Saturday, March 01, 2008

Those of Us with Our Panties in a Bunch v. Mock Trial

As my caveat lector (right) makes very clear, I am not afraid of a good argument. In fact, given my vocation and, some would say, pathological inability to keep my mouth shut, I am more or less doomed to a life of debate. One of the most delightful manifestations of my contrarian nature is my staunch opposition to over-wrought complaints of injured sensibilities and the arch self-righteousness of special interest wankery. If I am a feminist, I am a small-“f” feminist, thank you very much. As proof, I offer a complete list of the last three things that made me as teeth-grindingly angry as I have been for the last week:

  1. The militantly feminist politics teacher who told me that wearing makeup was a betrayal of the “cause” and suggested we move to consensus government because it was easier on women
  2. The guidance counsellor who demanded that I had an obligation to take math and computer science because previous generations of women had fought for my ability to do so (apparently I owed them some Cs and Ds, although why they preferred to be paid in the currency of bad grades I’ve no idea)
  3. The lit professor who insisted that (a) cannibalism was good, and (b) that anything any person of British extraction had ever done was inherently evil (particularly perplexing given that she was a white Australian)

In short, I am astronomically unlikely to find something “offensive to women,” let alone to raise the issue. There is, of course, one major exception: when those arguing the counter-feminist perspective (some of them, I’m sure, quite convinced that they are being excellent little third-wave feminists) are so obviously missing the point that I despair for the rhetorical and analytical skills of my generation.

Now let me clear (somebody has to, I suppose): I take no issue with Mock Trial. Not having seen it, I cannot take issue with it. I know that many people on both sides of the debate invested enormous amounts of time and effort into the show, which by all accounts was 90% unimpeachable, at least under the terms of this debate. I’m told it was amusing; I’m told it raised $10,000 for charity. This is commendable, and it has nothing to do with this debate.

My concern, the issue to which I am sacrificing so much precious dental enamel, is the cultish attitude of those who have equated criticism of Mock Trial with betrayal of Osgoode, nay, of freedom of expression itself. To them I have but one question: Seriously?

While I sympathize with distrust of censorship, some counter-arguments have gone so far as to raise the spectre of Osgoode turning into a fascist police state where all free expression is quashed. While I admit there are days when these hallowed halls of learning strike me as dystopian, it is clear that the school is too committed to being Kafkaesque to waste time being Orwellian. Plus—thankfully—law students are mouthy little brats who would never let that happen. This is yet another straw man argument that ignores the issues.

There are legitimate counter-arguments to the positions (a) that a strip-tease is an entirely inappropriate feature of an official school event, in that it furthers the acculturation of the virgin/whore dichotomy in the legal profession; (b) that depicting a specific and identifiable student as an embodiment of the worst stereotypes of (attractive) female lawyers, namely that we sleep our way to the top, is not only potentially defamatory and unquestionably injurious to the target, but also harmful to the student body as a whole; (c) that any attempt to address a breakdown of institutional standards must go outside that institution to challenge the defensive groupthink to which any school or organization is prone; and (d) that serious breaches of standards which take place in a public and highly publicized forum are properly addressed in an equally public forum. But I haven’t heard any yet. Instead, I’ve heard a lot of arguments so heinously illogical that they deserve to be broken down into their component logical fallacies.[1]

Regarding “Come join the Cabaret…”

Mock Trial is, I think, best defined as a cabaret show. Cabaret as an art form is generally a bawdy, funny, sometimes vulgar intertwining of performances of varying calibre and has also traditionally been a venue for social and political satire and commentary. Mock Trial is very much along this vein. It is a cobbling together of the efforts of many different people into a final product that is meant to be entertaining, humourous, and racy, while simultaneously satirizing Osgoode, the legal profession and various notable personalities both at Osgoode and in the larger legal community.

The comment begins with masterful examples of both the bare assertion fallacy and begging the question. Since mock trial = cabaret and cabaret = good, mock trial = good. This is also a nice specimen of the weak analogy. It then moves on to a simultaneous ad hominem attack/use of loaded language, by dismissing the complainants as part of the “legacy of melodrama that is Oz” who are “getting their knickers in a knot.” The mischaracterization of the debate continues, as we find out that the subject of the knicker-knots in the mere “’raciness’ and ‘inappropriateness’ of some numbers.” I would classify this as abuse of quotation marks. No one is concerned that some of the Mock Trial performers showed a little ankle, it is how they did so and the likely consequences that have our unmentionables all a-tangle.

The comment then moves on to a rhetorical device so rare I feel luckier to have witnessed than if a Spix’s Macaw landed on my shoulder. Having established—or rather, asserted—the Mock Trial-cabaret link, the article goes on to compare criticism of Mock Trial to censorship by the Nazis (the author’s disingenuous and exclamation-pointed demurral aside). Indeed, it is the rare reductio ad hitlerum, not seen in the wild since the mid-twentieth century.[2] Both a false analogy and an attack ad hominem, this particular logical fallacy is too frail to survive the arched eyebrows of its interlocutors. It demands the question, once again: Seriously?

The article moves away from Teutonics and on to a reaffirmation of the previously discussed bare assertion/begging the question: “At Osgoode, Mock Trial is one of the most apt forums in which to criticize the legal regime in which we find ourselves.” This neatly sidesteps the fact that, (a) if Mock Trial is that important to legal discourse at Osgoode, then perhaps we should take in our shingle and go home, and (b) that the impugned elements of the show had nothing to do with the “legal regime”. Then the article moves on to a fallacy of relevance implicating Jonathan Swift as a hypothetical supporter of Mock Trial’s right to say anything, however defamatory or sexist. My counter-hypothesis is that Swift is currently turning in his grave like Pulsar B1257+12. While the article may be right that “satire gets a point across far more effectively than the clearest analytical writing,” it sadly fails to prove that Mock Trial is satirical.

Satire must have an object. It must satirize something. It is a manifestation of irony. So then, what was the object of the satire in the impugned parts of Mock Trial?

**cricket noises**

Ah yes, that’s right, there was none. To its credit, the article does explain the use of non-satirical humour in cabaret:

In terms of non-satirical content, such as plain old “toilet humour,” gratuitous swearing, or sexually explicit content, I would like to point out three things. First, cabaret has always included these aspects of entertainment and humour – it is part of the genre. Second, the performers in Mock Trial are adults, who are capable of making decisions about what they are willing to take part in. They are not goaded, paid or tormented into participating, and what appears on stage is therefore not exploitive of them.

I would also like to point our three things: First, appealing to the authority of cabaret is unhelpful because no one has actually established that this is an apt analogy. Second, defending Mock Trial on the basis of the performer’s personal agency is missing the point by a margin of error comparable to New Coke. It is a non sequitur; nobody is arguing that the dancers or actors were forced to do something exploitative. The problem is the loss of agency on the part of other women in the Osgoode community. Third, while I’m glad to hear that Mock Trial doesn’t pay or coerce its participants, the point is irrelevant to the current debate.

In the last four paragraphs, the article moves into an analysis of the freedom of expression interest supposedly threatened by those of us with our lingerie in a barrel hitch. This is purports to be the crux of many of the arguments for Mock Trial’s impunity, and it is defeated only by its myopic hypocrisy.

I would agree that it is good advice to not “assume that because you were morally offended by something in the show that everyone was or should be offended.” However, it is likewise true that one should not assume that because they were not “morally offended,” no one else would be either. It is entirely true that “that kind of thinking that leads to moral arrogance as well as a lack of dialogue between divergent viewpoints.” Such moral arrogance could include the un-argued assumption that support of freedom of expression is a carte blanche for anything, no matter how harmful. Blackface? Punch and Judy? Snuff films? Why not?

Now, I clearly don’t agree with that point of view, especially in this context. The medium is the message, and if the medium is a school-supported, firm-funded, institutionalized performance which paints women as sexualized being to the exclusion of other traits, then the message isn’t “women are just sexual”—which would be bad enough—but “Osgoode and the firms agree that women are just sexual”. But perhaps I could “agree to disagree”, had the article not concluded with an admonishment that the complainants had expressed their discontent wrongly. In short, Mock Trial can say what it wants because freedom of expression is paramount, and if you don’t like it, shut your face. Charming. And that’s not the worst of it.

Regarding “The beauty of freedom and feminism”

This article avoids any particularly egregious rhetorical abuses by the simple use of wishful thinking, and a troubling misunderstanding of what it is to be feminist. It begins where the previous one left off by indulging in rampant hypocrisy, ironically by misusing the word “hypocritical":

The first issue is between the student and the producers. Anyone who has spoken on behalf of this student to other organizations or to the school newspapers is simply hypocritical in their actions. If this student chooses to handle the issue personally, then that should be respected. Using the student to advance your own grievances is discourteous. Regardless, the skit in question in no way TRUTHFULLY depicts any student in this school and is just a farce of a fictional situation.

From this I glean several troubling themes. We should not, apparently, support members of our community who have been maligned. We should also not use blatant and troubling evidence of a problem in the institutional culture of the school to illustrate that problem. I confess that following these suggestions would make it frankly impossible to be a lawyer, to advance cases and use evidence, particularly when I agreed with my clients and their cause.

Also, the statement that there was no targeting of a student is obviously untrue, however sincere the author may be. I can’t believe—or, perhaps, refuse to believe—that all or even most of those who contributed positively to Mock Trial were aware of the situation and untroubled by it.

The article continues:

The second issue a few people had with the show is the alleged “misogynist” depiction of women. "is is something that falls under the headings of “taste” and “censorship”. I would be dishonest if I said every skit showed women in the best light. However, that is my opinion. I am entitled to that opinion just as women are entitled to be smart and sexy, even overtly sexual if they choose. Women can even be bitchy and sarcastic in their skit, a la moi. This is the beauty of freedom and feminism! You can be want you want to be. You can be criticized, but you should not be stopped.

This is troubling, once again in that missed-the-point, fallacy of relevance way. First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave, Post-, or reluctant feminist, there is one thing we can all agree on: that individual women have a right to self-determination. Women’s identities should not be determined solely by the external culture. Women should feel free to express their sexuality, their “sexyness” howsoever they choose. So, why then is it problematic for Mock Trial to feature stripping female lawyers and young women lawyers prostituting themselves?

Because the dance was a depiction of young female lawyers in general, and because the skit was a depiction of a young female lawyer in particular. It is not the behaviour that calls for criticism, but rather that said behaviour is a public representation of a stereotype that many of us have had to fight against. It is also screamingly ironic that the skit ridiculed that which the dance purported to celebrate.

In short: Worst. Third-Wave Feminists. Ever.

For those who were offended by the show, you are entitled to voice your own opinion. You could address the issue with the producers or in the Obiter, but to go so far as to contact corporate sponsors is preposterous! The sponsors come and see the show; therefore, they can personally address any issues they have with the producers or the school.

Again, it is interesting how Mock Trial should be immune from criticism, but its critics are not. We are “entitled to voice” our “own opinion”…at the time and venue, and to the audience, that is least likely to respond. Please read Committee for the Commonwealth of Canada,[3] then get back to me.

The article concludes on a morass of appeal to emotion (they’ll cancel our beloved Mock Trial!), ad hominem attacks (you hate charity!), and an amusing poison pill: “Seeing our peers’ talents is secondary to the charitable contribution.” Since that’s true, and since Mock Trial appear incapable of raising money without particularly unfunny and damaging portrayals of members of our community, maybe we should quash the whole thing and try for something less mean-spirited?

Regarding “In defense of Mock Trial”

I’ve read this article several times now, and while I am more than willing to point out its flaws, I shall make the caveat that, while I believe this is a particularly inept satire of the complainants, it may in fact be an incredibly clever satire of the respondents.

I have a disability. It’s genetic, so there’s not too much I can do about it. My doctor tells me that my chromosome five is abnormally short, and as a result I don’t have a sense of humour.

To begin with, this article could easily have kept its basic premise without invoking chromosomal abnormalities. I don’t find Le Jeune’s syndrome[4] particularly amusing, and I would caution the author that a quick Google might have prevented him from mocking an actual and tragic genetic disorder. I’m also discouraged that there was no fact-checking on the part of the editors.

Having begun with retards, the article moves on to racism.

Having this disability is usually fatal in most societies. I’ve heard reports that in some island cultures, children born with this disability are actually thrown off cliffs, to the mirthful approval of the community. I think they did this in ancient Sparta as well, although this is still a point of debate among contemporary academics. In other societies, those born with this disability and it impossibly difficult to mate with the opposite sex. As a result, they usually relegate themselves to living in caves. Surprisingly however, my disability has never been an obstacle for me in Canada – thanks primarily to our culture of ultra-political sensitivity.

Anhedonia and over-sensitivity are then conflated:

I’ve recently discovered that my disability is actually an advantage in many circumstances. By not being able to laugh, I have the luxury of finding offensive just about anything. Any mention of sexuality? Obviously sexist. Allusion to ethnicity? Obviously Racist. Satirical suggestion? Most definitely discrimination. I also find that most people are afraid to disagree with me. Those who are not, I usually like to portray as colonial supremacists. This usually does a good job of shutting them up.

First of all, this “joke” lacks continuity. Lack of sense of humour does not make one jump to conclusions like this. Again, the author could have claimed to have the fictional illness Hypersensatus politica without dragging people with serious medical problems down into the muck with him. Second, he paints the complainants as malignant narcissists who cannot abide any criticism.

The irony is so thick only Paul Bunyan could dent it. And yet the ad hominem attacks continue:

Being able to point out offensive material has now become second nature. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t really require any higher cognitive function. I no longer ask myself why I am offended, I am merely comforted by the fact that I am. And besides, I find it’s a great way to get people into trouble, and also to set the bar so incredibly high that people around me are perpetually afraid of what to say. I like it when people respect my values. I call it a subtle form of coercion.

The complainants are apparently irrational (and possibly stupid), textbook cases of narcissistic personality disorder, and apparently dabbling in Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy or at least an overdeveloped sense of Schadenfreude.

Continuity breaks down again when the narrator states: “My latest pet peeve are school performances. I really think they just aren’t funny anymore.” Um, if you were born without a sense of humour, when did you know they were funny? When satire is good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad, it’s this article. I believe Jonathan Swift’s rotational velocity is approaching light speed.

I’ll spare myself the analysis of the next two paragraphs, which continue the theme of narcissism. The article then concludes with yet another bizarre mischaracterisation of the issues:

I also don’t see the point in opening up lines of dialogue with those who have offended me. It’s much easier just to tell on them. I guess this is something I learned from elementary school. If I can’t deal with an issue, I seek higher authorities to resolve the problem for me. It makes me less accountable. In truth, I’m not sure if I’m in it to change the opinions of those who I think are offensive. I’m more interested in my own emotional catharsis. It’s easier to complain than to explain.

To those critical of the way the complainants made their complaint as not “opening up lines of dialogue,” I’d like to point out in as few words as possible the flaw in your argument: it’s wrong. It’s just so, overwhelmingly, obviously wrong that it almost doesn’t bear analysis. The complaints didn’t move this debate from the private to the public sphere, because it was already in the public sphere. Even in the Excalibur article, both sides were given the opportunity to express their opinion, and it’s hardly our fault that some people just tried to bluff their way to a defence of the indefensible. To argue that Mock Trial should not be called on its errors for the sake of abstract and unanalysed claims to “humour” and “freedom of expression,” while simultaneously berate its critics for “telling on” it is so painfully illogical that I lose a few neurons every time I contemplate it. If Mock Trial is blameless, than complaints cannot harm it. But if Mock Trial is blameless, then why hasn’t their been a single articulate statement in its defense? If untempered freedom of expression is good, then why are we not free to express our problems with the show?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go batten down the hatches against the inevitable backlash.

[1] I won’t criticize any of the authors for their use of appeal to ridicule, since it’s one of my favorite rhetorical tools. I can’t blame anyone for trying to be funny—I can only blame them for failing.


[3] v. Canada, [1991] 1 S.C.R. 139.


1 comment:

obsideon said...

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