Scott Kaiser

Social Commentary or Socially Irresponsible: You Decide

Filed By Scott Kaiser | January 26, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: offensive jokes, social commentary

So the popular online store T-Shirt Hell is shutting down, and it's not because of the bad economy. Rather it's because the owner "Sunshine Megatron" (formerly Aaron Landau Schwarz) could no longer handle the flak he was receiving over some of his t-shirt slogans such as:


  • "It's not gay if you beat them up afterwards"

  • "Slavery gets shit done"

  • "Arrest Black Babies Before They Become Criminals"

  • "What About All The Good Things Hitler Did?"


Obviously some people were offended by the above t-shirts and let T-Shirt Hell know it. Mr. Megatron however claims that he should not have to "explain the irony or the social commentary of the slogan because anyone with half a brain should be able to handle that on their own."

While I get the "social commentary" Mr. Megatron claims his company is making, when does it cross the line and become offensive and/or socially irresponsible?

Take the gay t-shirt slogan above. With gay bashing a serious and under-reported hate crime, does this slogan mock gay bashers or reinforce an attitude of violence against gays?

I think it depends on the audience. There are those of us who might be able to see the irony of the idea that beating up gays somehow makes participating in gay acts acceptable for an otherwise "straight" boy to take part in. Unfortunately there are many who will not.

It brings to mind the controversy of Beavis & Butt-head from several years back. It was assumed that everyone would be able to see it was just a cartoon until a five-year-old boy set fire to his home killing his two-year-old sister after watching a similar stunt on the show. After watching an episode of Jackass, a 13-year-old Connecticut teenager was left in critical condition with severe burns after trying to copycat a stunt he saw on the show. It became obvious that these shows needed to be limited to age-appropriate audiences who would be able to watch them with a critical eye.

So how about a t-shirt then? How do you limit its exposure to younger minds who might think that the shirt's slogan is suggesting that violence towards gays is acceptable or even encouraged? The thing is, you can't. Once the t-shirt leaves their store, T-Shirt Hell no longer has control over it or where and how it might be used. While Mr. Megatron feels that "anyone with half a brain" will get the joke, history suggests that isn't always the case.

My experience is that most straight, white men (but not limited to just them) seem to think that every joke, no matter how vile or socially irresponsible, is funny and should be allowed. I often am told to "lighten up" if I point out that their joke might be offensive to some. These men often are unable to empathize with those whom the joke might ultimately hurt. While I strongly defend their right to such jokes and decry censorship, I also believe people need to take responsibility for their actions. Much like falsely shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, wearing such a t-shirt might cause unintentional harm regardless if it is "social commentary" or not.

So should T-Shirt Hell be able to sell shirts with these slogans? Yes, but Mr. Megatron shouldn't whine and play the victim then when people want to hold him accountable for it.

What do you think?

(P.S. For the record I always found Beavis & Butt-head to be hysterical. In fact, I annoy the hell out of my partner every time we go to Las Vegas by doing my Beavis & Butt-head impression ad nauseum- "That sign says loose slots... huh, huh, huh, huh, huh".)


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Because racism and anti-semitism is oh so hip!

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 28, 2009 8:43 AM

Speaking from the ancient late 1960's if there was racial tension in my jr high school there were a group of Blacks who wore black t's and a group of Whites who wore white.

The shirts made their statement and, often as not, led to some violence. The school banned both black and white t's, but banning them solved nothing.

Reminds me of the controversy a few years ago when someone wanted to throw a party called "Fag Bash" (the organizers were gay). Kind of clever, but pretty insensitive.

I agree with your conclusion: if you're going to be offensive and edgy, you gotta be prepared to deal with the consequences.

lacy panties | January 26, 2009 8:29 PM

My experience is that most straight, white men. . . think that every joke. . . is funny

Really?

As much as it disgusts me to have to say it in this case, yes, Mr. Megatron has every right to sell his t-shirts and I would be among the first to defend his right to do so.

It's not about the content, it's about free speech. These slogans, while distasteful and unpleasant, are protected free speech. To attempt to prevent him from selling them would open a can of worms I don't think any of us really want to open.

Imagine if the words in question were not the anti-gay anti-semitic slogans we see here, but instead were pro-gay or pro-Jewish. If someone with differing views were to claim to be offended by them, would it be ok to ban them for that reason? How about something said here at TBP by one of our contributors or commenters?

Talk about a slippery slope...

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | January 26, 2009 11:56 PM

As Kathy points out in her excellent comment below, it's not about free speech. I would be first in line to defend his right to say what he wants. Heck, I even defend Rev. Phelp's right to free speech.

The point is, while Mr. Megatron can say whatever he wants, is he be socially responsible in doing so?

I think we'd both agree that if someone falsely yelled "fire" in a crowded theater they are being socially irresponsible in doing that. People could get hurt by rushing to exits in a panic. They have the right to yell "fire", but they also must accept the consequences of their actions.

As I mention in my post above, T-Shirt Hell has no control over their t-shirts once they leave their facilities. In my opinion that is the equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater and then leaving the scene without any regard to making sure everybody knew that they were just joking.

Mr. Megatron shows that he understands his right to free speech, but he doesn't accept the responsibilities that come with that right.

"it's about free speech."

Not really - he's upset that others used their free speech to disagree with what he was saying. He wasn't banned, wasn't put out of business, didn't note any threats - he just didn't want to hear from others who disagreed with him anymore.

Actually he's kind of a wuss - he thinks others should STFU when he says things that he thinks people see as: "To those who are offended by them and to those who think I'm racist, promoting rape, a nazi, homophobic or just the world's biggest asshole.."

But - someone writes him:

"I can't even believe people buy this shit. Do you realize your supporting a hate crime? That makes you feel better about yourself? Wow you need a life. We're all human beings and you can't except it."


And he cries.

Boo Hoo, Sunshine.

Actually he's kind of a wuss - he thinks others should STFU when he says things that he thinks people see as: "To those who are offended by them and to those who think I'm racist, promoting rape, a nazi, homophobic or just the world's biggest asshole.."

yup. There's too much of that going on, people who think the right to free speech is the same as the right to not be criticized.

Which is funny, because they're complete opposites.

socially irresponsible.

unequivocally.

without doubt.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | January 26, 2009 10:29 PM

As far as I can see, the shirts don't violate free speech.

And am I the only one who totally sees the irony in the statements? I'm not saying I'd wear them, but they certainly can be read as opposing gay bashing, slavery, racism and fascism respectively. I feel like we live in an age of irony, so if I saw the shirts I personally wouldn't assume the wearer was for any of those things, but would look for further clues.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | January 27, 2009 12:01 AM

At what age did you first appreciate and understand irony? Do you think a thirteen-year-old does? What about a nine-year-old?

If someone wears these t-shirts in public (and they do), they can't control the audience who hears the message, i.e. they can't make sure that everyone will be able to get and appreciate the irony.

I'm not saying they can't wear the t-shirt, but I can still think they're being an ass when they do.

That's probably because the person who taught you how to read also taught you to *think* about what you were reading.

I see the irony Brynn, and I not only would wear them -- I just ordered a couple.

Maybe this is a bit of publicity to make some extra cash before shutting down. I don't know. But I do know a few things as fact:

-- I'd never heard of TshirtHell 'til this article.

-- I laughed out loud at the "Its not gay if you beat them up afterwards" shirt. [ I bought one because I hate to be a lemming. Don't plan to wear it in the supermarket, but I will wear it. ] And this from a guy who spent his entire grammar school tenure being humiliated in gym class and chased home from school.

** How many homophobes do you think will wear a shirt like that? How many would believe its even remotely funny to suggest you can erase gay sex with violence? Answer -- none. The only ones who should be offended by that shirt are closet cases who desperately wanna believe it, but would die before espousing that credo to the world. **

-- I also loved the Jesus on the Cross shirt with the slogan "Guys who wear sandals deserve what they get." People take Jesus way too seriously. I just watched an Ultimate Fighting match where the victor thanked Jesus after pounding the loser into a bloody pulp. THAT should be more offensive than the tshirt, but no one is sending cease and desist orders to athletes, or drugged out and fornicating rock stars who thank Jesus for every damn thing. [ btw - I bought that shirt too! ]

-- And does anyone think the Slavery gets things Done shirt was being wistful about the curious tradition? C'mon. Its true! The pyramids couldn't have been built without it [imagine the modern-day labor union hell for a job of that magnitude] And bottomline, its funny.

We could go on and on all day debating the specifics of each particular shirt. People need to lighten up. Really. Life is too short to be twisted about every damn thing, especially when they're kinda sorta true.

Now if they had a shirt that offended Muslims with images of the Prophet, needless to say, I wouldn't wear that one. I like to shake things up, but I'm no fool. ~

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | January 27, 2009 9:46 AM

You're right. Homophobes won't wear the shirt.

But they will read yours, and I doubt you'll take the time to explain the irony of it to each and every homophobe you pass while wearing it.

Actually Scott, I would break it down to any 'phobe bold enough to question the shirt on the street. Not many would. They're usually pussies unless in drunken groups.

But I wouldn't wear the shirt just anywhere. Neither would I wear the 'offensive' Jesus shirt just anywhere. There's a time and place for everything.

I think the shirt is funny. I believe a lot of my friends would think its funny too. So, I'd likely wear it to a dinner party or possibly a bar as an intentional conversation starter. Of course I'd run into some folks who think the way you do, and we'd discuss it.

The world is full of hypocrites, double standards, and certain subjects that are fine when in friendly polite company but offensive out in the open.

Like as a black man, I've gotten emails with funny extremely ghetto and embarassing things that 'my people' have been doing in celebration of the Obama victory. These came from other black people and they are FUNNY as fcuk. Of course, if a non-black (or Limbaugh) sent out the same emails -- YIKES!!! -- stop the presses, call Al Sharpton, organize a march.

Not that people can't use things intentionally to be offensive, they often do, but how long are we going allow things to get under our skin? When are we all (everybody) gonna learn to take a joke? How long are we gonna be mortified, wounded and take to our beds at the slightest whisper of the 'F' bomb? I, for one, have used it so much I happen to like it now.

Maybe I'm perverse, but It isn't Gay if you beat 'em up afterward is hilarious to me on so many levels. And if some ignorant person dared confront me about the shirt, I'd be happy to explain it.

There is always gonna be some nutcase out to hurt someone. A funny t-shirt isn't gonna unbalance anyone -- they were in likelihood already unbalanced and ready to blow.

Allan Brauer | January 27, 2009 12:45 AM

Ahh, well, if people really want to wear smart-ass and snarky statements that can easily be interpreted as racist, sexist, and/or homophobic, yeah, it's a free country.

But they shouldn't whine if someone else decides to call them names, or play the aggrieved victim if someone else is motivated to beat the shit out of them for doing so...

Take Ann Coulter. Please. She's pushing another book, which is actually the same book over and over and over, and purports to be about whiny liberals and how they play the victim card to gain power and silence criticism.

Which might be an interesting topic if she didn't go on TV and whine about what a victim she is of the big mean liberal media who won't let her talk and misinterprets what she says.

Waah! Waah! The liberals won't let me on TV to call them fake victims! I'm the real victim!

My experience is that most straight, white men (but not limited to just them) seem to think that every joke, no matter how vile or socially irresponsible, is funny and should be allowed.

It's been my experience that there are lots of gay men who do too. No matter how unfunny the jokes are, we're supposed to laugh because it's irony or something.

But what they lack in humor value they make up for in the power to normalize and reinforce value. Half the point of jokes like that is that they're simply unfunny, so much so that one is actually tempted not to laugh. And if you don't, then you're the humorless sensitive one, so many people force themselves to play along, laugh, and internalize those obvious statements of value.

On a different note, I'm also offended by Mr. Megatron's name. The real Megatron hates all humans as vile vermin who won't give him the energy he needs; he doesn't discriminate.

Actually, just about any dominant group does this. I call it "kiss up, kick down."

Whether its Anne Fausto-Sterling taunting MtF women at her speeches, Latina trans women and immigrants, FtM men marginalizing trans women, Black on Asian hate speech, Latino marginalization of queers, or just about any pairing of groups you can think of, the methods are the same.

Just about any group jockeying for power uses outgroup hate speech to bolster its own position. And when they do it, it has all the effects you just named.

Forget "follow the money"... this is about "follow the power."

Rick Elliott | January 27, 2009 3:16 AM

There was one for a carousing beer-drinking alcoholic friend that I could resist--it has four bottles of beer on which was emblazoned--FOUR PLAY.
Another that I've always wanted to make up into a t-shirt--GENTLEMEN'S CLUB IS AN OXYMORON.
At a brige tournament conduct committee we were asked to rule on the man wearing the following t-shirt--I MADE LINDA LOVELACE GAG. We told him if he changed shirts, he could play the next session. But he'd be kicked out of the tourney if he wore the infamous t-shirt again.
One last one. There was a conservative religious campaign that I FOUND IT as their slogan. Several of us had mocking ones made--I WAS FOUND.

I loved my Derek Jarman T-shirt: "Heterosexuality isn't normal, it's just common."

Jeffrey Smith | January 27, 2009 6:40 AM

Call me a cynical curmudgeon if you must, but I can't help but wonder if the whining's an attempt to make a few more sales before he closes down for other reasons. Strikes me that getting forty cease and desist orders would be more traumatic than a bit of hate mail, for example.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | January 27, 2009 9:58 AM

Yeah, I thought about that too. If it is just a publicity stunt, it's brilliant to say the least.

I considered the fact that I was giving his site even more exposure by writing about it, but in the end decided that it was a topic worth discussing.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 27, 2009 6:47 AM

"Hate speech" and t shirts are separate things. It never fails to amaze me what people will wear, tattoo or pierce to themselves to be "unique."

Often as not it doesn't mean anything any more. I rather liked the trend of Chinese characters on t shirts in South Florida a couple of years ago. It MAY have indicated an interest in another culture, it should have caused conversations, but who knows?

Presently it seems reading words is too hard. Now all the t's have pictures.

He talks about someone with a half a brain will see the joke in these. The problem is, those who hate usually only have one brain between all of them, and unfortunately, the one who beats up a gay person isn't using it at the time.

To suggest all 'phobes are mentally inept is unfair and counter-productive.

How do we know that some kid in high school hasn't done just what that t-shirt says -- had secret sex with the one male member of the school cheer squad, then the next week beat the crap outta him when his jock buddies saw them together. It's almost cliche.

But then he sees that t-shirt. What do you imagine goes through his mind?

Even 'phobes have brains and reasoning behind what they do.

If this site isn't being shut down because of cease and desist orders or due to a falling off of revenue, then I'd have to say the creator is a complete wuss. He likes to dish it out but can't take it in return. Waaaaa.

I have to agree that the ones you listed here, as well as some others I saw on the site, are over-the-top. More offensive that humorous. There are a couple though that I did find to be funny because of the irony, such as:

"I put the syn in synagogue"
"Support Our Troops - Except Ron, that guy's a d**"
"I'm what Willis was talking about"
"Talk nerdy to me"
"God Bless America - Except Idaho. F** Idaho."
"Soldiers Need Hummers - Please help support the cause"

A couple of these here are a bit crass and I wouldn't wear any of these on a t-shirt myself, but they did make me laugh. I don't find them to offensive either. Some of the others though, I didn't like at all. I assume the intended audience for these t-shirts are high school and college aged males.

OMG!! -- I missed the Talk Nerdy to Me shirt!! I have to go back and order that too.

I get weak in the knees for nerdy guys in glasses. During the recent stressful election cycle, Nate Silver of 538.com sent me into masturbatory frenzies.

Was that TMI?

"Much like falsely shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, wearing such a t-shirt might cause unintentional harm regardless if it is "social commentary" or not."
that's the single dumbest comparison ever.

and those shirts aren't trying to make a social commentary, they're trying to tell a joke. "It's not gay if you beat them up afterwards" might touch on a very serious issue, it is also hilarious.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | January 27, 2009 11:35 AM

Mr. Megatron, creator of the shirts, claims he was making "social commentary." His claim, not mine.

I think it's irrelevant to make assumptions about whether or not people will get the "irony" of phrases that have no other context than the fact that they are on t-shirts. I'm sure some witty glbtq people will read them as ironic, while closeted homophobes will enjoy the ability to wear such a shirt as a passive aggressive sneer at "political correctness." Honestly, unless you happen to know the exact views of the person wearing the shirt, you could interpret the statement and make inferences about the wearer's views either way. A book I read recently explored this (True Enough: How to Live in a Post-Fact Society, I think it was called). One example the author showed was that when people watched the show All in the Family, the more liberal viewers tended to think that the son was portrayed as in the right and came out on top in most of the arguments, and that the humor was at the bigoted father's expense, whereas conservative viewers watched the same show and thought it was exactly the opposite. I think that know matter how you interpret these t-shirts, it's highly problematic and a double-edged sword. Who cares if some people will think the t-shirts pro-gay, pro-black, pro-Jews when other people can just as easily read them as pro-gay bashing, pro-slavery, and pro-Hitler. I know this is kind of an oversimplification, but that's my gut reaction.

...And also a good argument for why the shirts are so cool. We're talking about them. A lot.

I agree that if he is going to turn his dime on saying things that others may be offended by he needs to put on his big boy panties and stop whining.
Yes we have a freedom of speech, but I too am amzed when people feel that their own freedom of speech precludes the ability of others to answer or disagree. My big pet peeve is when people feel that their freedom of speech extends to a requirement of others to listen.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | January 27, 2009 11:30 AM

Excellent point. The term "freedom of speech" is tossed around too freely. People think it means "freedom from responsibility" or "freedom from criticism".

The bad part is, no matter who buys or wears the shirt it can be seen as both social commentary and irresponsibility.

I play rugby, for a predominantly gay team. We had a PR firm make us some signage and promotional material that needed to out in printed material. One of them included the phrase "Gay Bashing - Play Rugby" with a stylized picture of a tackle. To me, this is taking ownership and taking it back, to others, it was outright offensive.

I know of other gay rugby teams that have hilarious shirts. The Atlanta Bucks RFC have a picture of a buck, mounting another buck on their t-shirts and "Southern Rugby - Homo Style" on the back.

Irresponsible? or ownership? or just satyrical?

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | January 27, 2009 11:27 AM

I have mixed feelings about the "taking ownership" of a word or phrase. It some cases I think it's been highly successful (e.g. queer) and in others it's failed (e.g. fag- I still find it offensive no matter who says it).

I don't think taking ownership of the phrase "gay bashing" is a solution. To me that's like women trying to take ownership of the term "rape".

A lot of this is about the context. If I saw someone wearing the gay bashing slogan t-shirt at a gay bar, I would understand their intent to be ironic. If I saw someone wearing the t-shirt at a mall, I would have no idea whether they got the joke or not.

Also, if I try to access at work. This is the error message from our filter:

Your request was denied because of its content categorization: "Hate/Discrimination;Online Shopping;Profanity;Sexual Materials"

It's mild stuff compared to passages from the bible. It says god sanctions slavery, stoning men to death who have sex with other men, killing adulterers and children that talk back to parents. This stuff keeps rolling off the printing presses and stuck in a nightstand next to motel room beds. The best selling book in the world.

Adam Martin | February 2, 2009 1:47 AM

What an incredible and uplifting article.

The owner of this company has, and should have, every legal right to print and sell commercially those T-Shirts. In the US, we don't legally regulate the content or meaning of any written messages on publicly traded goods.

That said, I think that the people with whom I share this world ought not wear those shirts. The chief reason being that I believe that it is inappropriate to bring topics like that in any way into public discourse without any exchange of words. Those topics deserve special attention when being fed to the oh so impressionable youth of today's modern world. Our consciousness is affected to no small degree by such messages.

The author uses the world 'flak' to describe the mechanism by which the owner was caused to close up shop. This flak is essentially social disapproval--people expressing their dissatisfaction in what the owner is doing. Yay for us.

We should be thankful that we live in country where we don't legally regulate speech but are able to say what we want without misguided people saying stuff we don't because we hold them socially accountable. We should be wary of the day when we don't do the latter.

I read this post and my first thoughts were along the lines of how ironic it is that so many people fail to appreciate irony. Later that evening, however, I saw an article about a D.C. man who was assaulted and left for dead outside of a busy restaurant. Dozens of people passed by without even checking to see if he was O.K. Tragically he perished on that sidewalk. The story is tragic enough, but the cause for the altercation was over an accusation of homosexuality. Perhaps this is an issue where irony gives way to thoughtful consideration.