Personally, I fully support all forms of egalitarianism, whether for race, sex, or sexual orientation. And I know that these bloggers do too. I couldn’t be more on the side of their cause.
Yet, as I read these blogs, I see them freely throwing around labels like “misogyny”, “racist”, “sexist”, and “bigoted”, without any reference to the terms “satire”, “sarcasm”, or “trolling”. And that concerns me.
Let me give you an example of real misogyny:
Two of my friends go to a bar. There they meet an older man complaining about the feminist movement.
“I don’t understand why women think they need men’s jobs all of the sudden. Executives? President? Can you believe a woman was running for president? We need a woman president like we need woman drivers.”
“Are you serious man?”
“Well, yeah. You don’t think a woman could really handle the same pressures as a man, do you? Am I right? Come on!”
“Uh, I don’t think about women that way, dude. Did you come to this bar via a time machine from the 1800′s?”
Let me give you an example of real racism:
As a child, I used to watch Saved by the Bell. In the show, there was a white teenager named Screech who had a crush on a black teenager named Lisa.
One time while watching the show, my grandpa witnessed this interaction and expressed disgust at the show for portraying it. It was at that moment that I realized, a little horrified, that my grandpa had racist opinions.
Let me give you an example of real homophobia:
In the movie Bruno, the protagonist stages a fake interview with Ron Paul in a hotel. During the interview, the writers fake a technical issue. Bruno then takes Paul to a room alone, where Bruno eventually takes off his pants.
Infuriated, Paul stomps out of the room and says “That guy’s queerer than the blazes… He’s queer, he’s crazy, he hit on me, he took his clothes off.”
Rather than merely denouncing the fact that Bruno had made an aggressive sexual advance, Paul emphatically denigrates his apparent sexual orientation.
This is real bigotry. These are people who, to greater and lesser degrees, truly do not see people of other genders, races, and sexual orientations as equals in society.
With this serious foundation in place, let me introduce a new concept: satire. Sarcasm.
Let me give you an example of satirical bigotry:
I have a friend with a professional degree and a professional job. His wife has the same degree and just as prestigious a job. They own a home together and share responsibilities. It is a relationship of mutual respect.
In any serious philosophical or social discussion, he vehemently defends equality of all kinds, including gender equality. He aggressively supports racial equality.
And, yet, he has made the following comments in conversation:
“That bitch just needs to get into the kitchen and make a sandwich.”
“Well, that’s just because they are lazy Mexicans.”
What just happened here? Did my progressive friend just transform into a bigoted monster right before my very eyes? Or was he clearly making statements that he knew that we, his fellow progressive friends, would interpret as satire?
Does he secretly and subconsciously actually think women are inferior? Or does he think it is so patently obvious that they should be treated as equals that his statements will be unambiguously interpreted as the height of absurd sarcasm?
Knowingly Pushing the Limits of Free Speech
Dead baby jokes. “Make me a sandwich” jokes. Rape jokes. To call these jokes extreme is an understatement. They push the borders of rhetoric in polite society. These jokes are so obscene that people typically only make them anonymously through channels like b and r/atheism or among the most personal of friends.
Personally, I’m not comfortable making jokes like these. Even though I know they are sarcasm, it just feels too wrong to say them, or even type them, publicly.
But am I comfortable labeling this behavior as “misogyny”, “bigotry”, and “racism”? No, I am not. This is something different. It is satire. It is some of the strangest and edgiest satire that anyone can imagine. And I think that is part of the appeal. But this is not real bigotry. These people do not actually believe these statements.
And that is an important distinction. I have carefully catalogued the real bigots above. They aren’t trying to get a rise out of anyone. They have real, bigoted opinions. And they actually believe them.
You may call the people on b and r/atheism horrible, horrible trolls who push free speech to the most profound limits out of morbid curiosity. And if you accused them of this, they would probably completely agree with you. But real bigots, they are not.
I think it is harmful to the cause of egalitarianism when its defenders do not recognize and address the presence of sarcasm. I think it is harmful when statements of satirical bigotry are treated as statements of real bigotry.
You may hate satirical bigotry. You may feel you can make a good argument for how it is harmful. But when you equivocate it with real bigotry, you look like you are tilting at windmills and fighting shadows. Which makes it more difficult for the people you are criticizing to take you seriously and cooperate with you. You have to show them that you understand the difference. And you have to make the argument for why it is still harmful, despite being satire. Which, honestly, is not necessarily an easy argument to make.