What rules govern the social acceptability of interactions between people that invoke immutable (race, gender etc.) or quasi-immutable (religion, class etc.) characteristics? How do these rules relate to serious expressions of potentially divisive opinions and which of them can be bent or broken in the name of comedy?
These are the questions I have been asking myself following the recent controversy surrounding conservative comedian Steven Crowder and Vox contributor Carlos Maza. Maza has a YouTube series called Strikethrough, on Vox’s channel, where he discusses the problems with conservatism and conservative media like Fox News. Crowder has his own YouTube channel, on which he discusses conservative talking points with a dash of comedic flair. He has also made a number of videos debunking Maza’s, in which he makes jabs at Maza’s sexuality and ethnicity, calling him a “lispy sprite,” “gay Mexican” (Maza is Cuban), “gay Latino from Vox” and an “an angry little queer.” This has resulted in a backlash against YouTube from the Left and a backlash against the backlash from the Right.
In any serious discussion, I imagine such jabs would be out of place—even for satire, they may cross the line. But the rules surrounding the social acceptability of interactions between people are unclear. A look into past Vox publications illustrates this confusion.
Vox has published not one, not two, but three separate articles defending racist tweets made by Sarah Jeong, including: “Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men”; “White people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants” and “#CancelWhitePeople.” Vox has described the outrage generated by Jeong’s tweets as “a bullying tactic of the alt-right” and defended Jeong’s statements as “the expressive way anti-racists and minorities talk about white people.” Vox’s founder, Ezra Klein, has compared Jeong’s tweets to the feminist Twitter hashtag #KillAllMen:
They didn’t want me put to death. They didn’t want any men put to death. They didn’t hate me, and they didn’t hate men. “#KillAllMen” was another way of saying “it would be nice if the world sucked less for women.” It was an expression of frustration with pervasive sexism … The same dynamic seems to me to be at play in the way “white people” is used in Jeong’s jokes. On social justice Twitter, the term means something closer to “the dominant power structure and culture” than it does to actual white people.
Klein thinks these expressions are reasonable expressions of frustration with dominant power structures and that there is no genuine hatred in the hearts of their users. Klein’s colleague Zack Beauchamp also argues that “(given the 280-character limit [on Twitter]) it’s a lot easier to use the kind of ‘white people’ shorthand rather than adding endless qualifications (‘a certain kind of white person, definitely Not All White People’ is pretty lengthy).”
I agree that, when feminists use #KillAllMen or when self-professed anti-racists use hashtags like #CancelWhitePeople, it is highly unlikely that these people actually want to kill members of these groups. But that is not where I would draw the line of acceptability. I care whether people harbor hatred—and I believe the purveyors of such messages do.
Blanket condemnation of groups are not unique to the Left, of course. Wildly popular conservative pundit Ben Shapiro once wrote that “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” Donald Trump once said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Should Ezra Klein’s arguments apply to these statements, too? After all, Trump openly states that he is not talking about all Mexican immigrants and Shapiro has claimed that he did not mean all Arabs. Are either or both of these people hateful? Can we judge by a hyper-narrow focus on one instance, ignoring their larger body of work?
One problem with Zack Beauchamp’s shorthand defence is that the language used in such cases is consistent, even in media without a character limit, such as magazine articles, YouTube videos, etc. The language used in these jokes matches that used by people expressing serious, non-satirical criticisms of whites, men, immigrants, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, etc. Repeated broad-brush criticisms of groups—even in the face of pushback—suggest underlying prejudice.
Richard Spencer, de facto leader of the alt-right, has written, “For us ‘immigration’ is a proxy for race … I do think we have a psychic connection, or you can say a deeper connection, with Donald Trump in a way that we simply do not have with most Republicans.” Jared Taylor, another prominent alt-right leader, has described the immigration situation on America’s southern border as an invasion—just as Donald Trump has. When people see the same phrases used in similar contexts by the president and by alt-right figureheads, they may reasonably conclude that Trump has some core similarities with the white nationalists. Personally, I do not think he is a white nationalist—but I think he shares many of the same hateful feelings.
In 2017, the New York Times ran an editorial entitled “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?,” in which the author writes, “I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible.” In the same year, a Texas student newspaper posted an article entitled “Your DNA is an Abomination,” with a banner image reading White Is Over. It is hard to see how the term white in these examples can be merely shorthand for a certain kind of white person.
When Donald Trump posits that “some [Mexican immigrants], I assume, are good people,” this is a major red flag. Here, Trump pre-emptively uses the Beauchamp defence that he doesn’t mean all Mexicans. But should we really buy into this? If so, should we apply it unilaterally or bilaterally?
What, then, are the rules that should govern social interactions? They should, surely, include these: do not denigrate another human being for their immutable or quasi-immutable characteristics; do not hold the actions of individual members of a group defined by such characteristics as representative of said group. There is no moral difference between painting Muslims as evil and painting whites as evil. Particularly egregious or repeated offences against these moral norms should, I would argue, warrant social opprobrium.
But how do these rules change in a satirical setting? Jokes should not be interpreted literally, but a satirical manner does not absolve you of the responsibility not to say abhorrently prejudiced things. It is often difficult, of course, to differentiate between humour and bigotry. But one can identify some jokes that clearly cross that line and attempt to create a set of neutral principles on that basis.
Many of those who cast Crowder as a deplorable would probably not bat an eyelid at a joke about a Southern drawl, an incest joke about an Alabaman, a paedophilia joke about a priest, or a short man joke about a political opponent, such as Ben Shapiro. This suggests that they base their moral framework on collectivist principles, viewing society as made up of groups of oppressors and oppressed, endlessly vying for power.
Zack Beauchamp has argued:
What makes these quasi-satirical generalizations about “white people” different from actual racism is, yes, the underlying power structure in American society. There is no sense of threat associated with Jeong making a joke about how white people have dog-like opinions. But when white people have said the same about minorities, it has historically been a pretext for violence or justification for exclusionary politics.
From a left-wing perspective, Crowder’s jokes are unacceptable hate speech because, historically, people who share the same characteristics as Crowder (straight, white and male) have used their social and political power to oppress people like Maza (gay and Hispanic)—and some still do. There is therefore an implicit threat when Crowder makes a joke about Maza. The same implicit threat would not exist if Maza were to make a joke about Crowder’s masculinity, straightness or ethnicity.
Ironically, however, this rule set creates its own system of power that allows for a double standard, by which people from minorities can abuse those from the majority with impunity. Some of the largest media organizations in the world, such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Vox, not only categorically reject that Jeong’s statements—and those like Jeong’s—are hateful, but actively espouse similar views, while expressing full condemnation of Crowder’s remarks. When the Crowders of the world are demonetized or lose their jobs or platforms, while the Jeongs not only keep theirs, but are praised for their utterances, arguably, the Jeongs are more powerful. But, in any case, is a perceived power differential really the appropriate standard by which to evaluate the morality or acceptability of interactions between people? Shouldn’t we all be judged as individuals?
Any statement which casts aspersions on a human being on the basis of an immutable characteristic is morally wrong. It is also wrong to hold all members of a group responsible for actions committed by a single member, with whom they may have nothing in common beyond skin colour or genitalia. Too many on the Left allow members of traditionally marginalized groups impunity to express bigoted views under the guise of Social Justice. It’s time reasonable people stopped condoning this.