No Sacred Cows
I’ve been at this blogger-activist thing less than a year, but I know I’ve said it more than once: I strongly believe we have to hold ourselves and our allies to the same standards we do our opponents. This means we can’t allow ourselves to place anyone on a pedestal where criticism can’t reach them, and we can't sweep bad behavior under the proverbial rug. It means we don’t let one another off the hook when we slip up and contribute to the problems we’re all trying to fight.
It means no sacred cows.
It doesn’t mean we have to point fingers and assign blame—at least not in my personal best-case scenario. To me, it means we point out the problems we see with what someone said/did/wrote, and then we stand back and let the person respond, hopefully taking some time to consider and form a thoughtful rebuttal or explanation or mea culpa. I know this can work—I see it all the time. But people have to be willing to ask the uncomfortable questions, like “Did you mean to say X? Because that’s what I heard.” And then follow up with “Here are all the ways that’s problematic.” And that’s difficult to do. But I think there’s too much at stake not to at least try to do it more often.
Lately, I’ve had a number of encounters with people who are fairly hardcore about responding when a stranger or celebrity or faceless entity they care nothing about says or does something out of line, but seem very reluctant to call out people (or entities) they consider allies even if they behave really badly. And some of these folks can be extremely critical of those who do call out bad behavior from people (or entities) they deem "good." For example, some critics point to a given target of my activist ire and a) tell me all the things to like about them and b) draw comparisons among the issues I could be focusing on and finding my choices lacking—particularly in the face of how awesome the target is if I could only see all the good they do. But the fact that a person or company or organization might be otherwise awesome is precisely why I have to speak out when they do something less-than-awesome. If I let someone off the hook for bad behavior because they also do good, I’m making a conscious decision to condone that bad behavior under certain very particular circumstances (i.e., ones that suit me in a given situation). There's a word for someone who does that: hypocrite.
Sacred cows are everywhere, even in our social circles. Like that one guy people apologize for because he’s a “good guy” who goes to church or gives to charity or volunteers with underprivileged puppies or whatever even though he did something really awful to another member of your social circle (this probably sounds like I’m talking about someone specific, but it happens all the time—see Captain Awkward #322 & #323 and #393 for examples). Or that woman who really is a great person who helps people and does all kinds of good, and when she says or does something really awful, no one will call her on it because she probably didn’t mean it the way it sounded, or she was just having an off day, someone provoked her, or don’t pick on her because look at all the GOOD she does. When we let these people off the hook, we’re sending a message that they can behave as they wish without consequence. We’re sending a message to anyone these people have wronged that the wrongs they suffered don’t count. And that can be pretty harmful. I've seen it with my own eyes. (In fact, Make Me a Sammich's own Sid wrote about it here.)
So what is at stake? Because we’re all tacitly condoning it, the behavior will very likely continue. Within the framework of activism, allies may decide to adopt the behavior and perpetuate the problem, while opponents will certainly make as much hay out of the offense as possible—especially since we’ve chosen to ignore it and laud the offender’s accomplishments instead. These are just some of the risks we take when we apply a double standard.
But the most important thing at stake here for me? My integrity. When I do this thing I am describing—when I choose to apply my standards to only those unfortunate enough not to be among my sacred cows—I compromise my principles. And what value is there in anything I do or say if I don’t defend my principles with everything I’ve got?
The most high-profile sacred cow we liberals hold dear is President Obama. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am happy as hell that he became president and that he got reelected. But there are things he does that have me scratching my head and I have spoken out about them in the past. I had a (very unrealistic) hope that we would get modern-day equivalent of a fireside chat out of this guy where he loosened his tie, rolled up his sleeves, parked his butt on the corner of his desk, and leveled with us on the day-to-day struggles of governing this country. I want to understand why we’re killing civilians with drones, why Gitmo can’t be closed (yes, I’ve read the reasons), and why the HELL he thinks fracking is a good idea. I wanted him to explain how he didn’t agree with some provisions of the NDAA but had to sign it into law anyway (for reasons I’ve also read). And that’s just for starters. The President of the United States is the very LAST person we should be letting off the hook.
Penny Arcade, PAX, and front-men Gabe and Tycho, are sacred cows in the games industry where I’ve mostly made my living for the past 25 years. When I asked friends recently whether PA had ever acknowledged what the real problem was with the way they handled what’s now known as the Dickwolves Debacle (i.e., did they ever apologize, or did everyone just sweep it under the rug and keep going to PAX?), I heard two things: 1) No, they haven’t done anything to illustrate an understanding of what they did wrong. 2) PAX is too important a networking opportunity for some folks to miss, especially given the current economic climate. I sympathize, but I think we have to demand better from people with as much pull in the industry--especially among youth--as Penny Arcade enjoys. But we don't, and so Gabe goes along his merry way being a rape apologist (he recently decried the unfairness of Kickstarter's decision to pull a game called "Tentacle Bento"--in which the player's goal was to accost as many schoolgirls as possible as an alien tentacle monster) and all around ignorant ass, and steadfastly refuses to hear anyone who attempts to help him understand people whose experiences differ from his and correct his course to avoid causing harm in the future*. He consistently trivializes issues people ask him to take seriously, poking fun at or even ridiculing critics (and thereby encouraging his followers to do the same). And anymore, Tycho just seems to pretend none of it is happening. PA continues to be a major influencer, with the industry flocking to PAX where a lot of people still think Dickwolves was a kick in the pants because PA never stood up and said "We were wrong--here's what we learned." They have explicitly chosen not to use their influence to help solve the problems they continue to help perpetuate. And frankly, too few in the industry have asked them to.
The rape joke that got Penny Arcade into trouble in the first place (but was ultimately minor compared to their handling of the fallout) fell into that oh-so-holy space just outside reality where people are supposedly allowed to say and do anything: comedy. I’ll let Lindy West speak to that (via Jezebel):
But it's just a joke. Calm down. Yeah, dude, but this shit isn't magic. It's not a game. It's not like you get to declare the comedy stage "base" and the rest of the world "hot lava" (spewing from the vaginas of feminazi gargoyles, I'm sure) and everything you say on the stage exists in some sacred loophole that's exempt from criticism and the expectation of hard work. Rape, domestic violence, brutalization, marginalization, the struggle to make yourself heard—all of this shit is REAL to a lot of people. They're not cute little thought experiments for you to mess around with without pushback. You can lie to yourself all you want, but if you say something awful to somebody in the course of your regular day, it is exactly the same as if you say it on stage. If anything, its emotional impact is magnified. And anyway, anyone who says "but it's just a joke" has never had their life profoundly changed by a joke.
In the same article, Lindy has this to say about sacred cows:
But Louis CK! Ugh, this part is so boring. Okay. Do you know what else Louis CK does? He changes. He evolves. He thinks. And when he fucks up, he gets criticized like crazy, and some of that criticism makes it into his brain—and, eventually, his act. Also, just because one of comedy's sacred god-kings manages to be funny and smart when broaching certain sensitive topics doesn't mean they can't also be harmful. You know, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Etc. Just because Jeffrey Ross can (debatably) pull off a "haha, faggot" once in a while doesn't mean that identical "haha, faggot"s aren't actively moving gay kids to kill themselves all over the fucking country. It's real, and it deserves critical thought, not kneejerk defensiveness. Also, you're not Louis CK. Maybe don't invite the comparison.
It’s not easy to realize your behavior might be contributing to the very problems you claim to want to solve. But if you’re lucky enough to reach a certain level of self-awareness, you realize that you’d rather be right—really right—than be wrong and defend your wrong position like a stubborn jackass. I have been known to say you can be Jesus H. Christ and heal the sick all day long, but if you’re an asshole, I’m going to say, “Jesus! Don’t be an asshole!” But even I didn’t want to heap criticism on the president at election time in 2012. And that made me a hypocrite. A well-meaning hypocrite with what felt like good reasons for being so, but a hypocrite nonetheless.
So, this is my mea culpa for that and for how hard it is for me to call out my sacred cows when I think something they have said or done has caused harm. I can’t say it will never happen again. I’m not going on a witch hunt; believe it or not, I’m actually non-confrontational by nature. But I want to do better. I’d like to call on anyone reading to consider joining me in making a commitment to hold ourselves and each other to the highest possible standard so we all strive to do and be better. At the very least, we’ll give our opponents less ammunition. At best, we will raise the level of discourse, which is always worthwhile.
Either way, we’ll have our integrity.
*Gabe did eventually issue an apology for his transphobic tweets.
This post originally appeared on Make Me a Sammich, a ranty, sometimes funny, sometimes dead-serious blog about being a woman in the USA (and beyond).