The end-all of internet arguments from a certain group of people has come to be, “I’m offended by this, so it’s wrong.” I’m going to generalize these people as New York media bloggers and their fans. I’m aware this is an extreme generalization but I’m having trouble articulating the group more specifically. The basic idea I’m referring to is that if someone offends someone else by being insensitive to a group’s oppression, the Offender is wrong. If the extent of the offense is great enough, the Offender should be publicly vilified, then shamed. Then they should apologize. The apology should not exempt the Offender from further ridicule, because offending someone or a group of people is unforgivable and should remain an open door for as long as the offense in question keeps the aforementioned bloggers’ pageviews high.
A recent example is No Doubt’s video for “Looking Hot” that the band both released and pulled down in response to internet outrage and complaints from the Native American community on Monday. The video shows lead singer Gwen Stefani dressed in a costume designer’s idea of Native American garb, “looking hot.” She and her band members dance around a fire happily and eventually outwit a group of cowboys. The group’s sin is obvious. Pigeonholing an entire culture allows the oppression of that culture to persist by promoting a dehumanized idea of the people in that culture. Plus, on top of being completely disenfranchised since the beginning of modern American history, I’m sure Native American people don’t enjoy the experience of being trivialized. Bad. Jezebel quickly capitalized on No Doubt’s insensitivity (50k+ pageviews, not going to provide a link) with shaming and ridicule, essentially saying “Look, this is racist,” without much more commentary, and Gawker followed up (35k+ pageviews, same), focusing on the band’s apology, with additional ridicule and shaming.
I believe in not offending people. Because I’m in a privileged position (non poverty-stricken white American male with college degree), any conscious insensitivity toward oppressed groups would show a lack of perspective and understanding of reality that I wouldn’t be able, or want, to justify. If my position, which I did nothing to earn, is statistically better off than the average position, conscious insensitivity toward positions statistically worse off than mine would illustrate a lack of humility and compassion with which I don’t want to associate. I don’t want to be that person.
That said, I think the distinction between conscious insensitivity to oppression and accidental insensitivity to oppression is very important. Generally, you have to be privileged enough to reach the sensitivity level that NY media bloggers expect of everyone. You basically have to be in that group to know its standards, which the group applies to everyone across the board. If you’re in the position to gain access to that group, I think you’re at an advantage that isn’t inherent. Steph Georgopulos wrote a few days back in a hilarious parody of political correctness, “The one thing I’ve been able to glean… is that namedropping [the word ‘heteronormative’] is an easy way to shame someone for something they haven’t had the opportunity to learn yet.” In some situations, I think the act of ridiculing someone who has failed to recognize the insensitivity they show in a music video they made, or a TV show they wrote, is just “people of certain educations belittling those without that same education,” to quote a commenter on Steph’s article with whom I agree.
The internet media outrage machine consistently ignores the distinction between conscious insensitivity and accidental insensitivity — that is, insensitivity due to the Offender not being privvy to information the Offended has already had the privilege to learn. What motivation do they have to acknowledge the distinction even exists? It’s easier to ignore the complexities of a story by recycling it into an intuitively comprehensible, pre-existing narrative. It’s easier for the blogger to write and for the audience to consume. It also guides the reader toward a stock, enjoyable rage that makes them more likely to share the offensive content on Twitter and Facebook, upping pageviews. People are hungry for an emotional experience, good or bad.
My problem with this is that rage is so often sold as progress. I think there are better ways to approach insensitivity to oppression than the typical blogger’s first-order reaction of assuming malice, then public shaming and ridicule. This approach makes me believe that the typical blogger doesn’t actually care about the oppressed group they’re posing to care about. Because when you care to solve a problem, you first identify the problem. Identifying the problem is the first step to forming the most efficient approach, which is something with which you are concerned if you actually care about solving the problem. Is this malice, or is this naiveté? If it’s malice, shame them. If it’s naiveté, don’t shame them. To shame the Offender is to personally attack who they are and their idea of themselves. This does not invite reasonable discourse. And to solve a social problem I think you want reasonable discourse with the other side. The logical end to the only remaining option is to exterminate them. And you don’t want to exterminate them.
Reasonable discourse rarely happens on the internet, though. Shaming and ridicule are invariably the knee-jerk reaction to insensitivity to oppression, whether conscious or accidental. It depresses me, mostly because it doesn’t seem like the writers and their followers are coming any closer to moving past it. Assume malice. Feel rage. Assume malice. Feel rage. Assume malice. Feel rage. Rather than the causes they’re often so shrill about, I think what bloggers and the readers they exploit probably actually care about is the pleasure-center validation of forming and being a part of a team of faceless others in cyclical agreement with each other. Because it feels good to lose yourself and demand a sacrifice. And it’s good for business. It’s good for keeping your job.
The controversial television show Girls recently came under fire at New York Magazine for engaging in “Hipster Sexism” — another example of the NY media’s tendency to blame, shame and generate rage in the name of progress. (A quick aside that I’m having trouble editing out: I don’t know what concrete effect the “Hipster Sexism” in Girls has contributed to the oppression of American women, but I want to speculate that, when compared to the feminist ‘triumph’ of an intelligent, self-aware group of women writing and directing a show on HBO, the extent to which a few of their jokes has contributed to preserving the patriarchy might be minimal.) Earlier in the year, Girls was similarly accused of doing a disservice to the civil rights movement for not portraying any characters of color. Here, the show and its creator bore the first of a number of shame-ridicule-rage cycles and were essentially prohibited from joining the club of art considered legitimate by bloggers and their readers.
If the point of this article is to convince the reader that offense caused by naiveté should not be punished by ridicule and shame, but instead be met with compassion and reason — using the “Looking Hot” incident and Girls as examples — it could be legitimately countered with the claim that Gwen Stefani and Lena Dunham should have known better. Stefani’s been in the industry for something like 20 years and Dunham’s a rich liberal arts-educated woman who’s had ample access to the same information these bloggers are dealing with. No Doubt and Dunham deserve to be shamed and ridiculed because they should have known better. I’ve struggled with articulating a response to this counter, because maybe they should have — I don’t know. But the way I see it, their backgrounds still do not affect the fact that they likely never meant any malice toward the groups they’re accused of offending. I think No Doubt’s apology illustrates that they were entirely aware and sensitive to the fact that the video could be offensive and so took measures to ensure that it wasn’t — they “consulted with Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California.” Even if No Doubt didn’t have the “common sense” to know better (as was implied by the Gawker article), their intention was to avoid offending. So why meet them with shaming and ridicule? Why yell at them?
Similarly, and to no avail, Dunham responded to the outcry about the lack of racial diversity in her show:
If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls.
The outrage that formed around Dunham’s statement was that her claim was bogus. How could Dunham not know that black girls can experience the same thing as the white girls in Girls? This question is legit to me. But the fact remains that Dunham came from a place where she wouldn’t have considered that question to begin with (from the same NPR article: “As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.'”). She wasn’t consciously denying its existence or legitimacy. She wasn’t being malicious. Regardless, her error was quickly shoved down her throat in a cycle of shame-ridicule-rage, until the internet found its next sacrifice to harvest.
My point is that the life experience of these women does not change that neither of them likely have conscious, active racist agendas. I think this assumption is easier to make than assuming that their artistic agendas include the oppression of disenfranchised groups. The offensive aspects of their art were not intentional. That they “should have known” makes no difference. Yet they were harvested by the internet outrage machine and sold as progressive discourse. Still, if you earnestly want to solve a problem such as innocent ignorance, shaming and ridicule are not the most rational and efficient approaches.
Perhaps this article is itself shrill. I concede that my point sort of boils down to “Be nicer to people.” But maybe at its core this article wants people on the internet to try harder. The default way the internet reacts to situations like No Doubt’s and Dunham’s is terribly juvenile. I really hope we make it past this and collectively mature into more self-awareness, positivity, compassion, and the sincere desire to live in a better place.