If you have any interest in punk rock or in music in general, you’ve probably heard about the Ben Weasel incident at South by Southwest (SXSW). If you haven’t, here’s the quick and dirty version:
Ben was performing with his band, venerable pop-punkers Screeching Weasel, during a late-night set at SXSW and he hit two women. The first was in the crowd, and allegedly had been either spitting or throwing ice cubes at him, the second was a club employee (some accounts have said she is a bartender and others have said she was an owner or manager of the venue). He was then ejected from the show. Part of the incident was caught on video:
There’s a longer version with some build-up here. Trigger warnings for violence, sexism and general idiocy.
Since this happened, several other bands – including Teenage Bottlerocket, Chixdiggit, The Soviettes and Chinese Telephones – pulled out of the 25th anniversary show known as Weasel Fest, the rest of Screeching Weasel resigned, and eventually Weasel Fest was canceled altogether. Weasel released an official apology, but the videos were out and the damage was done.
This whole debacle spawned an argument, even something of a rift among music fans in the comments on stories. Conversations devolved into spats about whether Weasel overreacted, if the other bands were right to pull out of Weasel Fest, if the woman in the audience deserved it and if it’s ever OK for a man to hit a woman.
This could actually be an interesting debate, if it were done intelligently. Of course, being a comments-based online conversation, the smart points are often obscured by trolls, sexist bros and all-around morons (for the sake of disclosure, now might be a good time to mention that I write for a punk news blog and, while the bulk of the debate didn’t happen on any of my stories, there were lively conversations on several of our posts). But, if you can sift through the aggravating stuff, you might find some ideas that make you think.
The biggest issue raised was, obviously, gender-based violence. A lot of people, including members of the bands that quit Weasel Fest, cited an opposition to hitting women as a huge problem. It obviously is a serious concern, and I commend anyone who speaks out against it. However, another interesting point was raised – if all actions were the same, but the two audience members were men, would anyone be upset? And is it a double standard if we wouldn’t be?
This is a valid point, and there may not be a clear answer. I’d like to think I’d be just as irritated no matter the gender of the victims. Weasel clearly overreacted to the alleged misdeeds of the audience member, and punching someone for a small offense (let’s be honest, being spit on is gross, but it didn’t exactly put him in any real danger) is something I’d be against no matter what. But my reaction to this situation was visceral repulsion, and I can’t say for sure that would have happened if the people Weasel punched were both men. Besides, if they were men he probably wouldn’t have referred to them as “skanky whores” before the hitting began. He exploited his position of power, which meant he was able to stop the show and jump from the stage platform to attack. It would have been possible to use the same power to simply have the spitting woman removed from the show, but instead he chose a more physical approach.
The idea of provocation, that by spitting the audience member deserved what she got, is disturbing. It’s unnerving in language as much as sentiment, since comments have included ample use of the terms “chick” and “bitch” to describe her. Anytime someone says a woman was “asking for” some kind of act against her is cause for concern in my eyes. Here, yes, it appeared to be an isolated act with direct cause-and-effect, but you have to stop and wonder if these same people would say she’d “deserve it” in other situations – if she were attacked on the street walking home, for example, would cut-up punk rock clothes make it her fault? If a partner became violent, would it be because she obviously has a temper and provoked him or her? Am I making a leap from this incident to others? I don’t know, maybe I am, but it’s a leap worth evaluating. Even if someone claims they’d say the person deserved it whether they were male or female, the language people have been using is suspect and worthy of discussion.
Another point was that it’s a punk show; violence is implied. I would argue there is a big difference between the incidental contact that happens in a crowd and having a band member jump off stage and punch someone. What happens in a pit is generally not targeted or directed at a specific person, it’s a way to celebrate the music and let out some pent-up energy. If you don’t like it, you can usually avoid it by moving to the back or side of the crowd. You don’t usually know who you’ve hit or who has hit you, and you don’t hold a grudge about it because it isn’t about anger or hate. For example, even if I knew who it was that shoved me onto a table at a Leftover Crack show a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t hold it against them. I was standing at the edge of the pit and it was a byproduct of the movement happening near me. That is a very different animal than purposefully aiming for a specific person because of a misdeed that, let’s be honest, probably happened because of a mixture of excitement and booze.
It’s too bad Weasel Fest was canceled, really, not because I have any sympathy for Ben, but because I feel bad for everyone else involved. Fans bought tickets (though they are apparently being refunded) and may have booked flights and hotel rooms for the weekend. Bands are now missing out on a big gig and whatever income they would have made as a result. The rest of Screeching Weasel are at least temporarily out of a job. Reggie’s, the club in Chicago where the fest was going to happen, lost out on a big event and will now be scrambling to put together smaller shows for that weekend – ones that might not sell as well.
So what can we learn from Ben Weasel? I’d like to think performers see that behaving like that onstage isn’t the way to win over fans, and that there are consequences to actions, especially in the days of camera phones and YouTube. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but it would be great if online commenters can learn to debate thoughtfully when something controversial happens. Alright, maybe that won’t happen. But we can realize that something that takes place in less than a minute can still be emblematic of nuanced and complicated issues that aren’t immediately fixable. We should look at our reactions and those of others, and be unafraid to analyze them, to see what they say about our values and the society we come from. And it’s OK if we don’t have answers.