There’s a new witch hunt against artists – and progressives are wielding the torches and pitchforks.
Earlier in May, Lou Reed’s 1972 hit “Walk on the Wild Side” caused a stir at Guelph University. In an attempt to liven up bus pass distribution, the song had been added to a 70s-themed playlist, and it seems some students were irked by the opening lyrics:
“Holly came from Miami, FLA / Hitchhiked her way across the USA / Plucked her eyebrows on the way / Shaved her legs and then he was a she.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t social conservative moralists who took issue with the transgressive song, but progressives. The forty-five-year-old song was deemed “transphobic.”
“We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgement,” the Guelph Central Student Association stated on Facebook.
It struck many as strange that Lou Reed, of all people, would be accused of this. Reed was active in the queer community, and “Walk on the Wild Side” was a deliberate attempt to expose the scene to the wider public.
That said, I’ve no doubt there are members of the trans community who may be offended by Reed’s lyrics – just as there are many in the same community who find the song delightful.
The real-life subject of the lyrics in question, Holly Woodlawn, certainly did. In 2008, she told Dave Simpson of The Guardian that the song accurately reflected her experiences as a young transgender woman, and that hearing the song on the radio for the first time marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Reed.
So, why is one perspective suddenly more valid than the other?
Among politically correct progressives, the suggestion that a lyric may come across as objectifying to one person and empowering to another no longer holds water. Because censorship is inherently collectivist (prioritizing a nebulously-defined “collective good” over the individual right to free expression), the principle of individual interpretation is roundly rejected.
Within the cult of political correctness, being offended automatically gives one the moral high ground.
This may explain the latest craze in the publishing world – “sensitivity readers.” Defined by Slate’s Katy Waldman as “members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group,” sensitivity readers are paid to call out literary microaggressions.
These “advising angels” may also crack down on problematic statements by fictional characters. Waldman’s article profiles Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda author Becky Albertalli, who came under fire for having her title character, a naïve gay teen from the south, express some questionable ideas about lesbians.
Of course, fictional characters aren’t expected to be perfect, and it’s a fallacy to conflate an author with her characters. However, this basic principle of literacy was lost on some readers, who accused Albertalli of contributing to the “fetishization of queer girls.” The controversy spooked Albertalli so much that she subjected her follow-up novel to twelve sensitivity look-overs.
Then again, a sensitivity read may have saved the career of former Write magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki.
Niedzviecki stepped down this May after questioning the premise of literary cultural appropriation and urging writers to “win the Appropriation prize” by including diverse characters in their works. While Niedzviecki’s rhetoric was admittedly bombastic, his central argument was sound – fiction would be more diverse if writers were less afraid to take risks and “explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.”
A bevy of journalists took to Twitter in defense of Niedzviecki. One of them, former CBC news managing editor Steve Ladurantaye, was later demoted for offering $100 to fund a hypothetical “Appropriation Prize.”
Perhaps they should have known what they were wading into.
In 2013, pop singer and self-described feminist Lily Allen found herself under the hot lights for her video “Hard Out There,” a satire of sexism and cultural appropriation which was itself accused of…sexism and cultural appropriation. Initially defiant, she finally apologized in 2016, saying, “I was guilty of assuming that there was a one-size-fits-all where feminism is concerned.”
With all due respect to Ms. Allen, it seems to me that it’s the politically correct progressives who enforce a one-size-fits-all approach.
Despite its postmodern basis, progressivism is strangely dogmatic when it comes to identity politics. If something is deemed “offensive,” there is no room for debate on whether the offence is reasonable (and don’t even try to argue that anyone has a right to be offensive).
Authorial intent doesn’t matter, because these censors are dealing with subconscious biases so small you need a microscope and a liberal arts degree just to view them. There is no consideration of context – what matters is the subconscious effect of problematic language. Creative works must be tailored to the lowest common denominator, as audiences cannot be expected to think critically.
(The fact that the progressives are seemingly able to consume these works with a critical perspective weakens their argument somewhat).
This is the discredited, out-of-date “hypodermic needle” theory of media effect, updated for the modern age. It’s an artless approach, one that eschews ambiguity, subtlety, provocation, and all the other hallmarks of great art.
The politically correct censors don’t fear violence or immorality or any of the other boogeymen of old; their greatest fear is dissent. They know their ideas won’t hold up to scrutiny, which is why their arguments are cloaked in impossible-to-disprove claims and academic jargon. They would rather retreat to a safe space than take a walk on the wild side.
They’ve succeeded in stigmatizing conservatives in many spaces, and now they’re purging their own movement. This could be why they’re turning on people who should be on their side – namely, progressive artists who think too freely for their own good.
Conservatives may be tempted to laugh at these latest examples of the left cannibalizing itself – but we shouldn’t. We also suffer when artists are afraid to create, when free thinkers are afraid to express their thoughts, and when activists are afraid to defend free speech.
We’re in the midst of a new culture war, and everyone who believes in freedom of expression should be on the same side.
Originally published in C2C Journal on June 13/2017.