Monthly Archives: May 2015

I See White People (and I’m Sick of It)

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About a month ago, I tweeted a little snark at Cameron Crowe about the poster for his upcoming film, Aloha. I was shocked to get a response. I wasn’t shocked, however, when the film turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be— a film about white people with some HAWAII used as, essentially, set dressing. Perhaps Crowe was assuming I might be pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of Hawaiian sovereignty activist Bumpy Kanahele (in a bit role as himself). But I think, most likely, he was assuming I’d be pleasantly surprised by the fact that one of the female lead characters is hapa, a Hawaiian term (now in common use, at least here in the Bay Area) meaning a mixed race person who is part-Asian/Pacific Islander, part-something else. The character is named “Allison Ng,” and is described as “one quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian, and one-quarter Swedish,” and one-quarter . . . ? It must be white, because white is the default position for all Hollywood casting. But still, half Asian/Pacific Islander, eh? That most certainly is a pleasant surprise!

Aloha_poster

The poster about which I snarked at Cameron Crowe. The hapa actress must have been left off the poster, right?

Wrong. I would have been pleasantly surprised if the character had been played by a hapa actress, from which there are many to choose if one cares to look. The role, however, is played by Caucasian actress Emma Stone. Cue sad trombone.

British actress Jessica Henwick. This is what a hapa actress looks like.

British actress Jessica Henwick. Henwick is one of many hapa actresses living and working in the world today.

American actress Emma Stone. I pulled both these headshots from their imdb pages, and neither were credited. If anyone has photog info, let me know and I will update.

Emma Stone. I pulled both these headshots from their imdb pages, and neither were credited. If anyone has photog info, let me know and I will update.

There are many reasons this casting is shocking and unacceptable. Actors of color have had to fight for centuries for the right to play characters of color, first in theatre, now in film and television. Those roles historically went to white people in some kind of “ethnic” drag– blackface, yellowface, and the like. While many argue that our most egregious examples are far in our past (such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) we DO still cast white actors as characters of color all the time, sometimes using makeup, and sometimes, as in this case, just putting a white person on screen or on stage as is and calling it a day. We’re also notorious for whitewashing characters– taking a pre-existing property (like a novel or a fairy tale) or real-life story and remaking it as a film or a play, but changing the people of color in the narrative to white people. If you haven’t seen playwright Prince Gomolvilas’ “21 Reasons This Movie Sucks,” about the whitewashing in the film 21, you should.

It’s shocking that whitewashing still happens so frequently in Hollywood, particularly considering the massive controversies it causes much of the time–  the casting in Airbender created a firestorm back in 2010, and there have been many like controversies since (The Lone Ranger, Peter Pan, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Ghost in the Shell are a few examples). What’s even more shocking to me personally is how often both whitewashing and yellowface (and brownface, and all permutations) happen in the theatre, even as we talk all the time about how much more progressive we are than Hollywood.

It’s depressingly common for white people to see the ability to play people of color as their due, and for white people to see their own ethnicity as a kind of “neutral.” It’s a bias (often an unconscious bias) that has enormous, far-reaching effects. A great example is how some white people react whenever a character of color is included in an otherwise very white context, or whenever a character of color is a lead in a story not specifically about their race or ethnicity. “Why does [insert name of character] have to be [insert ethnicity]?” is something I often hear, as if white is “normal” and “neutral” and anything apart from that is a particular, aggressive decision. And while it’s undeniable that race has meaning and cultural weight (which is precisely why you can cast a Black man as Hamlet but you can’t cast a white man as Othello), white people too often ONLY apply that to people of color, seeing their own race as a universally accepted neutral instead of something just as particular, but currently in a culturally dominant position.

One famous example is SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age author Mathew Klickstein’s comment about current Nickelodeon show Sanjay and Craig: “That show is awkward because there’s actually no reason for that character to be Indian,” as if a character needs a particular reason to justify a lack of whiteness. Klickstein goes on to state that characters should only deviate from whiteness if the show is about ethnicity: “I think that it does the culture a disservice. If I were Indian or Jewish, for example, and watched something where the characters are Jewish or supposed to be, and if it’s not specific to that, then I start to wonder, ‘Why are they doing this?’ It becomes blackface.” Because, obviously, everything Indian or Jewish people do relates specifically to that identity. I don’t blog: I JEWBLOG. I don’t sleep: I JEWSLEEP. I don’t have adventures: I have JEWVENTURES. And if your work includes Indian or Jewish people, but is not specifically about being Indian or Jewish, it’s racist. Yeah, OK. ::eyeroll::

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Sanjay and Craig.

Anyone who doesn’t conform to straight white able-bodied average weight cisgendered Christian-heritage male (and I’m probably leaving a few out) are defined by their deviation from that “standard.” While “straight white able-bodied average weight cisgendered Christian-heritage male” refers to approximately 15% of the population (at best), we are constantly positing it as neutral– as “normal”– and anything apart from that is so wildly different, so enormously specific, we must provide a justification for its very existence.

When the culture sees white as “neutral,” is it any wonder that a white woman can be cast to play a woman of color and (almost) no one bats an eye? Emma Stone can be just “an actor” while Jessica Henwick is an “Asian actor.” I’m willing to wager Crowe didn’t even read any hapa actresses for the role of Allison Ng, and that the casting call went out asking for “Caucasian actresses, 18-24.”

It’s depressingly common for white people to brush this off with things like, “She’s half white! Why can’t a white person play her?!” as if mixed people in America are somehow fully represented by a white person; as if mixed people in America are not struggling with racism, bigotry, and other issues PARTICULAR TO THEM; as if mixed people are fair game to ERASE COMPLETELY. As if white actors are truly neutral, the universal donors of casting.

I think the thing that’s the most depressing about this is that Cameron Crowe evidently felt so confident about this hapa character that he would personally tell me that my concerns about race in his film were unfounded, and that I would be “pleasantly surprised.” He seems to actually believe that casting Emma Stone as hapa Allison Ng quells concerns about the lack of diversity in his film, rather than creates more concerns.

Why are we still making films (and theatre) where both people of color and mixed race people are erased and replaced by white people? Ridley Scott, too old and rich to pretend otherwise, flatly stated that he cast white actors instead of Middle Eastern actors as Middle Eastern characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings because otherwise, no one would fund his film. Hollywood is notoriously risk-averse, and Scott’s statement is indicative of our cultural positioning of white as “normal” and everything else as “different,” considering a white star a certain box office draw despite constant evidence to the contrary, where the same poor decision was made and the film still tanked. There’s no question racially insensitive casting can take a bite out of sales– #boycottexodus burned up my feed before the film was released. And yet the idea that white = normal = safe is so thick in Hollywood you can walk on it.

The other excuses are no better. It’s nonsense that people “don’t see race” and are just looking for “the best actors for the role.” You’ll never see a Hollywood film with Black actors as the Continental Congress– it’s not historically accurate, right? But it’s perfectly acceptable to cast a Hollywood film with all Caucasian actors as the Egyptians and Hebrews in the book of Exodus, despite the fact that those actual, historical people were Middle Eastern, not white. And of course you never see a person of color randomly cast in a film written for white actors unless that person of color is a powerful star, but you’ll see white actors who could barely be called any kind of box office draw (Mena Suvari?) cast in roles that were either meant for a person of color, or were a person of color in the original material.

Egyptian actor Asser Yassin, from his imdb page.

Egyptian actor Asser Yassin, from his imdb page. You’re welcome.

Joel Edgerton, who played Pharaoh Ramses II in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Photo by Frazier Harrison/ Getty Images

Joel Edgerton, who played Pharaoh Ramses II in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Photo by Frazier Harrison/ Getty Images

As long as we continue to see white as “neutral,” we’re going to see directors casting white actors as people of color and feeling perfectly justified. We’ll continue to see white people getting huffy about their right to play these roles. We’ll continue to see white people try out deflection techniques like, There are so many more IMPORTANT things in the world! (If that’s the criteria, we’ll never get to talk about anything except literal genocide. And of course every person who makes that statement has just finished posting a dozen pictures of their kid, or three paragraphs about their diet. Because IMPORTANT.) As long as we continue to see white as “neutral” and “normal,” we’ll continue to see people of color ignored and erased.

So, Cameron Crowe, I’m not at all surprised, pleasantly or otherwise.

UPDATE 6/3/15:

Cameron Crowe posted a semi-apology on his blog for casting Emma Stone as Allison Ng. Tl;dr: “Sorry if you thought I effed it up; I based it on a real, redheaded 1/4 Hawaiian person; I added another 1/4 API ancestry because diversity; Emma Stone did lots of research.” So basically: “Sorry if you objected, but I’m still right.”

Evidently he never stopped to consider that he had created a character who was 1/2 API, making it unrealistic that she be played by a white actress. I understand that “unrealistic” isn’t a major concern for Hollywood, but race and representation matter in ways that shitty narrative do not.

It’s a very typical kind of half-apology issued when people in power are caught with their pants down. BUT. It’s heartening that he understands that he WAS caught with his pants down, at least. Baby steps.

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Having Kids: Worst Idea, or Worst Idea Ever?

Jonah and Jacob, 2003

Jonah and Jacob, 2003

I have two kids, one I made myself and one I got free in a marital acquisition merger. So of course the title of this article is a joke, but the kind of joke that feels like the comedy equivalent of a right cross.

The truth is, it’s really, really, really difficult to have kids while you’re working in the theatre, most of us do it anyway, and most (all?) of us who decided to have kids while in this madness of a “lifestyle” believe it was totally worth it.

I’ve been asked many times about how I made parenting and a life in the theatre work. The sad truth is, there’s no magic formula that will make those early parenting years less difficult, but the happy truth is, it goes by in a blink. Your life as an artist will last decades, and your kids will only need direct supervision for 15ish years. It’s over before you know it. I know that’s not much consolation to people with a screaming baby who somehow have to teach three classes and rehearse for four hours on 37 minutes of sleep, but believe me, it’s true. Your screaming baby will be 15 and able to come home, do his homework, make his dinner, take a shower, and get himself to bed at a reasonable hour sooner than you think. It will be bittersweet, but it will happen.

Jonah and Jacob, goofing off on a road trip, 2014

Jonah and Jacob, goofing off on a road trip, 2014

How to make it to that point is the trick. When the kids are little, you’re living your life day-by-day. Just getting through each day with everyone fed, clothed, and alive is a minor triumph. On some days, a major one. My kids are now 16 and 17. I taught university classes and a high school summer intensive their entire lives. I finished my PhD when my son was three– one of my favorite pictures of myself is carrying him the day I was hooded. I went through four surgeries on my hips and pelvis. And I was doing theatre the entire time. Impact Theatre was founded in 1996, and my son was born in 1998. In 2003, my stepson, also born in 1998, came into my life. So I’ve been there, and I know how difficult it is.

Jonah and I, 2001.

Jonah and Mommy, May 2001.

Here’s my best advice about how to survive as a theatre parent.

1. Make sure your partner is wealthy, unemployed, and uninterested in doing theatre. The people I know with this set-up have a significantly easier time as a theatre parent. It’s even better when your partner has wealthy parents with an apartment or house you can live in rent-free. Did you already mess this one up, like I did, and marry someone awesome but lacking a vast, personal fortune? Or are you going it alone and made the mistake of being born into a family without a vast fortune? Read on.

My handsome husband on rehearsal break with fellow actor Ariel Irula, May 2015.

My handsome husband on rehearsal break with fellow actor Ariel Irula, May 2015. Stolen from his instagram. ❤

2. Do fewer shows, and stagger them. My husband and I each did one show a year, and staggered them so there would always be someone home with the boys while the other one was in rehearsals and performances. The fact that I’m the artistic director of the theatre and control the scheduling (to a certain extent) and the casting (to an enormous extent) made this significantly easier for us, but I do know other theatre parents who use this method, even parents who are separated. If you’re not controlling your own scheduling, however, there may be nights of overlap, even when you’re staggering, when you’re both called somewhere. And of course, some of you are raising kids on your own. Here’s where your network comes in handy.

3. Make connections with young actors who like kids. These babysitters are lifesavers. In the Bay Area, pro babysitters are charging a mint, sometimes with surcharges for more than one kid, so you could be looking at an extra $100 for someone to watch little Shaw, Wycherly, and Dekker for one evening while you’re at rehearsal. A friend who loves kids but otherwise has a day job isn’t going to charge you $100 to watch your kids. On the contrary, a young actor will often do it for a few bucks and a bottle of wine, or even for free if you’re exchanging other types of favors– rides to and from the airport, monologue coaching, writing letters of recommendation, recommending them for roles, paying for the occasional dinner– the usual kinds of things we do for the younger actors in our lives. A major plus to this set-up is seeing adorable pictures of your kids pop up on the actor’s facebook or instagram while you’re at rehearsal. Young designers, directors, and playwrights are in shorter supply and usually busy– in rehearsal, feverishly completing a design or a script edit, or drunk. Sometimes all three, lucky bastards. But hey, if you can set that up, your kid might know how to use a sawzall by the time you get home. Score!

Jacob and Jonah in their WonderCon costumes, 2011.

Jacob and Jonah in their WonderCon costumes, April 2011.

4. Make connections with other theatre parents. Childcare exchanges with these families can be lifesavers, sometimes for both families. When the kids are old enough to entertain themselves for a bit, a playdate can keep little Kazan, Wolfe, and Malina busy while you sit down and answer some emails.

5. Moving closer to family isn’t a solution. I see people take this option all the time, and while it seems like it would be easier to be closer to the free babysitting that a grandparent or aunt can provide, in reality, those people have their own lives and problems, and aren’t always available on your schedule. Now you’re in a new location with no contacts, no network, and no one to watch Albee and McCraney while your parents are in the Catskills. And remember that you’re also on tap to help with their problems, issues, and kids as well, so not only do you have no babysitter for this weekend’s performances, but you’re also feeding your parents’ cat and committed to making treat bags for your nephew’s 3rd birthday party Saturday at a park 20 miles away with no bathroom the week after little Gotanda decided she would only wear princess underpants and no pull-ups, ever again, no, no, NO. Move closer to family because you want to be closer to family, not because you think they will be a big help to you.

6. Remember that it’s good for your kids to see you pursuing your passion. You’re not neglecting them if you’re showing them that Mommy is living her dream– you’re teaching them that it’s possible. Yes, they will sometimes guilt-trip you about leaving them and beg you to stay, but showing them that sometimes it’s Mommy’s turn to pursue Mommy’s interests is a valuable life lesson. It teaches them that their desires are not paramount every time (something some adults have yet to learn) and that taking time to pursue dreams and goals is a good thing. Sure, you could take it too far and actually neglect them if you’re doing back-to-back shows and out of the house every evening and weekend for six months. But if you’re doing one show a year, or some other reasonable schedule, they’ll be fine. Honest. One day they’ll be old enough to see your work, and that, I promise you, is an irreplaceable joy.

Jacob and Jonah, December 2012

Jacob and Jonah, December 2012

7. Don’t compare yourself to other parents. It’s undeniably true that a theatre family likely won’t have the resources (money or time) to schedule their kids into 57 extracurricular activities, have a leisurely homecooked family dinner every single night, or take little Rylance and Redgrave on European or tropical vacations every summer. And so what? Stop worrying about the fact that you don’t have the money other parents have. Stop worrying about the fact that you have a life and aren’t devoting every second of your free time to your kids. For one thing, there are children living all over the world in extreme poverty, so intense self-recrimination because, for example, your boys had to share a room in a safe and warm Bay Area house filled with food and videogames until they were teenagers (ahem) is patently ridiculous. For another, remember that very soon your kids will be teenagers, then adults and out of your house. If your entire life was devoted to those kids, when they’re gone, you’re screwed. Raising kids is a temporary gig, but your lifelong dreams and goals will always be there. While you’re in that temporary gig, make room for both– don’t devote yourself wholly to one or the other.

Jacob and Jon, September 2014.

Jacob and Jon, September 2014

8. Don’t compare yourself to childless friends, don’t criticize their choices, and just nod and smile when they say their pets are their children. Having kids is not for everyone. I don’t understand the pressure we put on people to have kids. The environment is stretched to the breaking point, maybe past it. Kids are demanding of your time, money, and energy. There are plenty of great reasons not to have kids, but some people will make it sound like a life is not complete without them. That’s bullshit. I wanted kids, and I had them, and I do not regret it for one moment, but I don’t see my voluntarily childless friends as some invalidation of my life choices, or as missing out on something necessary. Yes, having children is a unique experience. Having pets or nieces and nephews compares to it in the same way that jumping off a curb compares to flying a jet. There are joys and pains and mysteries and magic that only people with children experience. But living a childless life is ALSO a unique experience that I will never have, with its own joys and pains and mysteries and magic. Sending the kids to Grandma’s for the weekend probably compares to living a childless life like jumping off a curb compares to flying a jet– unlike my first example, I don’t have the experience to know, but I can guess from seeing the spontaneity and freedom my childless friends have. I would love it if we could all stop pretending that one experience is more valid or “real” than the other. Own your choice, love your choice, and be cool about people who make different choices.

Having pets is nothing like having children, and I know it’s annoying as hell when people say that it is. I know it’s irritating when people use that study that shows brain scans revealing that people love their pets like they love their children as proof, when they never read far enough to find out the differences discovered. They’re looking for confirmation about the way they feel, and they have no idea what the differences are between kids and pets because they haven’t experienced them. They don’t know, they can’t know, and I swear you will be happier if you don’t try to force the issue. Telling them they’re wrong does nothing in the world but annoy you both. Smile and nod and move on. If childless people with pets could stop telling people with seriously ill or lost children that they totally understand because they lost a pet, though, that would be cool. In those circumstances, raging at someone may be more of a sanity saver than letting it pass. I sincerely hope you never have to find out.

Jonah, May 2015

Jonah, May 2015

9. Always remember: THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I know I keep saying it, but it’s so true– it goes by in a blink. Do your best. Show your kids that you don’t have to trash your dreams to have kids. Love your kids lavishly, but never stop loving yourself or your art. It’s one of the most valuable things you can teach them.

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Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and “Freedom of Expression”

America has been exploding with issues surrounding the concept of “freedom of expression.” Like many freedoms, “freedom of expression” sounds great in the abstract. In the abstract, pretty much everyone outside of political and religious extremists are for “freedom of expression,” and the very fact that political and religious extremists are most decidedly not in favor of freedom of expression makes a certain kind of person even MORE in favor of it.

In the concrete, the issue of “freedom of expression,” like everything else in the world, is much more complex and nuanced, and if there’s one thing political and religious extremists– and the people who love to piss off political and religious extremists– hate, it’s complexity and nuance.

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Adam Sandler on the set of The Ridiculous Six. Photo courtesy of actor Loren Anthony’s Instagram, which you can follow at @lorenanthony

 

When Native American actors walked off the set in protest over the racism in Adam Sandler’s latest film, the ensuing controversy was unsurprising. The internet exploded with the coverage, and the backlash was instantaneous and fierce. Those who supported the actors were accused of suppressing freedom of expression, and misunderstanding the boundary-crossing nature of comedy. When PEN announced that Charlie Hebdo would be receiving its Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, the ensuing controversy was also unsurprising. When 145 PEN members formally protested (that number has now grown to over 200), they were met with another predictable backlash that included a wealth of BUT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION scolding. A lesser-known, but equally important, controversy happened earlier this year when stand-up comic Ari Shaffir viciously attacked fellow, lesser-known stand-up Damienne Merlina both for her disability (Merlina lost an arm in a car accident) and her weight, in his Comedy Central special. When Merlina posted a YouTube video calling Shaffir out for the attack, she was met with a barrage of criticism– and even mockery– for daring to speak out against her own attacker. A major part of the backlash Merlina received was centered around the fact that comedy was meant to cross boundaries, and that those attacked should understand that, shut up, and take it.

Damienne Merlina, photographed by Jeff Forney.

Damienne Merlina, photographed by Jeff Forney.

“Freedom of expression” is an emotional issue. It’s difficult to have productive conversations about its complexities. People have knee-jerk emotional reactions around protecting it in the abstract that prevent them from considering its complexities in the concrete. But it’s well worth the effort to at least try.

You may have heard the expression “punching up” and/or “punching down.” It’s fairly easy to understand. “Punching up” means comedy that makes fun of people or groups in power. This is the kind of humor most often used throughout history by progressive political and social movements. Imagine a cartoon making fun of a political figure, or Christianity’s active oppression of LGBT rights. “Punching down” means comedy that makes fun of people or groups who are marginalized, oppressed, and targeted by bigotry. Imagine a film mocking Native Americans. Imagine a cartoon mocking the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram just to make an unrelated political point. Imagine a comedian with a national spotlight attacking a young woman by name– a woman who wasn’t even there and had nothing to do with the event– for her disability and weight.

Comedy that “punches up” has long been a tool for political and social change. Punching holes in the cultural and political power of dominant groups is what people do when they want to call that power and dominance into question, when they want the culture to begin considering how that power and dominance is wielded, and whether such consolidation of power and dominance is, actually, a good idea. “Punching up” requires extreme bravery. “Punching up” is more than speaking truth to power– it’s speaking truth to power while telling power its fly is open. Punching up is dangerous because it challenges power, and power retaliates brutally. Thousands of people have been jailed and executed for punching up. There are people sitting in jail right this moment in many areas of the world for punching up, and they will not be the last.

Bassem Yussef, an Egyptian satirist often compared to Jon Stewart, was arrested in March, 2013 for allegedly insulting President Mohammed Morsi and Islam. He was released on bail. In April 2013, he was named one of Time's 100 most influential people.

Bassem Yussef, an Egyptian satirist often compared to Jon Stewart, was arrested in March, 2013 for allegedly insulting President Mohammed Morsi and Islam. He was released on bail. In April 2013, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people.

Comedy that “punches down” has long been a tool for political and social oppression. Mocking groups that suffer bigotry and oppression is what people do when they want to solidify that bigotry and oppression, when they want to solidify their own cultural and political power and dominance over that marginalized group. Punching down requires no bravery whatsoever, because it’s done from a place of cultural primacy. Occasionally extremist members of a marginalized group will retaliate in reprehensible ways. Murder is never an acceptable response to comedy, period. But that kind of retaliation is rare. No one in their right mind believes that murdering people who work at Charlie Hebdo is an acceptable response to the content they publish, no matter what it may be. But no one in their right mind believes– or should believe– that Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam in a nation where Muslims are common targets of bigotry puts it in the same position as a North Korean drawing cartoons mocking Kim Jung Un.

Many people are quick to point out that Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and Ari Shaffir punch both up and down. Charlie Hebdo, apologists are quick to point out, mocks Christianity as often as it mocks Judaism or Islam, and mocks right-wing politics even more. But that argument is the height of intellectual laziness. Punching up does not inoculate you from the effects of punching down. Mocking the powerful is one thing; mocking people who are daily victims of bigotry is entirely another. Despite France’s humanist bent, Christianity still holds enormous cultural power there, while Jews and Muslims suffer routine bigotry and discrimination. (Attacks against Muslims since the Charlie Hebdo attacks have focused primarily on women.) Despite Adam Sandler’s willingness to mock himself and other people in power, Native Americans suffer routine, institutionalized, daily bigotry in America. Despite Comedy Central’s willingness to air comedy that mocks people in power, the disabled suffer enormous daily bigotry in our culture. Punching up is a completely different activity– culturally, politically, and morally– than punching down.

Graves desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas and anti-semitic slogans in the Jewish cemetery of Brumath close to Strasbourg, October 31, 2004. Jewish cemeteries have been, and continue to be, targeted as antisemitism rises in France. (photo: Reuters)

Graves desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas and anti-semitic slogans in the Jewish cemetery of Brumath close to Strasbourg, October 31, 2004. Jewish cemeteries have been, and continue to be, targeted as antisemitism rises in France. (photo: Reuters)

 

Muslim cemeteries are similarly vandalized. Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery near Arras, northern France, April 7, 2008.  Photo: Reuters/Sadouki

Muslim cemeteries are similarly vandalized. Although anti-Muslim attacks have skyrocketed in France since the Charlie Hebdo shooting, anti-Muslim bigotry and attacks were well underway beforehand. Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery near Arras, northern France, was vandalized in April, 2008. (Photo: Reuters/Sadouki)

And yet, because power rewards power, PEN granted an award for courage to Charlie Hebdo. Because power rewards power, Netflix continues to give Adam Sandler millions of dollars to make his crappy movie. Because power rewards power, entertainment corporations continue to shower Ari Shaffir with money. And so it goes.

I believe in freedom of expression, both in the abstract and in the concrete. I don’t think we should be censoring bigotry. I am adamantly opposed to censorship. But I also think– because this issue is complex– that we need to be thinking hard about the difference between tolerating the expression of bigotry and rewarding it.

We need to stop pretending that speaking out against the expression of bigotry is “anti-freedom of expression,” when in fact it is the exact opposite– it’s exercising one’s own freedom of expression. Being told your opinion is nonsense is not the same as being denied the right to express your opinion. Being told that your employer is not interested in paying you for expressions of bigotry is not the same as being denied the right to express bigotry at all. And speaking out against giving an award for courage to a magazine that routinely mocks marginalized groups is not equivalent to speaking out against that magazine’s right to print whatever the hell it wants. Supporting your right to freedom of expression need not include rewarding you for that expression, nor need it include freedom from criticism.

I think Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, Ari Shaffir, and anyone else should be allowed to punch down as often and as viciously as they like. And I think those with the power to dole out awards– whether literal awards or financial awards– should stop and think for a moment about whether they actually wish to reward punching down.

We spend millions of dollars on anti-bullying campaigns, initiatives, and education in schools. We’re fooling ourselves that kids can’t see through the hypocrisy of adults telling them bullying is always wrong and then turning right around and rewarding bullying done by adults. What’s the difference between a playground bully mocking a Muslim kid, a disabled kid, an overweight kid, or a Native American kid, and what Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and Ari Shaffir have done? If the bully says, “But I make fun of everyone,” does that excuse the rest of his bullying? Of course not. So why is that used to excuse adult behavior?

An anti-bullying poster from National Voices for Equality, Education, and Enlightenment. Learn more about them and their anti-bullying initiatives, at nveee.org.

An anti-bullying poster from National Voices for Equality, Education, and Enlightenment. Learn more about them and their anti-bullying initiatives at nveee.org.

And before you even bother posting comments defending any or all of the three I’ve discussed, the principle remains whether I’m right in my analysis of those particular three or not. We punch down in this culture all the time. We reward that kind of bullying with accolades, money, and power. We defend it with “it’s just a joke,” “you’re too sensitive,” and a barrage of like nonsense from privilege stomping its feet and throwing tantrums because their bigoted fun is being spoiled with our dissent. “It’s just a joke” is perhaps the most intellectually lazy argument of them all, as if the presence of humor evacuates its long history of keeping marginalized people “in their place.”

And while I will be the first one to defend your right to punch down– your right to freedom of expression– I’m appalled at the fact that we reward that behavior. It’s long past the time we stopped confusing tolerance with appreciation and reward.

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