Will the Real Slim Shady Please Shut Up?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 12, 2000
There’s an old hymn which we could have sung this morning, but we didn’t. (Maybe we should have.) It’s a song with which many of us, I know, have a sort of love/hate relationship:
Few of us of a more liberal religious (if not political) persuasion don’t cringe when hear that word ‘wretch’. Our UU hymnal even offers an alternative word-- ‘soul’-- for those of us who just can’t bring ourselves to sing of ourselves (or think of ourselves) as ‘wretches’.
But we need to remember where that hymn comes from, and why its author chose that particular way to describe himself. John Newman was engaged in one of the most wretched of human enterprises-- slave trading. He was the captain of a slave trip, and while on his way back from Africa with a fresh load of slaves in tow, he read the book The Imitation of Christ by the medieval Christian mystic, St. Thomas a Kempis. This book got Newman to start looking inside himself-- to question who he was-- to start a religious reformation inside himself which, eventually, allowed him to change his life, and give up the evil of his past. Back on dry ground, he gave up the inhumanity of the slave trade, gave up the sea, became a Christian minister, and wrote the much-loved (and sometimes loathed) hymn “Amazing Grace”.
Thomas a Kempis taught that the true Christian should imitate Christ through humility, prayer, contemplation, self-discernment, and doing deeds inspired by love. That’s what religion at its best does for us: it transforms the wretched parts of ourselves into loving parts-- its transforms our smallness-- our little spites and envies, our great big prejudices and bigotries-- into a deep and profound and inclusive love for all of this wonderful creation. Religion at its best calls upon us all to work for that transformation in ourselves, in others, and in society as a whole.
God knows, we could all use a whole lot of transformation... This culture of ours is most certainly in need of a spiritual transfusion...
It’s just over two years ago now-- October 6, 1998-- that Matthew Shepard, a 21-year old gay man-- was tied to a fence post in Laramie, Wyoming, and left to die. There were 25 other men and women that year -- that we know of-- who died because of hatred for their sexual orientation, who died as victims of homophobia. From 13-year old Josh Billardo to 21-year old Matthew Shepard to 71-year old Nathan Nover. The world was stunned, shocked, saddened by the case of Matthew Shepard, as well it should have been. But remember: Matt Shepard was only one of 25 men and women murdered by homophobia in 1998.
We were shocked. But did anything really change? Apparently not. In 1998, there were 25 deaths. This year, just as of the end of July, there were already 20. Twenty already-- with almost half a year still to go...
Hate crimes against gays and lesbians continue unabated. And in subtler ways, too, homophobia is alive and well in our society. The rising tide which continues to seek to turn gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender men and women into non-persons, to obliterate their dignity, their beings-- even, in extreme cases, their very lives-- continues to swell. It will drown all of us in its filthy current, my friends-- gay and lesbian, bisexual, and straight-- if we do not join our hearts and minds and hands against it, if we do not break free of the slavery of homophobia.
We live in a toxic culture and poisoned political climate which threatens the dignity and freedom of us all. But no group is more at risk in this uncivil society than gay men and lesbians, and perhaps especially gay and lesbian youth. If a gay or lesbian person dares to protest, the whole hue and cry of “No special rights! No special rights!” rises up from the forces of reaction and bigotry. But what so-called “special rights” do gay people want?
The “right” not to be fired from one’s job because of one’s sexual orientation.
The “right” not to be denied housing because one is gay or lesbian.
The “right” to the same health insurance benefits -- the same inheritance rights-- that heterosexual domestic partners enjoy.
The “right” to visiting privileges in a hospital when one’s loved one’s life hangs in the balance. Simple acts of justice like these.
And more-- more “special rights”, too: The “right” not be murdered or maimed, beaten or bashed simply because one does not meet society’s straight-and-oh-so-narrow view of what is “normal”.
The “right” not to be subjected to a constant barrage of invective, innuendo, and taunts constantly questioning your worthiness as a human being. The “right” not to have always to hear “Oh, that’s so gay,” as the epithet of choice among those under-20, as the verbal shorthand used to describe everything that is stupid, absurd, inane, dull, insipid, boring, tiresome, and pointless.
The “right” not to be used as society’s scapegoat-- as society’s whipping boy or girl for its own rage and ignorance.
Homophobia, like any mindless prejudice, thrives best in a culture of hatred and fear. Homosexuals-- in many ways the most defenseless among us-- become the chosen target of those who feel they have no control over their own lives. Nowhere does this seem more apparent than in the world of popular culture in general, and the work of the phenomenally popular white rap artist Eminem in particular.
I wonder sometimes what it was that possessed me to attempt to sermonize to you this morning on the topic of Eminem. To almost anyone over the age of 40 perhaps, or certainly over 50, the name “M&M” means nothing more than a sweet chocolate snack available in a rainbow of colors. (One person I know misunderstood me when I told him what this week’s sermon was going to be about and thought I said “S and M”-- but no,there are topics that even the daring Reverend Jeff won’t touch.)
I also know that I can share with you, from this pulpit, only a small fraction of Eminem’s actual words. You see, most of what he writes is so obscenity-laced and profane that it lies well beyond the (rather conscripted) bounds of what one can talk about in “polite company”. So, I have to try to give you a sense of Eminem’s homophobia without actually uttering the same epithets and profanity he does. I hope you’ll be able to read between the lines and fill in some of the blanks for yourselves...
Eminem, as I have said, is a phenomenally popular rap music artist, whose most recent album “The Marshall Mathers LP” (you see, his real name is Marshall Mathers-- that’s where the “M and M”-- or Eminem-- comes from) sold more than 5 million copies in the first month of its release this past spring. It has sold countless millions since then, and still sits near the top of many pop music charts. He swept the recent MTV music awards and (who knows?) may win a bunch of Grammy awards, too.
His music is an acquired taste, certainly, but for what it’s worth (which probably isn’t very much because I really don’t know diddly about rap music) I think he’s brilliant at what he does, and I can see why he’s so popular. He is a real word smith, a genius at the use of language (albeit usually obscene). He has created in Slim Shady, the fictional character who narrates the album, a striking reflection of popular society, who asserts himself in the line:
Will the real Slim Shady please stand up, please stand up, please stand up...
Eminem’s poetry flows from him seemingly effortlessly-- rhyme upon rhyme, word after word-- an almost overwhelming parade of syllables and images.
And an unending string of invective and diatribe aimed against everyone who Mathers thinks has “dissed” him in his life-- his mother (who is now suing him for $10 million for defamation of character); his wife Kim (who recently attempted suicide and who has since sued him for divorce); the schoolyard bully who beat him up (cracked his skull, put him in a coma by some reports) when he was in junior high school; and a whole string of media-friendly popular culture icons all the way from the New Kids of the Block to N-Sync and the Backstreet Boys to Christina Aguillera and Britanny Spears and other rappers like Fred Durst and Will Smith and Insane Clown Posse (of course, he ignores the fact that he, himself, is now a media-friendly as all of them; he means big bucks for the corporations that sell all those records of his).
And most of all, perhaps, invective of the most frightening and demeaning sort-- of the most venal and violent-- aimed against homosexuals in general, and especially against gay men.
Here are just a few of his (barely) more utterable examples:
He then delights in the murder of gay fashion designer Gianni Versace:
No wonder that GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, decries the lyrics of Eminem’s “Marshall Mathers LP” as “the most blatantly offensive homophobic lyrics [we] have seen in many years.”
Now, of course, issues of censorship are always troubling, and one is tempted simply to intone that, in a free country, Eminem has the right to rap whatever he wants to, and leave it at that. But, as usual, the issues are not so simple...
I am not one who worships at the altar of political correctness, who believes that we have to be so very careful, all the time, never, never to say anything that might be construed as “offensive” to every over-sensitive member of this, that, or the other group of people. As someone who really believes that our sense of humor is the perhaps the most precious, divinely-inspired human gift we have, I believe there really is a place in human discourse for biting irony, for bitter satire, for a bit of give and take in our otherwise all too “serious” lives.
The problem I have with Eminem isn’t with his “bad language” in and of itself. Those of you who really know me know that I also favoir a pretty wide range when it comes to how we express ourselves verbally. “Bad language”, as far as we know, never killed anyone. Christianity (or capitalism, for than matter) can’t say the same. (My problem with so much of the obscenity-laced language in our culture isn’t that it’s “immoral language” in some way, but that it’s just lazy and boring. If everything is shocking, then nothing is shocking. If everything is expressed in the form of obscenity, then pretty soon obscenity loses its ability to convey particular power and meaning.)
The problem that I (and many others) have with Eminem certainly isn’t that he’s a rap artist. Like I said, I know very little about rap music. But I do know that it is a powerful social and cultural force that in ways perhaps unknowable to those of us outside of its circle of influence encapsulates the experience of a good part of our younger generation, especially young males. It is a cultural vehicle for questioning authority-- for exposing the hopelessness and powerlessness that many young people feel in a society with no values except those of the market, where personal relationships are seen as expendable, as secondary (at best) to material accumulation, a society which seems intent upon criminalizing young people and sowing seeds of distrust and ignorance between different generations.
We need to be careful dismissing Eminem, or any other manifestation of contemporary culture, just because it makes us uncomfortable-- just because it’s different from that culture in which we might feel at home. Rather, we need to take the time listen to the words of groups like the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine (to name just two groups that I happen to like) very carefully, and try to discern what it is in their work that brings us together as people, rather than just disparaging it as “noise”, “obscenity”, not worth considering.
So, there are issues of censorship, and of generational differences, and we have to tread carefully. But when Eminem sings:
It seems to me that he has crossed the line, and we are justified in asking, as this sermon does: Will the real Slim Shady please shut up?
There’s a great difference between a humorous interplay and expressing one’s opinions and uttering words which inflame prejudice and foster an atmosphere that will lead, in time, to physical attacks on homosexual human beings. This is especially true because Eminem’s work is aimed, almost entirely, toward adolescent males, the same group which, sadly, commits the overwhelming majority of hate crimes against gays and lesbians.
But Eminem’s voice certainly is not the only voice of intolerance in our society. We also have Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the popular radio (and now, at least for the time being, television) talk show host. She calls herself “Doctor”, because she has a doctorate in psychology; whatever impression she might like to give, she is not a MD or a psychiatrist. But this doesn’t stop her from offering her advice-- and judgment-- of others freely.
If you’ve never heard Dr. Laura on the radio, then consider yourself blessed. (I stopped listening to her because she would raise my blood pressure 20 points, easily). She’s not much of a counselor-- she does way more talking at people than listening to them. She inveighs constantly against working mothers (even though she is one), two-religion families, people living out of wedlock (even though she did for over five years), and children who don’t respect their elders (even though she hasn’t to her mother for more than four years). She also has said that she considers homosexual behavior to be “deviant”, and that homosexuals are “biological mistakes”, who should never have happened. (She also is a convert to Judaism, a woman of deep religious faith, who never tells us how her all-powerful, all-knowing God could have made “biological mistakes.)
So very popular on radio, Paramount decided to offer Dr. Laura a television series of her own-- which, as might be imagined, got all kinds of gay rights groups up in arms and they launched a national boycott (international, actually: in the face of the boycott, her program was pulled off the air in Canada). Many sponsors pulled out (including Spooky World-- she was even too scary for them, I guess) ; some stuck with her (like MacDonald’s: junk for the body equals junk for the mind, I suppose). The show has been on the air for a few months now here in Boston-- and has been a ratings disaster-- big time. WCVB (Channel 5) has just announced that it’s moving it to 2:05 AM-- a TV graveyard, if there ever was one... Sometimes, the market works at exposing chicanery.
But the point is that if Dr. Laura had said that blacks-- or Chinese-- or Italians-- or Czechs were “biological errors”, that they were “deviant”, she would never even have gotten on the air in the first place. The same is true of Eminem. Shortly after it first appeared, Wal-Mart and K-Mart started offering the “Marshall Mathers LP” in a censored, more “family friendly” version. Censors bleeped the profanity, the drug references, the violence-- but left in tact all of Eminem’s verbiage against homosexuals (and women, too, by the way).
When gay advocacy groups complained that the record was still, in their eyes, objectionable, officials at Wal-Mart and K-Mart seemed quite amazed. They thought they had headed off the controversy at the pass. “We didn’t know that any controversies or concerns remained,” one spokesman said.
That’s because it’s still okay in our culture to bash gay people-- verbally, if not physically. But if we allow one the verbal bashing to persist, then don’t be surprised when the physical follows on its heels:
Twenty-five gay men killed because of hate crimes in the first half of this year. This is what our homophobia is about, in the end, ultimately: It’s about Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. It’s about Scott Fuller, Larry Morris, Kevin Tryals, and Troy Hoskins-- all killed this year. It’s about Bill Jones and Mark Amos and Gary Matson and the Rev. Thomas Otte, and a whole score others. It’s about those bashed and battered, lives destroyed, whose names we will never know... It’s about us, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters-- it’s about us, whether we are gay or straight or somewhere in-between, whenever we allow this cancer of homophobia to eat away the life cells of our civic culture.
May we dare to lift our voices, and join our hands, and join our hearts, and build that better world of which we all dream.