The banning of TYLER, THE CREATOR from Australia and the U.K. in recent months has generated a heated discussion surrounding art and free speech. Or, as it would seem, art versus free speech. We have very quickly found ourselves involved in a radical change towards the way in which we respond to material that may be considered offensive. It’s sometimes difficult to understand whether this is a positive movement towards benefiting the liberation of the oppressed, or, rather, a dangerous move into censorious behaviour which robs us of our freedom of artistic expression. So, which is it?
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with two of the most important and influential figures on either side of the debate, in order to gain some real insight into the issue. In this article, I speak to Caitlin Roper of COLLECTIVE SHOUT (the organisation behind the successful campaign against Tyler, The Creator in Australia), whose overall efforts are directed at “campaigning against the objectification and sexualisation of girls in the media, advertising and popular culture”, and Brendan O’Neill – journalist, author, and editor of leading libertarian online publication SPIKED ONLINE, and arguably one of the most important advocates for free speech and libertarianism today.
At the end of the article, IPHYB will provide our own views as an online publication that was founded on the premise of free speech. Trust me when I say both statements are incredibly insightful, detailed and fascinating to read, and it’s my sincere hope that it generates worthwhile discussion and will provide some context for a complex issue. I had just one question each for Brendan and Caitlin, and that was simply to elaborate on the subject. I wasn’t disappointed. Their responses are detailed below.
Thanks so much for speaking with me. First of all, I want to say I, and IPHYB as a whole, are passionate supporters of women’s rights. In whatever individual definition that takes in today’s convoluted climate of modern feminism, we hold our own views very dear and close to heart. That being said, we’re also (as you can probably tell from the name of our website) staunch advocates of free speech. I wanted to gain your perspective on the issue, as it seems Collective Shout have come under fire from fans of Tyler, The Creator and free speech alike, for what some consider an act of censorship. Is it Collective Shout’s aim to engage in any kind of censorious behavior, and do you really believe his lyrical content is dangerous? To be frank, I struggle to make the connection.
CAITLIN: “We’ve obviously heard a lot of Tyler’s fans expressing a similar sentiment – essentially that we just don’t understand, and that we are trying to ban things we don’t understand, or that we are merely ‘offended’.
The suggestion that the issue here is about offence or personal taste is really missing the point. My feelings, my personal taste, like anyone else in this discussion, are largely irrelevant. Reducing criticism of Tyler’s brand of misogyny to offense is an attempt to deflect and undermine discussion of the real issue – the promotion and normalising of hostile and hateful attitudes towards women.
The whole offence argument also neglects to consider the fact that our campaign goes much further than Tyler’s sexually violent lyrics. While we strongly object to Tyler’s lyrics detailing rape, strangling, mutilating and chopping up women, stuffing their bodies into car boots, trapping them in his basement and raping their corpses, we are also talking about Tyler’s real-life behavior. When lesbian recording artists openly called out his misogynistic lyrics, he responded with a threat of corrective rape, offering them some “hard dick”. At his 2013 Sydney concert he unleashed a barrage of abuse directed at my Collective Shout colleague Talitha Stone, calling her a bitch, a whore, and a c**t while the crowd cheered, unaware she was present in the audience. I shudder to think what might have happened to her had she been recognised.
Both Talitha and Coralie Alison have been targeted with vicious abuse, rape and death threats after Tyler tagged them on Twitter. What did he think would happen when he called out Coralie, identifying her as the reason he wouldn’t be showing up for his scheduled tour? At any time, he could have so much as tweeted to call off his fans, to say it wasn’t okay to threaten a woman with violence, yet he remained silent.
This is not about offence, or even song lyrics. This is incitement to violence against real women. Real Australian women who have been forced to obtain police assistance, who have had to fear for their lives and have had to deal with the psychological toll of sustained, vicious abuse.
Tyler fans claim that Tyler’s music and treatment of women have no bearing on their attitudes to women. Wading through the steady stream of abusive emails, Facebook posts and tweets calling us bitches and whores, encouraging us to commit suicide and threatening to rape and murder us along with our children has made it very clear to me that that normalised misogyny has and does impact on attitudes. Essentially, I think it’s easier to paint all criticism of Tyler’s misogyny as uptight women who want to ban things they don’t understand than to actually engage with the issues.
There has been some speculation that campaigns like ours set a dangerous precedent in terms of free speech and censorship. I hope that as well as free speech, we value the rights of women to dignity, justice, equality and safety, and that as a community we are equally committed to upholding these rights.
In our letter to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, we pointed out the hypocrisy in spending $15.6 billion on a National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women – a plan including prevention strategies and education – only to welcome rappers who undermine the government’s attempts to address violence against women.
We’ve been critical of various artists – and not just artists, but advertising, media and popular culture – yet some issues and campaigns certainly do seem to attract more media attention than others. As a non-profit organisation, we don’t have the resources to organize and carry out campaigns against every artist who promotes the sexual exploitation of women, nor has it ever been our goal to pursue every artist with questionable lyrics.
We’ve been critical and sparked a dialogue about various artists over the last few years and campaigned against a few, including Redfoo, Brian McFadden, Robin Thicke, Snoop Dogg/Lion and Eminem. Some also suggest we unfairly target hip hop, but a look at our website will prove the wide range of issues and campaigns we have run. Is hip-hop somehow off-limits for critical analysis? Should hip-hop culture not be held to the same standard as the rest of society?
The reason we called on Immigration to deny Tyler a visa back in 2013 was because we felt his lyrical content vilified women and arguably incited violence against them. We felt it was impossible for us to remain silent. We only became more convinced after seeing his treatment of women on Twitter, setting his fans on women who were openly critical of his work, and his onslaught of abuse to Talitha at his 2013 concert – the footage of which was instrumental in his 2014 ban from New Zealand.
This has been expressed to us repeatedly over the last few months, that we haven’t done our research, that it’s art, that Tyler is playing a role, that he’s evolved as an artist, etc. I’m well aware of all of these arguments as well as the nature of Tyler’s work. We have done our research. We’ve listened to his songs, watched music videos, interviews, performance footage, read numerous articles and even attended his concert. It’s not that we don’t understand the arguments – we just reject them. We have taken this knowledge and come to a different conclusion.
I think it’s entirely possible for musicians and artists to use art, humour and irony to pose meaningful questions and comment on the state of the world and society, and even to explore dark subject matter. But I reject the notion that that is what is going on here. Tyler’s near constant uncritical exploitation and abuse of women for entertainment purposes doesn’t even come close to that. What is the statement being made? Where is the condemnation of abusive treatment of women? Rather, the men who degrade and demean women are positioned as badasses who don’t give a f**k and women are reduced to bitches. None of this is challenging the status quo or posing meaningful questions. Tyler’s “art” is at the expense of women, even survivors of rape and physical violence.
If Tyler has truly evolved as an artist as he claims (a notion I’d reject based on his recent behavior), why is he yet to take responsibility for it? Even now, he continues to justify and excuse it, never owning it. He’s built a career of the degradation of women, made a name for himself and profited from this material.
Tyler claims he doesn’t even perform his earlier work anymore, but concert set lists from as recently as last year show that he has. He’s also made his earlier albums available to stream via his Golf Media App. A few weeks ago he performed Rella on Jimmy Kimmel – here’s a few of the lyrics: ‘Nigga my d*ck’s in her jaw … my bitches white and I need f*cking head … bitches on my d*ck … Your girlfriend had a really nice meeting with my d*ck, I killed that p*ssy and grabbed that knife … met up with bitches, gave ‘em c*m on their dimples.’
Is this supposed to be progress? Is this an indication he’s concerned with equality now? It’s ironic that those men arguing for freedom of speech here have failed to notice that the women they are criticising don’t share this same freedom. These men are not impacted by misogynistic ‘art’ – they aren’t the ones being targeted. They aren’t likely to be on the receiving end of rape and death threats, won’t need to engage the police, nor be genuinely in fear for their safety as a result of sharing their views.
For these men to dictate how women, including survivors of rape and sexual violence, should feel about, respond to and challenge misogynistic attitudes demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the issues and perhaps more disturbing, a lack of empathy.”
Although the question concerning TTC’s “progress” mostly remains unanswered, Brendan O’Neill provided a response on the matter of free speech and censorship which, while bringing to light equally important points, also opposes Roper’s.
Thanks a lot of chatting with us – as you can imagine being in the business of hating bands, we have an inherent love for free speech. My question to you concerns the fact that Collective Shout have somewhat of a FAQ section on their website which responds to the common criticisms regarding the TTC ban. It seems to rely solely on the argument that his lyrical content, regardless of context, incites violence towards women. In your view, is this a dangerous road to go down? It seems to present language in an extremely archaic form, and I have a hard time grasping the idea that we lack the ability to recognise nuance in art.
BRENDAN: The idea that Tyler, The Creator’s lyrics are “dangerous” and stir up a “toxic climate” is based on two fallacies. First, that men are basically animals, who unthinkingly act on the words they hear. And second, that women are fragile creatures, their self-esteem easily dented by hearing some rapper go on about rape or bitches or whatever. In keeping with every stab for censorship in history, the anti-Tyler movement is fuelled by a powerful distrust of human beings and a conviction that we must have our eyes and ears covered in order to keep our base instincts and lusts under control.
Once upon time, it was establishment figures who wanted to muzzle edgy hip-hop artists. As the new movie about NWA reminds us, cops, the FBI and prim, white ladies-who-lunched were at the forefront of trying to shut down ‘gangsta’ rap. But today, it tends to be feminists and those of a leftish, supposedly progressive persuasion who bristle whenever they see a young, swaggering, black man rapping about money and hoes. The feminists have taken over from the Feds in pushing the idea that hip hop warps minds and harms society.
The argument has changed a little bit: the old establishment wanted to protect the reputation of the state itself, primarily the police, from tunes like NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police”, whereas the new illiberal liberals talk about “saving women” from misogynistic attitudes. But the same impulse unites the old conservative war on gangsta rap and the new feminist crusade against bitch-dissing rappers: an urge to control what words can be uttered in the public sphere in order to keep the public pacified and compliant.
The new fem-censors would probably balk if you compared them with the censors of old. They genuinely think they are doing something good and radical when they heap pressure on rappers to stop performing certain songs or even to stay the hell out of Australia. But every censor in history thought he was doing something good. From Torquemada’s destruction of blasphemous books during the Inquisition to Britain’s ban on DH Lawrence’s saucy novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the early 20th century, censors truly believed they had a duty to save the public from being harmed by allegedly deviant or toxic ideas. And so it is today: gangsta-allergic feminists, clearly believing they know better than the rest of us what should be permissible in public debate, are on a mission to cleanse the public sphere of “problematic” ideas.
And they have absolutely no understanding of context. Singing about violence is not an incitement to violence. The idea of incitement has become too flabby and unwieldy in recent years. It used to refer to a very close encounter between individuals, where one would cajole and convince the other to do something bad: that’s incitement. Now, however, everything from Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ to lads’ mags on a shop shelf are described as acts of “incitement”: they incite hatred of and violence against women, campaigners claim. This is mad. Hearing a song or seeing an image of a woman in a bikini is totally different to being told, face to face, relentlessly, that it might be a good idea to beat someone up.
The reason the new censors believe that songs, posters, mags, films, books and just about every other form of culture can invite violence is because they see us, the public, as mushy-minded creatures who can be easily driven mad by the culture around us. It’s not only Tyler, The Creator whom they fear and loathe – more importantly they fear and loathe the public, the masses, the male section in particular, whom they view as an unpredictable blob that is one song away from going crazy. And they see women as being one song away from having their self-esteem destroyed and being reduced to a weeping, quivering wreck: the way these fem-censors talk about how “women and girls are harmed by this toxic [hip-hop] culture” makes clear that they pity women at least as much as they fear men. No one escapes their suffocating paternalism – or maternalism, perhaps.
They can pose as edgy warriors against evil music all they like. But there’s no disguising the ugly elitism and profound illiberalism of their campaign against Tyler and others. History will record their names alongside all the other authoritarians who arrogantly assumed they had the right to control what the rest of us can hear, read, see and say.
All of these issues affect us here at I Probably Hate Your Band in some capacity, and it’s impossible to ignore all of the systemic quandaries which contribute to the wide and frustratingly complex problem that it is. IPHYB holds three key things to heart: freedom of artistic expression, free speech, and humour. These are all mutually exclusive and rely solely on the ability to have the freedom to express one’s truest thoughts and feelings, unrestrained by censorious obstacles which can lead to the stifling of expression; the most devastating thing art can succumb to in all its controversial and culturally vital nature. Just as dear and passionately we hold the mantles of free speech close to our collective heart, we are equally passionate supporters of women’s rights and the fight for equality. While we wholeheartedly support Collective Shout in their overall pursuit for gender equality, we also passionately support everyone’s right to freedom of speech and artistic expression. Free speech for all, or free speech for no one.