Monday, August 16, 2010

The Politics of Offensive Speech (and when publicly stating "I'm Sorry" isn't what's called for)

image of Don Imus is from here
Remember back when Don Imus made his disgustingly racist-misogynist comment? And Michael Richards went on a racist tirade on stage, caught on video? And Rosie O'Donnell, when co-hosting The View, did a racist "impression" of someone who is allegedly Chinese--but in fact was doing a really accurate impression of a racist white woman who thinks it's hilarious to do insensitive and insulting anti-East Asian, racist vocalisations? And remember back when Mel Gibson made his anti-Semitic and sexist comments when pulled over by the cops? It's obvious he hasn't learned a damned thing since then about how to not be a bigot and an abuser, and to be both in verbal outbursts, most recently hurled against his former romantic partner.

Well, once upon a time I didn't have my own blog. :(  However, I did have activist-blogger friends who welcomed me to post stuff I was writing to THEIR blogs!! :) So, here's one of those "old" pieces, which I had to dig up from underneath some heaps of cyber-debris.

With thanks to YC for originally editing and posting it.
The Politics of Offensive Speech and Requisite
Apology of Individual Offenders

By Julian Real, copyright 2007
Given recent events, I offer this analysis to assist myself in sorting out what is going on when media celebrities (including Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Rosie O'Donnell, and Don Imus) can spout racist/misogynist/anti-Semitic/homophobic slurs and comments and the primary, immediate response from the public is a demand for "a sincere apology" on the part of the perpetrator.

For this to occur, U.S. racist patriarchy much comprehend and treat hateful, harmful "speech acts" as qualitatively different forms of oppressive abuse than acts of physical aggression, such as queer-bashing, men's battery of women, and lynching and other violent acts against people of color by whites. That this distinction is both false and dangerous needs to be said out loud.

This false distinction of forms of oppressive harm serves white male supremacist interests and power, especially in the media, where one can't say "shit" over the airwaves but one can say "[insert here any racist/misogynist/anti-Semitic/homophobic expletive]." That "shit" is off-base, but racist misogyny along the lines of Don Imus's remarks is not, tells us quite a bit about the "standards and practices" corporate media are invested in containing and which can slide if the spouter shows a requisite amount of sorrowful remorse and sincere regret.

What the public needs to get is that these acts of oppressive harm exist--are promulgated, promoted, and usually praised, inside a system where race and gender are institutionalized hierarchies of power, with men over women, and whites over people of color. (It doesn't take much to conclude where in the political pile that leaves women of color.)

These are not "offenses" or "errors of judgment" or simple acts of "sloppy speech". These acts, like all acts arising out of oppressive (dangerous, demeaning, and deadly) systems, are not remedied by a tear, a plea, and a promise to do better.

They are crimes, and violations of human beings civil and human rights. When children or women are raped, is "an apology" sufficient to mitigate the harm done? Does a sincere "I'm sorry" heal the wound? To construe even this to be the case—and some talk shows do, means that the system of harm which produces and reproduces these criminal, human rights-violating acts is left unnoticed and unchallenged.

Instead we get individualistic broadcasted litmus testing of whether the white man is truly good or deep down dirty. His soul is being inspected through a libertarian lens that cannot see the forest-fire for the trees. In this view, only his speech is hot and must be cooled down, hopefully without hurting HIM—he is human, after all. Never mind the many injured HUMAN souls, who cannot recover because the harm he just expressed is experienced in a hundred different ways, daily, and they have never had the social standing he has enjoyed and will likely continue to enjoy.

Again, within this view, this way of perceiving reality, the most important matter "doesn't matter". The most important matter is that there are powerful systems of harm at work, manifesting in myriad ways. What is called "hate speech" is among them. But it takes placing the word "hate" hesitatingly before the word "speech" to even make it actionable under the law. And, curiously, "hate crimes" do not include rape.

The more this is examined, the more we see what we're not supposed to see—the white male supremacist atrocities behind the corporate media curtain. It is this political reality that needs to be identified as such, named, called out, and not made remedy-able by individual "I'm sorries."

To turn oppressive harm and damage to whole groups of people into "unfortunate or distasteful word choices" is to miss the brutal boat that is perpetually tossing too many oppressed people in toxic water, day after day. And the people being tossed overboard are not seen as individuals. They are otherized, stereotyped representatives of a subordinated group. Portrayed as either contemptuously submissive, or virulently dangerous, they are greeted and defeated (the oppressors hope) with lethal disdain by those in power.

The most powerful group of people in the U.S. are white men with corporate control. An apology from one of their more public employees does not touch the fact that these specific white men are in charge of what's going on. They call the shots as they fire the guns. Their press-people make the occasional public statement, agreeing with the public that "something bad happened here." Their staff decide what happens to our mass of emails and letters of protest. (Would you like to wager as guess as to what happens to them?) These white men, not the public, not the courts, dole out the consequences based on how much money they and their shareholders will lose should this get "really ugly." And the "really ugly" part isn't what the human rights violating celebrity did, but what the protesters do in response.

The ugliest part, the system itself, is never exposed and rarely even gets to glance at itself in a mirror. We are living in a land where atrocity is either not noticed, is verbally neutralized and denied, or is media-exploited to the point that it is CSI-style entertainment. The horrors of racism and rape are the story-lines of crime shows, the components of videogames made for teenagers, and the core content of industry pornography. Each of these interlinked spheres of media contain and replicate the values and aesthetics of misogynist-racist harm which are increasingly soaking into mainstream culture and everyday life.

We live in a land where we are all encouraged to be deeply deluded about what is actually going on. The Katrina disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast flashed a momentary spotlight on often invisibilized Americans trying to live lives of dignity and purpose in a society that callously and disproportionately kills them, one way or another, by flood or (gun) fire. The real ugliness of our white male supremacist government was revealed as such, while still not being named by the corporate press.

Those disproportionately female poor, predominantly Black Southerners, suffered in condensed form, what the poor, women, and people of color suffer every day, in one form or another, worldwide.

I support all efforts to name reality in ways that make oppression visible, and its harm real—as actionable harm, while challenging and targeting those at the top of the ruling class who have the power to stop the harm.