Wednesday, February 15, 2017

They're Racist "Only Ironically"?: Satirizing Racism Vs. Actual Hostility Hiding Under the Guise of Humor

Stuart K. Hayashi

"It's Just Edgy Humor or Satire"?
A common excuse frequently delivered in favor of alt-right trolls -- the ones who send unsolicited pictures of Nazis, or of Jews in gas ovens, to such "establishment cuckservatives" as Jonah Goldberg and Ben Shapiro -- is that they are merely expressing a dark sense of humor; they are not racist and should not be taken literally.

Here is how Milo Yiannopoulos himself phrases it,

Just as the kids of the [']60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish “Shlomo Shekelburg” to “Remove Kebab,” an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide. . . .

Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the [']80s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents. . . .

...the alt-right openly crack jokes about the Holocaust, loudly -- albeit almost entirely satirically -- expresses its horror at “race-mixing,” and denounces the “degeneracy” of homosexuals . . . while inviting Jewish gays and mixed-race Breitbart reporters [this is referring to this essay's co-author Allum Bokhari] to their secret dinner parties. What gives? 
If you’re this far down the article, you’ll know some of the answers already. For the [alt-right's practical-joking] meme brigade, it’s just about having fun. They have no real problem with race-mixing, homosexuality, or even diverse societies: it’s just fun to watch the mayhem and outrage that erupts when those secular shibboleths are openly mocked. . .

The intellectuals [of the alt-right -- here, Yiannopoulos means Richard Spencer --] are animated by a similar thrill: after being taken for granted for centuries, they’re the ones who get to pick apart some of the Enlightenment’s dead dogmas.

It turns out that Milo is speaking from experience. In 2006, when he was in his early twenties and calling himself "Milo Andreas Wagner," he adopted a Nazi sympathizer persona -- allegedly in jest, naturally. As one example, he strolled around in public adorning a Nazi Iron Cross necklace.

In 2009, Yiannopoulos uploaded this image -- again, "jokingly."

I came across those images visiting this blog post, which chronicles still other instances -- all from before the year 2015 -- of Yiannopoulos hinting at sympathies for Naziism.

In his apologia for alt-right trolls, Yiannopoulos asserts that these trolls merely wear "the mask of racism."  That is quite the postmodernist ploy -- the real concealment, the true disguise, is in the insistence that the racism is but a mask.

For much of late 2014 and early 2015, before I learned about Milo's Nazi fetish, and when I still wanted to believe Yiannopoulos was my ally against politically-correct fanaticism and the "Social Justice Warriors," I saw increasingly offensive tweets done in the name of humor, and I wanted to believe that it was safe to dismiss them as callous humor not to be taken literally. "It's just the satire that is common on 4chan," I was told. Here is the reason why, when many hostile, Nazi-themed tweets are sent to Jonah Goldberg and Ben Shapiro, very few of those should be dismissed as just humor or satire, even when most of them try to pass themselves off as being humorous in tone.

The Good-Looking Female, Her Racist "Jokes," and the "Thirsty" Men Who Reinforce Her
Some years ago I interacted with this one female on (anti)social media; she was in her twenties, and very good-looking.  No matter what she said on (anti)social media -- no matter how vile -- she would get a hundred "likes," mostly from (very "thirsty") men.  Among the online status updates that received hundreds of "likes," were her "jokes":  making light of the death of Whitney Houston (this mostly related to drugs, not race), saying that her boss is always trying to cheat her because he's Jewish and that's just what Jews do, and that all Asian-descended people in the USA look and behave exactly alike.  The first few months this went on, I told myself, "As unfunny as she is, she's still just joking..."

This trend went on for more than a year.  Her consistency in derogating Jews and Asians was remarkable.  By the end of the year, I had to admit to myself,

I don't think she is joking.  I think she seriously harbors these deep-seated prejudices, but knows that if she stated outright that these were her actual opinions, she would receive well-earned flack over it.  Hence, she expresses these prejudices under the guise of being "tongue in cheek."  If someone calls her out for expressing racist sentiments, she can issue the stock reply, "Didn't you notice the facetious tone?  Can't you take a joke?"

There is an old term for this type of behavior. It is called being passive-aggressive. Someone is passive-aggressive when she wishes to express some type of anger or hostility toward someone, but, out of fear of some blowback, she does not want the expression to be recognized exactly for what it is. Therefore, she lashes out at her target in a somewhat sneakier fashion.

A more precise expression for this particular phenomenon is kidding on the square.  As World Wide Words explains it,
Somebody kidding on the square makes a joke but means it, too. . . . The idiom is known from the early twentieth century -- it turns up in February 1907 in McClure’s Magazine and is often recorded in the years that follow. . . . 
If you are on the square, you’re honest or sincere, an idea that turns up in other idioms, such as square deal. It may be from a square being an uncompromisingly straightforward shape, but a link with Freemasonry has been plausibly suggested. For masons, a square was a key instrument for accurately measuring a 90° angle, those of the corners of a square (also called right angles because they were the correct or true ones), so that a structure on the square had been properly built. Similarly, anything off square had something wrong with it.

Kidding on the square, in the most passive-aggressive fashion, is what Milo Yiannopoulos's beloved alt-right Nazi-meme-senders are doing when they tweet Nazi imagery at Jewish conservatives and then say that they are merely being humorous pranksters -- that they are being satirical. But for you to fall for this, you would have to misunderstand what satire means.

No, Trying to Elicit Laughs While Being Racist Isn't "Satirizing Racism"
To satirize bigotry is not to say something bigoted that one either does not mean or later professes not to mean. To take a satirical approach to bigotry is both:

  1. To make some demonstration of how absurd bigotry is. 
  2. To be open about one’s own intention to expose what bigotry looks like when taken to its final absurdity. 

That is what Mel Brooks did in his classic movies, such as Blazing Saddles. A more recent example is a narrative near the end of the South Park episode “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow.” Near the climax, Eric Cartman melodramatically points a gun at his frienemy Kyle Broflovski and demands, “Hand over the gold. . . . All Jews carry gold in a little around their necks. . . . Give me your Jew gold now! . . . I want your Jew gold.”

The humor there ridicules not Jews but anti-Semites: it exposes the absurdity of anti-Semites making stereotypical assumptions about Jews. Later in the episode, Kyle removes his hat and it turns out he was hiding his “Jew gold” there the whole time. The surprise elicits a laugh, but it doesn’t imply that anti-Semites are correct in making assumptions about Jews in general: the humor comes from the idea that, once in a while, a member of a minority does behave in a manner similar to particular stereotype while it still doesn’t apply to the group as a whole. The Cartman character makes for a compelling satire on anti-Semitism because the ridicule is directed at the absurdity of the anti-Semites; it doesn’t express hostility toward Jews in general.

By contrast, what point is made when alt-right people tweet Nazi imagery at Jonah Goldberg? What point is made when they tweet images of Pepe the Frog in a Nazi uniform? Is the point to ridicule anti-Semitism or racism? No, obviously the main point is simply to make Jonah Goldberg understandably uncomfortable. There is nothing satirical about it. The point is indeed to express hostility -- and then, in an implausible fashion, to plead “I was only joking!” when confronted about it. Ayn Rand is quite right in The Romantic Manifesto to cast aspersions upon "the man who...seeks to undercut all values under cover of a chuckle, who gets away with offensive malicious utterances and, if caught, runs for cover by declaring: 'I was only kidding.'"

When alt-right jerks send Nazi photos to Jonah Goldberg, do they literally want him murdered in a gas oven?  I very much doubt it; that part is a "joke" in poor taste.  But do they intend to express genuine hostility and spite toward him?  Yes.  That part is not a joke, is not funny, and the very intention to express that hatred is to be taken literally.

On February 23, 2017, I added the explanation of the term kidding on the square, and I also changed the wording of the paragraph beneath that explanation.