Free Speech, Ethics, and Viet Cong
by Joshua B. Hoe I held off on this one for a few weeks…
So, I really like the band “Viet Cong” (or the artists formerly known as Viet Cong) - their self-titled album (released in 2014 on Flemish Eye Records) was really great. It was made up of exactly the dark brooding (even thoughtful) post-punk that is like catnip to me.
I still listen to it every few weeks.
Given the imagery they used, and the warlike themes of much of their music...I assumed the name had been chosen for some intelligent reason.
My working assumption, after hearing the album and earlier ep, was that the name was designed as a commentary on Western imperialism.
Boy was I an idiot…
So, a week or so ago, I am reading the music newsfeeds and I see in some story that the band “Viet Cong” is changing their name.
Why? I wondered naively….I remember saying, when I first started listening to them that it was not the most pleasant name for a band, but it might be politically important.
And even after everything I will say here, their music is worth listening to, their last album (maybe keeping the band name under ‘erasure’) is a really great album.
With A Name Like That….Why Change
As near as I can piece it all together...
The band formerly known as Viet Cong is made up of four white guys from the Toronto area (I am a white guy too..nothing wrong with that per se). Two of them were in a band called “Women” that as also pretty good (as I remember...It has been a while).
As the music got better and the band got more attention, they started to get complaints and letters from Vietnamese people complaining about the use of the name. Eventually, an offended local club owner decided to unhook them because their former name was offensive and racist.
In addition to the un-booking, as Viet Cong had been nominated for an area music award, several area artists wrote blog posts protesting Viet Cong’s appropriation of the name Viet Cong...The posts criticized them for being white and using the name, them using the name without careful reflection, the use of the name being unwelcoming, and the use of the name being racist.
Strong criticism….so….one would think...time for a strong defense!
I myself was expecting a great defense of the use of the name...something like “Yes, that is exactly the point...we are trying to focus attention on the terrible things that happened in the Vietnam conflict...we are trying to use the name to show that US Imperialism in the Middle East is not exceptional or unprecedented.” Maybe something about ‘artistic freedom” and the importance of artists being free to experiment with controversial language and imagery.
At the very least I expected a complaint about the world being too politically correct (the last refuge of the desperate).
But that is not the defense they made...oh no, not the defense they made at all.
Why Did They Name Themselves Viet Cong?
This is how singer Matt Flegal defended the name (defended might be a bit strong) in an article after the controversy started:
“That comes from our drummer, and from us being teenagers and watching movies. The Viet Cong were always the bad asses in movies.”
Flegal went on to suggest that perhaps his bassist would have looked better with a “rice hat.”
And after recounting the story of how the name was created, and in subsequent responses, he admitted that he and the rest of his band did not know much about the Vietnam Conflict.
So um….yes, they probably should change the name….as quickly as possible.
I am kind of confused...originally they seemed to think this had actually been a defense of their choice of a name…It takes some kind of lack of awareness to defend against a criticism with the exact elements of what was being criticized.
Even the owner of the Washington R's didn’t try this route (although he tried almost every other absurd defense humanly possible).
Is it possible to defend this kind of name? Should such a name be used?
What’s In A Name
Look, one of my favorite bands of all time - as in forever - was Joy Division.
Just like Viet Cong, they were young..and chose a really controversial name...apparently just to seem edgy.
For those not in the know, Joy Division was the name for women in concentration camps that provided sexual services for the German army...so a pretty god-awful choice for a name.
And just like Viet Cong, the members of Joy Division were playing the game where privileged people “play with taboos” to be edgy and cool. They thought it was exciting to fool around with Nazi names and stories.
Joy Division did not last very long...we all know why....We also know, through the lyrics and writings of their singer Ian Curtis, that he was capable of great depth and reflexivity...I would like to think that this will also be the case with Viet Cong over time (and to date, their recordings suggest that this is the case).
The first step is most likely apology (and luckily, VC* did this recently).
Recently, Bernard Sumner (singer for the band that survived Joy Division - New Order) expressed regret for ever using the name Joy Division and unsurprisingly attributed it mostly to youth (he said he was young, selfish, and felt it made them mischievous).
But that is exactly the problem, when Viet Cong appropriates their “cool” sounding name so they can be badass like the Viet Cong were in the movies. Or Joy Division appropriates their name so they can seem a little dangerous...that is exactly the appropriation they are being charged with.
Toronto area musician April Aliermo said as much in her post criticizing band names like Viet Cong, Joy Division, Gang of Four etc
“All these bands are comprised of white men who have named themselves after something to which they have no tangible emotional or socio-political connection. All these bands chose their names because they felt it gave them an edge and liked the sound of it.”
So what is the problem with this?
Part of this starts with the difference between what is legal to do and what we ought to do...obviously, there can be a massive difference between what we “can” say and what we “should” say.
Laws often (not always) form the lowest possible rung of moral permissibility...they are the literal boundary between what is so terrible we refuse to allow it and what is just one small step less. In other words, we probably should never confuse the low bar of legal compliance with standards of behavior that we should aspire to. We should expect more of ourselves than simply toeing the legal lines.
So, it is probably good that we do not capitulate when people say…”Even if they do not have a good reason to name themselves Viet Cong, they have the right to do it.”
Of course they have the right to call themselves whatever they want, but should they.
I think not, at least not in this particular instance...but, why not?
Well, first, for people who had relatives or friends victimized or hurt by the actual Viet Cong, it might seem a bit insensitive to have a bunch of white guys spreading the new gospel of the cool “Viet Cong.”
This is the same thing I say to people who support the Washington Redskins keeping their nickname...Easy for you to say, you will NEVER in your whole life have to be demeaned with that name.
When I was a kid, sometimes I played the Indian in our neighborhood version of cowboys and indians, but I never once was really treated as Natives have been treated since they were almost exterminated by US Military Forces. I never really had to live on a reservation. I never really had to see my people portrayed on hundreds of television shows and thousands of movies as white people wanted to depict natives.
Easy for me to play...Easy for them to say.
The whole fact that what can be hard-earned for an actual Vietnamese-American or Vietnamese visitor to our country could somehow be “cool” for us to role-play should be troubling to us. Why is it cool for white folks to say they are something and at the same time, that very thing, has been used for decades as a way of demeaning and hurting those that can never be anything but Vietnamese (or Native American etc).
Which is another problem, we love to embrace the phenomena of “passing”...
We seem to have have no problem with white guys dressing and acting black (at least whenever black people are around)...
Or a team (with no Native Americans on it) being “Redskins” on Sundays…
Or a band being called “Viet Cong.”
But all of the people who really represent these cultures cannot pass in the same ways.
Passing, in this sense, is almost by definition, only reserved for the privileged.
I suspect every Black American has realized during traffic stops or stop-and-frisks in New York City that it would not be as easy for them to “pass.”
I do not mean to reduce all ethnic and cultural difference by using non-Vietnamese examples.
I hope that the examples I use are analogous.
Finally, the choice of name probably has an effect on people walking into concerts or buying music. To a Vietnamese person, or a person whose family was affected by the Viet Cong, a concert by the band Viet Cong might seem like a statement that they are not welcome.
Again, this is not a discussion of what we (or the band) are legally allowed to do, this is a discussion of how we (and the band) should perhaps aspire to engage in better conduct.
But Was The Name Choice Racist
It had to be.
Re-read the comments about the rice hat and looking badass...These white guys, from a position of privilege (at least the privilege of being able to pass) attributed particular abilities and stereotypical characteristics to a racially constructed group (the actual Viet Cong).
If that is not racism...I do not know what is racism.
Obviously, they never saw it as racist….but that does not mean it wasn’t racist.
The fact that, even after being called out for racism, they were so unreflexive that they uttered an explanation for their actions that was clearly racist probably points to a need for them being more attuned to the impact their words can have.
It is certainly better that it was unintentional..but, that doesn’t mean it was okay.
At the same time, people who say we need to THINK about our reactions being disproportional might have a point...
For some reason, most of us believe the label racist is somehow worse than the structural effects of racism all around us.
We, for some reason, believe that racism is the result of the utterances of a few bad actors...so, by shaming those few bad actors..by kicking them out of the social boat...we believe we will magically cure racism.
Just stop using the N word and racism ends.
But here is the thing,
While it might matter at the margins if someone like Paula Deen is racist, the actually impactful racist stuff happens virtually every day throughout this country far above the level of individual discourse.
Study after study proves that criminal sentencing is wildly disparate and is racially biased.
Study after study proves that hiring is wildly disparate and is racially biased.
Study after study proves that arrests are wildly disparate and are racially biased.
Study after study proves that policing is wildly disparate and is racially biased.
Study after study proves that the death penalty is applied in a very racially biased manner.
There are 100 more examples I could use for this...but, you get the point.
At the end of the day, it is very legitimate to bring this to the band’s attention.
It is very appropriate to get them to change the name and apologize.
It is 100% appropriate to have a public discussion in order to get people to be more thoughtful about appropriation and racism in music in general.
But, it is probably not appropriate to make racism “about” stupid choices like the naming choice this one band made...Unless...Unless you can tie those efforts to attacking the structures that really enforce racism in this (and many other) countries.
We need to make sure our anti-racism projects are focused on actually reducing not just instances of personal racism...but attacking the structures of racist violence in this country (and across the world).
I am not accusing anyone of going too far in this particular case, but, I am concerned by how we generally respond to racism (and other “isms”).
Why am I concerned? At least three reasons
Unspoken Racism Hurts Just As Much
People who have been shamed for their racist utterances do not stop being racists...most often they just stop talking about it.
When confronted by anti-racism, racism persists.
Think of this as the Jim Crow Rule.
When slavery ended, the racists just made most of the former slaves into lend-lease sharecroppers.
Then they created Jim Crow laws to protect their privilege in the guise of separate but equal.
Racism moves to whatever works...it doesn’t dissipate.
Obviously, some police, for instance, are racists (most are not)...only the colossally stupid ones say anything racist when they do something racist.
I have no idea if Paula Deen really is deeply racist or not, but did the backlash make her change her stripes? Or just be much more careful about what she said.
Words are important, and often very important, but they are only one part of the problem of racism.
An Employer can legally fire a person of color, give only the reason that they were a bad worker, but really be acting from a place of racism...and no legal redress would exist for the person fired.
At the same time, someone can say something racist, be excoriated in the press and on social media, and only learn that they should never “say” anything racist again.
Unspoken racism hurts too. No matter the reason you are not hired, lose your job, are stop and frisked, or get pulled over...it still hurts.
And, more important, being shamed and excluded leaves people NO REASON to change their stripes….None.
In addition, it sends a message to every other racist that what is important is NOT what they do it IS what they say...so they never say racist things (while they go along merrily doing racist things).
Donald Trump is offering extremely racist depictions of Mexican Americans and of immigrants (of color - never said but always contextualized), but he knows exactly where the line is. He is clearly at least willing to use immigrant bodies to get what he wants, no matter the cost to them...but, he won’t say it in literal racist speak.
And the problem is bigger than this...Nothing about how we approach racism does anything to make racists less racist.
This problem is easily demonstrated, in a different context, when we look at how poorly prison, parole, and probation programs perform.
Most states put zero money into rehabilitation, often charge prisoners massive costs and fees upon release (which they have no means of paying), while all the while society passes more and more absurd laws that make it virtually impossible for any ex-con to reintegrate, get a job, or even get social services.
Is it any wonder recidivism rates are so high?
We treat racist uttering individuals in much the same way.
Instead of convincing them of the error of their thoughts, we spend all our time making sure everyone knows how truly awful they are...how nobody should talk to or interact with them (or else be at risk of being complicit)...and of course, using every method we have to shame and destroy them.
It should come as no shock at all that they do not run willy-nilly to invest in changing their ways.
Our goal should be to transform racists and tear down racist structures...convincing people of the wrongness of their thinking...and enlisting allies in attacking structures. But, instead of investing in dialog with racists and racist structures...we make it so NOBODY can talk to them or interact with them...We make them socially radioactive.
The people who forgive them, accept them, and tell them it will be okay...well that would be the other racists of course.
Shaming does not cause transformation, it pushes the racism (and a ton of new resentment) down deep….
But, most important, concentrating only on speech only ensures that racist people will never speak about racism.
This Magic Pill Doesn’t Work
The truly impactful racism in America (and many other places..I mention this because the band in question is actually Canadian) is primarily structural.
Most individual racism happens after a lifetime of socialization about race (of exposure to the structures of racism). This socialization appears, to privileged folk, as a natural process. We privileged live in a two-tiered system every day but assume it is natural that we get the rewards...We are the beneficiaries so often that it becomes seamless and expected.
This socialization continues every time we turn on a television or watch a movie and see our society played out in front of us (even the most popular black, brown, and Asian characters on television are virtually always enmeshed in stereotypes).
I consider the popularity of Dr. Ben Carson to be primarily a result of people’s firm belief in the correctness (the natural process of) this socialization. The real dominant narrative about race and racism in this country comes from this kind of socialization.
The dominant narrative goes something like this:
“When any person (of color) works hard and excels he/she will do just as well as any other person in America (White).,,The reason people are successful in America is because they earned the rewards they have gotten fair and square. The American Dream is colorblind.”
Obviously, the intent of this narrative seems aspirational...and in some ways it is...but, in truth, it is used to cover up the actual history of America (in relation to people of color). What this narrative really says to those excluded from benefits is:
“Stop Complaining and Get Over Slavery (assimilation, immigration laws, or whatever), I deserve everything I have and you can’t have it..Stop trying to take my stuff...Your problems are your fault not mine.”
The problem is that this is all fantasy, a persuasive one, but a fantasy...The idea that we are colorblind is a fantasy (and one we should not try to make real), the idea that the rich “earn everything they get” is a fantasy, and the idea that goods are equally available is a fantasy.
Dr. Carson has succeeded in America, he is a great neurosurgeon, and most important to most of his supporters - he literally speaks these exact dominant narratives...He uses the exact color blind language white privileged folks love to hear to describe himself (famously admitting that he is not a person of color...he sees himself as just a neurosurgeon - or as especially a neurosurgeon).
This is not at all to dismiss Dr. Carson’s many accomplishments. I use this more to criticize the notion of bootstrapping (another American myth, bootstrapping is the idea that since I did it everyone else can do it just like me).
I also am criticizing his assumption that everyone can pass from black to non-colored (white) just like him.
While I imagine Dr. Carson’s ability to pass was hard-earned...I imagine the vast majority of even successful African Americans have not been able to “pass” at critical times..and not everyone wants to be colorless.
It is a strange use of Dr. King’s speech to suggest that what he meant was to say that America should erase color (as opposed to treat all people regardless of color equally before the law).
The larger point is that shaming people who say racist things does not, in any way, change the structures that breed new racism...Shaming people who say racist things rarely challenges the dominant narratives...Shaming people does not engage in any real discussion of what is really wrong with the system.
After Paula Deen was endlessly shamed, did judges stop disproportionately sentencing people of color to longer sentences? Did the police stop using most of their resources to enforce in communities of color? Did even racism in the food and restaurant industries get consideration?
Stop falling for the okie doke.
Shaming racists doesn’t stop racism (hardly ever).
I am certainly not saying the discussions should not happen, that people should get a pass, or anything else like that...I am saying Paula Deen is a symptom...an outgrowth of a systemic problem.
And I am suggesting that focusing on the Viet Cong’s and Paula Deen’s should only be the starting point of a larger discussion..Always the start and never the end of a real discussion that should only end with reforms.
It might make us feel better about ourselves (by shaming THEM we make sure everyone knows that WE are not racists/bad).
It might make us feel like we have solved a problem (by shaming THEM we reduce the problem by one racist)
When we only focus only on the individuals, we may feel better, but we rarely accomplish very much reform.
Just like Viet Cong’s white people can play Viet Cong...Paula played plantation owner at her, now famous, party…but, shaming her did NOTHING to even dent the structures that make such appropriation seem “cool” and edgy.
What likely makes people of privilege play so close to things that are taboo is that the law makes them taboo (seem fun to play with)….When people act from their ethics (as opposed to being motivated by law) they tend to take things more seriously.
The guys in Viet Cong would never have chosen the name if they understood deep down that it was wrong...In fact, they still didn’t understand why it was wrong until well after their original response to the criticism. They responded that they thought it was “cool” because it is fun to play near fire unless the fire has already burned you.
I guess what I am trying to say is that we should use these instances to spark discussion, but discussion of what is wrong with appropriation and discussion of how to apply this to the structures that generate and continue racism today.
I support a “less shame + more discussion strategy.”
Racism Is Us
There are many different kinds of racism and racists...and obviously, the more privilege you possess the more your racism has the capacity to hurt people.
A poor person of color who calls a white business owner a cracker might be racist, but his/her racism matters much less than the racism of a judge who sentences a white guy to ten years less time than a black guy for committing the same crime.
So, with that caveat, I would suggest that because we all grew up in societies and structures that are racist...we are most likely, at some level, all racists….
That does not mean we are all equally racist…or that we all embrace our racism heartily...Like Viet Cong’s members, racism is often just ignorance in action.
The guys in the band chose the name for just this reason...They were so blissfully unaware of their own racism that they literally used racist stereotypes as part of their defense for choosing their band name.
That does not mean that, at the same time, we cannot be anti-racists…You can say something stupid and still work every day to help people overcome racism.
It is very possible that they are in their souls anti-racist and yet engaging in racism out of nothing but unreflexive ignorance. Their explanation says it all, they saw movies, they saw Viet Cong armies on television...They thought they were always “bad-ass.”
At some level we are all like this...I know I experience these moments of idiocy whenever I first encounter members of an unfamiliar cultural or racial community for the first few times. I don’t intend to be an idiot, but all I know of a culture is what I have read, seen in a movie, seen on television, or gleaned from a visit to an ethnic restaurant.
There are a million times I, like the guys in VC*, was educated (often painfully).
I remember bringing a friend over after church when I was a kid...I remember thinking it would be great to share these funny Polish jokes I had learned with him (I had no concept of Polish people or the Polish culture at all)...Of course, he was Polish...and he left crying.
I think most people are racists in just this way all the time....Again, the more the privilege the greater the errors..and the larger the capacity for cruelty and damage.
Being a WASP, while I encountered great pain for other reasons as a kid, I never encountered ethnic or race based discrimination. Polish jokes seemed funny to me in the same way jokes about aliens or vampires would...and that is the problem...It is not just that we make people objects and then hurt them...It is also that we have no idea what people are and allow them to be made into objects...It is also that we cannot imagine the object of our jokes in any realistic way….That is the problem of privilege...it is inherently distancing...It creates objects naturally and unproblematically.
But these jokes that meant less than nothing to me in context, made my friend leave my house crying.
Privilege + Racism = Distance...Distance allows objectification which often = violence.
When people become objects (aliens) to us, we become capable of hurting them without consequence (we do not or cannot conceive of them as actual people worthy of care).
So, perhaps, instead of being thrown into panic every time we are called racists maybe we should simply reflect on our privilege and our position...maybe we should be willing to accept what is said and learn how to act in better ways...maybe we should simply embrace and learn?
We should, especially if we care about what we do and less what we are called, engage with the people accusing us...Not simply in cheap apologies...but also in real dialog about how we can be better..How we can understand those cultures in ways that make objects into subjects...How we can better care and take care of the people we carelessly address in racist ways.
But, again, this will never happen with shaming...If society continues to sees each instance of racism as an exception...as a red letter to put on someone...as an invitation to “solve” racism by excluding another of those stubborn rare racists from our midst...we won’t make much progress.
Racism isn’t the exception, it is structural.
Most people hold racist beliefs or act in racist ways, often from ignorance.
It may make us feel purer or more awesome to shame folks - but it probably won’t fix much. And in such a system, where the rules of being voted off the “cool” island are constantly shifting, we could all be next...Because, we all can become an accidental or careless racist at almost anytime.
I am not saying this to make myself feel better about anything. Even if you disagree with me, I believe I am capable racism and anti-racism and I try to learn as much as I can so I remain as anti-racist as I can possibly be.
Last But Not Least, Free Speech
When the Viet Cong controversy erupted, one supporter was Andy Gill of the classic post-punk band Gang of Four (another band with a problematic name surprise surprise). His defense is basically that none of us should be the guardians of public morality and that censorship is anti-democratic and illiberal.
First, I am not sure anyone was arguing for an illiberal solution. My personal reading of the entire dialog was very much in tune with Marketplace of Ideas theory:
Ideas should be rigorously tested in/by the MOI...Rigorous testing makes for better ideas.
In other words, one of the benefits of free speech is that people get to react to what you say in ways that can be hostile and unpredictable. By having such discussions, you can consider your original idea/argument/statement and either make it stronger through modification or change it entirely.
As long as people are not asking for censorship, this was a very healthy example of how free speech is supposed to operate.
Yes, earlier I said we should maybe be concerned about the implications of some of the criticisms..but what I was suggesting was entirely consistent with this model...I disagreed with Viet Cong’s choice to name themselves VC, I agreed with the vast majority of the criticism but offered caveats (allowing discussion to hopefully strengthen anti-racist tactics), and I offered some broader criticisms of anti-racist tactics in the mainstream.
Gill went on to liken the criticism to labeling the band as being guilty of Orwellian thought crimes...Given that none of the criticism (that I read) seemed to be a call to government intervention, police power, or even censorship...Gill’s argument seems more than a bit extreme.
Nobody was calling on the members of the former VC to be punished or censored, they were making arguments for why they should apologize and change their name.
The whole point of free speech is that we should be able to express our thoughts about what is happening without fear of legal retribution...Is Gill saying that only artists should enjoy that kind of freedom?
People who disagree with artists should be able to state their differences in the public square and talk those differences out...Everyone, not just people claiming to be artists, should get to speak their minds.
In addition, and this is important, I think most people would have defended the artists formerly known as VC to the gills if the point of the name HAD BEEN political or even remotely chosen for artistic reasons.
If VC* (I do not mean to recreate the problem at all, I will use the asterisk to show that I am using it carefully, apologies) had used any of the defenses for the name I envisioned above, they probably would have been defended.
It seems pretty silly to say that when people name themselves on a lark, and that lark hurts and offends people, they should stick with the name anyway...just to defend a principle that they never intended to invoke in the first place.
Let me also mention that at least some of the members of VC* were formerly in an all guy band called “Woman”...so careless passing is something they have done before. I am not saying that they CANNOT pass (apologies to Gandalf) I am saying that they SHOULD not pass….that they OUGHT not...There is a huge difference.
And I am absolutely not opposed to the name being strategically used...and if the band name were being used politically, it would suck if it was to support an illiberal agenda...But, I would be more tempted to defend it if there was ANY attempt to use it as part of a strategic project.
My Real Hopes
I hope the criticism and controversy help the members of VC* be more reflexive and thoughtful about the next name they choose. If they choose something edgy or controversial, I hope it is in service of bringing attention or illuminating something important. I hope everyone gives them a chance despite the name (they are a really good band).
I hope people will stop looking at racism (and many other social problems) as something that “those” people out there struggle with...I hope that people will someday start to understand that racism is a problem of otherization...and creating an even larger pool of objectified, shamed, outsiders seems a pretty stupid strategy for solving the problem.
I hope that people will actually become more concerned with committing to reforming and attending to the reform of racist structures even when the instigator for that reform is recognizing that sometimes they actually do racist stuff. I know I have many times (usually unconsciously - privilege works exactly that way).
In other words, I hope people will stop being so concerned with being labeled a racist….I hope they will actually start to examine their own participation in racist structures critically (those they’s are certainly inclusive of me).
I hope we stop thinking that racism is the result of a few rogue actors “out there.”
I hope we can stop thinking that catching and shaming those few rogue actors will “end racism.”
And I 100% hope we get over the fantasy that racism is over..,.I hope we stop using frustration with Political Correctness as a magic blanket that erases all valid criticism of how words are used...I hope we stop confusing criticism with censorship...and I hope we start caring more about the people hurt by our words and stop wallowing in our own hurt egos (again me included).
Lets face it, the way we deal with racism is a big fail…
We might do better in the future if we tried looking at the problem differently :)
How crazy do you think I am? Or, do you agree with me about Viet Cong? Let me know how you feel about the topic, leave a comment!
ps. I am trying to write many of the objectionable names using erasure techniques (akin to writing words highlighting that they are under controversy).