The Uselessness of Beating Up Eminem

by Benjamin Studebaker

The rapper Eminem released a new album (The Marshall Mathers LP 2). As is his tendency, Eminem dropped some rhymes with morally dubious meanings. And, as has also become the norm, my fellow writers decided to take positions on the matter. Kicking off the discussion was Scott Meslow at The Week, who first drew attention to homophobic lyrics in Eminem’s song, “Rap God”.  Meslow has now followed that piece up with a second one, detailing the reaction to his first piece and what he has gleaned from it. Today I’d like not so much to wade into this discussion as to call its utility into question–what purpose does it serve to write pieces criticizing artists for moral or political messages, either explicit or implicit?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that Eminem’s song wasn’t homophobic. The lyrics very clearly are:

I’ll still be able to break a motherfuckin’ table
Over the back of a couple of faggots and crack it in half

Little gay lookin’ boy
So gay I can barely say it with a straight face lookin’, boy
You witnessing a massacre
Like you watching a church gathering take place, lookin’ boy
Oy vey, that boy’s gay, that’s all they say looking, boy

Nor am I arguing that being homophobic is good or acceptable. My argument is more nuanced–even though homophobia is bad, even though Eminem has written a song that possesses homophobic lyrics, it is a waste of our time as writers to spend our time condemning it.

This is not to deny that many people are influenced by both the implicit and explicit messages in art.  I am not rejecting Plato’s belief that many people take on and absorb cultural norms through artistic media without really questioning it. There is a tremendous amount of social and environmental conditioning that happens to us as we grow up, and much of that conditioning comes to us through music, movies, television, and so on (or, more prominently in Plato’s time, plays and poetry).

That said, not everyone who listens to “Rap God” will inevitably internalize homophobic beliefs, as evidenced by the mere fact that there are people who listen to “Rap God” and then criticize it for being homophobic rather than immediately accept whatever it contains. Indeed, there are two broad categories of art consumers:

  1. Critical Consumers–those who are conscious of the moral and political content of the art they consume and consequently skeptical of it.
  2. Uncritical Consumers–those who are not conscious of the moral and political content of the art they consume and are consequently unduly influenced by it.

What I propose is that when writers write about how a given artist or artistic work contains morally suspect themes, they preach to the choir–their message is only successfully communicated to other critical consumers. In other words, they are in an echo chamber, a bubble of sorts.

What defines an uncritical consumer is an incapacity to consider how the ideas he is coming into contact with through the art he consumes might be influencing his thinking and behavior in insidious ways. By definition, such an individual is unable to reach a state of full awareness about these forces. To some extent, all of us are uncritical about the norms we internalize–even those of us who are comparatively critical, who notice these issues and think ourselves fairly self-defining, continue to a very large degree to engage in the same routinized behaviors we ourselves have identified as conditioned.

Consider for instance the people who take issue with our gender, racial, and economic norms. The overwhelming tendency is for these individuals to be perfectly cognizant in the college classroom of how these norms have conditioned them, but for this awareness to have a minimal impact on their behavior in their day to day lives. We tend to express beliefs that we never in practice act on. Or, as Louis CK puts it:

I have a lot of beliefs and I live by none of ’em. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs; I just like believing them. I like that part. They’re my little believies, they make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I fuckin’ do that.

Many activists will be found who condemn the process by which human beings are culturally homogenized, but few will be found who actually live their lives in ways that well and truly contradict those norms. The few who do will be labelled radical, crazy, or worse, often even by other reasonably aware individuals. This is the case among affluent, educated people, a relatively small slice of the population, but one that happens to include pretty much everyone who writes for reasonably sophisticated online publications.

Now, these do-nothing educated elites (myself included, and probably you, given that you’re reading this) are the people who are paying attention to this kind of thing, and even they (we?) are doing very little about it. What about everyone else? The rest of the population is blissfully unaware of the extent to which it has been socialized to follow cultural norms. Indeed, it is so unaware that it believes it freely chooses to participate within them. These people straight up do not care that Eminem’s song is homophobic. If it is brought to their attention that it is homophobic by a writer like Meslow, they’ll have a variety of reactions:

  • They might accuse the writer of “political correctness gone mad” and deny that the song’s homophobic content has any effect on them or on other people.
  • They might deny that the song is homophobic in any meaningful sense in the first place, on the grounds that Eminem is personally not homophobic and that the words “gay” and “faggot” mean something different in Eminem’s “90’s rap scene” context.
  • They might not even agree with Meslow that homophobia is a bad thing–43% of Americans still don’t approve of gay marriage.

In order for them to agree with Meslow, they would have to implicitly concede that much of their behavior might very well be socially constructed, and for people who are habituated into a view of their own agency that precludes the idea that they could be unwittingly dominated by hegemonic ideas of which they are not aware, this is a psychologically impossible move. The majority of these people will, of course, not even read him or run across his piece in the first place.

So what is this discussion of Eminem really achieving? A bunch of writers are talking to each other about a subject on which they already agree. Those who don’t agree are impervious to their influence and/or will never come into contact with it. This is what the left has been doing for decades–talking to itself in an echo chamber, deluding itself into believing that writing pieces about the racist undertones of Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance in some liberal web periodical and voting democrat every couple of years is equivalent to actually making change in the laws and policies that sustain the systems they criticize. These writers in indulging in champagne socialism and cafe liberalism.

There are victims of the various injustices the left identifies–in particular, there’s a vast number of poor people whose interests have been completely ignored by the political system since LBJ’s Great Society went bust. But no one on the left is actually doing anything meaningful for them. When writers choose to spend their time spreading outrage over songs, movies, and shows to people who already agree with them, they waste their intellectual potential and the potential of their fellows. We ought to be devising solutions to the big problems of our day, the problems that cause so much suffering for so many people, and persuading others of the value of those solutions. LGBT people don’t need someone to kick Eminem in the face, they need someone to encourage people to take the kinds of political action that will bring about a change in the laws and consequently in their lives. Disadvantaged groups don’t need lefty writers to defend them from insults and slurs, they need lefty writers to help them to no longer be disadvantaged. People who currently aren’t supporting gay marriage aren’t going to be convinced to change positions by pieces about how “Rap God” is homophobic. They might however be convinced by pieces about how the way we treat LGBT people is unjust, or how policies to correct these injustices would benefit others and not harm them.

I’ll freely admit that I’ve found myself writing stupid pieces about the political or moral implications of artistic work before. Every time I have done this, it has been out of intellectual laziness. Unable to come up with an interesting way to say something that matters, I settle for being entertaining about something that doesn’t. Once in a while I use a piece of art as a gateway to making substantive serious arguments about a topic, and this I consider acceptable, but when the focus is on attempting to determine whether the piece of art is good rather than on the substantive moral or political issue at hand, I act with the same laziness I here identify. I resolve to do less of it, and I hope that those of you who also write serious moral and political work might do the same.