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Cultural norms is no excuse for sexism

Posted by Don McLenaghen on January 20, 2011

I am feeling a little disappointed in our show…well not the show itself but the recent specific segment we did when we discussed language that is hurtful or offensive.  The original intent of the segment was to cover the controversy surrounding the ‘substitution’ of words in the works of Mark Twain because some of the words were racist and as such offensive. The scope of the segment grew when the song “Money for Nothing” was being banned for containing a word found offensive by an individual (later supported by at least a number of LGBT groups) from the Maritimes. Then it grew again when we received an email pointing out two examples of controversial imagery (one seen as offensive and the other educational). I have just listened to what we said and I feel we tried to take on too much and failed as good skeptics. This is not so much an apology (although for my part I do offer it) but as both an explanation and an example to grow and learn from.

As we…no, as I intended (I feel our cast is not united on this issues so let this be for the moment my own reflections) I saw the censoring of the “n” word (and others) in Twain’s work was an example of political correctness (PC) going overboard. That the intent of Twain was to use the word with the purpose of educating…that it was a term used to dehumanize people and as such was necessary to use THAT word…that it was NOT intended to perpetuate a stereotype or denigration but to end such bigoted thinking. Expanding this concept to the work of Dire Straits and their use of the “F” word in “Money for Nothing” which was similarly used ironically…to show that those who use such terms are intolerant, backwards and such language AS USED BY BIGGOTS should not be tolerated. If Dire Straits had used the PC word “homosexual” it would have turned an educational moment into a dull descriptive one…a homosexual wearing make-up is not offensive and someone using that term would not be seen as a bigot however the line as is – “The little faggot with the earring and the makeup” – carries the offensiveness and correspondingly the ugliness of those who use such language.

Now, I disagreed with my co-hosts that the best way to ‘adjudicate’ when a word is being used to offend and when its being educational  is the ‘free market’ and that those words that cause harm to society, groups and/or individuals will be ‘priced out of the market’. I think that government agencies, rationally run, would serve both society and citizens best. It is true that such agencies exist (notable the controversial Canadian Human Rights Tribunal) and they have not always been the most rational institutions however at least it provides a framework upon which improvements can be made…unlike the libertarian alternative of relying solely on the ‘free market’…which has a much longer history of failure.

Now I, like the show, seem to have glossed over what should have been a complete segment in its own right. The condemnation of homophobia and racism are now cultural norms (even though they have not yet been expunged from society) however the issue of sexism seems to be less clear. On the show I use the example suppose person “A” is in chains and is serving person “B”…that if person “A” was a black man and person “B” a white male, there would be much uproar and the possibility of criminal charges for hate-speech. However that very same image often appears in music vids or other forms of popular culture with one (not so minor it appears) substitution…if it were a women being the slave and the man the ‘master’ it would been called erotica (or at least the ‘boys’ would start to ‘hot howling’).  The email (which we perhaps abridged and paraphrased out of its original strong statements to fit the preconceived segment concept) was trying to make (I believe) that all the controversy raised over the ‘racial’ or ‘gay’ cleaning of our society seems to be absence where offensive words/images are hurled at the female gender…that sexism is still an acceptable “cultural norm” in our society; something to be challenged later (and sadly for myself and our show something we appeared to  re-iterate)…an attitude that a skeptical mind/community should find perplexing, offensive, destructive and (like the recent and justifiable attack on homeopathy) an issue to be confronted .

The email made reference to an offensive (as judged by many women) video (although many examples could have been found) where violence against women was fetishized and glorified. It noted how everyone was yelling from the tops of the roofs how horrible it was the “N” word was being used (and how quick the skeptic community came to fight this battle) and yet (beyond a number of industry commentators) the silence about the offensiveness of this vid was deafening…an offence I think the skeptic community (I trust not deliberatively however this does not excuse the oversight) has passively accepted.

We have on the show expressed concern as to the lack of proportional representation from minorities and (most notably in this context) gender in the skeptic movement and we wonder why? I think the way Radio Free Thinker handled this segment on our show may be educational (if not offensive) to the rest of the community.

If I had it to do over again, first I would not have ‘lumped’ it together with the other issues raised. Although they are similar in the sense of offensiveness, stereotyping and inequality, the way society has confronted and dealt with the issue of racism, homophobia and sexism is so vastly different we have done an injustice by presuming one remedy could be used to address such disparate social ills.

I think I would have dealt with the issues raised – violent imagery of women in society – as a separate segment. The email attempted to juxtaposition the Kayne West video[1] with the cancelled art exhibit[2] of the victims of Robert Pickton to show how backwards our society seems to be – the first being gratuitously offensive for profit and the other poignantly haunting for edification. I would have hoped we could have used our skeptical skills and tools of critical thinking to help define the ways we could separate the offensive from the education. Ultimately I think we failed and simply rallied on the failed platitudes that “it’s just a cultural norm” and “if people find it offensive they can just turn the channel” <I cannot believe we said that>.

Now I may be being too self-critical…maybe not. I think it was also a failing that we covered the issue of offensive/sexist words/images without out past-co-host Chloe to give a female perspective. I think (judging from feedback) in the past we have been able to handle racial/cultural/gender issues in-spite of our racial/gender handicaps (i.e. being all white males). I am curious to know what our fans have to say and (with some trepidation) look forward to your feedback.



One Response to “Cultural norms is no excuse for sexism”

  1. Lou said

    I’m glad you revised your commentary, as a femle listener to Radio Free Thinkers podcast on CITR 101.9, I was “somewhat”(understatement) perturbed by the attitude displayed by your ALL male panel. Sober second thought at play here….thankyou!

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