Friday, November 13, 2015

The Fetishization of Insensitivity

Germain Greer (source)
Liberation feminist Germaine Greer recently sat down for an interview in which she discussed her views on transgender women--her view being that they're not real women at all. When asked by the interviewer if she understood why some people might find her view offensive, her response was pretty straightforward: "I don't care!" Greer's attitude toward trans women is pernicious and ubiquitous enough to deserve its own discussion, but her attitude toward those who might find her statements upsetting is the perfect epitome of an awful new trend. She doesn't care if some people find what she says hurtful or upsetting, because why should she? It's not like other people's feelings matter.

And this is an attitude that's all too easy to find. What can we say about Charlie Hebdo, the winners of the PEN Freedom of Expression Courage Award, except that they don't seem to care at all about whom they upset or offend? They've just published cartoons that essentially make a joke out of the Russian plane crash that killed 224 people, even going so far as to feature a talking skull--presumably from one of the deceased--in one drawing. Nor is this a new turn for the magazine; previously, they've had a cartoon featuring a man being shot to death through a Qur'an--referencing Egypt's military coup and massacre of protestors--with text reading, "The Qur'an is shit. It doesn't stop bullets." The legions of supporters who rushed to the magazine's defense after its own journalists were similarly massacred showed their solidarity with Charlie's total insensitivity by holding "Draw Muhammad" days, serving little discernible purpose other than to show Muslims worldwide that they don't care if they're offended (after all, it's hardly making a statement in favor of freedom of speech to use that freedom to be callous toward a largely disliked, relatively powerless minority).
From Al Jazeera

Obviously, no one should keep from speaking an important truth just because it might upset some people. Nor should art that actually carries some real meaning be made to avoid rubbing anyone the wrong way. In fact, deliberately offending people can even serve a purpose; sometimes, offending people is the first step to getting them to think twice about ideas they've taken for granted. Certainly, it was offensive to many white racists to preach the idea that blacks should be viewed as equals. There have been plenty of people who have been offensive, even deliberately so, in ways that helped push society in the right direction--Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Marilyn Manson.

But there's a difference between being willing to offend, and even intentionally offending, people in order to make some sort of important statement, and being callous and insensitive gratuitously, because those attributes are seen as a virtue. Getting a society to reexamine its taboos and its norms when they may very well be outdated or dangerous is a purpose easily worth offending people over. But, even if we assume Greer believed she was speaking some important truth with her transphobic comments, what's the point in displaying cavalier disregard for the feelings of people whose great sin is trying to make their bodies match how they've always felt about themselves? What was the point of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons mocking the Russian plane crash or the Egyptian massacre? What's the point of Bill Maher's mockery of Muslims and contribution to the idea that they have some unique tendency to commit terrorism?

From The Electronic Intifada
Just by arguing this much, I certainly open myself up to the accusation of being some sort of whiny, oversensitive, crybaby PC social justice warrior who's getting offended just because people refuse to censor themselves. But I'm not asking that people avoid saying or doing anything that anyone might find offensive--that would be utterly ridiculous, and I can't stand the sort of political correctness that really does push toward that sort of mentality. I'm asking that people actually care about each others' feelings. I have no interest in catering toward the moralistic, self-indulgent outrage that many people will display over anything that offends their sensibilities (I've even written an entire post criticizing it), but the examples I've cited here (as well as innumerable others) don't just elicit moral outrage, but rather feelings of alienation emotional hurt. Transgender people go through enough without some bigot like Greer showing a total apathy toward whether what she says bothers them. Certainly, the friends and relatives of those who died in the plane crash have suffered enough without their dead loved ones being made into some kind of grisly punchline by Charlie Hebdo. And God knows that Muslims deal with enough hatred and prejudice without Maher's "comedy" and Draw Muhammad Day.

What I'm asking is, is it really necessary to make people feel belittled and unimportant for the sake of comedy or whatever else? Is it that hard to avoid pointlessly upsetting people? And, if nothing else, can we at least stop applauding the people who display this insensitivity, often toward already-marginalized groups, as somehow being admirable by openly showing that they don't care if they hurt other people's feelings? As co-inhabitants of this planet, we have to find some way to get along, and stepping on each others' toes just for the fun of it doesn't seem like the best route.

Alternatively, if we accept this new standard of insensitivity as being a sign of courage and honor, perhaps we should reevaluate some things that have happened throughout history. How about minstrel shows, for instance? After all, the performers didn't care if black people found it upsetting to be portrayed as laughably stupid. How brave of them! How about the American Nazi Party? Doesn't one just have to admire how little they care whether Jewish people and ethnic minorities find their slurs and propaganda offensive?

Not surprisingly, this standard of "who cares if it offends or upsets other people?" seems to magically vanish when the tables turn on the most vehement promoters of this standard. Bill Maher's critics are just mean-spirited bullies, he'd have us believe, who don't care about how their mean words make him feel. Germaine Greer has accused people who deviate from her transphobic views as being misogynist. And defenders of Charlie Hebdo's Islamophobia were predictably infuriated when Marilyn Manson called the magazine's continued Muslim-mocking cartoons a "dumb idea". Cavalier disregard for their feelings or views is, of course, unpardonable.

As I've said, we certainly shouldn't be too afraid or reluctant to offend other people. When it comes to genuine artistic self-expression or pushing for important causes, let people be offended if that's what they decide to do. But, as usual, there's a balance to be found. Not wanting to be oversensitive to the point of self-censorship is not the same as embracing the idea that other people's feelings should be irrelevant. But, while the advocates of insensitivity are convinced they're under attack and the culture is being overrun by political correctness, I fear that their attitude of callousness and disregard for others may be what's truly taking over. If that's so, it's just one of many ways in which the future could be a very grim affair.

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