Monday Musing: Special Pleading And The Ethics Of Culture

Posted on February 6, 2012

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The critic stares.

Every so often the liberal press likes to get up a nice bit of moral panic about ragga/ rap/ whatever singers’ appalling attitudes towards women, or  exhorting their listeners to shoot gays; usually the right wing press likes to join in as well, as it’s a good excuse for them to trot out their ongoing concerns about black people, with their primitive passions and oversized penises (well, they don’t say that out loud any more, but the subtext is still there). So there’s that, but we need a few more examples. There’s a well known song in Britain which expresses a desire for Marshall Wade to ‘…like a torrent rush/ rebellious Scots to crush’; there’s a song recorded by Steeleye Span that concludes ‘…join the union while you may/ don’t wait until your dying day/ or that may not be far away/ you dirty blackleg miner’; there are societies where, even today, communal music making is the exclusive preserve of men, and women are expected to just make them food and bring them drinks (actually, that sounds like some pub folk sessions I’ve been to, but that’s another story…); Peg Leg Powell’s ‘New Prison Blues’ contains the verse ‘I’ll cut your throat, mama, drink your blood like wine/ I’ll cut your throat, mama, drink your blood like wine/ Say, you can’t quit me and t’ain’t no need of tryin’ ’.

And what am I musing about this Monday? I’m thinking about the differing receptions given to music (and other creative works) that convey an ideology distasteful to contemporary, developed-world mores. To put a little more distance into the equation, consider the attitudes toward, and status of women in medieval Europe: women were not legal persons, but chattels, owned by their fathers and passed on to their husbands in baldly commercial agreements. Sure, they had some status, and widows could attain a certain degree of independence under the right circumstances, but essentially, they were entirely excluded from any political, social or economic power, and the prevailing view was that they were mentally and physically inferior to men. However, we don’t automatically pass moral judgement on the people who held these views, or on the texts and artworks that encode these ideologies, because basically everyone held them. We allow them some lassitude for their social and cultural context.

Buju Banton notoriously wrote the song ‘Boom Boom Bye Bye’ about shooting gay men in the head. Banton’s cultural background is one in which homosexuality is totally unacceptable, in which violence is commonplace, and in which avoiding getting on the wrong end of someone’s ‘matic’ is a function of the respect in which you are held, respect being accorded in terms of machismo, the perceived capacity and willingness to employ violence. To accuse a man of homosexuality in such a milieu, to question his manhood and the basis for his respect, can end in one of two ways… Violence is doubtless directed at homosexuals, but it is likely more often directed at straight men in the name of homophobia. In that context, the ideology expressed in ‘Boom Boom Bye Bye’ is uncontroversial, unremarkable even; it’s in the nature of ideology to be invisible from its own perspective. But do we extend the same lassitude to Banton in respect of his sociocultural background that we do to the medieval men previously discussed? Do I take that context as a justification for those views?

No, I don’t. I abhor the song, and everything it stands for. I am, however, interested in why we make those distinctions, or maybe just that we do. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes the difference, but it seems to me that, in general terms, Western liberal sensibilities are able to digest divergent  ideologies in proportion to their subjective distance, temporally, culturally, and to some extent geographically. So an injunction to kill gay men in the Bible is generally not taken to throw the entire work (or even just Leviticus) into disrepute, and perhaps that’s because it was written well over two millennia ago in the Middle East. I think we feel less distance from Banton than the anonymous authors of Leviticus, because we know who he is, he’s a contemporary figure. For all that the life of a poor Jamaican is radically different from that of a middle class person in the developed world, we feel that we know all about his world, because of its strong presence in mass culture.

I don’t wish to argue that we’re wrong to make value judgements about such views, but neither would I wish to argue for a morally absolutist stance on works of art from a fundamentally different ideological milieu. In fact, I don’t even buy into any sense of the ‘moral’, although I subscribe to a code of ethics, founded (I hope) on compassion and enlightened self-interest; that, however, is a set of issues far beyond the scope of this little ramble… My aim here is simply to draw attention to the complexity and ambiguity of this issue, and to question some of the commonsense responses.

Traditional music gets a lot of slack in this regard. The traditional songs of European folk music are generally getting on for two centuries old, and some of them are significantly older; as such we regard them as products of their time, and take their ideological content as a part of their value. They are historical utterances, and they are as much to be valued for what they tell us about their historical context, as they are to be understood in terms of that context. Traditional musics of contemporary cultures far removed from our own are given a similar leeway, whether they are the product of some barely contacted Papuan tribe, or the acoustic folk music of a much more closely related culture, such as the Ukraine or even Greece. These sounds are given an anthropological value, and their ideologies therefore encode useful or interesting information about their context of production. There’s a problem here, though: where does it say we treat this music in this way, but that ‘Bang Bang Bye Bye’ can’t be sociologically valued, giving us a nice excuse to enjoy listening to it? And isn’t it actually very patronising to say, in effect, ‘well this tribe is too backward for us to expect anything else from them’, or ‘this is hick music, of course it’s racist, just enjoy the tunes’? So on the one hand, we could patronise Jamaican musicians (‘how sociologically fascinating’), or we could refuse to listen to Wagner because he was an anti-semite.

The ideological content of a piece of music is rarely as clear cut as all that, of course. For one thing, it may be impossible for us to decipher, with lyrics in another language, or even simply with sounds in an unfamiliar musical dialect. ‘Dem haffi dead/ Boom bye bye/ Inna batty bwoy head’ is conveniently unambiguous, but ideologies, objectionable or otherwise, are usually encoded in less obvious ways. More to the point, a single piece of music may have some elements we want to lionise, and others we want to disavow. Jurassic 5’s song ‘One Of Them’ is a dark toned attack on the vanity and superficial values of mainstream rap, and I’m right there with Marc 7 when he asks ‘Help a brother understand/ how self-admiration takes the soul of a man’. Sadly however, the song identifies the preening, jewellery and make-up with homosexuality, and uses that identification as token of its moral decrepitude. Juju has this to say: ‘Homo I’ma hurt ya feelings/ Name brand talkers…pretty ass earrings/ Where are all your women I ain’t seen you with one/ The only bitch that ever loved you gotta call you her son’. Yeah that’s right, straight off the bat, he excludes women and gays from his crusade, identifying rectitude with straight men, and identifying everyone else as either outside his morality, or auxiliary to it.

And that’s a shame, because in many ways Jurassic 5 were one of the most intelligent, switched on alternative hip-hop outfits. Is it where they come from? Am I going to patronise them with the same sort of special pleading that might be used to justify Buju Banton? No, because these are writers who are clearly capable of clear sighted analysis, and while I defend their right to refuse political correctness, I think they’re intelligent enough to work out that the bad thing about the narcissism of rap stars is not that it means they like having sex with other men. But at the same time, it is where they come from, and if you want to explain or understand this language, that needs to be recognised. Their music is not a hermetically isolated series of utterances, but a discourse within a broader culture; it’s up to the individual just how much moral difficulty they’ll accept in a given piece of art, but it’s worth bearing in mind that refusing to listen, as an outsider, to particular styles of music, will have very little impact on its source culture, and that enjoying a song like ‘The Blackleg Miner’ does not necessarily imply an endorsement of murdering strike breakers. Unfortunately, many people (usually those enslaved to an unexamined morality rather than those with an ethical code at their command) are unable to distinguish between understanding or explaining, and justifying or apologising for…

It seems that if something is commercially produced, we regard it as simply swimming in the same sea as us. I’d like to question that: I hope I may have prompted you to look at the cultural context of the next piece of nationalist black metal you hear, in order to better understand your own (still hopefully negative) moral response. It also seems that if something has not originated in the big machine of commercial music, we’ll ‘let it off’, sometimes even according its potentially offensive values an aesthetically positive kitsch value. I’d like to question that as well. Distance, in time, place or cultural praxis, is no reason for us to suspend our engagement with the ethics of a piece (or its morality, if you’re a moralist). In the final analysis (for today), I’d like to argue for a bit more critical thinking and a bit less reactive judgement. I hope I don’t sound preachy; I’m talking about my own thinking as much as anyone else’s, and I certainly don’t think there’s a right way to approach these issues. I just think that ideologies need to be poked at, or they will rule us, and that it is important to consider this stuff explicitly, as we are all, always, responsible for our own ethical judgements.

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