I used to work in a feminist bookshop – it was much like any other bookshop, except it didn’t have a humour section.
That gem is perhaps the best example I know of the self-armouring joke. It plays on a cruel and unfair stereotype, but those whom it targets are left defenseless, unable to criticise the joke because to do so would validate it.
It sprang to mind when reading a paragraph in Amanda Hess’s piece in Slate which celebrates ‘ironic misandry’ as a weapon in the arsenal of modern feminism. As one of her interviewees states:
“It’s a good way to weed out cool dudes from the dumb bros.” As Zimmerman puts it: “The men who get annoyed by misandry jokes are in my experience universally brittle, insecure, humorless weenies with victim complexes,” while the “many intelligent, warm, confident feminist men in my life … mostly get the joke immediatly and play along. They’re not worried I actually want to milk them for their tears.”
Prior to reading these lines, I had always been happy to file items like ‘Male Tears’ mugs under the ever-expanding List of Shits I Could Not Give. I really don’t bristle when I see the hashtag #KillAllMen, however I do object to the fingertrap which establishes that if I do get annoyed it means I must be a brittle, insecure, humorless weenie.
So as one who is far too old, ugly and battle-hardened to worry about the opinions of hip young feminist Tumblrista, it falls to me to stick my head above the parapet and say actually no, this is not just harmless fun.
Inevitably, there is a moral spectrum here. There are many occasions when feminists or anti-racism activists raise perfectly legitimate issues of racism or sexism, only to be met by entitled whining about loss of privilege. Think of those who grumble about not being allowed to sexually harass strange women in the street, or who complain that political correctness means they’ve lost their free speech to call black people by the n-word. An ironic reference to male tears or white tears under those circumstances is probably entirely justified. It is the feminist or anti-racist equivalent of a reference to the world’s tiniest violin.
The line can be crossed, I think, in a couple of ways. The first is in ironic celebrations of violence. I can see no significant moral difference between Paul Elam‘s satirical ‘Bash a violent bitch month’, misogynists’ so-called banter in the form of rape jokes and threats, or a feminist’s satirical ‘Kill All Men.’ I’ve made no secret of where I stand on the so-called ‘TERF wars’ within feminism, but when Caroline Criado-Perez posted a collection of the images and tweets she’d collected that relished violent fantasies, I can no more excuse or justify those than I could the equivalent hate-speech from radical feminists towards trans people.
Of all the violent memes in circulation, the one I despise the most is ‘Die in a fire.’ It was always deeply unpleasant, but a few months ago I was rubbernecking a twitter argument involving someone I know. He was instructed to die in a fire. While I am sure his detractor did not, I knew that this man is a Manchester firefighter who only a few weeks before had experienced two of his courageous colleagues doing exactly that.
The other serious problem with ironic hate is that it quickly crosses over into ironic and studied indifference to real hatred. The last time I wrote about male suicide, I checked the Twitter links to see what people were saying and found a tweet by a self-identifying feminist that simply linked to the article with the words ‘Male suicide. LOL.’ Similarly, when I got caught in a recent avalanche of hate from a small coterie of radical feminists, they took to discussing my broad work and interests, leading to this charming contribution.
I’m no angel, and in writing this I’ve had to consider my own occasional habit of writing things like ‘Eat the rich’ or ‘first up against the wall.’ I do think there is a slight difference in that I’d be pretty confident none of my readers have lost friends or relatives in revolutionary insurrections or outbreaks of class-based cannibalism, but when all is said and done, it is probably equally unjustifiable. I shall do my best to practise as I preach.
As with all issues of free expression, I do not urge bans or legal intervention as a solution. I urge everyone to accept responsibility for the consequences of their words. If you use violent imagery and hateful expressions, people will assume you are violent and hate-filled. If you wish to portray yourself as a campaigner for human rights and equality, and you play with the language of violence and oppression, don’t be surprised or complain if others assume you and your movement are violent and oppressive. This shouldn’t be a particularly difficult rule to grasp.
By the way, I did used to work in a feminist bookshop. It didn’t have a humour section.