Wednesday, September 23, 2020

L'Affaire de Murray, or Why Now, What Now?

Anyone connected with the whisky community is likely to have seen some of the furor raised by Jim Murray's latest edition of the Whisky Bible. While he has developed a reputation for sexism over the years, the florid prose of his latest edition has taken that to new heights, drawing comparisons with the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. A full-throated denunciation by Becky Paskin and a piece in Forbes by Felipe Schrieberg kicked off a wave of responses, both from individuals and companies.
Murray's response has, unsurprisingly, leaned into the now stock language used when people are called out, referencing 'free speech', 'cancel culture', and 'trumped up charges'. While his dignity seems to have taken a body blow, there appears to be very little self-reflection about why using overtly sexual terms to describe whisky might be off-putting or exclusionary for others. Equally unsurprising, there have been any numbers of whisky fans who have also leapt to his defense, calling anyone bothered by the language 'SJWs' or humorless. Others have been accused to using the situation to take Murray down a peg to promote their own work.
Sometimes in a less reactionary fashion, some have asked simply "Why now?" While his language is perhaps more overwrought that before, it's a difference in degree rather than in kind. This partially elides the fact that he is now forced to self-publish his work and has been progressively banned from whisky events, but it can be explained by Broken Stair Theory.

Especially in insular communities, it's very common to have problematic people who are explained away with "That's just how they are." New entrants may be quietly warned and the problem person may be slowly disinvited from events, but the majority either actively supports them or simply accepts their presence and learns to work around them. It's not until someone is willing to speak up and say "This isn't right. Why is this person still here?" that you can trigger the avalanche that finally leads to change.

What this really comes down to is who we want to be in community with, because there is exclusion in either direction. For decades the enthusiast community has tacitly allowed or even supported sexist behaviors, all the way from overt harassment to the all too common jokes along the lines of "Don't let my wife find out how much I've been buying". Assuming that women are less knowledgeable than men, describing whiskies in overtly sexualized terms, labels with scantily clad women - we've all seen this at some point or another and sighed, knowing that every single instance made women feel less welcome to participate.

The only solution is to make that kind of behavior unacceptable. You can't always change hearts and minds, but you can change behavior. No community can survive intact without moderation, because without filtering mechanisms the most boorish individuals will inevitably come to dominate. If we want to make the community inclusive, we're going to have to be a little bit exclusive. 
That doesn't mean dismissing people for the smallest infraction, it means that if people want to remain after making a mistake they have to be willing to own up and make genuine efforts to change. There will absolutely be a hue and cry, especially in the current political environment, but we have to make a choice. Opening up the community to the broadest possible slice humanity means that we can't keep the people who create an actively hostile environment around.

1 comment:

  1. I've never had any use for numerical ratings, for whisky, wine, or anything else, so I've missed out on the entire Jim Murray experience, but I looked it up, and damn, that's not just sexist, it's terrible writing.