Politics, Videogames

So Much Effort

Tomodachi Life cover
If you read any sites that talk about video games within the past week, you’ve probably seen the story about Nintendo’s new game Tomodachi Life. The “game” — from the sound of it, it’s more like a toy than a game or even a simulation — allows for characters of opposite genders to fall in love and get married, but doesn’t allow it for characters of the same sex. When some gamers started a kind of hashtag protest, Nintendo responded with a spectacularly tone-deaf comment to the Associated Press, saying that the game was supposed to be a silly alternate world instead of a simulation of real life. “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.”

The internet quickly filled with a flood of confused and reactionary commentary like the Google Maps lady stuck doing donuts in a parking lot. There’s been a ton of posts and comments talking about what happened, what actually happened, why people are upset, and why it matters. On Gamasutra, Christian Nutt wrote a great summation of the situation and why it’s a problem, from the perspective of a man who’s played the game and who happens to be married to another man. (Except in Tomodachi Life, in which he’s married to a woman).

Today, Nintendo released a statement that gave a sincere apology for the situation and a pledge to work harder at inclusivity going forward. Really, that should be the end of it. It’d be just petulant to expect a more sweeping change to a quirky novelty title, Nintendo’s a notoriously conservative company that has a lot deeper problems with racial and gender inclusivity than this one game, and people got the chance to raise awareness of how much they care about the issue and why it’s important to them. There’s not a lot more left to say. Making it out to be a controversy is itself a big part of the problem; it’s something so “normal” that it should never be considered controversial.

But… it’s rare for a video game to drop such a perfect metaphor into our laps, so I’ve got to give my take.

No Weird Stuff


Above is a promotional video from Nintendo for Tomodachi Life, which shows Mii versions of Nintendo executives talking in their strangely-pitched computer-generated voices, singing and dancing in stage shows, racing as snails with human heads, taking to the runway in fashion shows, and hitting on female Nintendo video game characters. “Just think of all the crazy match-ups that can happen in this game.” But don’t think of too many crazy match-ups, because Nintendo doesn’t want any weird stuff. Like dudes hitting on other dudes.

On Polygon, Samantha Allen writes that Nintendo’s statement was rooted in hatred and bigotry, pure and simple. The rest of her piece is fine, because it talks about the heteronormative concepts that lead to a statement like “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary:” it assumes that straight people falling in love and getting married is perfectly natural and normal, but gay people doing the same thing is a statement. But I do take issue with the claim that it’s rooted in hatred and bigotry; frankly, I think calling it “hatred” is lazy.

Hatred is easier to deal with. If someone proves himself to be a hateful, unrepentant homophobe, you can just say “sheesh, what an asshole” and write him off. Same with an arrogant bigot who’s convinced that he’s calmly and rationally proven that your concerns don’t matter as much as his own. But Nintendo’s initial statement comes from a place of more subtle and systematic prejudice. It’s like the aunt who insists on calling your boyfriend your “friend,” and who keeps trying to set you up with a nice girl. (Note: purely a hypothetical in my case).

That’s not to say that it’s benign or that it should be given a pass, but just that it comes from a different place. And you have to handle it differently. Otherwise, you just make it seem like the full-on, recalcitrant bigots have all the numbers on their side.

Of course, it’s also not to say that the reaction is overblown or the issue shouldn’t be a big deal. That seems to be the most common reaction on message boards: why do LGBT types/liberals/liberal LGBT types/”social justice warriors” have to turn every little thing into some big issue? One of the comment threads was from a guy who made that exact point and qualified it by pointing out that he’s bisexual; apparently he’s the Lorax, and he speaks for the LGBTs. But instead of reinforcing his point, his mention of his own sexuality just underscored why one aspect of a deliberately silly game could blow up into such a big deal in the first place: it comes from the assumption that what’s important to one person is important to everyone else, and that one person’s experiences are a good indicator of everyone else’s experiences. (Besides, any gay man can tell you that bisexuals don’t actually exist).

Christian’s take on the game and Nintendo’s response describes how the struggle for LGBT rights has turned personal relationships into political issues: “…living, for us, is an inherently political act.” That’s true, but I think a lot of people miss the fact that the political aspect is a side effect, not a goal. When someone suggests that gay rights activists put forward their most “straight-friendly” relationships in a bit of political theater, it exposes their own biases and prejudices: theater has to have an audience, and the gays must be trying to sell an idea to the normals. That takes an already marginalized group and marginalizes them even further; anything you want is defined in terms of how it affects me. So you look at a lesbian couple in their 80s and consider how their marriage would impact the civil rights struggle and its longer-term effects on fundamental societal institutions. You don’t consider the simple fact that a couple who’d been together for decades would want to get married, and what a travesty it is that they couldn’t.

That’s why Nintendo’s first response was spectacularly tone-deaf, as opposed to outright “hateful.” Hate says that anything outside of my experience is wrong; cluelessness and callousness say that anything outside of my experience is weird. It assumes one version of “normal” as the default, and then assumes that anything that falls outside of that is an aberration. So a guy chasing after a girl on a beach is just how romance works. A guy chasing after another guy would be making social commentary.

We’ve seen this over and over again: heterosexual marriages are normal, so gay “marriages” must be a political agenda. Straight relationships among young people are about romance and commitment, but gay relationships must be all about sex. Action heroes are men, so having female action heroes must be an attempt to defy conventional gender roles. Leading characters are white, so introducing a non-white protagonist means the story must be about race and take advantage of the fact that he’s “exotic.”

Based solely on that Nintendo Direct video, and the amount of time spent with characters hitting on and fighting over each other, it’d be reasonable for anyone to assume that it’s Nintendo who declared that romantic relationships and marriages are a big part of this silly game. And it’s Nintendo who asserted that having characters who represent your appearance and your personality is a big part of the game. But then we’re supposed to believe that it’s the LGBT contingent who are turning it into an issue simply by pointing out that we’re not represented?

And the reason it’s such a great metaphor is that in video games, much as in real life, gay relationships are on by default. 99.9% of games don’t care about gender, so the only way you can prevent two characters of the same gender from pairing up is to explicitly forbid it. In the US, the only people who are “redefining marriage” are the ones who have been going in state by state, taking the idea of an institution that everyone understands, and appending “unless you’re gay.” In Tomodachi Life, the team had to explicitly make the effort to ensure that only characters of opposite genders would fall in love and get married. So who’s the one making such a big deal? It’s not the LGBT people in the audience, the ones who fell in love with someone of the same gender not to rock your world and defy your notions of conventional relationships, but because it’s simply normal to them.

Just Don’t Call It Woohoo

The effort it takes to allow for gay relationships is simply not to forbid it. The Sims is the first game I encountered that allowed this, and it could even tell I was gay before I could. I’ve told this story before, but I can’t remember if I have on this blog, so excuse the possible repetition:

In addition to letting you create your own characters and houses from scratch, The Sims also gives you several Maxis-generated families to start with. One of these in the first game was the “Roomies,” two women who were, according to the description, “new in town and looking to make friends.” I decided to create a “family” of two guys in the same neighborhood, who’d meet the girls, they’d all fall in love and get married, and pursue the music career. It’d be just like ABBA. I made the guys — “Tubbs,” because he dressed like a Miami Vice character, and “Logan,” because he dressed like a Sandman from Logan’s Run — and moved them into a house together, then had them start chatting with each other to build their relationship.

It turned out that the guys hit it off really well. I’d start a conversation between them, and they’d spend the next hour of game time just chatting with each other and sharing their dreams. They advanced from “friends” to “best friends,” and eventually got so close I started to wonder whether they’d seen combat together. Eventually, in addition to the conversational options, a new option appeared: “Give back rub.” What’s the worst that could happen? I thought. Nothing wrong with a dude giving his bro a completely consensual, heterosexual back rub.

But that’s when the hearts started appearing over their heads. I’d done it. It was my fault, because I’d given them permission. I’d somehow, completely inadvertently, unlocked a whole range of romantic options for the guys. And, I admit, I was “curious.” It’s just one night, after all, and it’s not like they’ll be locked into this as some kind of lifestyle choice, and I’ve already got a couple of very nice ladies set up for them, and well, why doesn’t this really seem all that weird to me?

My Exodus International-style attempts to get the guys back on track ended, predictably, in disaster. They preferred talking with each other and occasionally making out to talking with the Roomies. Tubbs, as it turned out, was progressive enough to be comfortable with bisexuality, and he quickly hit it off with one of the ladies. Logan didn’t want any part of it, though, and worse than that, he was crazy jealous. Tubbs’s ex-gay conversion started to get hot and heavy, and Logan reacted by slapping him, crying for a bit, and then going into the kitchen to make dinner. Because it was the original The Sims, though, using a stove meant instant suicide. A fire started, everyone panicked, and Logan was consumed by flame. A fittingly William Friedkin-esque end to the whole affair.

When a Sim dies, the game gives you a crematory urn that you can place in the backyard to turn into a grave. I did that, and Tubbs basically ruined the entire night with all his grieving. He abandoned the Roomies, choosing instead to go to the backyard and cry over Logan’s grave. His new girlfriend got bored, then came to the backyard to cheer him up. He was unconsolable at first, but eventually started to come around. Completely autonomously, she asked him to dance, and the two danced on his dead boyfriend’s grave. The game had let me consciously and subconsciously experiment with relationships, play around with the idea of what’s “normal,” and even push the characters towards a darkly comic moral retribution. All before I was ready to come out or was even able to recognize that coming out and being comfortable with myself was even an option.

(When I first told this story to my ex-boyfriend, his response: “Your first sign you were gay should’ve been when you bought a new video game and immediately wanted to re-create ABBA.”)

That’s an example of why representation is such a big deal in games and movies: it is, for lack of a better term, a “safe space” to see your own conception of what’s “normal” be abstracted and simplified and experimented with. The realization that this doesn’t seem that weird to me was a calming reassurance that “coming out” didn’t mean I’d have to transform into one of the bizarre stereotypes I’d always seen on TV and in movies. The game was effectively saying that it didn’t care one way or the other, so why should I? In retrospect, even the swift moral retribution for Logan’s wickedness was helpful: over the years I’d come up with so many possible nightmare scenarios of what would happen if anyone found out My Horrible Secret, that seeing one played out so broadly comic and cartoonishly helped defused the tension. It’s a big deal because it reminds players that it’s not a big deal.

Of course, somebody at EA or Maxis came along with The Sims 2 and effectively ruined it. They added the option of marriage — strictly non-denominational, of course — by giving a Sim new options for Sims with a high enough relationship level: “Propose” an “Join.” Two Sims could “Join” in a nice ceremony with all their Sim friends and it’d form a lifelong memory and a new spousal relationship.

But only if they were of opposite genders. Everything else was just as gender-agnostic as before, but if you had two Sims of the same gender, they could only “Join Union.” Every aspect of the relationship was exactly the same (except for the possibility of pregnancy from sex, of course) but they explicitly made the effort to distinguish real marriages of semi-autonomous computer-generated polygonal people with the politically-motivated civil unions of gay Sims. Of all the boneheaded decisions that EA has made over the years, that’s simultaneously one of the subtlest with least pragmatic impact, and one of the absolute worst with enough symbolism attached to wipe out almost all my goodwill towards the series. The beauty of The Sims was that it made no value judgments. The insult of The Sims 2 was that it said this distinction matters so much that we’ll go out of our way to differentiate it.

Of course, The Sims isn’t a completely free-love society; there are explicit rules against macking on underage Sims or blood relatives, for instance. And while Sims will take care of a lot of stuff on their own, they won’t do stuff like initiate romantic relationships, so players who want to play with the rule #nohomo will only ever see gay Sims if they create them themselves. Even after reading Christian’s description of Tomodachi Life, I still don’t have a clear idea of how autonomous it is, if at all — if the player doesn’t actually have control over which Miis fall in love and get married, then there is a technical question of how you implement that. If a Mii representing a straight player just automatically gets married to a Mii of the same gender, that’s really no better than Christian’s example of his Mii getting married to a woman.

But whatever the details, it’s not an unsolvable problem, because plenty of other games have solved it. And the key is that anybody who claims it’d take a ton of effort is either lying or mis-informed. If a Bioware game needs to write a whole plot line and dialogue for one of its established characters falling in love with an established character of the same gender, then that takes some effort. In a game where players create the characters and decide what they do, then it’s as simple as “don’t forbid it.”

And if you are going to make the effort to exclude me, at least do me the courtesy of acknowledging that you’re the one doing it. Don’t assume that what’s perfectly normal for me is actually some politically motivated social commentary. And don’t act as if removing the restrictions that exclude me is the same thing as catering to some special interest.

Standard
Politics, The Internet

Homophobish

One of the side effects of everything on the internet being archived indefinitely is that a blog post from a year ago can come out of nowhere and put you in a crappy mood for the rest of the day. In this case, the post is this steaming turd titled “The Dirty Little Secret: Most Gay Couples Aren’t Monogamous”, by Hanna Rosin on Slate’s “The XX Factor” blog.

Yes, Slate. As I was reading, I had to double-check the URL to make sure I hadn’t been spoof-linked onto Michelle Malkin’s site, because it’s full of the kind of equality-undermining language that made Malkin America’s sweetheart. (As in, “Sweetheart, go away and play by yourself. The grown-ups are trying to have a conversation here.”)

I should point out that on the “DoubleX Gabfest” podcast discussing the post, the discussion is less blatantly offensive and just more subtly gross. They celebrate the overturn of DOMA, and they acknowledge (somewhat) the distinction between an open relationship and infidelity. Still, the subtle grossness — treating gay relationships as equal but separate, combined with some old-school “Women Are From Venus” type BS — is worth drawing attention to. That’s the kind of attitude that will persist long after gay Americans — eventually, after an unnecessarily long legal process in state after state — have the freedom to marry.

But first, let’s go over again everything that’s awful about that original blog post.

Dirty Little Secret

To start with, the headline is a two-fer. First, the assertion that “Most gay couples aren’t monogamous,” which is based on “an old study from the 80s” (which is actually from the late 70s to early 80s, and which doesn’t mention sample size or diversity), and which makes no distinction between infidelity and open relationships. This gets the lede instead of the more recent and longer-term (but still “problematic,” for reasons I’ll get to in a second) study, which came to the conclusion that it wasn’t “most” but about half. That study also made the distinction between “sex outside of marriage” with the partner’s consent.

Which leads to the second problem with the headline, the “Dirty Little Secret” part:

In the fight for marriage equality, the gay rights movement has put forth couples that look like straight ones, together forever, loyal, sharing assets. But what no one wants to talk about is that they don’t necessarily represent the norm:
[...]
In writing about the subject, gay people emphasize the aspects of their relationships that sound most wholesome and straight-like, Steven Thrasher writes. They neglect to mention that, say, in Thrasher’s case, he met his partner for sex only once, and they ended up falling in love. The larger point being that gay couples are very different when it comes to sex, even if this is not the convenient moment to discuss that.

Again: not Bill O’Reilly; this was in Slate.

The idea is that in this bit of social justice theater that’s been given the politically-correct name “marriage equality” — earlier, Rosin calls it the “gay marriage experiment” — while the gay people have been asking straight people for permission to get “married,” we’ve been careful only to expose the relationships that’ll make us look normal and wholesome. That lesbian couple in their 80s who’ve been together for decades, the woman whose partner died before their relationship was ever sanctioned by the state. The shameful truth, of course, is that homos just can’t get enough of the d. A gay writer for Gawker, even, has to admit that his relationship was the result of a one-night stand. And no less than the intellectual progenitor of the gay marriage movement, Andrew Sullivan, met his husband at — gasp! — a “sex-and-drug filled circuit party”! [warning: Gawker link]

There’s so much wrong here, it’s difficult to know where to start. Do you go with the Gawker trademark of prudish scandal-mongering disguised as open-mindedness? (For example: we’re totally fine with the gay people, of course, but we’re still gonna out Tim Cook and pass it off as “why is he hiding?!”)

Or the idea that how a couple meets has anything to do with the quality or stability of their relationship?

Or the level of slut-shaming that’s required to assert that people must be hiding how sexually active they are, or how they met, because they’re ashamed of it?

Or the way Rosin casually treats open relationships and infidelity as if they were interchangeable? Which denies the entire concept of an open relationship, which sets up boundaries so that the commitment of the relationship is preserved without having to be looking for sex on the down-low?

Or the blithe ignorance/denial of the fact that these decades-long relationships started in an environment that treated homosexuality as if it were something shameful? That’s essentially the same “argument” that opponents of marriage equality have used since the beginning: of course it’s absurd that homosexuals should be allowed to “marry,” look at how immoral they are for having all that sex outside of marriage!

Or do we talk about the hypocrisy of suggesting that straight couples are inherently wholesome? Two of the things that neither Rosin nor Thrasher mention about that long-running study of gay couples: 1) They were all gay men, 2) They were all in the San Francisco Bay Area. We can all gauge our own levels of how much we want to call bullshit on making wide extrapolations about all couples based solely on a study of gay men; I definitely don’t ascribe to the straight-from-the-50s stereotype of men as constant horndogs, but I do believe that on the whole, women tend to be a bit more relationship-focused. Regardless, it’s tough to accept as a representative sample when there are no lesbians involved.

I have a lot more reservations about the “San Francisco Bay Area” part. There’s just no denying that this place is a bubble, and things are different here. I’ve seen a lot more unconventional heterosexual relationships in the bay area than I ever saw back east, and I have to call foul on any study that doesn’t consider gay couples in more conservative parts of the country like, say, Minneapolis, or even Atlanta.

So Like Us

The easiest response to a post like Rosin’s is pfft, as if straight couples don’t have issues with divorce and infidelity. And that’s valid, but too easy. Among other things, it’s a race to the lowest common denominator: gay people are no worse than we are!

It’s why, in what passes for “debate” online, we’ve always heard about Leviticus and mixed fibers and homosexual penguins and Britney Spears’s quickie Vegas wedding. It’s why a lot of people scream about being “heteronormative” as if gay people were dropped into straight society from some kind of alien asexual breeding planet. And really, in terms of baseline equality-as-recognized-by-the-state, that’s fine. Years ago, I saw a good quote on a message board, paraphrased: “I want to see a gay couple go to Vegas, get drunk out of their minds, have a quickie wedding, and then get divorced the next day. Then they’ll be equal.”

Opponents of marriage equality have always tried to disguise their homophobia by pulling in talk about procreation, child-rearing, gender roles, religious freedom, and “traditional” marriage, and never mentioning their “dirty little secret,” which is that their laws and bans are invariably nothing but anti-gay. Because if they really wanted to assert that marriage is all about procreation, they’d have to ban marriage for heterosexual people who can’t or don’t want to bear children of their own. And that will never, ever happen.

So the tactic for opponents of marriage equality is the same as with every gay rights issue: spin it around to establish that gay people have something to be ashamed of. “Prove to us why we should allow your sex-and-drug-fueled debauchery to be called a ‘marriage.’” And for the proponents, it’s exactly what makes marriage equality a no-brainer of a non-argument: gay couples don’t have any more or less to prove than straight couples do.

As a baseline for legally mandated equality, it’s fine. As a model for long-term, societal equality, though, it’s a hell of a low bar to set. “They’re not any worse than we are.” It comes across as a too-literal interpretation of “tolerance:” we’ll put up with the gays because it’s the right thing to do. It leaves people like Ross Douthat feeling anxious and afraid, just biding his time until we make it through this Liberal Nightmare of a society, and we can all once again be free to say what we’re really thinking.

It also stresses diversity over inclusivity, tolerance over equality. Because for the half of gay men in that study who “admitted” to having sex outside of their relationship, there’s still half that didn’t. Because presenting the struggle for gay rights as a well-orchestrated show of public relations — for which, at the time of this writing, with a majority of the United States still having constitutional bans against marriage equality, Andrew Sullivan is very concerned about whom gets the proper credit — there’s still the fact that two women had been together for decades, and one died before her marriage was recognized by her country. Yes, of course we should account for Dan Savage’s self-described “monogamish” relationship. But not as the representative sample of all gay relationships, and not at the expense of the relationships that are overwhelmingly, boringly, “traditional.”

Rosin puts forward straight relationships as the ones by which gay relationships can and should be judged. The immediate objection is that nobody should be judged on the basis of how “normal” they are or aren’t. But the better objection is that the notion of “normal” is largely bullshit. There are gay couples that fell in love in high school and have been committed to each other for years; there are straight couples that met during a one-night stand and ended in divorce. And every permutation thereof, regardless of gender and genitalia.

Even if you’re looking for trends, and even if you’re accounting for the fact that gay couples of “marrying age” have spent a big part of their lives in a society that treats them as if they were suffering from a mental disorder, there are still plenty of relationships that defy convention by being completely conventional. And a huge number of relationships that prove that what we think of as “conventional” is mostly fiction. How many stories about “unconventional” marriages do we have to hear before we all finally accept that Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best weren’t ever really the overwhelming norm?

And I don’t even want to get into the whole question of “sex outside of marriage.” People have been so intrusive and vulgar when talking about marriages of gay couples, that I’m wondering if I’ve been going to the wrong straight weddings all these years. Is it normal for the married couple to flash their genitals at the audience for verification? Is everyone else in the audience listening to all the jibber-jabber about “love, honor, and devotion” and thinking, “those two are totally doin’ it?” Have I just been missing the part where the couple parades the wedding sheets in front of the village, as proof of the bride’s maidenhead?

It betrays an almost Victorian prudishness, and a peculiar obsession with sex, to treat infidelity and open relationships as casually interchangeable as Rosin and Thrasher do, as lumped-together signs of changing moral standards and our diminishing desire for monogamy. An open relationship is almost the opposite of infidelity; it acknowledges that the relationship is entirely about trust, honesty, and commitment, and not just about sex.

PINO Egregious

Again, while I maintain that Rosin’s blog post is straight-up bullshit, the accompanying podcast is less objectionable. However, it trades the blatantly gross “gay people are lying to the country about their sordid sex-filled ‘relationships’” for the more delicately gross “aren’t gay couples just fascinating to us normal couples?”

The article that sparked the whole business was one in The Atlantic which asked, unironically as far as I can tell, what can gay couples teach us about relationships? On the podcast, they’re very pro-gay, and they’re celebrating the (very recent, at the time) overturn of DOMA. But they seem to be unaware that the tone of the entire discussion is distressingly similar to, “What can all of these talented African Americans teach us about rhythm?” or “We have so much to learn from the Asians about math and the martial arts.”

The tone of the podcast is that open marriages are fine for them — you go, gays! — but let’s keep straight marriages traditional. I’m not exactly paraphrasing, either: around the 13 minute mark in the “gabfest”, there’s the assertion that straight men would be happier with open relationships than straight women would be. (“Not all men,” because of course someone said “not all men.”) And then the thought that maybe this discussion opens up the opportunity for everyone to think about their relationships, an idea that one of the women shuts right down: “I kind of hope that gay marriages can function as gay marriages function, and that’s perfectly fine if it works for them, and I’m also okay with straight marriages being traditional. [...] If there are no boundaries, it sort of makes me feel lost.”

This kind of thinking alarms me, because this is the kind of thinking that ends up with someone telling me, “We just want you to know how happy we are about your gayness. We got you this leather harness to wear at your foam parties!” It’s why I make a distinction between diversity and actual inclusiveness — thinking solely about “diversity” reduces individuals to demographics, assuming homogeneity based on one trait that may or may not define them.

It’s “Progressive In Name Only,” more concerned about a baseline level of tolerance than about actual equality, or the progress that comes from actual understanding. I don’t have any interest in casting aspersions on Dan Savage’s or Andrew Sullivan’s relationships, nor am I interested in looking down on people who wear leather harnesses or go to foam parties. I don’t even know if a leather harness is something a person would wear to a foam party. All I know is that it all gets lumped together as “gay stuff.”

A while ago, there was a motion in San Francisco to ban public nudity except for during special events (like the Folsom Street Fair, for instance). Even though it was about as reasonable as you can possibly get, there was a sizable outcry, with a lot of people insisting that such a ban would be anti-gay. As I’ve often wondered since I moved to the Bay Area and suddenly found myself a “moderate” instead of the “flaming liberal” I’d been in the southeast, I wondered if I was the only person who was having problems calling this a “gay issue.” I mentioned it to my barber — a man who’s been with the same man for 20 years and has chosen not to get married, incidentally — and was surprised that he was even more conservative about it than I was: ban it outright, none of this “special events” or “put a towel down before you sit your naked ass on a public surface” compromise. Two lessons learned: 1) Calling public nudity a “gay issue” assumes that gay people are all about looking at each other’s junk; and 2) There are lots of different types of gay people.

If you support “gay marriage” because you want the gays to be able to take their party drugs and meet each other at sex parties and then get tax breaks, then… well, good. You pass the baseline requirement for not being a bigot and understanding how America works. But I sure hope you like talking about social justice issues, because there’s going to be another few hundred years of it. We’ll keep having new decades-long debates on how these special interest groups fit into normal society without stopping to consider that we’re all special interest groups.

Standard
Politics

Thoughtcrimes for $1000

Red panda
Any time there’s an attempt to hold someone responsible for his actions — whether it’s Orson Scott Card, Dan Cathy, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, Brendan Eich of Mozilla, or just some random jackass who refuses to bake a cake or take wedding photos — there inevitably follows a backlash, a debate on how far we’re willing to take this whole “equality” thing, exactly.

Debate is good. If for no other reason, it deprives the remaining hold-outs against progress of their last, feeble attempts to seed doubt that we’re making progress in the right direction: the claim that as conditions improve for minorities, the voice of the majority is getting silenced. Debating, without simply resorting to name-calls of “bigot” or “misogynist” or “racist,” will gradually reveal that it’s not enough just to have a voice. You have to be saying something worth listening to.

On the surface, it’d seem like these debates are over the exact issues we should be concerned about: genuine inclusiveness and equality. Conservatives can go on lamenting how their rights and values are being chipped away, thinking of society as nothing more than a never-ending, cyclical struggle that does nothing more than shift power from one group to another. Liberals are supposed to be better than that. We can’t just be concerned with lifting up minorities at the expense of everyone else; we have to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

But the result is the opposite, because these arguments are always based on a false equivalence: that a disenfranchised group being blatantly and systematically deprived of the most fundamental institutions of society is no more severe than a rich person potentially losing a source of income as a result of his own decisions. I don’t believe it’s always done deliberately or even consciously, but regardless of intent, the outcome is the same. It says, “Yeah, of course I believe in equality… but there are people out there who are being severely inconvenienced!”

Just the Same

In the week following Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla, William Saletan wrote a series of articles on Slate.com, defending Eich and calling out liberal hypocrisy. Without exception, they’re all variations on arguments that have been used to rationalize or justify Proposition 8, or to label the boycotts of Card or Chick-fil-a as nothing more than intolerance.

“Purge the Bigots” is an attempt at satire with all the nuance and insight of the Wikipedia entry for the Cliff’s Notes version of A Modest Proposal. In what he seems to consider an incontrovertible mic-drop of an argument, he presents several charts listing all the donations to Proposition 8 from employees of various different companies. In terms of arguments undermining gay rights, this one’s a two-fer: on the one hand, it says, “Lots of people voted for or donated to Proposition 8; if a majority of people were in favor of this thing, can it really be as objectively evil as some are trying to make it out to be?” On the other, it’s the same “defense” of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-a that was raised and summarily dismissed dozens of times: “Why single this one out? I can’t possibly boycott every single company on the suspicion that it might have a bigoted employee.”

“Is Brendan Eich Queer?” is a link-baiting headline attached to the argument that maybe Eich is one of the “good ones.” By all accounts, he always treated LGBT people fairly. Isn’t it possible for someone to be a “social conservative” and not a raging bigot and homophobe?

The most frustrating, and the reason I started writing this post in the first place, is “Brendan Eich and the New Moral Majority”. (At the risk of stating the obvious: great band name). Saletan quotes three writers justifying Eich’s resignation due to his being a liability to the image of the corporation and being at odds with “community standards.” Saletan then exclaims, j’accuse, les homos! by pointing out how the exact same concerns over image and community standards have been used to justify firing or otherwise discriminating against gay employees. This proves that the public pressure put on Eich was nothing more than a blatantly hypocritical witch hunt.

At the end of the post, Saletan makes a passing concession to the idea that okay maybe it’s not exactly the same thing:

Losing your job for being gay is different from losing your job for opposing gay marriage. Unlike homosexuality, opposition to same-sex marriage is a choice, and it directly limits the rights of other people. But the rationales for getting rid of Eich bear a disturbing resemblance to the rationales for getting rid of gay managers and employees. He caused dissension. He made colleagues uncomfortable. He scared off customers. He created a distraction. He didn’t fit.

It used to be social conservatives who stood for the idea that companies could and should fire employees based on the “values” and “community standards” of their “employees, business partners and customers.” Now it’s liberals. Or, rather, it’s people on the left who, in their exhilaration at finally wielding corporate power, have forgotten what liberalism is.

Here’s the problem: it’s not that people on the left have forgotten what liberalism is. It’s that a lot of people on the left, right, and middle have apparently forgotten exactly what is at stake here.

The key issue justifying Eich’s resignation has little if anything to do with “community standards.” That is nothing more than bullshit moral relativism, the idea that liberal tolerance means that there’s no such thing as absolute morality. Liberalism doesn’t mean “anything goes,” nor does it mean that right and wrong are simply a matter of who’s in charge. There are still things that are objectively wrong. One of those things is donating a thousand bucks to make sure that your neighbors are stripped of their dignity and their opportunity to take part in the same institutions that every person is inherently entitled to.

It’s kind of a big deal.

Gay Marriage vs Marriage Equality and The Good Guys vs The Bigots

Saletan makes it clear — and not in the “I have lots of black friends” way — that while defending Eich, he’s still a supporter of gay marriage. None of us have any reason to doubt that; it’s not even in question. But I will say that while Saletan supports “gay marriage,” these pieces suggest that he doesn’t support actual marriage equality.

The distinction isn’t just a matter of politically correct name-wrangling, an attempt to shout “bigot” whenever somebody uses the “wrong” term. Instead, it defines how we think about the issue. “Gay marriage” is a special interest. It describes it as an attempt to create something that didn’t exist before, to redefine an institution, to encroach on something to which we were never entitled. Opponents of actual marriage equality have spent years using this artificial distinction for fear-mongering and as a stalling tactic. If they win, consider everything that you lose. It’s the kind of constant one-upsmanship that leads someone to say, for instance, that advances in gay rights have resulted in the left “finally wielding corporate power.”

“Marriage Equality” isn’t just more inclusive, it’s more accurate. It’s not a special interest fighting for dominance; it’s an attempt to guarantee that everyone is entitled to the same things. Rational people can still have differing opinions as to the advantages and disadvantages of introducing a new social institution; trying to argue against the equality of everyone will always be irrational.

That distinction is crucial, because it’s what keeps this a progressive issue as opposed to simply a liberal or conservative one. (Let’s not forget that the argument that stable, mutually respectful relationships are crucial to a healthy society is an inherently conservative argument). Supporting “gay rights” as distinct from civil rights dooms us to repeat the same decades-long struggle over and over again, every time some new special interest group decides they want to be treated like human beings. It means that the Civil Rights movement is distinct from abolition is distinct from the feminist movement is distinct from women’s suffrage is distinct from transgender rights and so on.

So “Eich isn’t all that bad a guy” might be true. But it’s irrelevant. Good people can still do bad things. Chick-fil-a does a lot of great stuff for the community; Dan Cathy’s attitude towards marriage equality is still dead wrong. I have little problem dismissing Orson Scott Card as an unrepentant bigoted asshole, and Phil Robertson’s speeches about homosexuals as perverts give me little hesitation at dismissing him as an ignorant bigot. But Eich, on the other hand, has made several statements about the importance of workplace equality, and he apologized for “pain he caused” (in vague terms, which I’ll get to later). That’s all fine, but only if you’re trying to assign some kind of D&D alignment to people, with the Lawful Goods against the Chaotic Bigots.

What Eich has never done, as far as I’m aware, is directly address one key fact: he donated $1000 to make sure that I couldn’t get married.

1k Memory

And I don’t think that it’s petty revenge or vindictiveness or an unnecessary witch hunt to remind people how seriously fucked up that is.

Saletan links to an article on Slate by Mark Joseph Stern, which attempts to remind people just how toxic and outright degrading the Proposition 8 campaign was. Saletan mentions it in passing, to give Eich a pass for having neither written nor approved the ads. Apparently he’s absolved of all responsibility because he only helped pay for them. Maybe the implications just weren’t made sufficiently clear as he was cutting the check: you do know that this is a movement to write blatant discrimination against a minority into our state’s constitution, right?

I’m not wealthy, and probably never will be since I’m terrible at negotiating salaries. (Maybe as a result of a lifetime being told there’s something irreparably broken about me, and I therefore don’t deserve the same things that “normal” people have? Who knows. It’s a topic I’ll be sure to bring up if I ever get a therapist). So I don’t know what life is like for rich people. As far as I know, once you do something like inventing Javascript, you just start automatically knocking the last two zeroes off any dollar amount. It’s possible that execs in tech companies can drop a thousand bucks on the sidewalk and not even bother to turn around and pick it up.

But for me, $1000 is still a pretty big deal. It’s the difference between opinion and personal conviction, and not coincidentally, it’s the point where I start to take it personally. When there’s been an earthquake or a typhoon, I’ve only been able to give about $100 to the Red Cross. So however much I wanted to see strangers recover from a natural disaster, Brendan Eich wanted to see strangers relegated to second-class citizen status ten times more.

Having to re-watch those pro-Proposition 8 ads is a reminder — at least for those of us who believe everyone deserves empathy, not just Eich — of what it was like to be told for thirty seconds every few minutes that your personal relationships were a matter of open debate and a crisis for our society. And their justification was the fear that they might have to explain to normal children that you exist.

Just to make sure our outrage scales are all properly calibrated: are we all still aware that this is being compared to a rich guy possibly losing a source of income, not as a result of who he is, but as a result of a decision he chose to make?

Saletan sarcastically suggests that by unfairly singling out Eich, we’re not doing our due diligence in rooting out all the people who financially supported Prop 8. With all due respect, fuck that. It was bad enough being assaulted with paid advertisements telling us “You are different and lesser” and “You’re corrupting our children” without having to seek that shit out.

And that’s where the idea of “community standards” comes back into play. Not in the sense, as Saletan suggests, that Eich is merely a victim of the changing tide of public opinion, suddenly finding himself persecuted for happening to be on the losing side of a culture war. I mean “community standards” in the sense that we’re all actually part of a community, secure in the knowledge that we’re all working together and all treating each other with mutual respect. You don’t have to be shouting “bigot” to acknowledge that it’s damaging to that sense of community to know that your neighbor, colleague, or worst of all, boss has actively worked to degrade and diminish you as a person.

All through the course of Proposition 8, it was a semi-comforting lie to believe it can’t happen here. It must’ve come from aggressive LDS church leaders in Utah, or some homogenous group of politically-manipulated conservatives down in the central valley, or some broad demographic in LA or San Diego who were manipulated by their church into believing that people getting married was somehow a threat to their religious beliefs. But in the San Francisco Bay Area? In an industry that’s inherently progressive? Impossible.

While we’re rending our garments in lamentation of how Eich has been turned into a social pariah, why not take just a second to consider what a shock it was for all the thousands and thousands of people to find themselves the victim of an orchestrated attack? To have their families put up for public vote? While we’re pointing to Mozilla’s vapid PR statements of a commitment to equality in the workplace, why not consider what it’d be like to have to wonder which of your colleagues and bosses are paying lip service to equality while simultaneously campaigning to intrude on your personal life?

It was bad enough seeing a bunch of people happily lining up to eat chicken sandwiches in honor of making sure I’d never have any hope of getting married. Why would I go looking for that kind of disrespect?

Believe me, I would much prefer not knowing. I’d prefer to go on thinking of it as some fictitious and faceless mob of Mormon-Catholic-Baptist farmers who’ve never actually spoken to a gay person, than to be confronted with the knowledge that my boss is saying, “Yeah, your job is safe because it’s legally required. But whatever you’ve got going on at home, don’t you dare call it a ‘marriage.’”

But after I do find out, then what?

I’m Glad That’s Over!

It seems that a lot of Eich’s defenders are walking away from the overturn of DOMA and DADT and Prop 8, wiping their hands after a job well done. While it is becoming increasingly clear that opposing marriage equality in the United States is a losing battle, the battle still isn’t over by a long shot.

A majority of states still have constitutional amendments banning marriage equality. And because of this insistence on “community standards” and moral relativism, each state is going to have to go through the same degrading process, with couples who’ve been together for decades having to explain why they’re entitled to the same things everyone else takes for granted. (All while the people introducing these constitutional amendments insist that it’s gay people who are “redefining” marriage. Even after all this time, the blatant hypocrisy still astounds me).

Every time a boycott is proposed or a controversy is brought to light, there’s the sentiment that people aren’t really interested in equality; they want reparations. It’s not enough to secure equal rights for gay people; we have to persecute anyone for even believing that homosexuality is a sin. As our friend Ross Douthat whined: “the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.” Liberals have gone from fighting for equality to forming posses to root out throughtcrimes.

It’s clearly bullshit. It’s an argument based on the idea that everything is about winning or losing, and not about everyone being treated fairly. And I’ll reiterate to Mr. Saletan: being fired for who you are is nothing like being pressured to resign for something you’ve done. If someone’s mugging me, we’re not having a difference of opinion as to who should own my wallet; I’m being attacked. It’s not petty vindictiveness for me to hold the attacker responsible and do whatever I can to make sure I’m not attacked again.

I don’t have any interest in pointing a finger at Eich and shouting “bigot;” even if he were an outright bigot, there are way too many of those to point at. Any deeply-held personal grudge I’ve got against Eich has a lot more to do with dynamic typing than anything else. But that doesn’t mean he should be given a pass. He did a shitty thing, and he responded to it in a shitty way.

There’s been the argument that Eich’s donation to Prop 8 was completely irrelevant to his job. You could make a convincing case that that’s true for the CTO of a tech company, although again, consider going into work knowing that your boss donated his personal money towards invalidating your marriage. But it’s absolutely absurd for intelligent adults to suggest that it’s irrelevant to being the CEO of a company. Company image and vision is what CEOs do.

And it’s the CEO’s job to respond to things like this. Again, to my knowledge, Eich has never directly addressed his support of Proposition 8. At first he said nothing, then he tried to act as if it weren’t anyone’s business. He gave some vague, meaningless comments about equality. Eventually he said he wanted to “express his sorrow at having caused pain,” in an apology which was enough to convince Sullivan. (But then, Sullivan is the one who admitted to weeping at Obama’s non-committal politically convenient flip-flop, which only happened after Joe Biden “gaffed” by displaying actual conviction). There’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of Eich’s apology. It still doesn’t answer the question.

I think people are entitled to an explanation. That’s part of why we respect the secret ballot but insist that financial donations are public. It’s why opponents of marriage equality always want the issue settled via referendum instead of by so-called “activist” judges — because judges are obliged to explain themselves. I want to know exactly why Eich supported such a blatantly discriminatory proposition, and what’s to keep him from doing the same in the future.

If Saletan’s “not such a bad guy” argument is to be believed, and there’s a wide gulf between someone who yells about “faggots” and someone who’s just a social conservative, then it’s even more pressing. Because if that’s the case, then in Eich’s mind, supporting something as obviously wrong as Proposition 8 was not at all contradictory with his public claims about equality. That’s the kind of thing his employees deserve to know. He needs to either support his decisions, or recant them. If he can’t handle or refuses to address this issue, then he has no business being CEO of such a visible company.

When I started writing this post several days ago, I was going to use Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-a as a counter-example. I still think Cathy’s an asshole, but I was going to say that at least he took a stand that Eich never did. He ended years of speculation about Chick-fil-a’s financial donations by saying, directly, this is what I believe and this is why we did it. A company that sacrifices sales for the sake of staying closed on the Sabbath is, if nothing else, a company that stands by its convictions. So, because Cathy apparently exists solely to foil me at every step, he cowardly back-pedaled on that. He tried to give a folksy, “I’ll just leave that to the politicians!” quote and reversed the only thing he did during that whole fiasco that would’ve earned him any respect at all.

Cathy believes he can scurry back into hiding, believing that the problem isn’t the harm he does, but people finding out about the harm he does. Eich had the opportunity to address this issue head-on, but felt as if he didn’t owe it to anyone. He felt that his political opinions aren’t any of our business, even though our relationships are totally his business to dissolve and deride.

Any discussion about social justice or civil rights will inevitably trend towards hyperbole, so there are plenty who think this is much ado about nothing. That completely undermines how shocking — crushing — it was to find out that Proposition 8 had passed. (And on the same day Obama was elected, because somebody in control loves poetic irony). It had seemed impossible. There was a lot of heated rhetoric, and of course it was demoralizing to go through a nasty campaign season having so much hatred directed towards you, but there was no way it could actually pass. Not in California, of all places.

Something that blatantly discriminatory doesn’t pass just by virtue of a state full of Phil Robertsons and Rick Santorums running to the polls. Yes, there are tons of outright bigots and homophobes, but you don’t win an election with just one end of the bell curve. It takes the support of all the people who can rationalize what they’re doing, who can say that it’s not blatantly discriminatory, that it’s justified, that it’s necessary, that they’re the ones who are being attacked.

To prevent such a gross violation of justice as Prop 8 from happening again, and to overturn it in the majority of states where those gross violations are still in effect, you have to hold people accountable for what they’re doing. You have to dispel their bullshit rationalizations and justifications and address it in simple terms of right and wrong. You don’t do that by telling them that their opinions take precedence over someone else’s freedom. You don’t do that by pretending that their inconvenience is just as bad as the actual degradation they’ve inflicted on others.

Standard
Politics, The Internet

The Party of the First Part

Civilwarreenactment
Civil War re-enactment by dfbphotos on Flickr

At the beginning of the month, Ross Douthat had a piece called “The Terms of Our Surrender” published in The New York Times — which meant that at least one other adult actually read it and decided it was worthy to publish in the nation’s most revered newspaper.

I’ve heard the term “poetry slam,” but this was more like a “poetry tantrum.” Like the best poetry, he makes vividly crystalline the most abstract of concepts, in this case, “staggering lack of self-awareness.” And like the finest tantrums, he describes the plight of the hundreds of millions of people completely unaffected by marriage equality, comparing their sorry fate to that of ex-Confederates suffering through the Reconstruction.

For at least a few years now, various bigots, assholes, and bigoted assholes have, when called out on their bigoted assholery, responded with increasingly tortured attempts at self-martyrdom. When Muslim-loving liberals insist on removing Christianity from public buildings and schools, isn’t that religious intolerance and a violation of the First Amendment? When a man is deprived of his God-given right to be paid for a speaking appearance in which he compares homosexuality to bestiality, isn’t he the real victim?

Last night, a throng of perfectly well-meaning and not at all hypocritical social activists, presumably dressed as firefighters holding fire hoses that shoot confetti, all climbed out of their tiny car and took to the internet to express their outrage over a joke on Stephen Colbert’s Twitter feed, one that was horribly offensive to all people of color.

As much fun as it is to point and laugh at the silly self-described conservatives, pretending that they have consciences and ideals not motivated purely by self-interest, it’s important to see how all these are related. It’s the result of emphasizing words over ideas, getting hung up on how things are said instead of what is being said.

What we’re seeing now is nothing more than a travesty of what many progressives have been doing for years, acting as if there’s an explicit list of rules that define acceptable behavior, a literal social contract. And for some people, whenever you present them with a contract, they’ll immediately start looking for a loophole.

Getting to Negotiate

It’s worth remembering that the religious persecution that Ross Douthat is lamenting is the case of a baker who’s so filled with the Holy Spirit and message of Christ that he refused to bake a cake for a gay couple. (The comparisons to Joan of Arc, Christians in the Roman Empire, and Puritans leaving for the New World are, I hope, obvious). Douthat chooses to call this “dissent” instead of “being an asshole,” and he worries that the new dogma of the Liberal Gay Agenda is making unreasonable demands on these dissenters, completely vindictive conditions of surrender such as “people who run businesses have an obligation to serve their customers.” As he describes it:

…now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Let’s completely ignore, as Douthat does, the actual principles at work here: this is a group of people who’ve spent the past two decades drawing a direct line between the love of two consenting adults and dog-fucking, but are now saying, “It’s just a cake. What’s the big deal?” So we won’t bring up some hysterical “slippery slope” example like a woman in a burkha being refused taxi service, even though we’ve seen tons of examples of actual religious persecution against Muslims in the US, such as refusing building permits to mosques.

But ignore all that, because it’s the word games that are interesting. The entire thing is such a marvel of cluelessness that you have to wonder whether Douthat deliberately chose terms like “negotiation” and “surrender” to align himself with the last few times that groups in the United States have had to surrender after losing a battle over the rights of minorities.

Part of the transcendent smarm of Douthat’s article is the way he comes right out of the gate trying to reframe the last couple of decades of gay rights issues. It hasn’t been a blatant case of a majority imposing its will on a minority, but an impassioned but reasoned debate between two equal and opposing viewpoints. The Supreme Court’s decisions against DOMA and Proposition 8 were completely arbitrary — “the logic of its own jurisprudence.” It’s not a question of inequality but of religious freedom. Opponents of marriage equality are not bigots, but a “dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation.”

Now that the gays have won, says Douthat, it’s nothing more than petty vindictiveness for these “married” “couples” to be rubbing it in everybody’s faces. The Supreme Court says we have to pretend that these conscious couplings between homos are actual marriages, but they didn’t say we have to like it. That’s effectively thoughtcrime, and it’s surely not what Andrew Sullivan intended when he invented the concept of marriage equality. (No, seriously. Douthat actually calls Sullivan “gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor.” In the New York Times).

The terms we use to describe a concept can, over time, change the way we think about the concept. That’s something that Douthat and other proponents of genitalia-based marriage have learned over the years. Right-wingers spent years publicly decrying The Liberals’ absurd “political correctness,” while surreptitiously taking notes to take back to their volcano lair.

So, over time, they began to spin themselves as free-thinkers who could see through spin. They took one of the three fundamental branches of American government and tried to make it sound un-Democratic and un-American: “activist judges.” And they tried to make blatantly unfair discrimination sound like rational counter-argument by calling it “traditional marriage.”

Incidentally, recent attempts to change up the term “traditional marriage” are as good a sign as any that the fight for marriage equality in the US is mostly over, and all that’s left is an unnecessarily long and complicated process of cleaning up. (The people who were unaffected are still every bit as unaffected. They’re now free to whine about how their religious freedom is in danger, while leaving the actual clean-up work to the people who are still being kept from having their relationships recognized by a majority of the states). Some of the most outspoken opponents — mostly the ones who believe that the central tenet of Christianity is “#nohomo” — have started to use the term “natural marriage.” At that point, it’s clear that they’ve abandoned even their feeble attempts at pretending to have a rational objection. They’re simply falling back on the old standby: “Nope. Don’t like it. ‘Tain’t natural.”

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

The problem, of course, is that these self-described conservatives don’t understand that the terminology isn’t arbitrary. It’s not a secret list compiled and maintained by a shadowy cabal of liberals, designed solely to manufacture outrage by catching them using the non-preferred term.

In our actual reality, the terms that get traction are the ones that are either more accurate or more inclusive. For people who lack the empathy to understand why some terms are preferable to others, using “Native American” instead of “Indian” or “Asian” instead of “Chinese” seems just as absurd and arbitrary as using “womyn.”

In the case of marriage equality, there’s a history of changing terminology. Proponents started using “same sex marriage” to draw attention to the fact that civil laws never take love or even attraction into account, but instead attempt to define marriage strictly in terms of gender. And “marriage equality” itself gets to the heart of the matter; it’s not some new concept (invented by Andrew Sullivan), but simply people demanding to have exactly the same entitlements that their peers have. Opponents, on the other hand, have used “gay marriage” and “traditional marriage” and now, “natural marriage.” Those aren’t designed to be more accurate or more inclusive; they’re just a bunch of variations on the same idea: this is bad because it’s not normal.

To a person who’s motivated by self-interest — for convenience, let’s call him “Phil” — he doesn’t understand that you’d use the term “African American” instead of “black” to acknowledge that someone else’s cultural heritage is more relevant than skin color. To Phil, it’s just some arbitrary term that some liberals made up so that they can yell at Phil and call him a racist. It’s all but completely irrelevant what the black person (or Latino-instead-of-Mexican, or Asian-instead-of-Chinese) thinks; all that matters is how it affects Phil.

It’s right there in the term “politically correct.” People couldn’t possibly be saying this stuff out of actual sensitivity, or because it’s actually correct. They have to be saying it to get some kind of political power.

One of the best recent developments in video games is the list of “social justice warriors to avoid,” compiled by frightened and angry message board posters and Tumblrers who are fed up with people suggesting that games be inclusive. The reason it’s got me happy is that people who are bothered by inclusivity always use the rationalization that they’re not bigots but free-thinkers: they’re just saying the things that everyone else is thinking but are too afraid to say out loud. Forming a list of enemies is digging their own grave; as the list grows and grows, it’ll become clearer that bigotry and fear of inclusivity isn’t representative of the audience at large, but nothing more than the desperate panic of a backwards minority.

I’m unlikely to get labeled a “social justice warrior,” unfortunately, but I did once get accused of being a “white knight,” and it was glorious. In real life, we so rarely get those climax-of-Perry-Mason moments, where someone just freaks out and reveals exactly what an asshole he is. Telling a gay guy that he’s only speaking out against misogyny in an effort to get women to sleep with him is the purest expression of gross selfishness. The only reason a dude would possibly call somebody out for harassing a woman is to make himself look good. He must be as sexually frustrated and intimidated as I am. There’s no other possible explanation.

The Naughtiest Swear

Achewood neatestpersoninheaven
So it’s been fascinating to watch as people whose entire philosophy is based on self-interest take the tactics of progressives and try to use them against progressives. It’s a lot like watching children learn to swear: They don’t understand what they’re saying, because they have no context for any of it. They just repeat the things they’ve heard before, testing again and again to see what kind of reaction they can provoke.

It’s resulted in all kinds of Bizarro World situations. For instance, all the desperately confused people treating the word “intolerance” the same way I treat the word “nonplussed:” using it to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means.

If I’m driven by self-interest, “tolerance” has nothing to do with you getting to live your life without interference, and everything to do with my getting to decide whether or not your life is acceptable. And if you take someone who doesn’t actually understand the concept of tolerance, and spend several years calling them out on their intolerance, they’ll start to believe that the word doesn’t have an actual meaning. It’s just a name you yell at people when you’re not getting your way. Shout “no” enough times and you can train a dog to stay off the couch, even if he has no idea why it’s bad for him to be on the couch in the first place.

When you see the world as a selfish struggle for power, then you’re always under attack. It’s never the case that we all win; if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser. Saying “Happy Holidays” isn’t an attempt to be inclusive of other religions or the non-religious; it’s an attack on your religion. We have to remind people that “it’s Freedom of Religion, not Freedom from Religion!” because there are atheists out there who actually believe that I’m as wrong as I know that they are! Bilingual signs aren’t an opportunity to learn a new language; they’re a threat because it implies there’s something wrong with me for only speaking English!

And in the case of marriage equality, much time has been wasted over the years trying to get opponents comfortable with the concept, by reminding them that they don’t lose anything if gay people get married. It was time wasted because in the opponents’ minds, they are losing something: the ability to say I don’t approve of this. If a homophobe has to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, his problem isn’t having to bake the cake. His problem is not getting to express his disapproval. (This isn’t even a particularly insightful observation on my part; several times, opponents of marriage equality explicitly said they wanted it to be up to a popular vote so that they could say they don’t condone it).

Which leads to last night’s ridiculous mockery of progressivism, the “CancelColbert” hashtag. It would’ve been laughably absurd if it weren’t so transparently manipulative. It’s offensive to see something so crass use the language of racial sensitivity, and it’s depressing to see how many well-meaning people took the bait.

You’d think that there’d be absolutely no doubt that it had nothing to do with actual racial sensitivity, as soon as perpetually clumsy opportunist and professional disappointment to the human race Michelle Malkin jumped on the bandwagon.

But even if that were somehow not enough, it should’ve become incontrovertibly clear after you read just a handful of the messages, not to mention the instigator’s desperate grab for attention full explanation. Count the number of times the term “white liberal” is used. The only truthful thing in that entire post is that there’s no point trying to explain satire to these people. They obviously understand satire enough to recognize that Colbert is a liberal comedian, and that’s all that matters. Finally a chance to beat the liberals at their own game!

It has everything to do with political power, and nothing to do with race, tolerance, inclusivity, or even the nature of humor.

Which is a drag, because some of those tweets would’ve been hilarious. One said “I DON’T NEED A WHITE LIBERAL MAN TO TEACH ME ABOUT SATIRE,” which is like a perfect diamond. But made of irony instead of carbon.

Always Punching Up

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. When a kid drops an F-bomb, you can’t just suppress a laugh and then go on about your business. You have to ask, “where did you learn that word?” And in this case, the answer is, “From you, all right? I learned it by watching you!”

It’s still tragicomic to see self-described conservatives thinking they’ve finally hit upon the right combination of words and outrage to outwit the liberal menace once and for all, only to have it fizzle once it becomes clear they don’t understand the actual concepts behind the words. But when progressives do the exact same thing, it’s not funny at all. It’s unsettling.

My go-to example is an article on Jezebel.com a couple of years ago, in which writer Lindy West tried to describe “How to Make a Rape Joke.” (Which I’m not linking to, because Gawker). Shockingly, the post was longer than just the word “Don’t.” Instead, it was a depressingly belabored attempt at a wry explanation of why Daniel Tosh is just offensive while comedians like Louis CK are actually transgressive and genuinely funny.

And again, shockingly, the answer was more involved than just “Because Tosh is a hack.” Instead, it dragged in the topic of free speech, the old claim that it’s okay to punch up but never okay to punch down, the relative horror of sexual assault vs. accidents with farming equipment, and CDC statistics on the frequency of sexual assault. As if decent human beings need to consult actuarial tables to determine whether or not something is offensive.

Few of the ideas in the article were particularly new; for as long as there’s been a “counter-culture,” there’s been the same cycle:

  1. Somebody who considers himself or herself “politically incorrect” says something offensive.
  2. Outrage ensues.
  3. After the inevitable, flaccid arguments about freedom of speech and censorship, someone asks a question like: “How come it’s okay when Sarah Silverman says something racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic, but not when we do?”
  4. Instead of giving the correct answer to that question, there’s instead a tortured explanation about the transgressive nature of comedy and positions of power and being the social underdog and okay it’s because Silverman is a Jewish woman.

But the actual correct answer is “it’s okay because Sarah Silverman is saying racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic words, but isn’t expressing racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic ideas.”

To West’s credit, she doesn’t focus on gender or race, like so many others have. (It’s always depressing when you see someone who’s progressive in so many other ways still insist that there are certain jokes and certain words that only black people are allowed to use, and some that only women are allowed to use). But her post still overwhelmingly suggests that there does exist a set of rules describing who can say what without impunity, or as she words it, “feedback.” There’s a definite structure of oppressors and oppressed, and we must scrutinize our exchanges with other people to take into account not just what’s being said but who’s saying it.

The most telling part, I think, is her defense of Louis CK. He gets a pass because he’s spent years building a library of material in which the oppressors are always the butt of the joke, never the oppressed. Which I’m assuming doesn’t include the bits in which Louis CK calls his daughters “assholes.” But wait, she covers that too: “The point is, only a fucking psychopath would think like that, and the simplicity of the joke lays that bare.” Which I’m assuming doesn’t take into account that it would more accurately be a sociopath who thinks that way and that there’s a very real problem of judging the mentally ill instead of getting them the help that they need.

Gold is Fine, Thanks

That’s not (just) me trying to one-up politically correct speech. The point is that treating it in terms of a social hierarchy is what turns it into “politically correct” instead of just being “correct.” There isn’t a complex set of rules governing how we show basic human decency to each other. The rule is simply “be inclusive and empathetic.”

The feeble idea behind Tosh’s schtick is that you’d have to be a sociopath to think the things that he says, too. And he doesn’t need to have been working in comedy for decades to be given the benefit of the doubt; “not a sociopath” should be our baseline assumption about everyone until they prove us wrong. Tosh’s material isn’t funny because he doesn’t do anything with it. It’s just one example after the next of saying the most shocking thing he can think of and then grinning at his own naughtiness. It’s not transgressive because there’s no thought behind it. It’s just words.

Take that to its most absurd extreme and you end up with the “Cancel Colbert” nonsense. The instigators hoped that we’re gullible enough to believe that the context was irrelevant. The very act of a white male uttering the unspeakable words is horribly offensive.

The motivation for that, obviously, was a cynical power play. But I see no difference between that and the way that many actual progressives treat the exchange of ideas as if it were a perpetual game of Taboo. Whenever you find yourself saying, “You’re not allowed to say…” or “Intent doesn’t matter,” that’s a sure sign that you’re doing inclusivity wrong. You’re focusing on the speaker instead of what’s being said. If you focus on social inequality instead of making the baseline assumption that we’re all equal partners in a conversation, then you’re doomed to just keep repeating the same power struggle over and over again.

A couple of years ago at a Game Developer’s Conference, a few people were pleased with themselves for coming up with “The Platinum Rule.” The idea was that it’s not good enough to treat other people as you want to be treated; it’s much better to treat other people as they want to be treated.

I was alarmed that more people didn’t instantly see how horrible an idea that was, much less that they’d promote it as a feel-good symbol of inclusivity. It’s the opposite of inclusivity. It consigns us to always see each other for our differences, instead of acknowledging that no matter what our background, we all want the same things.

Standard
Politics, Television

A Country Boy Can Survive


Hashtag-ChristianFail.

Whenever a TV celebrity says something offensive, there’s no shortage of coverage on the internet and jokes on Twitter. So I don’t really need to get into a tirade about all the obviously stupid aspects of the Duck Dynasty guy’s interview with GQ in which he talks about anuses and vaginas, compares homosexuality to bestiality, and says that black people were a lot happier before the Civil Rights movement gave them a sense of entitlement.

Except… except the whole thing is so densely-packed with absurd wrongness that even thinking about it for a fraction of a second reveals a dozen new ridiculous details foretelling the collapse of Western Civilization. For instance, it wasn’t until I was just now writing the sentence above that I made the connection and fully appreciated the absurdity of a hard-workin’ good ol’ boy just statin’ his mind in an interview with Gentlemen’s Quarterly.

Anyway, The Onion A.V. Club has been doing an excellent job recapping all the false persecution and rampant hypocrisy around the whole thing, so my words here could do little to add or subtract.

But I can say what I personally find most offensive about it. It’s not the casual comparison of homosexuality to perversion, since that’s been going on for decades, and we’ve heard it plenty of times already. It’s not the bald-faced offensiveness of comparing the Civil Rights movement to entitlement, since that’s just a combination of the matter-of-fact racism I’ve unfortunately been hearing tossed around since I was a kid, plus the Tea Party-era attempts to disguise bigotry and classism as fiscal conservatism. It’s not really the hypocrisy of the A&E Network for profiting from a bunch of self-described “rednecks” who’ve been outspoken bigots, suddenly developing a conscience after four years, because come on: reality television. It’s not the hypocrisy of Sarah Palin calling for freedom of speech when a television celebrity is fired for making obviously racist and homophobic comments, after she was curiously silent when a television pundit is forced to resign after implying that someone should shit in Palin’s mouth as a means of pointing out how casually she’s trivialized the genuine horrors of slavery. And it’s not even the hypocrisy of anti-gay sentiment coming from a bunch of people who are even more fixated with beards than any gay man I’ve ever met with an actual, openly-acknowledged beard fetish.

Persecutin’ ‘n’ Manipulatin’

No, the most surprisingly offensive thing to me is this Facebook update from Sarah Palin. Now, to be fair, I have to give Palin some credit for her remarkable evolution over the years. When she was picked from obscurity to be a vice-presidential nominee in 2008, she was clearly out of her element, a local politician thrust not only into the ruthless world of Washington politics, but the national media. But instead of fading into obscurity, she fought to establish herself as a vapid media opportunist, and then a laughably dismissible clown, before finally coming into her own as a full-fledged live-action cartoon. And in her carefully-constructed Facebook update:

Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.

she actually writes out “hatin’”.

The attempt to equate freedom of speech with freedom from consequence? Please, that’s not even Bullshit 101. That’s Remedial Bullshit. When I think about how much time has been wasted over the years as smart people have tried to explain how the First Amendment works to people using their willful ignorance for political manipulation… we might’ve even found evidence showing that global warming is manmade, or discovered a vaccine that doesn’t cause autism.

The calculated use of “intolerant” in an attempt to throw back progressives’ own language in their faces, to suggest that it’s the people spewing out bigotry who are really the ones being persecuted? Yawn. Seen it. It’s been years since Ann Coulter lamented the intolerant society that would no longer allow her to call John Edwards a faggot. No offense, Ms. Palin, but you’re strictly amateur class when compared to that.

But the master stroke — and this, keep in mind, is coming from a guy who regularly types “y’all” in emails without thinking twice about it — is encompassing decades’ worth of faux-populist, faux-conservative, faux-Christian, faux-American media manipulation into a single apostrophe. It would be impossible to come up with a more perfectly false and hypocritical defense of not just Duck Dynasty, but the entire state of pop culture that allowed a show like Duck Dynasty to become so popular.

Just a Good Ol’ Boy, Never Meanin’ No Harm

Let’s all be clear, here: The Official Statement from the Robertson Family, complete with its photo of multiple generations of abandoned wives and children As Seen on TV, all united in their belief of Constitutionally-protected freedom of speech and freedom of religion, all devoted to their faith in the teachings of the Bible, standing strong, Job-like, in the face of a society that has lost sight of the simple values of honest talk and brotherly love — that’s on a website currently hosting a pop-up ad for the Bank of America, special holiday hours for their store, and booking info for the entire family, with separate sections for the Wives and Teens, each with a glamour shot and a bio.

In other words, these sumbitches are crazy rich. Just like Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee, and Paula Deen, and Dan Cathy. And acknowledging that these persecuted free thinkers have more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime isn’t an attack on the wealthy, any more than saying “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christmas. But it does make the “simple gifts” schtick awfully hard to swallow. It’s Boss Hogg trying to pass himself off as Jed Clampett. “Lemme jus’ head on down to the cement pond and record the latest social media video promoting our line of greeting cards.”

When I started growing my beard out last year, I heard enough cracks about Duck Dynasty that I watched an episode to see what all the fuss was about. (It’s been going on for at least four seasons, apparently). And it was, unsurprisingly, the biggest load of faux-populist bullshit I’d seen on television. It wasn’t even the orchestrated train wreck cash-grab that was Here Comes Honey Boo Boo; as horrible as that was, you still got the sense that everybody involved was aware that it was just a modern-day freak show, the money all but visibly changing hands and going towards a “college fund” that would eventually be used for medical bills, treatment for addiction, and psychological therapy.

No, Duck Dynasty was worse, because it was an hour of a bunch of people reminding the ever-present video cameras that they were nothing more than God-fearin’ simple folk.

Growing up in Georgia, I spent decades immersed in this crap. I’ve been to the studios of The 700 Club and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL. I’ve seen countless hours of Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard. In college I lived in a house in which the Nashville Network played virtually non-stop, with the slickly-produced videos interrupted with interviews with the self-described rednecks and cowboys who weren’t no different from nobody else. Lately, I’ve been seeing videos in the mall food court that are practically indistinguishable from the ones I saw 20 years ago: add a steel guitar and some “haw haw haw ‘Merica” twang to a mass-produced pop song and all of a sudden you’re celebrating down-home values.

To be clear: I’d never, ever fault or criticize somebody for wanting to believe in all that. You’d have to be a real asshole to mock the most fundamental of good values while you’re condemning the manipulative people who are corrupting those values. It’s that manipulation that I’m criticizing.

I Will Always Love Dolly Parton

One of the most common reactions to this whole nonsense — apart from the depressingly predictable attempts to martyr a bigot with an “I Stand With Phil Robertson” movement — is “Well, who’s really surprised?” These guys are from the South after all. Of course they’re “Bible-thumpers,” and naturally they’d be racist homophobes.

Speaking as a southerner, I’m sick of people passing off their racist bullshit as part of their Southern Heritage. Speaking as a Christian, I’m tired of people passing off their own bigotry as being in any way Christ-like. These clowns don’t speak for me, and I want them to stop acting as if they do. Each time they’re caught doing something patently offensive, the response is always, always, that they don’t care much for “political correctness,” and they’re just saying what everybody’s thinking but is too afraid to say out loud. And each time one of these things blows up in their face, it should become clear that “No, you’re not saying what everybody’s thinking. You’re just an asshole.”

To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to a logical analysis of the objective merits of anuses vs. vaginas. But I am just gay enough to think that Dolly Parton is one of the best people there is. She has absolutely made a fortune out of taking the “simple Appalachian folk” concept and cranking it up to eleven. There’s no doubt that she built a multimedia empire — including not just some greeting card line but a theme park — based on basic values and humble beginnings. She’s unquestionably got a carefully-constructed public persona based on an accent, a body, and just the right amount of self-deprecation.

The difference is that there’s no bullshit there. In everything I’ve ever seen, she’s up front about how different her life is after all the hit songs, and the movies, and the money, and the plastic surgery. She says that she’s still got the same core set of values that she’s always had, but then she actually follows through on it. And even though she’d have every opportunity to fall back on feeble excuses based on her age or her upbringing or the place where she was born, she accepts everybody in her audience. She could totally get away with the “that’s just the way I was raised” excuse for bigotry, but for as long as I’ve been aware of her, she’s always been contemporary and always been inclusive.

It’s the difference between selling honesty and actually being honest. And the difference between “politically correct” and just plain “correct.”

So Sarah Palin is welcome to descend further into self-parody. And the whole Robertson clan can shove their redneck martyrdom bullshit up their own illogical anuses, and fade back into wealthy obscurity. Along with all the other aspects of the South that are better left forgotten.

There’s probably no stopping people from trying to turn a region into a commodity. If people are still dressing up as Centurions for photo opportunities around the Coliseum in Rome, thousands of years later, there’s probably going to be no end to “We’re po’ but proud” merchandise in my lifetime. It’ll be annoying and as authentic as a Cracker Barrel gift shop, but it’s ultimately harmless. What’s not harmless is trying to pull the worst aspects of the last 200 years as an inseparable and even noble part of it. I want to get to the point where, when somebody says he’s a southerner, you can’t make any assumptions other than his attitude towards gravy, sweet potatoes, and how much sugar should go into cornbread. (Answer: absolutely none).

Standard