Monday, 21 September 2009

Legitimate Criticism is not an acceptable Doorway for Bigotry

I’ve spoken about criticisng respectfully as an outsider but now I’m going to ramble on about the unpleasant habit some people have of using criticism as a method to express their prejudice (hence the need for the former post)

Recently there have been a few cases of marginalised people doing stupid and naughty things. Kanye West at the Music Video Awards, Serena Williams having a tantrum with a ref and, in the more distant past (though updated with near weekly fails) there is Perez Hilton, well, Perez Hilton just about every time he’s opened his mouth. Included here for completeness and general overview (and because of point 6 which I risked doing exactly what I was cautioning against)

All of these people have been, rightly, criticised for less than acceptable behaviour. No problems there - all of these people have done things severely worthy of criticism. And then there’s a criticism that makes you want to headdesk - where people are basically treating it as an excuse to let that bigotry hang free.

So let’s look at some bad criticism and Sparky’s guide to why it fails.

1) Any and all uses of bigoted language.

Why it Fails
Do I even need to say this? Kanye West was an arsehole, a brat, a selfish prat and many other things. Accurate, if crude, descriptors all. The N-word? REALLY unnecessary and unless he’s started eating small children while I wasn’t looking, makes the “critic” (racist arsehole would be a better term) look waaaay worse than he ever was. Criticism is legitimate. Using it to pull out the inner bigot isn’t.

2) “Serena Williams’ unprecedented rampage... wild... savage...”

Why it fails
Excessive hyperbole. Serena Williams is not the first sports person to throw all her toys out the pram because a ref decision went against her. Footballers do it on a near weekly basis. John McEnroe had a whole marketing persona based on him spitting his dummy out and breaking tennis rackets.

Basically - it is no more unacceptable for a marginalised person to lose their temper/say something stupid/whatever than it is for a non-marginalised person. If the white guy doing it would only earn a tut and a headshake from you, then the black woman doing it shouldn’t earn your outraged and furious condemnation.

3) “I never ever comment on sports usually - but...”

Why it fails
Well, why are you mentioning it now? Hundreds of sports personalities have arguments with refs, umpires et al. Millions of gossip columnists say shit that is awful - and that you routinely ignore.

I’m not saying don’t criticise. I’m asking you to examine WHY you’re criticising. IF behaviour is worthy of criticism and IF you would NORMALLY comment then go right ahead. But if you completely ignore it when a white person does it, then commenting on it when a black person does it looks bad. If you wouldn't think to mention it when a straight person does it, but simply have to talk about it when a gay person does it looks wrong. To repeat again - I had a colleague who loved to tell me all the details of any and all incidents of crime committed by immigrants he could find. He never said anything inaccurate - but he never spoke about crime UNLESS it was committed by an immigrant. I think it’s pretty clear why.

4) “Kanye West, a black entertainer...” “Serena Williams, a black sportswoman...” “Gay gossip columnist, Perez Hilton...”

Why it fails
If you were talking about Eminem saying something foolish - you wouldn’t identify him as the “white straight entertainer.” There’d be no need - his race and sexuality would be deemed to be a) obvious and b) irrelevant. It is equally true when the fool in question belongs to a marginalised group. Why are you emphasising or reminding people of their race/sexuality etc? Why are you acting like it’s relevant?

5) “Kanye West shows what is wrong with the black...” “Perez Hilton again shows the sexism/racism of the GBLT community”

Why it fails
When black people get together, put a crown on Mr. West’s head and announce him their supreme leader, I’m sure they’ll send us a memo. Until then his actions and speech reflect himself and ONLY himself. When the Gay Mafia appoints Perez Hilton as Commander in Chief of our marriage and morality destroying armies then we will let you know. Until then he is not a spokesperson, avatar or poster child for the GBLT movement or any part of it.

If you have a legitimate, sensible criticism about a community or movement, then go for it - respectfully. But don’t pluck out the bad actions of one person and decide that this is somehow indicative of absolutely everyone within the group.

6) “Perez Hilton is a disgrace to GBLT people.”

Why this fails
Fail 1 If you are NOT part of the marginalised group in question (in this case, if you are not GBLT) then it’s presumptuous in the extreme to dictate who is and isn’t a fit representative of that group. Sure, he’s a fool beyond all measure all too often - but it’s not your place to say it or to choose which GBLT people are appropriate “spokespeople” or not (aside: In my view no-one is or everyone is). We don’t need or want you policing us or playing “good minority/bad minority”

Fail 2 If you ARE part of the marginalised group then STOP PLAYING THIS GAME. You are feeding the fools at no. 5. The correct answer isn’t to say “Perez Hilton is a disgrace to all GBLT people” but to say “the man’s an arsehole - his sexuality is irrelevent.” He doesn’t disgrace me. He doesn’t shame me. I have no duty to apologise for him nor do I have any sense of collective responsibility or blame for what he’s done. He is not my friend or family. I have no power over his actions and no influence over them.

It is deeply homophobic to judge me or other GBLT people on the basis of what he has done/said. We do not have a duty to denounce him, we do not have a duty to apologise for him. We need to fight against the idea that all homosexuals should be collectively punished for the act of one - not feed into it.

There is nothing wrong with criticism. And when people have decided to show their arses and arseholery there’s absolutely nothing wrong with calling them out or expressing your anger, disappointment or disapproval. But the how you express it - and the WHY. Well that needs examining. Because no amount of arsholery justifies bigotry