Like most of you, I’m still reeling from what happened in Charlottesville over the weekend, even though anyone who’s been paying any sort of attention saw this coming. I’m not going to talk about Charlottesville because I’m not sure there’s anything I can say that hasn’t already been said better by someone else (in fact, you should really go read this and this). But I do want to take this opportunity to talk about something closely related.
Less than forty-eight hours after Heather Heyer was mowed down by a domestic terrorist, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made quite clear that he’s not cool with the “Free Speech” rally a bunch of extremist assholes have planned for this Saturday. After some hemming and hawing and predictably ridiculous comments, headliner Gavin McInnes backed out of the rally. In case that name doesn’t ring a bell, Gavin is a self-proclaimed “Western chauvinist” and the founder of the Proud Boys, an alt-right group that is basically a hipster version of Richard Spencer and his crew, though they claim to be “inclusive” and “not racist” (*rolls eyes*).
I’m not going to go on a rant about Gavin McInnes here because all you need to do is Google him. If you do that, you will know everything you need to know about what he represents in 2017.
What I really want to talk about is what Gavin McInnes represented in the early-2000s and how it serves as a perfect example of what I’m going to refer to as the “kidding / not kidding” oppressor phenomenon.
Way back in the day, Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE Magazine. I know when you hear VICE you probably think of a respectable news outlet that caters to young, progressive-ish people kind of in the same way that Buzzfeed does, except it happens to have its own cable channel with some decent content. Many of you may be too young or too old or too uninterested in the weirdness that was Brooklyn in the early-aughts to remember that VICE wasn’t always what it is now. It started out as a big, glossy print magazine that was a semi-ironic NY hipster guidebook chock full of snark.
Lots of people loved it. People I am still friends with loved it. People I am related to loved it. Sarah Silverman loved it. But I distinctly remember flipping through a copy of it in 2003 while I was working at a summer camp just outside New York City, and feeling sick. The content didn’t just piss me off, it made me feel scared and hollowed out in a way I can’t really describe. I couldn’t help feeling that VICE was helping to usher in something horrible.
I’m not going to lie. I enjoy an off-color, potentially offensive joke now and then (for the record, I just went to see Tom Segura with my husband). But VICE was something else. On the surface, it was smart and mean and irreverent in a way that came off as very dark, as if the people who wrote it truly didn’t give fuck about the world. And bubbling below that was a barely-contained undercurrent of racism, homophobia, misogyny, rape culture, ableism, and fat-shaming.
On the rare occasion that I decided to voice my misgivings with VICE, I was typically met with a well-meaning shrug and something along the lines of Yeah, they’re assholes but it’s so funny. Or They make fun of everyone so it’s fine (Sarah Silverman apparently used this particular defense). Or They’re just kidding. Because I got these responses from smart people I cared about, I thought something was wrong with me. Why can’t I just chill and take a joke? It doesn’t mean anything anyway. Right?
Instead of listening to those voices, I should have trusted my instincts. Because fast forward almost fifteen years and now we know full well that Gavin McInnes wasn’t kidding. He was waiting. Back in 2003, when I was flipping through that copy of VICE, he needed to disguise his revolting viewpoints with “edgy” humor. He needed to couch it in non-ironic irony so that it was palatable, in the same way that Coke adds phosphoric acid so you don’t immediately puke from all the sugar. In the same way that alt-righters half-jokingly threw around cartoonish swastikas on 4chan because ha ha ha swastikas are so funny and edgy and we’re just kidding.
Except they weren’t kidding either and, this past weekend, we saw them don swastikas and torches without even a hint of cheeky irony.
Gavin McInnes parted ways with VICE in 2008, the brand moved on, and the mag itself is now an artifact of what feels like another era. But VICE Magazine is not an isolated phenomenon. It’s a perfect example of how the seeds of what happened in Charlottesville get sewn. It illustrates the insidious ways in which a backlash against progress can creep in and lie dormant until the culture gives it a green light. It demonstrates the ways in which all of the old, gross ideas that we’ve been trying to purge from our systems for centuries can be repackaged as something cool.
Obviously not everyone who wrote for or read VICE turned into a racist, fascist piece of shit, and obviously not everyone who uses problematic humor is going to turn into someone like Gavin McInnes—please don’t read this post and think that that’s what I’m saying. As a culture, we’ve already become more critical of what we consume and the potential it has to perpetuate all sorts of -isms and phobias and make them safe for mainstream consumption. That said, I think we need to stop falling for privileged content-makers who act like they’re kidding when they’re really not.
How do you know if someone is kidding / not kidding? I wish I had an easy answer. A lot of it depends on context. In the case of VICE Magazine, the ugliness there was readily apparent to me and I still don’t know quite why. I can’t possibly be the only person who felt that way, but I’m guessing most of us were dismissed with responses like They’re just kidding and the even more ridiculous They make fun of everyone so it’s fine.
First, let’s put that second one to bed for good because it is insane. I think we all understand at this point that when, for example, a white man pokes fun at a black woman in a way that relies upon and perpetuates stereotypes, it does NOT have the same effect as when that same guy then pokes fun at a fellow white guy. These jokes don’t happen in a vacuum because there are deeply ingrained systems of power and oppression in play. The equal-opportunity-offender defense is a misguided lie—time to kill it with fire.
Finally, next time someone tells you that a song, book, article, show, etc. makes them hella uncomfortable, pause before you respond with Chill, they’re just kidding. I’m not saying you need to turn into a humorless bore who can’t laugh off something flat-out ridiculous, but maybe take a second to think about why you’re in such a hurry to dismiss your buddy’s concerns and defend the thing that’s giving them heartburn.
And if someone ever throws They’re just kidding at you, consider responding with, “Are you sure? Because maybe you’re being McInnesed and you don’t even know it.”
If you’ve got other examples of kidding / not kidding you want to chat about, leave a comment below.