Offensive Balance

The recent flurry of “#MeToo” postings, and the responses thereto, have been quite interesting. But there’s another interesting aspect that hasn’t been explored: How they came about. Specifically, the flurry was started in reaction to an opinion piece by Mayim Bialik where something she hadn’t intended to mean was taken as offense. That aspect — taking offense — is what I’d like to discuss.

As we become more and more aware of marginalized groups, cultural approbation, sexual assault and harrassment, micro-aggression, and similar things, the more and more we see them. What was once considered innocent is now seen as offensive. A classic example from a few years ago is the winter song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. It is a date-rate anthem? Does it need to be written with consent in mind? Or is it just a product of its times, with a nice melody? This is true for many many songs and movies. For example, just today I saw an article in the University of Wisconsin paper reconsidering the harrassment and abuse present in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

I think it is all well and good that we are sensitive to these cultural artifacts. They serve as reminders of the culture we are moving from, and like any folk music, will adapt in meaning over time. There are loads of folk songs that would be so culturally insensitive today.

My question is, however, how do we respond when presented with one of these? I found a really interesting article yesterday about how someone who is culturally sensitive is still finding that they hesitate when speaking up in various forums …. because they are afraid of being misinterpreted and becoming the start of a pileup. They self-censor potentially valuable content because of fear of harassment. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Callout culture. The quest for purity. Privilege theory taken to extremes. I’ve observed some of these questionable patterns in my activist communities over the past several years.

As an activist, I stand with others against white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism. I am queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able-bodied.

Holding these identities scattered across the spectrum of privilege, I have done my best to find my place in the movement, while educating myself on social justice issues to the best of my ability. But after witnessing countless people be ruthlessly torn apart in community for their mistakes and missteps, I started to fear my own comrades.

Sound familiar?

Is all harassment equal? Is being ruthlessly torn apart justified in the face of a misstatement or an honest mistake (I’m not talking about trolls here)? I know that I have some friends that are strong advocates of social justice, and there are many times I would like to speak up on their posts. Yet I hesitate, because I’m afraid I’ll get it wrong and end up creating pain — especially for me. It is almost the same feeling I have regarding commenting on far right conservative friends — it’s just not worth the effort.

So, I guess the debate is: When can one be too pure? When is it better just to let the small offenses slide, working on the adage “Never ascribe to malice what you can to stupidity?”

P.S.: It’s not only men that lie to get what they want. Studies show that dogs lie too.