Gender politics and civic discourse

In the wake of Matthew Shepard's death, the playwright Tony Kushner wrote an essay, "Matthew's Passion," in which he talked about the hate speech that leads to hate crime. He said,

A lot of people worry these days about the death of civil discourse ... [but] I mourn Matthew Shepard's actual death, caused by the unimpeachably civil "we hate the sin, not the sinner" hypocrisy of the religious right, endorsed by the political right, much more than I mourn the lost chance to be civil with someone who does not consider me fully a citizen, nor fully human. I mourn that cruel death more than the chance to be civil with those who sit idly by while theocrats, bullies, panderers and hatemongers, and their crazed murderous children, destroy democracy and our civic life. Civic, not civil, discourse is what matters, and civic discourse mandates the assigning of blame.

I start with that for two reasons: First, because I think that the policies embodied by Sarah Palin, John McCain and other high-profile Republicans mandate an assignation of blame for all sorts of real, actual deaths of people in the United States and around the world. (For the record, I think Democrats often aid and abet these policies and in numerous cases are even the originators of them.) The breadth and depth of these implicated policies are beyond what I want to discuss here, but suffice to say I think there's plenty of blame to go around. And I agree with Kusher that — while I might personally believe that all humans are good and have the capacity for good — a functioning democracy demands that we call out people and policies that harm, oppress and kill people.

The second reason for including Kushner is that I think I have some blame to assign myself here. Kushner was talking about the vile history of hate speech inciting crimes against marginalized communities. As a white, Protestant, able-bodied, tall, male-presenting person who often passes as straight, I encompass whole boatloads of unearned, inherited privilege. I can pretend that I don't benefit from that privilege — that I don't get preferential treatment because I'm white, for instance, or that my ideas don't get taken seriously in part because I'm male — or I can do my best to counteract it. In the past few years, I've decided personally that the most important political work I can do is within those privileged communities to try to bring people to a state of active anti-oppression, not simply awareness or sympathy.

But that's not the blame I'm talking about today. In this case, I helped to propagate a use of hate speech that I didn't fully agree with — but secure in my male privilege, didn't really think too hard about, either.

On Saturday, Republican vice-presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin came to Philadelphia. ACT-UP/Philly, among many other groups, called for an organized protest. I showed up and took some pictures. I even made a video of the protest (and on Facebook) of which I'm quite proud.

Offensive anti-Sarah Palin t-shirts In wanting to represent the breadth of the protest, however, I took some pictures of people wearing shirts that attacked Sarah Palin using language demeaning to women.

You can see the original photo of these shirts here, but be aware the language used could be triggering.

I then uploaded these images to Flickr, without comment. Apparently my images were noticed quite quickly, because they started getting blogged about and the comments on this image in particular were quite extensive (the image is no longer on that page, but I left it up for the sake of recording the comments).

I made a mistake in propagating this language.

I want to be clear that I don't think there's anything at all wrong with treating elected officials who directly and indirectly harm others with contempt. There were some great other images of Sarah Palin "lookalikes" that I would proudly display. I think the pressure from elected officials to be "courteous," "respectful," "civil" and "civilized" is simply a way to disempower ordinary people and disconnect them from the prospect of real social change. William Greider describes it in this way:

In practical terms, the most dreadful consequence is the way in which ordinary citizens are silenced and demoralized — made to feel dumb — by the content of information politics.

Jeffrey Goldfarb, as quoted by Alexandra Bradbury in her study of the approach of college students in a fair labor campaign, puts it even more directly:

[T]he commitment to civil society and civil discourse, unquestioned, without disruptions such as those of Malcolm [X], becomes a force for the continued subjugation of the marginal, in the US particularly the continued functioning of racism.

Because the criticism of the photo that I posted often focused on the "incivility" of any criticism of Sarah Palin's beliefs, I want to be clear that I'm not arguing for a more "refined" discourse as a way to solve our problems. But treating someone who supports wars of imperialism or subjugating entire swathes of the population because of their citizenship status or love interests (for instance) with justified contempt isn't quite the same as invoking misogynist language against someone you disagree with.

And that's what I need to apologize for.

In trying to do work in active anti-racism as a white person, I've tried to keep in mind from the beginning that mistakes are inevitable — it's whether I'm willing to be called out and check myself that matters. I think that's true in many sorts of anti-oppression work. I don't doubt the necessity of fighting to protect people's lives from a (new) murderous regime. But I do think that accusations framed in hate speech are a poor way to work for a better future.

I welcome your comments.

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Comfort levels

If you were comfortable wearing the shirt in public why aren't you comfortable posting the uncensored picture on your page and elsewhere on the net?

Be an iconoclast

Let me tell a story about racism and deeply held, though often unconscious, beliefs.

I was raised in a racially homogeneous town. It just...was. My first experience with racism rocked my world to its foundations, and I've never quite looked at ignorant and racist people the same way since then.

This experience came when I went to college across the country from where I was raised; the school was in another racially homogeneous area, only this time I was the outsider. The other. I had just arrived and was taking my very first bus ride around the city, eager to explore my new surroundings. I turned this way and that, unable to believe that I was on my own in such an amazing place, loving everything I saw around me. Eager to start learning about the world.

Then a group of young and rowdy teenagers (probably 13-16 or so) got on the bus. They were members of the racial majority in this large city, and they pegged me right away as "other" based solely on the color of my skin. They thought less of me because of it. Emboldened by their pack--and pack mentality--they decided to spew their bile on me.

The group's leader, a girl not too much younger than myself, immediately caught my eye. After holding my gaze for a good 5 seconds or so, she said to me "What are you looking at ******?"

I shrank back in my seat in surprise. I had never heard anything like that spoken out loud at me before. I was pretty shocked, and got off the bus at my stop soon after, ending the confrontation. It was my very first experience with being judged strictly by my race, and it it was an eye-opener.

Do you know what I was called?

White bitch. One word, dripping with contempt. "Whitebitch."

If you thought I was called something else, you may need to examine your own preconceptions and prejudices when you have spare time for contemplation.

My point is that hatred comes in all shapes and sizes. And when it makes us intolerant of others' views and the right they have to express them and LIVE them, it is a sad thing indeed. You might want to consider stepping off your Republican hating high horse and realize that civility is not the same thing as cowardice or lack of conviction. You can express your feelings and views just fine without resorting to ad hominem attacks; in fact, most will take you more seriously if you do. When you fail to do this, you alienate people who might otherwise have listened to your ideas. You then find yourself surrounded only by others who hold the same views that you do--you are now in the echo chamber.

Hatred disguised as "contempt" or even "passion" has the effect of making you feel that yours is the only point of view worth having. That is a slippery slope--regardless of whether you think your position is the enlightened one or not.


It's just a rip-off of the old Cradle of Filth : JESUS IS A CUNT shirts anyway...


Dear Mr. Boothe:

There is precious little that you and I share as far as political leanings, but I do want to congratulate you.

You took responsibility for the shirts in question and didn't duck.

Cheers -

B. Witt

Gender politics, civil discourse and c_nt t-shirts

It is becoming increasingly clear that purveyors of genital politics are incapable of civil discourse.

Invocation of "nobel purpose" as a justification for incivility is self-indulgent and ignoble. Grow up!

Gender Attacks on Palin

It's Larry Flynt ( Palin movie); it's Rhiannon-Marie Volpe (mysogynist T-shirt) , it's Erica Jong (Huffington Post screed calling Palin a white trash dream), it's Gary Kamiya ( Slate calling Palin a dominatrix)....
After this is over women are going to have very little trust that women give themselves any role beyond cheerleader support staff against other women. It didn't begin with Palin. It began with Hillary--remember Randi Rhodes calling Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton F****** W*****? .

Are you too much of a coward not to leave the picture up?

Cunt, Cunt, cunt, cunt,Cunt, Cunt, cunt, cunt,Cunt, Cunt, cunt, cunt,Cunt, Cunt, cunt, cunt!!!!!!!!!!!1111111111

Typical metrosexual, little coward boy.

Um, the picture is up,

ivan's picture

Um, the picture is up, linked to from above. But I'm also respectful of the possibility that people will be triggered by the sexism it invokes, so it's not up on display for everyone to see.

Your pathetic personal attack is a little hilarious — I don't need to be metrosexual, I'm queer. I date men. (And women.) So, whoops, that insult fell flat on its face.

Thanks for exposing the hate of the left.

The photos you linked to clearly show the blatant sexism and hatred the left has shown Gov. Palin. It is interesting to note that half the signs they are holding up relate to debunked internet rumors about Palin.

I question your entire moral

I question your entire moral foundation. This was a mistake that you were unable to recognize through a non-trivial amount of work. That speaks volumes about where you're coming from and the harsh limits of your vision.

Hate pollutes the soul. You, currently, are a hater. While you can try to rationalize your way out of the deep hole you've dug for yourself, there is no justifying this. Look long and hard in the mirror and get out of the comfort of your echo chamber.


ivan's picture

I guess I need more context to fully understand what you're saying. Do you say I hate Sarah Palin? Or are you saying that this indicates that I hate women?

On the first point, I'd certainly say I hate her policies. They're repulsive, and worthy of condemnation. I don't know her as a person; she may be quite nice — but to me, that's irrelevant. My feelings toward a public official can only be political, since I have no personal knowledge of her, and I think it would be fair to characterize my political feelings toward her as hatred. I do believe that all humans are inherently good, and have the capacity for change, so my (political) hatred wouldn't preclude my hope that she might one day embrace positions that harm and kill fewer people.

On the second point, I think it's absolutely true that as a man raised in a male-privileged society, I harbor some amount of sexism. In the same way, there's racism built into my identity as a white person, and at the very least internalized oppression built into my queerness. That doesn't excuse me from trying to counteract those oppressive views, but I don't think pretending or wishing they didn't exist does much good. Active anti-oppression starts with awareness of ones own oppressor training.

But back to my first statement — I don't think I fully understand what you're telling me, so I'd welcome a little more explanation.