Misused Quotes and Misunderstood Quips

I’m casting about for what to say right now and it’s not coming easily. I feel like no matter what I end up writing down will come out wrong and upset someone out there. But if I don’t try to write about this I’ll be upset. So I guess it’s worth a shot.

I don’t know the exact context of the famous Voltaire and/or Evelyn Beatrice Hall quotation, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s so overused I feel as if it’s got to be some sort of sham that gets misappropriated all the time, but I’m going to go ahead and nab it today because it fits so neatly into this situation. The situation being something along the lines of the following:

One of the writers at a publication I’m closely connected to wrote an article that has gotten a lot of very negative attention lately and that publication has decided to stand behind the author rather than taking down the offensive material. There has been a lot of noise made about how offensive this material is, and that noise is not exactly wrong. As someone who is very intimately connected with the publication and thus the material, I feel terrible that it’s out there and upsetting people. I am far, far too sensitive for this stuff. In any situation in which someone is upset by something, I almost always take the blame and the hurt feelings very much upon myself. I get upset. I blame myself. I feel absolutely terrible and try to make everyone in the situation happy again.

But sometimes that doesn’t work and sometimes it’s not even possible. And sometimes it’s not even right. The offending material made jokes about two very serious topics: racial stereotypes and rape. They were made absolutely in jest, and the writer, being one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known, didn’t expect anyone to take them seriously. But some people did. And here we enter into that big nebulous grey cloud of foggy moral responsibilities around humor and sensitive topics. Where are the lines drawn in this murky morass of bruised feelings, innocuous humor, insidious inequality and ignorance, and morality? These are subjects that people spend their whole lives trying to understand, but no one in their right mind can claim to have all the answers to.

So here I am, watching this meant-to-be-funny article being taken as very, very not funny. And I’m asking myself all these questions about what’s more important here: the offense people have taken to the article, or the right of the author to say it in the first place. The feelings of people who see no humor in touchy issues, or the importance of free speech? Vast, sweeping overstatements I want to make to defend the article, or taking an honest look at how these things really affect our society?

On the one hand, I believe absolutely that sexual assault and racism are deadly serious topics. When I read this article in HuffPo from Eve Ensler today, I almost wept. I myself, and a huge majority of the women I know, are all victims of sexual assault. It is a force of unspeakable evil in our world, and it is perpetuated through silence, sexism, and, yes, mockery. Making the issue of sexual assault seem less important or earth-shattering than it really is in a way defeats everything I stand for as a writer: I believe that the rights of all people are damaged by the pervasiveness of rape in the world today. And it makes me sick to think that I might contribute in any way to that pervasiveness.

The same is true of racism. A few months ago I made the definitive decision to stop reviewing any adult materials that come my way that make use of racial stereotypes as a selling point: I won’t review Cougars Like it Black or any of the other silly stuff that feeds into racial stereotyping in the adult industry. It’s needless and damaging and gross. And I don’t believe that mocking racial stereotypes is a universally good thing–it can be just as damaging as bald-facedly perpetuating those stereotypes.

So I hate to sit by and watch this all happen. I hate to think that people are reading this material and thinking that the people I work with might actually espouse these vile notions. But I also have to ask: what’s the point of humor and satire and public writings if not to give some air, some levity, some space to the topics that so offend us?

I absolutely don’t love it that neo-Nazis can go around saying awful things about other groups of people. I find it disgusting that some conservatives say hateful things about women who want reproductive rights. I don’t love it that there are places on the internet where people can voice their bigotry. But would I rather live in a place where things that offend people are censored? Would I rather live in an eerie silence in which jokes can’t be made because they might be offensive? It’s the silence we shroud certain topics in, like sex and rape and race, that often does more damage than the words themselves being uttered, called out, decried, and discussed, isn’t it? Or am I just making myself feel better?

I have a friend who was so annoyed by a stand-up comic that, last week, he walked up onto the stage at the club and punched the comic in the face for his racist comments about the bartender. I’m certainly not promoting violence in public places on a whim, but I think there’s a bit of an analogy here: sometimes it’s maybe better to let the unpleasant things you don’t like be said and then express your dislike… than it is to tell the person who said it that they had no right to say it or to try to revoke that person’s speech. Maybe it’s better to deal with the consequences of free speech and to let its not-so-positive iterations be platforms for discussion than to revoke things that are done. As Stephen King said once, “What’s done is done and can never be undone, as the Irish have been saying for centuries, and which just goes to show what assholes they are.”

Or somesuch. But you see what I’m saying? I’m not sure if I do. But I think the Voltaire or whomever quote above says a lot. This whole thing makes me want to curl up and cry. I don’t like it that it happened. But it did. So let’s talk about it.

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