Sunday, May 3, 2009

Should we be offended by "Manicure for the Cure"?

by Nick Cox

In Josh's post on the recent "Save Second Base" scandal, he calls for "a way of speaking about gender and sexuality and oppression with more subtlety" and "more compassion," a feminist discourse that would be complex enough to denounce an offensive joke from an ethical standpoint while at the same time acknowledging the undeniable fact that the joke is still funny despite, or perhaps even because of, its offensiveness. I absolutely agree with him, and I'm interested in exploring what such a way of thinking could be.

One possible answer could lie in Josh's assertion that the "Save Second Base" ads "ought to be offensive," regardless of whether or not they actually are. "As feminists," he writes, "we strive towards a common moral sense that is offended by the objectification of women." It is this assumption that we must question if we want to see gender, as Josh hopes, in more subtle ways. Moreover, I think it's high time we did some serious reflection on "offensiveness," a bit of jargon that has been a ubiquitous part of American bourgeois culture for a while now.

We genteel Ivy League liberal types are constantly getting offended. We wander campus like warriors, constantly on the lookout for enemies. It is worth emphasizing that "offense" is a word that denotes violence; to be offended is to be attacked, to be made the recipient of violence. And with this violence comes the urge to issue a counterattack—not in self-defense, because the damage is already done, but in retaliation.

The sense of being offended, as Josh points out, is a powerful source of solidarity among feminists and other advocates for the rights of the oppressed. But one need only think about the appalling abuse of lawsuits in America today to realize how potentially problematic this feeling of being wronged can be. We feminists might as well admit that assuming the role of the wronged party undeniably brings with it a burst of self-righteous pleasure, the same sort of perverse pleasure you got as a child from telling on someone.

If we want to create for ourselves the mode of discourse that Josh has called for, we must always be wary of succumbing to the temptation of this pleasure. The reason is that, when a feminist denounces something as "offensive," her denunciation is by its very nature reifying the gender dynamic it seeks to denounce. Her rhetoric implies that the misogynistic slogan has somehow damaged her, and she retaliates by saying how offended and objectified it made her feel. This narrative takes the form of the classic "damsel in distress" myth, one of the central documents of the patriarchy.

The posture of the offended feminist, as I've mentioned, is prefigured in the image of the raped woman. The feminist who gets offended by the misogynies that she sees everywhere is putting herself in the position of the victim, and expecting those in power to take pity on her. In that moment she throws away all she has been working for. The next generation of feminists may find it makes the most sense to cultivate not indignation but indifference. If something offends you, it has already succeeded in hurting you. But if, by being indifferent to it, you do not allow it to offend you, its power over you is broken.

I, for one, thought the "Save Second Base" slogan was very funny. It was a clever way to illustrate the tangible effects of a disease that sometimes tends to ossify into a stock phrase whose utterance brings to mind little more than a folded pink ribbon. I did not find it the least bit offensive, and I really don't think the shitstorm it generated was at all merited. I don't agree with Josh that it "ought" to have been offensive. I think that, on the contrary, we should strive to not let things offend us.

A new feminist discourse should be self-critical enough to know the extent to which it is fundamentally made in the image of the very patriarchy from which it is trying to extricate itself. It should be aware of when it is slipping into patterns of thought that perpetuate the status quo on a subterranean level. It must also, I believe, be much more patient in withholding value judgments. It will be our business not to counter overt "offensiveness" with another salvo of slogans, but to explore the hidden ways in which male domination expresses itself, especially in our own attempts to free ourselves from male domination.

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