Rielly Controversy: Both Good and Bad, Logical and Ridiculous

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly  [photo: Amy Irvin]
The classic technique journalists use before getting to a potentially controversial statement is to get you on their side by telling you how they relate to the victims, how they “get it,” etc.  But every racist has “tons of black friends” and I’ll spare you the phony set-up – but don’t be fooled, this intro is supposed to manipulate you into thinking I’m honest and a “straight shooter.”

If it worked, good, because hopefully you’ll keep reading when I try to pull off what I consider the rarest of feats in the current extreme, partisan and headline grabbing media climate that is the internet in 2015: I am going to ask you to hold several competing, potentially contradictory ideas in your head at the same time.

If you’ve consumed enough content on the internet or observed the fractional left/right dichotomy of our society you know what I’m talking about, even if you don’t have media-literacy training.

Yesterday, just after lunch, Leafs’ 20 year-old-defenseman Morgan Rielly said he was “not here to be a girl about it” when asked about dealing with the Leafs disastrous season. The comment was posted on Twitter and there was a predictable controversy about it – it went “viral” on Twitter and got picked up by all the major media outlets in the city.

(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)
(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

The reactions were so predictable they could have been scripted. I know this, and you know this. But the problem, as I see it, is that the vast majority of these reactions are meaningless and automatic: I’ll show below how it is a actually more complicated, but if you’ll permit me to be a tad bit reductionist for just a second, I’ll suggest that most of the reactions to the Rielly comment can be split into two groups: shaming, high-horse down talking and people who could not give less of a shit. This isn’t to say that people who are angry about sexism do not have valid complaints, because they do, but rather to say that the polemic extremes of the dialogue were not, in my opinion, effective in educating anyone who didn’t already know what they were saying and agree in the first place.

I posit then, that anyone who doesn’t immediately fall into either group – i.e the people most likely to benefit  from this conversation and open their mind to new ways of thinking – checks out because the conversation seems so polemic that getting involved just seems to carry too high of a risk of offending someone.

Now, I grant that that is a reductionist analysis,because there were also poignant and intelligent responses, but I’m trying to make a big-picture point here: which is that neither the shaming, nor the “who gives a shit,” dichotomies are  very effective in getting across their message to people who don’t agree with them already.

 

If there is one problem with living in the age where your information and media choices are virtually unlimited, it is the tendency of people to read, watch, view, talk or think about things that they already agree with. Having what you already think constantly reinforced by interacting with things that you know ahead of time are going to be agreeable to your views is not conductive to learning or growing as a person and is perhaps the most underrated danger facing our society.

So instead of having a progressive conversation about what Rielly said and why we shouldn’t talk like that anymore, what we do is talk down to each other, re-tweet what we agree with and laugh or talk down to those we don’t.  If you don’t think what Morgan Rielly said was wrong, perhaps you could give me five minutes and listen to why it most assuredly is, then make up your mind on your own later.  Seems perfectly reasonable to me. But at the same time, I also think the whole thing is exceedingly stupid because I can’t talk about this honestly without first saying that as soon as people make it seem like they are more evolved than you are and that you are an ignorant, misogynistic bastard if you don’t agree with them, I check out. I am sure I am not alone in this.

Morgan Rielly just graduated high school (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)
Morgan Rielly  (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

You know this to be true: a real person has conflicting feelings that are often not consistent or logical. I think that’s what we forget when this stuff happens: that polemic dichotomies are not realistic, just easy.

Let me take you through the reactions and my own reactions to this so called controversy as a way to demonstrate the point I am ultimately trying to make with this article.

First though, let’s be completely frank about one thing: I didn’t see a single person “make a big deal out of this.” No one – that I saw anyways – called Rielly anything worse than a “kid who made an unfortunate choice of words.” I think the controversy, if it is one, just comes from the fact so many people commented on it.

Reactions:

1. This is unacceptable. 

Yeah, it is. I think I myself have said things like this recently as well, maybe without even stopping to think that they were sexist. They are colloquialisms and cliches, so by definition, they are spoken without a great deal of thought. While political correctness is stifling and often ridiculous to the point of meaninglessness, I don’t think it’s asking a lot to ask people not to put down 50% of the population with their cliches.  In fact, cliches are artistically offensive as well, so everyone wins twice if we remove sayings like this from our vocabularies.

Basically, language evolves everyday. I am only 32, and when I was in high-school, calling someone a “fag” or saying something was “gay” was normal and didn’t raise an eyebrow.  Less than 15 years later, no one says those words without someone else saying something – they are as verboten as a specific word that starts with an “N” and that is a good thing.  I am yet to hear anyone clamoring for the days when they could call be someone a “fag” – it’s probably the second most offensive word in our language, and good – it’s a hateful, disgusting word. If sexist “like a girl” comments go the same way, we are all better for it.

There is no controversy here: it’s just better to treat people nicely.

Addendum to this thought: after thinking about it a lot, I have decided that whether or not Rielly intentionally meant hurt anyone’s feelings is irrelevant. It’s simply a good opportunity to help remove a bothersome phrase from our collective vocabulary. That’s my opinion anyways, you’re welcome to yours.

2. This is ridiculous, I can’t believe something so minor is such a big deal. There are bigger problems. 

I totally agree with this too, which is kind of my point. I couldn’t believe that something so innocuous blew up in such a crazy way.  I still can’t.  As much as I 100% have no problem changing the expressions in my repertoire if people find them offensive and as valid as I think their point is, I can’t divorce this one topic from the whole elasticband-ball of similar topics causing outrage every week.

I have outrage fatigue. Language seems to be the main offender here: it is, after-all, the main way we communicate. But where is the outrage at 40% voter turn-out, at the environmental degradation allowed to occur by our government, the increasing power of corporations, income disparity or that one in five or six children in a one-kilometer radius around where you are at this exact second doesn’t know where their next meal comes from?

I know people care about these things, but I’ve also haven’t seem them “trending” on Twitter.  And certainly they don’t come up enough in relation to hockey, if at all.

Obviously, it is not realistic to ignore little problems until big problems are fixed, but for me the problem is this: society is so disengaged and ill-informed on basic issues that when minor controversies like this one spring up, it makes it hard to take them seriously, even if they deserve it.

3. Privileged white men don’t get to decide what’s offensive to women. 

I agree with this completely. If a woman says it’s sexist, then it’s sexist. A man’s opinion on whether or not it is, is irrelevant.  However, I saw this used several times yesterday in ways that I would consider shaming people into acquiescence or silence – ironically killing any chance of there being a conversation someone could learn from. Which – maybe that wasn’t anyone’s intention. This shouldn’t be news to you, but this is just my perception and I could be wrong. It is how it comes across to me.

Still, this is a pretty unarguable thing: if you’re white you don’t get to decide what’s racist and if you’re a man, you don’t get to say if something is sexist or not.  Since women don’t like this phrase and they find it offensive, there is no cost to you, me or my Uncle Chuck if we decide to remove from the list of things we say.

4. This is the dumbest most innocuous comment to ever offend people, in the history of the world.

I’m not gonna lie to you: This was my immediate reaction.

https://twitter.com/James_Tanner123/status/568844563676332032

 

This is how you find out about things in 2015: You see something on your Twitter feed and then read backwards until you find out what happened. By the time I got to see what was causing the consternation, I thought Rielly had done something terrible.  He didn’t. I don’t think what he said was stupid, or wrong or that he should have even apologized for it. I wouldn’t’ have.

I would have said “I didn’t realize this was such a bad thing to say and I’ll change. Thanks for pointing it out for me.” But I also want my apologies to mean something if I have to make them, and if I am shamed into doing so, I don’t think it’s possible it can be sincere.

I think it is a completely ridiculous controversy and I do think people need to be less sensitive and more concerned with big picture problems.  Furthermore, hockey players don’t usually have Liberal Arts educations, and getting one of those is one of the main ways you learn about the importance of language and how seemingly innocuous phrases can have unforeseen potentially devastating impacts.

People kept saying Rielly “made a mistake” that “he can learn from,” but I don’t agree. I doubt that he ever thought, in his entire life, before yesterday,  that it was wrong to talk like that.  I myself know that it is wrong to say these things, but I have been to university. And even so, they are such clichés and such standard colloquialisms that sometimes I find myself saying them anyways. I should know better and maybe this controversy will help me to improve. I am sure Rielly learned something as well, but what he will actually learn from this the most is to speak in a more guarded way. He probably will resort to clichéd answers, only when he has to, and feel it isn’t worth it to engage with the media.

Everyone loses in this situation. It is true that phrases like this are hurtful and unnecessary and that it’s so easy to stop saying them that we might as well, but I also feel the person hurt the most yesterday was probably Morgan Rielly.  I say this because the whole thing had more of a “celebrity scandal” feel to it than it had a “legitimate teaching moment” feel to it. It is entirely possible I am wrong here. Maybe it is truly hurtful to hear that, as a man it is true that I wouldn’t know.

Ultimately, my gut reaction to what Rielly said was not well thought out or particularly mature. But even while making it, I remember thinking “like a girl” should only be  a good thing – that my main anger at was at the general thin-skin of society and its tendency to exaggerate and proliferate everything that happens into unthinking, polemic, black/white extremes that end up meaningless.

It is possible, even likely,  that as a white male I have the benefit of thinking of things in this manner because they don’t hurt or effect me. I understand that, especially the more I analyze this, but I am trying to show both  sides here.

I like women and if judged by my sex and not my character, I am ashamed to be a man – based on how a general physical advantage has been leveraged into a history of abuse, chauvinism and inequality. If I belonged by choice to a club that treated others this way, I would quit in an instant.

Morgan Rielly was a home run pick last year (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Morgan Rielly was a home run pick last year (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

5. It’s  not really a “controversy” at all: a guy said something offensive, what’s so hard or wrong with acknowledging it, learning from it and then trying to be a nicer human going forward. 

I agree 100% with this. And maybe it’s just the nature of the medium and not the people with the message that makes the whole thing take on a “is there anything people won’t get pissed about” feeling.

6. He’s just a kid, he didn’t mean anything by it, relax.

I hope you’re getting that I think you should be able to think this while also acknowledging that we could be nicer to each other, less offensive in our sayings and language choices etc.  Also, if you don’t think this, that’s cool too – you’re a person, think what you want.

I seem to remember that being a foundational value of our society.

7. He said something dumb, he’ll learn from it.

I covered this already I think, but again, I don’t think he said or did anything wrong. I also think its a horrible phrase we should stop using it.

8. Rielly comes out and apologizes a few hours later.  People praise him. 

Ahh, the meaningless, corporate, public apology. I’ll bet Rielly was more confused than sorry.  But it also didn’t hurt him and maybe he learned something from it. Again, this shouldn’t be  a big deal. I don’t think you should be praised for apologizing, nor vilified for making a mistake.

9. This isn’t a bad thing, at least we can learn from this. At least we are having this conversation. 

Well, yes, in a perfect world, yes a million times over. But I suspect we are all so stuck in our little comfort zones where we only in engage with the people who tell us what we want to hear and mock and condescend to everyone else, and they we are engaged in this way so thoroughly that most people who need to hear this message, who need to re-think how they speak or how they treat woman ( or any people for that matter)  are not going to.

They are going to call anyone who disagrees with them an idiot and a majority of those who might listen will be turned off by this:

10. Shaming anyone who disagrees with you. 

Here’s the worst part: I agree 100% with what the person who tweeted this is saying: doing anything “like  a girl” is a good thing. Girls are the best. Girls aren’t responsible for slavery, rape, abuse or war – at least not historically. Historically, men have run the planet and they’ve done a pretty piss-poor job of it, if you want my opinion.

My problem with this – and it’s not like it’s even the worst example – is that “I have a problem with you” has a subtext that is this: I know better than you, my opinion means more and I think you’re an idiot. If you don’t agree with me on this, you are a regressive troglodyte who probably needs to go back to school. She’s probably right about everything, including the subtext, but that doesn’t make it effective in making her point.

This is the whole situation for me in microcosm: I don’t disagree with her. But I totally disagree with her.

Saying “like a girl” is symbolic of the fact that our society, even in this late date of 2015, does not have equality. Over half of all adult Canadian woman have been either physically or sexually abused – I assume usually by a loved one. Over 3000 woman and their children are forced into emergency shelters each year. Native woman and girls are  missing at such a sad and alarming rate that proportionally over the rest of the population there would be 18 000 missing Canadian Woman.  There is not equal pay for equal work. The idea that we live in an “equal, tolerant” society is no more than a sick joke.  I could list thousands of problems and you should read about them here and anywhere else that you can.

Then there is the NHL: How many woman reporters are there? How many woman are on Hockey Night in Canada, TSN or Sportsnet? How many of those that are there aren’t token hires placated with the least important positions? Where are the woman coaches, GMs, executives or referees? Are woman writers treated with respect? What about on Twitter? Lots of complaints there as anyone who follows hockey closely knows.

Photo by Corey Kerr - Moose Jaw Warriors
Photo by Corey Kerr – Moose Jaw Warriors

Clearly there is a problem with sexism and sports and if Morgan Rielly’s ignorant comments are a door into that discussion, that is a great, great thing. But I guess what I am trying to say here is that by shutting out anyone who disagrees with us, by reducing objections so that they are analogous to stupidity, by being condescending, polemic and pretending that there is only one way or one lense or one filter to view this kind of thing from, we just reduce it to having no meaning.

Just another Twitter controversy. Just another overreaction. Just more Social Justice Warriors tending their gardens while the house burns down. Just another example of political correctness run rampant – that’s what people will say if you don’t voice your objections to their behavior in reasonable ways, because people hate being talked down to, even if they know deep down that they are wrong.

And the end result of treating people who don’t agree with you like they are moronic barbarians, is that people either turn their backs on a valid point, are turned off by things they disagree with or don’t understand and then everyone just pays politically correct lip-service to a watered down and white-washed media.

Obviously, one way to fight this is to make a point when people say seemingly sexist things. The problem is that by trying to do it with shame is that people just get their backs up, and it prevents honest conversation. How many people don’t engage or speak their minds for fear of being labeled something they might not be or not even realize that they are?

So, to sum up: I think yesterday’s Rielly controversy was stupid and important. I think it was an overraction and an underreaction. I think we need to relax a little bit about what offends us and that we need to stop saying things that hurt people when it’s so easy to use other phrases. I think it’s bad to shame people but often don’t see another option. I think you should try to understand why people can think differently than you without assuming they are some kind of animal, but most all, I think we should be nicer to each other.

And I say that as a person who is often not that nice to people, I for whatever misguided reason, consider below me.

Basically, I’m a regular human person with conflicting thoughts and feelings.

Thanks for reading.