Under The Skin: Descendents, ableism and a new generation of punk positivity

Descendents album covers

A new Descendents album; their first for the Epitaph label in 20 years and their first new music at all for 12; the ushering in of a new era for the LA legends with a solid set of their pop-infused punk rock, previously branded by the band themselves as “frustrato-rock or chainsaw pop.”

Cause for celebration, then. Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3.

Said Descendents singer Milo Aukerman of the band’s new material when the album was announced: “I think one of the things that’s kept us inspired over the years is having the music as an outlet for our frustrations. Having the freedom to completely blow my voice out every time I recorded was a very positive experience for me.”

But there is a tension and a dissonance in Aukerman and co.’s positive experience of having the freedom to create their new music, and that of a group of people in the wider world experiencing its commercial release from a very different perspective.

Stay Up Late is a UK-based charity that exists to promote the right of people with developmental disabilities to lead an active social life and enjoy live music. In particular, the organisation seeks to tackle the fact that people with developmental disabilities aren’t able to ‘stay up late’ and do the things that so many people, who don’t need support, take for granted. One of the things that the charity campaigns about is language and how it can marginalise people. In the run up to its release, the title of Decscendents’ new album and its spin-off EP caught the organisation’s eye.

Paul Richards is Director of Stay Up Late: “I was reading a blog post on the website Real Gone who were expressing their disappointment at the new album from the US punk band Descendents. There’s a lot of hype and expectancy around this record as they haven’t released anything in years. So what do they go and call it? Hypercaffium Spazzinate with a companion EP titled Spazzhazard.”

As Richards explains in his subsequent open letter to Descendents: “Spaz is a really offensive word in the UK and often used in disability hate related crimes. We don’t like it and have done a lot of work raising awareness with kids around the damage language can cause.”

Real Gone and Stay Up Late had initially called for a boycott of Descendents’ album, Stay Up Late starting a petition to gather supporting signatures and Real Gone explaining their reasoning in an editorial: “In Britain, “S” is taboo. A word so horribly outdated and offensive that in the minds of the more thoughtful and disability aware, it is now on a par with racial slurs.”

To begin with, Stay Up Late’s petition and open letter and Real Gone’s editorial didn’t prompt responses from the Descendents camp or Epitaph records. They did prompt responses from the public across social media, however.

Some members of the public, particularly those in the US, calmly pointed to the fact that, in their opinion, the band meant no offence to anyone; that as a group they had a history of crude, childlike humour, a love for coffee and its energising properties, and that the word in question had no such hateful connotations in America or other territories.

Others took a less rational approach to the dialogue, accusing Real Gone and Stay Up Late variously of trying to censor Descendents, limit free speech, cynically profiteer from the album title and its release by appropriating Descendents mascot Milo’s image for their own purposes, and/or perverting the spirit of punk. All were accusations that both Stay Up Late and Real Gone refuted.

Stay Up Late’s Paul Richards: “We haven’t made a penny out of this, and we were just trying to do the age old punk thing and use a bit of satire. We’ve expressed an opinion and been vilified by Descendents fans who tell me to shut up because everyone should have the right to free speech. We’re a small charity trying to change the world for the better in our way, and to try and prevent us from doing that is really low.”

Real Gone: “Is it fair to criticise a band over a use of a word and a choice of album title? Yes, in this case, we feel it is totally justified. Descendents are foolishly helping to revive an outdated word and almost legitimise it for the fun of their fans – and possibly even for a new generation. Milo Aukerman, Bill Stevenson, Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez – all now men in their fifties – really should’ve been smart enough to rise above dated playground ‘humour’, to look at the bigger picture and understand that this has the potential to cause upset.”

But what of that ‘new generation’ referred to by Real Gone? What do contemporary punk artists make not only of Descendents’ album title and the use of that word, but of the punk scene and its philosophies in the meta-modern era? After all, Descendents are making their return in 2016, but their career began and was at its most prominent in the late 70’s and early 80’s LA punk and hardcore scenes.

UK punk songstress Louise Distras has spent the past three years cutting her teeth across the UK, Europe, Canada and the USA with the likes of Billy Bragg, Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers and The Damned, and making festival appearances at the likes of Glastonbury, Punk Rock Bowling and Bearded Theory. After making some observations about the Descendents album title on her social media pages, Distras was subject to the worst kind of internet trolling, receiving messages containing sexist, misogynistic and ableist language, as well as threats to her own personal safety and security.

To date, Louise has ably called out the offending people and their hateful messages, ultimately reasserting her vision that contemporary punk should always be a force for positive change, social cohesion and societal progression.

“Perhaps Descendents didn’t mean to cause offence but they are displaying a lack of social awareness with regards to issues concerning disabled people,” she says. “This whole thing is about raising awareness of the use of ableist language and low level negativity towards disabled people that is increasingly pervasive. It’s an issue that does need to be addressed, and we can make a positive difference by changing and challenging the language that we use.”

It is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed. Whilst no-one is suggesting that Descendents or punk music in general are solely responsible, the debate about the use of ableist language is set against the backdrop of a 41 per cent increase in reports of hate crime against people with disabilities in 2015, a statistic that an article on the UK’s Independent news website suggests is an under-estimation of the scale of the problem.

Distras’ vision is indeed a contemporary, progressive and positive one then, and is in direct contrast to those who have responded to the debate by positing an overly-simplistic and limited notion that punk exists to offend and has never been a ‘safe’ space.

Distras: “Just ’cause some people thought it was cool to be ‘offensive’ and proudly politically incorrect back in the 70’s and 80’s, it doesn’t mean that it’s cool to act like that now. That’s not how the next generation of bands do things in 2016.”

She adds: “Given the current social and political climate, if the big names of punk have nothing else to contribute other than setting a bad example, then it’s time for them to step aside and make room for the new generation of artists who are using their power for good, by spreading positive messages and bringing people together through the power of music.”

And what of this notion that punk is, by its very nature, offensive and not ‘safe’?

“Now more than ever, it’s time to stand up and speak for marginalised people who can’t speak for themselves, instead of ridiculing and discriminating against them. There is no place for hate speech anytime, anywhere and especially within the punk rock community.”

Far from being a lone-wolf within that very community, Louise Distras’ voice has been joined by her contemporaries from bands with roots in both the UK and the US. Damian Hughes is guitarist with prominent UK rock band Allusondrugs, a group that draws on punk, psych-pop and grunge, works within that community and is a band with a message of progression and positive change.

Hughes makes clear that, for him, this issue is not really about people being offended by this kind of language, acknowledging that the offense caused can be unintended, whilst still making the point that he sees no place for it in art.

“The problem with the use of derogatory language in art isn’t really about hurting people’s feelings, it’s about the social and political impact it has,” he says. “The use of such language is just one of the things that contributes to the marginalisation of certain groups of people. I don’t think there’s any merit in using this sort of language to headline art, rather it’s just a crass method of rustling the public’s feathers to gather attention whilst – intentionally or unintentionally – perpetuating the damaging idea that certain people’s lives hold less value than your own.”

Should art and punk music not concern itself with whether it causes offense, then? And if punk becomes safe, does that in some way diminish its power?

“Punk is supposed to be about challenging social norms that restrict freedom. It’s about bringing people together so that they can hit with their unified might against a system that oppresses them. It is not about the exclusion of certain groups of people and it certainly is not about silencing people who criticise the use of language that promotes the exclusion of people. People have the freedom to say what they want, but people also have the freedom to criticise damaging language.”

And what of the idea that highlighting Descendents’ inclusion of that word in their album title is unjustified censorship, or a curtailing of free speech that goes against the grain of the punk philosophy?

“I, like so many other artists in my generation, want to try to bring people together and promote healthy ideas for the progression of society in a way that includes everyone and gives everyone what they need. Its not about me and my right to say what I want, it’s about us and our future together on this planet. There is still a lot of societal growth that needs to happen and opening dialogues and speaking out against anything that is unjust or damaging is a big part of helping that growth happen.”

On the other side of the pond, Hollis Mahady is the US-based singer of US/UK pop-inflected punk rock band Love Zombies. She has a dual perspective, having spent a significant amount of time with the band on UK shores. She is also the author of The Reconnection Movement manifesto, a peace movement aimed at bringing people back together outside of their computer and phone screens.

In the context of an unsettled post-truth world of the UK Brexit from the European Union and Donald Trump edging ever closer to the US Presidency, what does she make of both punk’s place and power, and the Descendents’ choice of words?

“Although the times may have changed, to me punk still means standing up for what you believe in, questioning authority and not just being one of the sheep in a blindly following herd,” she posits. “While we aren’t in the 1970’s or 80’s anymore, I don’t think that means that we aren’t still angry about injustice, inequality and oppression. I just think that in a different time and with a different set of problems we are facing we are also trying new methods and alternative ways to deal with them.”

What about Descendents and their new album? Does that album title have a place in 2016?

“I feel that the descendants, most likely, weren’t consciously trying to offend people with disabilities, but I think it is important for them to see how their words have had an effect on people in an age where we are shifting into a new state of consciousness. We all have to be the change we want to see in the world. I want to see this world more peaceful and loving.”

So what does that mean for the wider world of punk and punk artists in real terms, in the here and now?

“I really think the new punk of 2016 is more concerned about changing themselves, taking responsibility for their own actions, being aware of the part they play in the relation to the whole and looking at what impact they can have on the world through positive action and their music rather then being pissed off and blaming everyone else.”

What now for the specific instance of Descendents and the title of their new album, the lightning rod that triggered this wave of debate, dialogue and yes, from some quarters, abusive internet trolling?

It does seem highly likely that the band did not intend to cause offence or contribute to the marginalising of those with developmental disabilities. It would be remiss not to acknowledge that more recent songs in the Descendents canon such as “‘Merican” show a distinct socio-political awareness, condemning slavery, McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan and America’s war in Vietnam. New song “Limiter” is about Aukerman’s experience of putting his own son on prescription medication, and “Shameless Halo” tackles the current state of US politics.

But then this level of awareness seemingly makes the title of the new album all the more baffling. Surely even if no such offense or meaning was intended, this week will still see Descendents join the ranks of those who have perpetuated the use of language that does marginalise, damage and divide.

Even the the etymology argument that has been commonly deployed in relation to this particular album – that the meaning of a word has changed and therefore made its use acceptable, or that it means something different in a different geographic region – denies that word’s historic root, use, and the story of the people who have been oppressed or marginalised by it.

Real Gone concluded in their editorial: “Milo learnt the art of biochemistry when he went to college, but it proves that academic smartness is one thing, social awareness is another. In the Descendents’ case, when it comes to disability issues, they’ve got a really long way to go.”

Initially without comment from Descendents or Epitaph Records, and after reporting the receipt of threats of physical violence from the public aimed at him, Stay Up Late’s Paul Richards had at first concluded that the charity’s petition to boycott the LP needed to end. On the verge of pulling the petition down, events transpired to offer Richards a chink of light.

“I was beginning to think that this was all too much hassle, and that its just not worth the abuse when a couple of things happened,” Richards says via an update at Stay Up Late. “I had a lovely email from Milo Aukerman, the lead singer of Descendents. I had a lovely phone call of support from 38 Degrees (the petition website) saying they’d run similar, successful petitions, against two punk bands who were homophobic and misogynistic playing at festivals.”

With Descedents engaging in what Richards describes as “thoughtful and civilised dialogue about this issue” then, he has found a new resolve to continue with the petition and encourage people to develop their own understanding of – and show support and awareness for – people with developmental disabilities and the issues that affect them.

“The crowd defending the use of the word ‘Spaz’ are shouting the loudest at the moment,” he says. “So please sign and share the petition and show your support on our Facebook Page.”

He has some final words of wisdom: “Watch your language though people – names really do hurt people. And above all look after yourselves when you’re campaigning.”

Links and further reading:

Stay Up Late: www.stayuplate.org
Real Gone: www.realgonerocks.com
Descendents: www.facebook.com/thedescendents
Louise Distras: www.louisedistras.co.uk
Allusondrugs: www.facebook.com/Allusondrugs
Love Zombies: www.facebook.com/lovezombiesband
The Reconnection Movement: www.reconnectionmovement.com

A Brief History of ‘Spaz’ (Language Log)
10 Reasons To Give Up Ableist Language (Huffington Post)
6 Common Phrases You Didn’t Realize Were Ableist (Bustle)
Hate crime against disabled people rises 41 per cent (Independent)

Stabbing at care centre leaves 19 dead (Guardian)

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