Viet Cong and Free Speech: A Defense of the Offensive

Viet Cong is in the middle of a tour in support of their much-buzzed, occasionally brilliant debut album, but experienced a minor problem when one of their scheduled stops was cancelled by the promoter.  Oberlin College was set to host the band this upcoming Saturday but this last week announced that the show will be cancelled because of the band’s name.  Or, to put this in another way: months after negotiating a contract with the band to perform a show, the students who booked the show suddenly felt that they could not host a band with a potentially offensive name, even though the reference from said band’s name was immediately apparent to anyone.  The meaning of the name “Viet Cong” did not change in the past few months, but Oberlin’s reaction to it certainly did.

To a certain extent, I can understand the weariness of the promoter.  Having taken numerous history courses in high school and college that included the Vietnam War in its curriculum, I was well aware of the exploits of the Viet Cong and was initially skeptical of the group purely because of its poor choice of a name. Eventually I reconsidered, mainly because as a music fan and as someone who grew up with punk rock, I’ve long been accustomed to offensive names and never let that stop me from enjoying their music.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to have never listened to the Dead Kennedys or Gang of Four or Joy Division or New Order, and to possibly have been stopped from hearing their music because of their potentially offensive name is as asinine a reason that there could be.  Hell, I imagine most people only learned what the term “Joy Division” refers to after they heard it was controversial, highlighting the fact that people can use controversy to educate themselves; at the very least, it makes the audience think about what a name means and what it can represent.

Here, I’ll let Tony Wilson explain in a more eloquent and condescending manner:

The video should be cued up to the appropriate spot, but if it isn’t, fast-forward to the 2:42 mark*

Offensive band names are part of a larger discussion that we should be having about free speech in our society.  As an artist and as someone who appreciates art, I will almost always err on the side of caution in protecting free speech; we are richer as a culture and as a society when we have a free exchange of ideas and philosophies, and often that involves the discussion of potentially harmful or dangerous concepts.  This is especially true in art, where we explore certain concepts and theories from all angles to better understand the human condition, but often music is held to a different standard than other forms.  We don’t think twice when we see violence and other evils on screen, but if someone raps about the same thing, it’s time to protest.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of this problem is that this principle of free speech is being attacked from both the right and the left.  I’m sure there would be plenty of students who would be upset if they were prevented from offering commentary that attacks the Catholic church or if they could not discuss the tenets and political underpinnings of Communism, yet they want to prohibit a band from playing a show because it adopted a name of a group that shares the beliefs of the latter example.  There certainly would be protests if a college banned artists that attacked Christian dogma or classes on leftist ideology, as well as they should–college is supposed to be a sanctuary where we can have a free flow of ideas with only the bare minimum of restrictions.  The Dead Kennedys were about as leftist as a punk band could be, but they certainly understood that fascism can come from either direction, as they illustrated in “Holiday in Cambodia” and “California Über Alles”.

I understand if there are Vietnamese students who may take offense to a band named “Viet Cong” playing on their campus, especially if many are from families immigrated to America as a result of their actions during the war.  However, attendance to the concert is not mandatory–no one is forcing these students to attend the show.  The aggrieved students could express their displeasure in a variety of ways, from writing tot he band to publishing op-eds in the student newspaper to protesting outside the show itself.  The students make their case and alert others to their concerns, but still allow others to enjoy the show if they so choose.

It’s one thing to complain about the possible offensiveness of the name, but it’s another complaint noted by the promoter that I find far more troublesome, that the name is “appropriative”; it’s not just the fact that the band calls themselves “Viet Cong”, but that it is four white guys from Canada that are using the name.  This specific complaint has become de rigueur in the past few months, and while there are certain contexts where “appropriation” can be an issue, that is definitely not the case here.  When discussing music, “appropriation” is generally applied in a pseudo-intellectual manner as a way to show off knowledge about different cultures, with total disregard for the fact that any form of music is the mix of dozens of genres derived from a variety of settings.  But in reference to band names in particular, it is a particularly galling argument, because 98% OF ALL BAND NAMES ARE “APPROPRIATIVE.”**

NEWSFLASH: If an artist does not identify himself or herself by his/her own name, then they are adopting a persona that is not theirs.  They are guilty of “appropriation.”  In this context, Franz Ferdinand is a group of guys from Scotland, not the Archduke whose death sparked World War I, and we really should not have been expecting the latter to be performing these days.

Let us examine the potential extent of this policy.  Would Oberlin have banned Nirvana from performing since they were not practicing Buddhists?  Would they bar the Wu-Tang Clan from appearing since they are not in fact Shaolin monks?  Would they prohibit the surviving members of The Monkees from performing since they are not in fact monkeys?!?!  And don’t even ask about what Oberlin would do with The Beatles…

Before they became Viet Cong, members of the band were in a previous group called “Women”.  Clearly, they should not have been able to perform under that name since they are in fact guys, but then you have to wonder that if they prevent them from performing under that name there is the implicit conclusion that the term “women” itself is offensive.  It is utter and complete nonsense.

I hope that this incident wakes people up to the potential pitfalls of adopting such a poorly conceived approach to free speech.  While minimal harm was done overall, I certainly hope that the band was compensated despite the fact they weren’t able to perform, since Oberlin breached their contract in such a dubious manner.  Of course, venues are free to book whomever they like, and are under no obligation to hire a specific band for any opening that they have, but once an agreement is made the venue cannot back out for such a questionable reason.  I wish that I was able to hear Viet Cong’s initial reaction for myself, but despite receiving dozens of emails a day alerting me to shows in the area I was unaware that they performed at Mississippi Studios just a few nights ago.  Unfortunately, I feel this will not be the last time that we will be having this discussion, but until then, don’t stop yourself from listening to a band just because they have a terrible band name, even if they don’t have a good reason why they chose it.

*That’s Rob Brydon interviewing Steve Coogan in the clip, which should delight fans of The Trip films/series.

**This is a conservative estimate.

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