Published: Good Men Project (June 13, 2015)
The online Social Justice movement has admirable goals, but it needs to stop applying purity tests to celebrities.
By now you’ve probably heard about the Jerry Seinfeld controversy. The legendary ’90s comedian got himself into a bit of trouble earlier this week by declaring that he wasn’t going to perform on college campuses because “they’re so PC.” A couple days later, he elaborated on this idea during an interview on Tuesday’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, arguing that “there’s a creepy, PC thing out there that really bothers me.”
My initial instinct was to side against Seinfeld, much as I wrote a Salon op-ed criticizing Adam Sandler for the racial insensitivity in his comedies. But then I began to hear comments from my progressive friends about Seinfeld that were troubling. Terms like “problematic” and “unacceptable” were being tossed out—language that I expect to hear from the latter-day would-be inquisitors on the Religious Right, perhaps, but not from the ostensibly open-minded left. People were even starting to argue that Seinfeld was never funny to begin with, a line of reasoning which seems to hold that if one comes up as impure by a certain moral test, then everything about you should be condemned… no holds barred.
Nor was this the first time I’d heard such rhetoric. When Patrick Stewart defended the right of Christian business owners to refuse to bake a pro-gay rights cake, I overheard similar descriptions from friends about his “betrayal” (unlike Seinfeld, who has been apolitical in his material, Stewart is openly leftist). After Joss Whedon had Scarlet Witch refer to herself as a “monster” in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, he attracted the ire of the same feminist movement that normally lauds his work.
I’ve only included three examples—very, very recent ones—but I doubt anyone will disagree that this list could go on indefinitely. One of the defining characteristics of our time is the growth of the Internet as a cultural force, and that development has been accompanied by an increasingly-vigilant social justice movement online.
Before I proceed with what’s so troubling about their attitude, let me make one point very clear: I overwhelmingly agree with their goals. Pop culture doesn’t simply entertain; it also shapes how we view the world around us. Consequently it is important to identify and address the various racial, religious, gender-based, and socioeconomic prejudices that influence these works.
One of the defining characteristics of our time is the growth of the Internet as a cultural force, and that development has been accompanied by an increasingly-vigilant social justice movement online.
The problem is NOT that the social justice movement wants to confront these problems, but rather how they’re going about it. Namely…
1. They have an extremely arrogant lack of self-awareness.
There is a great song from the Broadway musical “Avenue Q” that sums up my thoughts here pretty nicely. Titled “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” it was written by the same guy who did “Let It Go,” a point that I’m adding only to increase the chances that you’ll listen to it (seriously, though… check it out).
Here are some choice lyrics:
Everyone’s a little bit racist
Doesn’t mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
I point this out because one of the most troubling features of the social justice movement is its habit of condemning individuals who fall outside the parameters of what they consider to be correct conduct. For all intents and purposes, a large section of the left has forgotten that we should hate the sin and not the sinner; instead the prevailing assumption is that once you sin, that sin defines the entirety of who you are. Hence why many of the liberals who used to adore Seinfeld’s upending of bourgeois sensibilities or the outspoken feminism of Stewart and Whedon are now unilaterally condemning them. It isn’t simply enough to think that these individuals who they otherwise respect are wrong; because they have betrayed the faith, they are now deemed unworthy of anything besides contempt. They are disappointments, traitors, problematic men and women in need of re-education (again, all language I’ve heard from college-age friends).
Except that, as Robert Lopez wisely observed while penning the lyrics for “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” we all possess prejudices. This isn’t to say that I think all of the celebrities who have been targeted as bigots deserve that title (more on that in Point #2), but even when they are found guilty, that doesn’t define them anymore than our own regrettable prejudices define us. There is something particularly arrogant about condemning individuals wholesale for their real or perceived lapses into bigotry, given the likelihood that none of us would come up entirely clean if held to that same standard. Those who engage in the practice of condemning men and women instead of ideas are quite likely doing so not because they wish to make a better point, but because they want to “win”—not a healthy mentality for those whose ideology is rooted, more than anything else, in the ideal of compassion.
It is one thing to focus on how certain ideas and opinions can reinforce oppression; that kind of discussion is not only health, but long overdue. That said, when we insist on lambasting those who wander astray, we become less like progressives and more like an angry mob conducting a moral crusade. Which brings me to Point #2…
2. It’s a moral crusade—and moral crusades have very little to do with sincere morality.
There are two types of celebrities who find themselves in the cross-hairs of these scandals—those who actually said or did racist things, and those whose opinions simply made social justice advocates uncomfortable. In the former category one would find Michael Richards, who shouted racist epithets at hecklers during a stand-up comedy performance, and Mel Gibson, who has made openly anti-Semitic statements. Frankly, I would argue that the three most recent high-profile celebrity dust-ups fall into the latter category: Seinfeld was commenting on a culture of thought policing that he believes is dangerous to the art of comedy, a view that many of his peers have echoed (including Chris Rock, John Cleese, and Patton Oswalt), Stewart was arguing that he places the civil liberties of those whose views he doesn’t share over a desire to impose his personal beliefs on them, and Whedon was merely attempting to flesh out a specific character within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not make a broader statement about women’s rights (I can’t defend him more without including plot spoilers, so I’ll have to end that point here).
There is something particularly arrogant about condemning individuals wholesale for their real or perceived lapses into bigotry, given the likelihood that none of us would come up entirely clean if held to that same standard. Those who engage in the practice of condemning men and women instead of ideas are quite likely doing so not because they wish to make a better point, but because they want to “win” – not a healthy mentality for those whose ideology is rooted, more than anything else, in the ideal of compassion.
Here’s the thing, though: Even when a celebrity is caught being genuinely racist, the social justice movement too often focuses less on identifying what was wrong with their opinions and more on trying to drum them out of our collective community of morally acceptable celebrities. This mentality is not motivated by a sincere desire to make human beings more empathetic or responsible; if it was, the impetus would be to explain our own position when we hear ideas that we believe are prejudiced, not simply meet what comedian Jim Norton described as “the rush of being offended.” When the emphasis is on passing moral judgment against those who have veered, the underlying motivation is always the same—to empower those in the mob who wish to control our cultural debate by rigidly enforcing a collectively determined code of conduct. This brings me to my final point…
3. It weakens our cause.
The editorial board of the New York Post recently defended Seinfeld by arguing that college campuses have become “a minefield of forbidden topics, where dissent is denounced as oppression. God, they need the comedy.” Fellow comedians Bill Maher and Jeff Ross made a similar point, taunting Seinfeld’s critics by proclaiming that “if Jerry Seinfeld is too politically incorrect for you, maybe you should look in the mirror.” Then there was Scott Greer of The Daily Caller, who published an op-ed on the Seinfeld controversy arguing that the overreaction against Seinfeld “proves his point,” even summarizing the position of one prominent college student with wince-inducingly accurate language:
“The student’s main point is that comedy should have an ‘underlying message,’ but it’s clear that that message has to come from a left-wing perspective. Which, crazily enough, exactly confirms Seinfeld’s beef with politically correct students.”
It breaks my heart to say it, but all of these critics are right. If the social justice movement isn’t capable of responding to criticism without hyperbole—if it insists on interpreting every challenge to its basic assumptions as a great moral crusade, with a new villain needing to be stomped out—then we have indeed lost. This won’t be because our cause is wrong, mind you, but because we will have acted like vindictive schoolyard bullies in the name of making a valid point.
If the social justice movement isn’t capable of responding to criticism without hyperbole – if it insists on interpreting every challenge to its basic assumptions as a great moral crusade, with a new villain needing to be stomped out – then we have indeed lost. This won’t be because our cause is wrong, mind you, but because we will have acted like vindictive schoolyard bullies in the name of making a valid point.
And do you know what the worst thing is? None of this is necessary. If we truly believe that we’re right, we don’t need to prove it by mounting the heads of high-profile celebrities on our walls… particularly the ones who, though disagreeing with us, have not actually said anything that is self-evidently bigoted. When a public figure makes comments that are indeed prejudiced, we have a responsibility to spread awareness of how those views are objectionable and why we should be more sensitive to those they impact. Similarly, when a celebrity articulates a position that is not necessarily bigoted but could be viewed as abetting bigotry—see Stewart and Seinfeld—our response should be to simply rebut what that celebrity has said, no more and no less. When instead we feel the need to reject that person’s contributions to our culture wholesale, we expose a disturbing intolerance for dissenting opinion… and perhaps even a lack of faith in our own.
If we truly subscribe to our own professed ideals, we deserve better.