Friday, 1 November 2013

Bristol Bans Blurred Lines

(This is a piece I wrote for Bad Housekeeping. To read it in its original context, click here.)

On Tuesday night, the Bristol University student council passed a motion entitled 'End Rape Culture at Bristol' which proposed, among other things, to ban the song Blurred Lines from being played at Union organised events. In banning the song we've joined eight other universities across the UK who've taken an equivalent step. In the days running up to the council, debate online was persistent and divisive. I'd started to think we'd pretty much hammered the last nail into the Blurred Lines coffin, but now it became clear that there was something slightly more complex at play.

To be clear: I don't like the song Blurred Lines. I think it's gross, demeaning, unpleasant and creepy. The most recent spate of articles hailing it as a 'feminist anthem' are every level of risible. As far as I'm concerned, offering a women sexual liberation when it involves your own penis does not hold a great deal of sway, especially when followed up with the observation 'you the hottest bitch in this place' (however astute it might be). I'm aware that there are a lot of other songs just as gross and sexist out there, but I don't think there is anything wrong with people fighting particularly against this one: Blurred Lines has become a banner people can assemble under and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It has become a chance to make a stand, speak out and join the fight. If we're all just 'jumping on the band wagon' I personally really like where this wagon is headed.

But the controversy over this song appears to have moved on: from whether it's 'really all that bad' (it is) to whether unions have a right to ban it. Here's a selection of some of the negative responses I found to the motion online:

“It's probably not a feminist anthem but I agree banning it seems... a bit hysterical. It's pop. It will go away”

“Censorship is not the way forward. Banning a silly pop song is not going to end misogynistic behaviour. It merely compromises one of the most fundamental pillars of democracy and freedom”.

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”

and my personal favourite:

“It says in the Game of Thrones books 'When you tear out a man's tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you're only telling the world that you fear what he might say'”
These comments present the two main arguments that I've heard levelled against the ban: first, that it's a trivial issue, not worthy of attention, secondly that the action of banning a song undermines our fundamental democratic right to freedom of speech (the theme that dominated debate at the council).

Let us be perfectly clear about one thing. There is a huge, huge difference between cutting out Robin Thicke's tongue and refusing to put a megaphone in front of his face. I believe in freedom of speech. In fact, in instances like this, I'm infinitely thankful it exists so people can wave their stupid bigoted, misguided words above their heads like audible 'keep your distance I'm a total train wreck' flag. It saves me time and effort on a day to day basis. However, that doesn't mean I have an obligation to give their words any more publicity than they already have. The best analogy I can think of is would be that meeting someone sexist doesn't mean I have to invite them to my party on Friday. I'm not stopping you from expressing sexist views. I'm just not prepared to let you express sexist views in a room with all my best friends. They came here to have a good time, and it's my fucking party.
This is a distinction I've had to make a few times in my line of work. I book stand ups for a fortnightly comedy night. The world of comedy is still pretty male dominated: when I first took over from my male predecessor and called our venue to introduce myself I was assumed to be his PA. But slowly I'm trying to put my stamp on it, and for me this means filtering out stand ups and material that I find to be problematic. When comedians approach me for a slot I always try to do a quick scan of online recorded material, but the nature of our gig (free, friendly, informal) means we get a lot of first-time performers and semi-professional comedians trying out new material, so there's always an element of risk involved when a stand up stands up.

On the occasion that something unpleasant is said, I try to be as non-judgemental as possible. Comedy can be difficult to gauge; what seems clever and ironic in front of your bathroom mirror can sound completely different in front of an audience. In my experience, nine times out of ten a comedian will know instantly if they've crossed a line by the audibly weary groan from the audience. Sexist and otherwise discriminatory humour isn't just offensive, it's lazy and audiences are good at letting a comic know they deserved better for their attention. However, I will always try to approach the comedian after the gig, and discuss with joke with them, always giving them the benefit of the doubt: whether they intended it to be received the way it was, how they meant it, better ways it might be phrased. I make it clear that the joke, in its current form and delivery is not suitable for this gig. Almost every time, especially in the cases where the joke seemed completely out of line, the comedian responded positively to this advice. In these cases I shelve it and think no more of it. If they're defensive, unable to take feedback and unwilling to discuss what happened I don't book them again.

This does not amount to me trying to suppress their freedom of speech. I wouldn't dream of telling them they can't perform the joke, I don't make any attempt to try to reshape their views on what is and isn't offensive, because frankly I don't have the time or energy. I just know that I have to hold myself personally accountable for the performance that the 60 or so audience members saw that night, and I will take every measure I can to mean that this is not a performance where (for example) female charity workers are told that they would be better serving their community as prostitutes, where lesbians are told they all look like short butch women, where rohypnol is described as a 'recreational drug that gives you someone to cuddle at the end of the night' (all jokes I've had to deal with). You want to tell sexist jokes? That's great for you, but you're not telling them here.

When you offer a platform that will grant access to a group of people (whether that's the sixty members of my audience or the several thousand students represented by the Bristol Students Union) you have to be prepared to answer for what is said from that platform. Banning Blurred Lines might not end rape culture, it won't wipe out all misogyny. But it does send a clear message from the Union that people will take note of: this is not what what we do, and you will not hear it here. Alice Philips, the Bristol Student Union women's officer who proposed the motion, and everyone who stood with her to pass it deserve a party tonight. And I'm glad I know Robin Thicke isn't invited.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this I think you fail to realize the flaw in your thinking when it comes to free speech. While I agree with you that Blurred Lines is a terrible song that does not give you the right however, to ban it from Union organized events. While everyone does have a right to free speech, everyone does not have the right to not get offended. Just because something offends you does not mean you can ban it. While it is a trashy song it still is a form of art and art is meant for public consumption. I mean just because you are in a position of power doesn’t give you the right to arbitrarily decide what is ok for people to listen to across the board. The problem when you start banning forms of art is you are starting to pick and choose what is ok to make fun of and what is not. Like when you are choosing comedians for gigs. You say you don’t pick comedians who do sexist jokes because there offensive but what about a comedian who makes jokes about Christians. Would that be ok? Just because you don’t find it offensive doesn’t mean someone in the crowd will not find it offensive. Your preferences of what is ok or not should not should not be forced on to others. Some one will always end up getting offended so either everything is ok or nothing is ok
    Also the solution to the problem you think a song like Blurred Lines perpetuate in our society is not to take away rights but by using your own voice. Like using this blog you have to explain to people why Blur Lines is a sexist song or setting up an event to shine a light on problems women face today.
    P.S If you have any questions about what I write please send me a message. I look forward to you response