being weighed up. I suspect the legal position will be something along the following lines: women in public wearing bikini tops have no real legitimate expectation of privacy when they are in public and can’t complain if their photo is taken and published online, particularly where they are aware that this could (and does) occur.
He’s right that we are at the point where this sort of thing often happens – but that doesn’t make it right that it does. As I outline above, there are some known risks of public exposure when attending a public event like a cricket game, and you might think there’s some chance of a TV camera focusing on you. Things like jugcam add to those risks. The point is not only a “real legitimate expectation of privacy”, but also that the bounds of what is private and what is public are being affected, where everyone you meet could take on a paparrazzi role. Yet we are not all celebrities, and it seems disingenuous to argue that we can treat any random female cricket spectator as if she were (leaving aside the question of whether even celebrities deserve this sort of intrusion).
My point is this: The fact that something like jugcam is not illegal, and also not offensive to the extent that some have argued on Twitter, does not make it a meme to be encouraged or defended. Jugcam is simply an excuse for being an ass, and an attempted legitimisation of a boorish and juvenile impulse to entertain yourself and your fellow frat-boys. There’s a simple question of courtesy and respect here – genuine celebrities know what they’re in for, and can’t be surprised by the attentions of photographers. The average cricket-watcher can not only be surprised, but more importantly, she can have preferences in this regard that outweigh the value you get from posting her picture online – even if it’s not that offensive to post her picture online.
It’s really not a lot of trouble to ask. And not asking – where someone might have a good reason to refuse – is rude. And it’s the sort of rudeness which comes from the invisibility of privilege, where the protagonists of jugcam can appear incapable of understanding why anyone would mind. The reason for being incapable of this understanding is the key thing – namely that it’s incomprehensible for some to think that their understanding of what is and is not problematic aren’t universal. Here’s a simple take-home lesson: if something you do affects someone else, and you have the opportunity to establish whether they welcome that effect or not, the default behaviour should be to ask them to express a view.
Having said that, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when people act like asses – and not every slight or insult needs to be spoken of as evidence for civilization’s downfall. Unauthorised jugcam pictures are rude, sure, but that’s all they are.
Drawing a line between hypersensitivity and justified affront is sometimes rather difficult. Political correctness often helps to facilitate the former, because we become so used to not being offended that it seems increasingly outrageous when others dare to offend our sensibilities. And while outrage is easy to manufacture, and difficult to ignore, the fact that someone is offended doesn’t mean that they are justified.
Eleven women, including the Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis, were recently offended by a selection of T-shirts they considered sexist being offered for sale by stores by stores in the Foschini stable. You can read the justification for this in Davis’s column, though I’d recommend only reading the ensuing comments if you’re feeling strong – or if you’re looking for further evidence in support of your application for asylum with some other species. Because what starts as a civilised and reasonable expression of disappointment by Davis and others that these T-shirts were put up for sale rapidly descends into quite unpleasant abuse of character and motive, especially targeted towards those commenters who dared to question whether the objections to the T-shirts were an overreaction.
The abuse came from all quarters, though – including from those whose apparent motivation was a call for greater respect for their viewpoint that the T-shirts were legitimately offensive. And here one can arguably see an interesting asymmetry, in that while the premise of the debate is that certain views aren’t being afforded enough respect (women’s rights and interests), the debate then proceeds as if alternative views aren’t worthy of any respect at all, and that people who express those alternative views aren’t entitled to do so.
It’s easy to forget that if we are campaigning on behalf of some interest, we become ambassadors or representatives of that interest. So, when someone dares to challenge your cause, we sometimes need to take care to not respond in such a way as to undermine the exact cause we’re fighting. If the issue is that certain interests or arguments are being sidelined, that issue can only win a hollow victory by sidelining dissent.
Now, of course some issues might take priority over others. Not only legal priority, as in the balancing of rights, but also moral priority in that it might sometimes be obvious that there is a genuine problem worthy of attention or redress. And sexism is such a problem in that we are perhaps less sensitive to it than to other forms of unfair discrimination. This is perhaps evidenced by our language, in that gendered epithets are given less attention than racist ones.
So on the surface of it, sexist T-shirts, or sexist jokes, are obviously a problem when they consistently target one sex rather than another. If sexism was an equal-opportunity offence we could accuse the offenders of crassness, but not of sexism. But hypersensitivity is also a problem, and we should take care to avoid undermining our causes through taking a fundamentalist approach to them, or through treating dissent as axiomatically reprehensible.
To try and avoid misinterpretation here, I did think that some (not all) of the T-shirts were sexist. Consumers are free to point that out, and you’d think that retailers are free to respond by withdrawing them from sale. The qualifier of “you’d think” hints at what some comments to the Davis column were perhaps trying to point out, in that it’s unclear that Foschini had any actual choice in the matter.
Because just as it’s difficult to imagine something like a sunset clause on affirmative action, it’s difficult to conceive of a point at which accusations of sexism can’t be levelled without being privileged. They are uttered from a position of not being privileged, but gain privilege in that they are impossible (or at least very difficult) to refute. Playing the “race card” already wins most of the battle, and making accusations of sexism can do the same – the sense of being offended can be justified merely by feeling that you are offended.
In these debates, we should be wary of words and attitudes that can act as silencing devices, and that can forestall or inhibit debate. Because viewpoints and attitudes can become immune to, and protected from, challenge. Immune because of their orthodoxy, and protected because of our fear of being labelled as racist, sexist or in some other way opposed to the orthodox view.
In the case of these T-shirts, there is a marked difference between the measured tone and argument of the original letter protesting these T-shirts and some of what came after, including on the comment thread to Davis’s column. Whether it’s true or not, it’s still legitimate to raise the question of whether the opposition to the T-shirts was a sense of humour failure (I don’t think it was). It’s also legitimate to ask whether calls for a boycott of Foschini are taking the matter too far (which I think it did).
To rule these questions as out of order, or to not engage with the questions without attacking the characters of those who raise them, forestalls any possible debate, and entrenches existing prejudices on both sides. We want Foschini to be able to withdraw the T-shirts, or not do so, through being able to make a decision – not through being subjected to what can easily become a form of moral blackmail.
The boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable offence (ie. merely risqué rather than legitimately problematic) are not only subjective, but also present a slippery slope problem. If T-shirts like the ones in question are withdrawn from sale without the possibility of debate – or with the polarisation of debate evidenced in the comments to the Davis column – a new level of what is acceptable and not can be set. And then, potentially, one less thing can be debated and one fewer thing can be a legitimate source of humour – because something is always potentially offensive to somebody.
One possible outcome of these sorts of (lack of) debate is simply a world in which those who shout the loudest get heard, or are taken more seriously than others. So even as we are fully entitled to object to things we find offensive and attempt to get others to see our point of view, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that our own views are beyond challenge, or that we’re automatically justified in attributing some degeneracy to those who object to those views.
In this case, some of the offence was certainly justified, and I think the letter that Davis and the others wrote was not hyperbolic in the least. But some of the ensuing commentary raised the possibility of yet another issue where being offended is its own validation, and where it is unquestionable that others should bow to the demands of your offence.
We might be entitled to be offended at whatever we like, whether it’s justified or not. But with the exception of hate-speech (an exception which can itself be challenged), others are entitled to be offensive. While we can try and persuade them to stop, we should be careful to not do in a way that stops us talking – and listening – to each other.
If you want further motivation for depression at the levels of debate H.Sapiens is capable of, take a look at the comment thread below this Rebecca Davis column on The Daily Maverick. The column dealt with some sexist T-shirts that were being sold by the Foschini group (see them here). Name-calling and missing-of-the-point-ing is the order of the day (well, of 3 days so far, and the pace hasn’t abated yet). One largely unexplored problem, though, is that the name-calling on this issue comes from all sides of the debate – it’s one of those emotive issues (like Slutwalk) where there’s something approaching a respectable, maybe even politically-correct view (neither term meant pejoratively), and then those who reject that for some reason or another (often, a bad reason). However, the mere fact that one doesn’t espouse the “respectable” view isn’t yet evidence that one holds reprehensible views – yet that’s the sort of reaction that dissent frequently attracts.
I’m not speaking for anyone other than myself here – the commenters on that thread who disagree with Rebecca might reject what I say here – but part of the problem with these sorts of debate is that they rule certain questions as out of order by establishing a normative principle. So, because sexism is bad (certainly), when I claim a sexist affront it immediately has a head-start in any argument. Furthermore, others are disincentivised from challenging my view, because it’s too easy to label those dissenters as sexist, and thus to silence them. We’ve seen the same thing, over and over, in the political sphere – words like “racist” or “coconut” are silencing devices.
What then could happen is that a viewpoint finds itself immune to, and protected from, challenge. Immune to because of its orthodoxy, and protected from because of our fear of being labelled as racist, sexist or whatever. This is why I try, where I can, to defend things like free speech both with reference to reprehensible views (like those of Kuli Roberts, perhaps) as well as more laudatory speech (Zapiro, for example). We do need to remember that even the well-intentioned can get things wrong. Those of us who defend free speech are often well-intentioned (at least in this regard), but there might nevertheless be better and worse ways of going about making your case.
For the record, this isn’t exactly a free speech issue at all – at least not in the standard sense. Nobody was being censored, and Rebecca and the other 10 were simply expressing their views on something they found offensive, and the Foschini group responded as they deemed appropriate (by withdrawing the T-shirts from sale). If you read the original letter of complaint, it’s measured and contains an argument for why the T-shirts were inappropriate. It wasn’t an emotive rant, or a call for immediate boycott (although we did see a few of those floating around, especially in the hyperbolic universe of Twitter).
The question here is whether Foschini had any choice. On this particular issue, perhaps they did – but at the expense of damage to the brand. Some of the T-shirts (I don’t think all, which weakened the objections somewhat) were genuinely offensive, but was there any room for Foschini to debate this? Could they have said: “We see your point with #1 and #2, but we’ll keep selling #3 because we think you’re being hypersensitive”. In other words, do these sorts of interventions even cross the line into a sort of moral blackmail, where your legitimised outrage can be leveraged without challenge?
The boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable offence (ie. merely risqué rather than legitimately problematic) are not only subjective, but also present a slippery slope problem. With the withdrawal of the T-shirts without any substantive engagement – and with the polarisation of the debate evidenced in the Davis column linked at the top – a new level of what is acceptable and not has been set. And potentially, one less thing can be debated, and one fewer thing can be a legitimate source of humour – because something is always potentially offensive to somebody.
As I argued following the decision by Pick ‘n Pay to withdraw the ‘blasphemous’ issue of Sax Appeal from the shelves, one possible outcome of these sorts of debate is simply a world in which those who shout the loudest get heard, or are taken more seriously than others. So even as we are fully entitled to object to things we find offensive, and attempt to get others to see our point of view, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that our own views are beyond challenge or that we can assign some degenerate label to those who object to those views.
Something which might be worth thinking about, as we fumble our way forward, is that in terms of tone and attitude to opposing views, some of the responses to this T-shirt saga have operated from a rhetorical space quite similar to that occupied by the likes of Errol Naidoo, who is constantly outraged – and uncomprehending – at the world not bending to his will. In fact, it might surprise Rebecca and the other 10 authors that this victory was his also. As he pointed out in a newsletter received on October 26:
There Is Victory In Christian Unity! Two articles in the news media caught my eye this week. The first, reports on the Advertising Standards Authority ruling that a TV advertisement that featured angels falling from heaven because they are attracted to the deodorant -must be withdrawn because it is offensive.
The second story involves the Forchini Group responding to customer complaints and immediately withdrawing t-shirts from Markhams stores with slogans that portray women as sex objects.
What both incidents highlight is the power of the consumer to oppose evil and advance righteousness in society. These victories may appear small but they are significant.
Since Family Policy Institute went fully operational in July 2008, I have seen many examples of ordinary Christian citizens standing together to stop injustice & wickedness in its tracks.
When a homophobe like Naidoo is in your corner, it exposes the fundamentalist nature that these debates so easily take on. As I’ve said above, there was nothing fundamentalist about the original letter of complaint, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the letter was motivated by the same reasoning as Naidoo’s. However, the path of being offended – and thinking that others need to take note of your offence – is a treacherous one that can lead to Naidoo-land. And we should be careful to avoid that, because it’s good to keep talking. And to keep listening.