This Is How You Do It: words, privilege, and the stuff you don’t know.


Full disclosure: I think Tim Minchin is great. Massive fan. The guy can make me righteous, giggly, and teary pretty much on demand. All three at once, with White Wine In The Sun.

He’s also straight and cis and male, so it’s not terribly surprising that every so often something a bit ignorant will come out of his face. It happens. Foot-in-mouth disease is one of the more embarrassing symptoms of all forms of privilege. Fortunately, it’s also eminently treatable- even if the treatment involves a little bit more self-awareness and humility than most people are willing to shell out for. But just in case you’re in this situation, here’s a good timeline on how to clear up the vast majority of foot-in-mouth infestations:

Find out that you’ve done something ridiculous, ignorant, and offensive:

It’s quite likely that you won’t have realised it at the time, but you’ve just Screwed Up Royally. Oops! If you’re unlucky, then you’ll never find out. However, if you’re very very lucky, then someone will point out to you that you did a thing and now you’ve a giant foot hanging out of your face:

Chances are, your first reaction is going to be somewhere between denial and disbelief. For the sake of that foot not lodging itself permanently halfway down your esophagus, let’s hope it was closer to the latter.

Acknowledge it

By now you’ll have realised that you’ve Screwed Up. Again, you’ve two choices here. You can keep with the denial, or you can begin the process of dislodging that foot by, well, acknowledging your screwup.

And look at that, some of that foot’s coming loose already. This is where many people stop treatment. However, unbeknownst to you, you still do have a few toes between your teeth. It’s okay, treatment for this is very straightforward.

Try not to be too defensive

This is the hard part. You see, nobody likes being told they have a giant foot sticking out of their face. They probably think they have a perfectly lovely face with just a nose and maybe some glasses sticking out of it. A little bit of defensiveness is, unfortunately, almost inevitable. Just try and tone it down a bit, or you’ll run out of feet.

Oh, and you might want to do a bit of accepting that there are bigger issues at stake than your own ego also.

Prevention is better than cure

Foot-in-mouth can be a recurring condition, and it only gets worse with repeated exposures. Fortunately, there’s a reasonably effective method of vaccination! Vaccines are great, aren’t they? And just like a quick jab or three can prevent you from coming down with the pox, a little bit of knowledge can keep your feet firmly attached to your ankles where they belong. This kind of vaccine is also cheap ‘n’ easy to mass-produce and to spread throughout the population, and doesn’t even need a visit to your GP. Nifty, huh?

And there we go! Foot pretty much reattached to leg.

Now, I’m not saying that Tim did everything right here. However, engaging with the people who you’ve offended, listening to what they have to say, doing a bit of research, being public about what you’ve learned, and a commitment to changing future behaviour? Is pretty frickin’ awesome, as far as I’m concerned.

Also, have a video:

What do you think? I’m very aware that I’m a cis person pontificating on how to not be an ass to trans people and am a bit on the privilegey side myself here, so would be very very interested in hearing other perspectives.

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13 thoughts on “This Is How You Do It: words, privilege, and the stuff you don’t know.

  1. Huh. That… wasn’t bad. I didn’t expect that.

    • I know, right? I’m not saying that his response was entirely perfect in every way, but I do think that he went in the right direction. He did say that he wouldn’t say ‘sorry’, though. While I don’t agree with that myself, I can kind of understand it, especially if you come from the perspective that in order to apologise for a thing you have to have been aware that it was the wrong thing to do when you did it.

      Overall, though, I think he’s on the right track- though as a cis person I do feel a bit wibbly about saying that as I’m not affected here, you know? But I do think that it’s good to have models of how to be a real live person who isn’t 100% awesome all the time and also a good ally.

  2. Interesting! I’ve seen him respond to things like this before (in one documentary about his early career, near the end there’s a section where he’s just oh-so-hurt that anyone could ever accuse him of saying something racist, which betrayed a serious lack of awareness), and in general when someone has built a persona (at least a performing persona) around being edgy, progressive, and controversial, they can become very self-righteous about any feedback about screwing up. But it seems like he’s made progress.

  3. I missed the whole thing developing, so this post is news to me. That line “A word is as offensive as those who have been victimised by it tell us it is” is not something I’ve seen many people acknowledge. I’m so used to reading about folks committing massive fail, so it was really refreshing to read someone actually taking responsibility, expressing support and using their position to raise awareness.

  4. I love Tim Minchin *dreamy look* Yay, I’m glad to see he responded in a positive way to being called out like that. I’ve been getting very disappointed lately by people I’ve admired who’ve acted like clueless idiots and not acknowledged any problem with it. I’d love to see him in concert, but I doubt he’s planning any South African tours any time soon. :(

  5. Seems like a bit of a storm in a teacup to me, and I say that as a transgendered person. I get that some find it offensive, but a) some people seem to take pleasure in being offended, and b) as a word, it’s never bothered me; it’s the context that the word are used in that causes me distress, rather than the word itself, but that’s more about tone and intent than simple word usage.

    My guess is that, if it hasn’t happened already, members of the trans community will at some point try to reclaim the word, just as the gay community have with ‘queer.’ That’s an effective way of stopping the word from being used pejoratively, whereas saying “Don’t use this word, it causes me offence,” will almost certainly lead to it being used in exactly this manner.

    Just my $0.02, of course.

    • The difference with ‘tranny’ is that the trans community isn’t large enough to make a big, vocal reclamation of the word. ‘Queer’ worked because there are enough of them to make it obvious that they had taken the word back. I don’t think anyone would notice if we tried and in the meantime the people who use the word cruelly would continue.

    • What I found most offensive about the 8 Out of 10 Cats exchange wasn’t the word itself (much as I dislike it) as the assumption on all sides that “trannies” could be rated – i.e. that you could be a “good trannie” (attractive and “passable”) or a “bad trannie” (ugly and not “passable”). I don’t think for a moment that Minchin would have rate other women in that way – the sexism would have been obvious to him in a way that it clearly wasn’t in this context.

      Having said that, kudos to him for his reaction to the complaints: it’s hard to backtrack gracefully, but he managed it, and thinking about the word seems to have led him to think more widely about the situation of trans people.

  6. “A word is as offensive as those who have been victimised by it tell us it is”
    WORD

  7. I really enjoyed this post, and I too (as a cis-gendered person) think he dealt with it okay, and I do find that inspirational, as we all make mistakes and end up offending people without meaning too.

  8. I think he really handled that well. I wish other people could be as humble. I am still a fan.

  9. Good points, but what a preachy article. You’re “not saying he got everything right.” Surely you couldn’t expect a much more reasonable response.
    This is one of the most poorly-written blogs I’ve seen (and that is no mean feat).

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