This is a re-worked version of an older piece; with the recent controversy over Miss Saigon at the Ordway, the continued pressure on the Washington NFL team to change its name, and the various Miley/Macklemore/Thicke fiascos, I thought it’d be a good time to update it.
Part of being passionate about art and culture is getting into arguments about art and culture. I’ve had my share, especially when it comes to the intersection of social justice and pop culture. What follows are eight rhetorical devices I’ve encountered in these arguments and why I don’t buy them.
1. “It’s just a (movie/song/book/commercial/etc.)”
Culture informs society. To dismiss pop culture as pure escapism or background noise is naïve. No, hearing Eminem say “stab you in the head/ whether you’re a fag or lez” isn’t going to instantly turn every listener into a violent homophobe, but to say that there isn’t any impact at all is just intellectually dishonest. Offensive images and words, over time, do help shape the world, especially when those images or words correspond with institutions that systematically oppress people. Even seemingly innocuous archetypes like “the sassy Black friend” or the “wise old Asian man” in movies become harmful because of the prevalence of the images and the lack of alternative images.
2. “You’re just being over-sensitive. Lighten up.”
When someone is offended, that emotional and intellectual response is real. It’s unbelievably arrogant to simply write that off. Maybe the person really is misinterpreting something, but the least you can do is take a second to try to understand where they’re coming from and consider the specific points they’re making. If someone thinks that the movie “Avatar” co-opts and distorts indigenous struggles, and you disagree, talk about why you disagree; don’t just dismiss them as whiny babies. Better yet, suppress the impulse to immediately debate them and just listen.
It’s also worth noting that finding something offensive isn’t always about “hurt feelings.” It’s often also about recognizing the connections between offensive words or images and dangerous, oppressive systems and institutions. The “this isn’t a big deal” attitude reveals a fundamental naïveté about how culture informs society; see point #1.
3. “I’m also (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.) and I wasn’t offended by that” or “I have a friend who is (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.) and they weren’t offended by that.”
You and/or your friend are not the absolute authority on all things (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.). If other people are offended, that reaction is real; see point #2. Asian-American actors from “Miss Saigon” have defended the play; their support, however, doesn’t make other people’s critiques invalid.
4. “At least it’s better than everything else out there.”
Eating light bulbs is better for you than drinking bleach; that doesn’t mean eating light bulbs is a good thing. The current state of pop culture is pretty awful when it comes to representation and social justice. Being “a little bit better” isn’t good enough to exempt anyone from criticism. It’s great that Joss Whedon writes strong female characters; we can still criticize him, however, for his treatment of characters of color.
5. “Sure it was offensive, but they didn’t mean to do it. They weren’t trying to be (racist/sexist/homophobic/etc). They just didn’t know any better.”
Impact trumps intent; if you accidentally offend someone, you might not be a bad person, but it does not magically absolve you of responsibility. Saying something stupid out of ignorance is only marginally better than saying something stupid out of malice, and the effect on people is exactly the same. Katy Perry may not have anything against the LGBTQ community, but the song “Ur So Gay” still reinforces hurtful stereotypes.
6. “They’re not saying that ALL (female/gay/Black/etc.) people are like that, just these specific ones.”
This is also known as the “but some women ARE bitches” argument. An artist cannot control how people ingest his or her art. Interpretations differ. Characters and images in pop culture are always symbols for larger communities, whether or not the creator of that character meant it to be that way. Sure, Long Duk Dong from “16 Candles” is just one specific character. But in a movie (and corresponding cultural landscape) that has no other Asian characters, he becomes a vessel for Asian-ness and Otherness, both of which are characterized negatively. See point #5.
7. Anything involving the phrase “politically correct.”
As much as people try to characterize those who are offended as oversensitive whiners, phrases like “PC police” and “I don’t believe in political correctness” absolutely reek of “boo hoo I actually have to think about what I’m saying and consider other people’s feelings; I’m so oppressed!” Political correctness doesn’t mean that you can’t be honest. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be offensive, if that offensive language is making a larger, important point. It just means “don’t be a jackass.” The “PC police” defense is a blanket rhetorical device that allows thoughtless people to dodge criticism. If you are going to say/do something offensive, it should serve a greater purpose, and you should take whatever criticism you have coming openly and honestly.
8. Why would you expect something better? They’re just trying to make money and most people don’t care about this stuff.
Of course this is true. But to simply internalize it is defeatism. We can fight back, make noise, start conversations, engage in boycotts, write articles, create better art, and make the connections between pop culture and society that need to be made.