Let’s talk about free speech and offense. Specifically in the case of Matal v. Tam, an interesting case decided by the US Supreme Court this week. (Yes, for one in this blog’s life we are topical.) The details of the case are a little bizarre but important to the issues of today’s discussion. There was a band. All of the band members were of far Eastern descent. “Asian” if you will. They chose to call their band The Slants. And the US Trademark and Patent Office refused to grant them a trademark on their band name as it was generally considered an insult to people of certain backgrounds.
Namely those of Asian descent.
There’s all kinds of think pieces out there on this issue. I don’t care about them. I want to talk about The Slants. Why did they choose to name their band with a derogatory brand?
Well for starters there’s this fairly comprehensive post on the band’s website giving their reasoning in full. But if you want it in brief they saw a word and they chose to claim it. Three quick quotes of note:
“For too long, people of color and the LGBTQ community have been prime targets under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, simply because we believe in the deliberate disarmament of toxic language and symbols.”
“Music is the best way we know how to drive social change: it overcomes social barriers in a way that mob-mentality and fear-based political rhetoric never can.”
“There will always be villainous characters in a free society but we cannot be so blinded in our desire to punish them that we are willing to bear the cost of that cost on the backs of the marginalized.”
Co-opting insults is a great American tradition that predates the Declaration of Independence. The song “Yankee Doodle” was an insulting ditty British troops used to sing to insult the Massachusetts colonists, characterizing them as backward hicks with no idea of what good culture or right living was. The colonists, fully aware of the insults, promised that by the time Massachusetts was done with them the British would be dancing to the tune. On 19 October, 1781, General George Washington accepted General Charles Cornwallis’ surrender. The British troops were piped out to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”.
An insult became a reminder of how the Americans were worthy of respect.
The Slants claim their band name is an attempt to do much the same – although they haven’t cited this particular example to my knowledge. The band wants to break the power of an association – rather than let “slant” be an insult they seek to make it the name of a great band. If they do well then the pejorative nature of the word will quickly fade into the shadows of their musical legacy and if they don’t what is really harmed by their trying? With EPs like The Band That Must Not Be Named the band is showing they at least understand that they need a towering legacy and I say let them try for it. Their music is a little bubblegum for my tastes but I’m sure it has a market and they should have every chance to find it and achieve their goals.
But there are people who don’t like this. Example. In a nutshell this argument boils down to, “People who say mean words about groups who have rough histories hurt those groups like they had run them over with a car full of burning crosses.”
The question I have for these people is, if the power of an insult can be broken, isn’t the long term value of trying such a thing more important than any short term harm the attempt might cause? And even if it fails, should the very act of trying to reinterpret an insult a sign that the community doesn’t need to be coddled by you? Rather than trying to dictate what people can and can’t say, why not let them argue the thing out on their own so they can learn and grow, rather than trying to keep them depended on you so the mean words don’t hurt them.
Fortunately for The Slants, and anyone who hopes to create in America, the Supreme Court sided with Simon Tam and said the band could have their name and the US Patent and Trademark Office cannot stand in their way.
Art and communication are predicated on our taking symbols like words or images and assigning meaning to them. One of the greatest undertakings an artist or communicator can attempt is putting a new meaning to one of these symbols. The undertaking would have so much less value, would do so much less for the human condition, if we couldn’t use that process to change horrible things into delightful things. What would there be left to do? Change delightful things into delightful things? Or worse, turn delightful things into boring things.
The Slants have set their hands to a noble undertaking – turning a horrible thing into a thing of joy. It’s something we should all aspire to. Can they actually do it? I have my doubts, but that’s not what matters. What matters is what they make of it. You’ve earned your chance, boys. Make the most of it.