by Joshua B. Hoe Well, yesterday, some new stories came out about an Australian band visiting our shores who was de-booked for having a terrible name...The name in question?
And, yes (of course) it is a band of white men. But, in this case, they might not actually have used the word in the same context we in America presume that it is used.
I already have enough guilt and shame to deal with in my own life without being reminded constantly how ridiculous we white men can be.
In this case, it might not be ridiculous (or even offensive), but there are enough other bands with bad names in the US percolating up this seems worth discussing either way (there are also white man bands called “Slaves” and “Black Pussy” -I can’t make this stuff up...I am sure there are hundreds more I don’t yet know about but will certainly hear about soon).
I was willing to write 5,000 plus words about the artists formerly known as Viet Cong* because I think (based on their lyrics and style) that they have the capacity for learning from this experience and because they are also a really good band (which makes me hope that they choose more wisely next time).
This controversy? I am not sure I have the energy….But okay….There are really two questions, how should we generally approach this topic and is this band responsible for our hatred of this specific term (they are not from the US).
The Simple Tests
In general, when you encounter usage like this I would suggest the following set of questions:
I think you should ask yourself...Why did they choose the name?
In the case of these Aussie dudes, this might not apply because the name literally means something different there.
Next, you should probably ask yourself, who benefits?
The “C” word is often used by men to degrade and insult women...What makes this band's use of the word anything different? Is their point:
A) “We are saying we are assholes” (one of the interpretations of the word when used to describe men). This usage is 100% not used to say anything good about women or in a way to destabilize the normal use of the word.
It is actually like passing...Men say “I’m a C” in order to wear a halloween costume..to borrow the term...to pass without consequences.
B) “We are describing women.” As in our name is like the infamous Spinal Tap album cover for “Smell The Glove.” Again, this would not be a good thing.
C) We are deploying the term ironically to destabilize it and bring attention to the fact that men use language to degrade women.
The answer in this particular case could still be A, but I am not from Australia, so it might be totally kosher (I am unsure of if the term is ever derogatory or if it is used differently in gendered contexts)
If the answer is “C” - well okay...
In general, if the answer is A or B...Why should we celebrate or support people who are using a degrading term for fun when it can never be used against them (in any real sense).
Why should we play along with this game?
Next, I think we should try to use the discussion of this particular band and then talk more in general about the structures in these kind of word plays that support (in this instance) sexism….so….in that spirit.
So, should we hold an Aussie band responsible for the offensiveness of a term here.
It is true that there are differences to how words are used in different countries. And, according to Courtney Barnett (a musician I really respect) in a recent Rolling Stone piece, in Australia “sick cunts means like cool dudes.”
And other easily accessed articles say that it has every day usage in Australia, to the point where a good person is a good c* and someone who does you a favor is a sick c*. While another site suggests it is used daily and yet another says it is used so much that it could replace bloke.
So, maybe, just maybe this particular band was not intending offense at all?
It kind of seems the term is entirely unmoored from gender in Australia, which is interesting.
There is, however, one problem still...In response to the controversy Nicole Erin Yalaz (one of the booking agents for the band) posted the following on FB:
“The Cuntz show in Seattle has been cancelled because of the name, I’m so disgusted right now. So sick of these rich young college kids who think trolling a show into being cancelled is making a difference in the world. I hope you all die from PTSD.”
Given the cultural confusion, I can understand her frustration but there are some issues here.
First, the idea that trolling a show cannot make a difference in the world seems a bit absurd given the entire discussion in the press and between the booking agent and anyone concerned was spurred by the rich college kids trolling the show.
If it didn’t make a difference, why are you disgusted? And why are people in Australia and people in America (even dumb-asses like me in Michigan) talking about it.
Words reverberate out from where they start and cause discussions and changes and even, in some cases, cultural understanding out of misunderstandings, no?
Second, there seems to be a bit of decrying political correctness and a bit of intentional cruelty here….so,
Why crying “Political Correctness” Is Not A Good Defense 4 Bad Behavior
I am just going to assume, for the sake of discussion, that bands choosing bad names will throw up their hands and talk about how the world has gotten too sensitive, can’t take a joke, and is far too politically correct.
I can sometimes understand this criticism when someone is actually facing legal action..and in most of those cases, the courts have generally come down on the side of free speech (especially when musicians or other artists are involved). However, there are hate crimes laws and some of those have verbal triggers...I am not 100% sure I know how I feel about that.
I do know that I believe that we should act ethically in the world.
What if C’z* had been an American band.
I do know that I think jokes are better when they are funny (“Isn’t it a riot? We are guys...but called Cuntz...hahahahahaha” - not really very funny)
I am pretty sure it is a bad idea to blame someone for being hurt by what I say...Probably more about me being insensitive than it is about them being too sensitive. I am virtually certain it is arrogant and egotistical to tell people that they should not feel what they are feeling.
So, if I get this anti-PC criticism right….
- A person says something awful to someone else...Usually from a position of privilege (for instance a white man will most likely never be called the C-Word to suggest that he is a most despicable woman).
- A woman is offended by being called the C-Word by this man.
- The man doubles down, insulting her for being too sensitive and too politically correct. Because, god forbid, he should be the one who apologizes. No, it would be much better to insult her a second time than just apologize.
Obviously, the problem is not his insensitivity and willingness to mine hurtful stereotypes to have fun with...The problem is her oversensitivity for having the temerity to encounter him in the first place.
Am I crazy here?
Again, I would never argue that anyone should be legally punished for saying anything offensive...And it would be illiberal to do so...As I mentioned in the last article, what I am talking about is what we OUGHT do.
It is not censorship for a club owner to the-book or refuse to book a band...Businesses have the right to book who they want to book. It is not censorship for music fans to choose not to watch a band or listen to a band's songs because of the band's name or because of statements the band makes.
Free speech allows everyone to make choices based on what people say. You have the right to say it, I have the right to respond, and people have the right to make consumer choices based upon what we each say.
Sadly, in these times, this usually also means people get social media blasted...And trolls come out in force (mostly because nothing makes people feel better about themselves than pointing at other people and calling them terrible). Sometimes, this social media response has positive effects and actually causes changes (Arab Spring effect etc.). Often, this social media response is only people doing exactly what they say they are mad at the original speaker for (being cruel to another human being while having nothing at stake).
As I said in the last piece, one thing that worries me is that we often shun the people we disagree with instead of trying to engage them in dialog. I know most people only enjoy conflict from a distance, but for the messy work of democracy to work, people need to discuss their differences. Way too often we just point the finger, scream EVIL, then vote the person or people off of the island.
There are nuances, people are complex, and we can learn from each other - especially when we disagree. In addition, having the discussion with (as opposed to AT) the person you are in a beef with at least holds out the possibility that persuasion can win the day.
Where this anti-PC criticism actually makes sense is when the person using the offensive word actually uses the word for an important reason (or what they consider to be an important reason) and is at risk of censorship.
The best example of where this becomes a problem is anti-hate-speech legislation. While we might not (at all) agree with the political views of hate groups...There is a value in protecting their ability to speak in the public square.
Again, this does not mean that we have to attend their rallies, listen to what they have to say, or buy their albums...But, picking and choosing who gets to speak is much more dangerous than choosing who we want to listen to.
It is probably a good rule of thumb to just say that we shouldn’t say needlessly awful things about people for no reason other than alleviating our own boredom.
But What About Comedy
This is usually when someone mentions that most comedy is cruel….and why would we want to take the fun out of comedy.
Eddie makes fun of gays in San Francisco at the beginning with no really larger point aside from that it was easy to make fun of stereotypical gay people...Would the rest of the concert be funny without that set of jokes? Was all the comedy politically incorrect?
Yes, he makes fun of Bill Cosby being too uptight...Obviously, since then we have learned more than we ever probably wanted to know about BC..But, this joke is funny and does not use a place of privilege to bash someone for something inherent.
Comedy is almost always funnier and more lasting when it pokes fun at injustice or sees humor in situations and observations about shared experiences. Low-hanging stereotypical fruit might make for easy humor, but it is rarely lasting humor.
What do you remember most about the Chappelle's Show? For me it was the pretend Frontline piece about the blind black white supremacist (one of the best bits I have ever “seen” in my life). That piece wasn’t funny because Chappelle cruelly mocked anyone or tried to hurt them...But, it was really funny.
Hell, Larry David’s whole career has been about making a mockery of his own neurosis in order to point out crazy things about how the world and society works. When his character is cruel, he almost always pays the price for a reason...It is neither thoughtless or pointlessly cruel. Usually someone like Wanda Sykes is there to smack him and let him know what a moron he is. He, or social structure or convention, is almost always the butt of the joke.
Look, even if I am wrong, the idea that comedy is best when it is cruel and easy seems like a pretty absurd premise to me. Sure, I laughed out loud when Aunt Edna got strapped to the car in National Lampoon’s Vacation...But Aunt Edna was not a real person and the butt of the joke was not old people.
Everyone laughs at the occasional fart joke...But, that does not mean that being purposely cruel and thoughtless to real people is critical to comedy.
Which brings us to Don Rickles and other insult comics. Yes, Rickles is a genius insult comic...Yes, he built his whole career on being insensitive. But, do you really think what Cuntz is doing is similar to what Don Rickles does? I kind of have always felt that Rickles is funny because everyone is in on the joke (not because the stereotypes are accurate). Almost like for once the people getting mocked get to be on the inside of the joke (not actually a target).
At the very worst, people get to feel like a celebrity for having been mocked by the insult master...His intention is to bring you into his tent, not make you feel truly bad.
Which brings us back to Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle who worked together in the movie remake of The Nutty Professor. Chappelle's character is an insult comic who excoriates Murphy’s professor character for being extremely fat. But, in this iteration, the insult comic is actually mean spirited and trying to hurt. And it is hard to watch (a testament to Murphy’s characterization of Klump).
I have never felt, at all, that Rickles ever was cruel (that might just be my rose-colored memory goggles)...And he insults everyone equally (even President Ronald Reagan most famously). I honestly think that he takes what has been cruel and makes it fun...A group exorcism of the mean ghosts that people face every day.
I guess it is possible that what C’z* does is bring people into a place where they can make fun of their own stereotyping….Maybe? I guess everyone going to a C’z show might know what they are in for (irreverent busting of everybody’s egos?). I kind of doubt this is the point.
And, again, my point isn’t to decide which comedy should exist (or to censor anyone). My point is only to say that comedy would still be pretty great if people did not use their privilege to take painful easy shots at gender or race politics. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should.
And it certainly doesn’t mean that we need to listen to it.
The Safety Valve
Another argument for objectionable speech is that it can be a safety valve that helps people get their anger out without “actually” committing acts of violence (speech can certainly be violent, but there is usually at least some difference between physical abuse and verbal abuse).
I feel this is mostly wishful thinking.
When I myself got into trouble, it happened mostly because I chose to take my frustrations and anger to the “anonymous” net....Obviously, I learned the hard way that there are limits (and should be) to free speech (for instance, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater or say things that could cause real damage to people). You should certainly not think that just because people are online, that they are any less “real.”
But I learned something else, saying awful things to people on line doesn’t get rid of the anger or frustration...Because, in the end, you are just being mean (and usually to people who did nothing to you). Instead of getting your bad thoughts out (like in an exorcism) you just end up build a bunch of guilt into your angry and frustrated stew.
I think in many of the recent mass shooting scenarios, you see that the people who were saying terrible things and connecting to hate groups online do not magically “get it out of their system” they seem to just keep on hating.
My personal belief is that treating people badly online or in real life is not a safety valve for anything. We should treat those moments as red flags and try to learn from them. We should certainly not try to embrace anything that involves treating people badly...Certainly not because somehow it will get it out of our system.
I certainly believe that it is important to let yourself feel...In my experience as a man (not that everyone experiences gender in the same ways and my experience might be atypical) that I had a hard time connecting to people emotionally. Whenever I felt anything, especially sadness, it would always come out as anger or sarcasm.
This does not mean, however, that we should let ourselves feel by treating other people badly. Again, in my experience (atypical as it might be), we treat other people badly when we do not know how to properly express how we feel. Over time, the feelings build and they come out in ways that often are hurtful to others.
So What About the Music
One of the reasons that I was a bit easier (not much) on VC* than I would have been on an American band named C’s* is because VC* seemed thoughtful and capable of reflexivity when it comes to what they do (I have listened to their music and been impressed by it both lyrically and musically).
I only listened to a few minutes of the actual C’z* album, but was not similarly impressed. I will freely admit that I have not given them a fair shake or much of a listen yet.
Good music does not make up for bad actions, but good music can sometimes illuminate that people mean well or have the capacity for empathy and caring.
VC* clearly got the benefit of my assuming they chose the name for a political reason in the first place...My own bias got the best of me...And the experience has made me a bit more skeptical...I was not very impressed with the few songs that I heard, but I am certainly willing to hear more if the whole point of the project is to bring attention to the violence that men do with words?
Only time will tell on that front.
It sucks to be in the maelstrom of controversy, I have been right at the center of that hell (and given what I write about probably will be at the center of much more flak in the future). I guess I tell myself now that what matters is that you write from a place that starts from a place of humanism.
Caring about each other, every single other, is a good starting point. Caring enough about what you are fighting for to attempt dialog, to attempt to explain your point of view, to break through the bullshit so that they see you as a real person and can experience that your pain is real can make a difference.
Some people, especially online, will just tell you to F off….And that sucks, but if the goal is transformation, making the attempt matters. Change can come from singing to the choir, but usually you have to move people who do not start out agreeing with you.
Anyway, I am hopeful that more bands will be thoughtful about WHY they choose their band’s name. At the very least, I hope they will stop doing it just to seem controversial.
Probably my biggest gripe with Donald Trump (aside from pushing colossally stupid policies) is that he seems willing to burn real people at the altar of getting attention and staying at the top of the polls. Bands should probably not be shitty to other people just to get more attention for the same reason.
BTW: Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is great - you can hear it here:
As usual, I understand that many of you probably disagree, feel free to let me know what you think, leave a comment!