on the culture wars, and why ‘offensiveness’ is a bad yardstick

jes skolnik

I begin here, with why I care: I have CPTSD. For real. (It sucks, in case you were wondering, though I have also had access to medication, therapy and other resources that make it much less difficult, and that makes me lucky.) While I’d like to separate my own personal history and self from this argument, it is inextricable, given my history of engagement with and writing on the way American culture and society handles trauma and how that reflects and refracts in musical subcultures.

When I started writing and organizing with and for other survivors of sexual assault in the ‘90s, we had developed certain vocabularies for use in the spaces we were building for one another: the much-overused and misapplied ‘trigger warning’ is one of them. It was a friendly heads-up in a small community: hey, this piece of media fucked with me, it may or may not fuck with you, but I just want you to be prepared, and you can decide what to do and how to engage from there.

This is the position from which I’ve argued for trigger warnings for a very long time. I still think in this context this practice can be reasonable, helpful and thoughtful. But as trigger warnings have reached larger cultural awareness, they have lost their original context, and the term is all but useless at this point to the people who initially developed it, the people who find it useful.

Any time marginalized people speak about our experiences, there is a predictable backlash from people who don’t think the status quo is worth examining or questioning. For a very long time, this backlash was all we could see whenever we spoke: you don’t have the right to speak. Shut up. We don’t want to hear it. For a very long time, this reaction — the daily harassment I’ve received for being myself and fairly visible, which I am certainly not the only person to experience — was all I could see, because it was constantly there, wearying, exhausting. I keep talking anyway — but that dynamic shaped the way I understood the world for a long time. That backlash still exists.

I have never, ever written from a position in which I take offense to media. I have lived a life in which I have endured multiple and severe violent traumas, and I have developed all manner of mechanisms to deal with these traumas (your methods may vary from mine, but mine includes extremely dark humor, though I try to be careful of the audience for that humor when I use it). I think pushing buttons reactively is childish and hacky and I don’t see much use for it, but I’m never offended. I think some band names, album titles, song lyrics, and so forth are ignorant and ill-conceived (for any number of reasons), butI am interested in the contexts in which these ideas were developed and in which they are received. I may find a band pointless to me — we all evaluate whether media is something we are or are not interested in from the point of view of our own personal tastes, ethics and ideals — but I do not deny its right to exist, whether I fuck with it or not.

Over the last couple of years, cultural dialogue has started to shift as ideas developed for survival in many of the marginalized communities in which I exist become decontextualized and applied far beyond their initial means. Take the Infamous Church Whip Disaster of 2013, in which the band in question decided to call its tour “Raping the East.” A few people, including myself, asked “What’s up with that?” The band responded defensively (and did not do themselves any favors). A few venues on that tour decided to cancel the shows, and those shows were moved or the tour re-routed, and social media was on fire for a minute. The band had their van tires slashed and ‘Rape Apologists’ written on the side. I wrote, at that point, that I understood the anger at the general tenor of the dialogue, the anger at generalized rape culture, but that this was a misapplication of the power dynamics at work: Church Whip weren’t rape apologists. Rape apologism is when the society around a rape survivor excuses away said assault: he’s always been cool to me, but you went home with him, so forth. That’s not what was happening here. Poor word choice is not rape apologism. Precision in language and argument is important. (I also, for the record, thought that vandalizing the band’s van was a bridge too far. Many people close to me disagreed. This is a question of tactics.)

Offensiveness is a bad yardstick for the measurement of whether something is allowed to exist or not. Counterculture exists to challenge the status quo in some way or another, and these battles over what is ‘offensive’ within the subculture have existed as long as punk has been a thing with a name. My very existence as an out queer person is offensive to a lot of mainstream America, even if it seems to be trendy to claim queer identity within the subculture these days (the struggle for territory there and the queerer-than-thou battles, queerness as a political position — those are subjects for another day). ‘Offensiveness’ shifts drastically based on position in a way that sturdier models of ethics do not. It is slippery, the last go-to for people who don’t understand what they’re fighting for or against, people who are deploying language without understanding its context.

I have always argued passionately for better dialogue, greater understanding, greater thoughtfulness. Some people are uninterested in that conversation and would rather point fingers — on both sides of the equation. I stand in the middle, where things are constantly blurry and where argument for nuance makes me perennially unpopular all around. I am interested in reality, in context, in how no one perception of a situation (even mine) is entirely correct because no two people see a situation the same way. When we are able to understand one another despite our differences, when we come to the table with mutual respect: that is where true social change lies. (How do you sit down at that table when you know the other side will never respect you? How do you start that conversation?)

This brings me to the band Cuntz having their shows cancelled this week because their name is “offensive,” which I think is massively ridiculous. There are reasons to call for a show to be cancelled — say there’s someone who’s playing who is actually dangerous, who has a long history of predatory sexual abuse. That’s not information that’s necessarily initially available to the booker, and it’s an important public community safety issue. This is — not that.

I’m saying this as a person who has had the word “cunt” used against me during violent gender-based altercations. It is a word I heard when my ex had a gun barrel pressed up against my head. When he said it, I heard true malevolence. It’s also a word I’ve had used toward me positively, in consensual, loving sexual situations. When she said it, I heard true adoration. It’s a word that feminists have been arguing publicly about reclaiming for a very long time. It’s a word with multiple contexts (the band in question is Australian; colloquial usage is way different than in America). I am a longtime proponent of understanding how seemingly small things tie into much larger unequal power structures and this is too much even for me. “Cuntz” is a ridiculous name. One can debate it all day, but cancelling these shows is, again, a bridge too far.

The anger and frustration I see in my feed about this show cancellation seems to be directed not toward the misapplication of phrases like ‘trigger warning,’ not toward the devolution of useful concepts and actions around the understanding of trauma, gender identity and racial dynamics, but toward the original concepts themselves, as if the concepts were the problem and not their broad misuse. I am furious about how concepts invented for the survival of marginalized people are being distorted beyond recognition to the point, as I noted above, where they become no longer useful for the people who developed them and who need them on a daily basis; that is the problem, not that these concepts were developed in the first place.*

*As a good friend of mine just noted upon first read of this piece, the fact that these concepts are being distorted and misapplied makes the conditions in which they were developed (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia) no less real and pernicious and ongoing.

jes skolnik

Written by

noise prince/ss. @bandcamp daily managing editor. gay as in gay, intersex as in intersex. opinions belong to my loud mouth only.

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