Claiming free speech as a defence for ignorance is no excuse
Alexandra Pollard

15:59 20th March 2015

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It was only a matter of time before Viet Cong had to publicly address the cultural insensitivity of their band name. This week, that time finally arrived.

"When we named ourselves, we were naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about” they said in an statement. “We now better understand the weight behind the words Viet Cong.” And yet, they have no intention of changing it.

The controversy erupted when Viet Cong gave a Guardian interview which revealed the incredible lack of knowledge and foresight that went into their name. During rehearsal, Mike Wallace explained, bassist Matt Flegel was bouncing around while playing, and “kind of shooting his bass like a gun. I said: ‘All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong.’ We stopped on that sentence and thought it was a good idea…”

This hit a nerve with first generation Vietnamese-American Sang Nguyen, who wrote an open letter to the band describing his family’s involvement in the Vietnam War. After his father fled the war-torn country with his wife and three children in an effort to escape the guerilla warfare of the Viet Cong, his cousin was killed by a Viet Cong soldier. Writes Nguyen: “To see a phrase and album imagery that are loaded with a history of violence and trauma - ripped by a rock group who does not, and cannot, identify with it - and emptied of its meaning, is unacceptable no matter what the reasoning behind it is.” We can’t ignore the potency of words and language by blindly placing them under the catch-all banner of artistic freedom. We cannot, no matter how hard we try to defensively belittle the issue, empty words of their meaning. If you use an offensive term as part of your art, whatever medium of art that may be, it must surely be embedded within a cultural context that shows an understanding of what that term represents.

Dirty Dike. Black Pussy. Viet Cong. Slaves. All bands comprising entirely white men. They are not reclaiming an offensive or historically loaded term on their own behalf, but rather snatching it mindlessly from those to whom the term refers and throwing it back at them in a way which says absolutely nothing

Viet Cong were not making any kind of statement with their name. By their own admission, it was created from a place of ignorance - and so the cries of “free speech” (a phrase all too often worn as defensive armour against compassion) are misplaced. People should be free to have their own opinions - and so too should people be free to disagree with these opinions - but Viet Cong’s name was not borne out of opinion. It was borne out a casual flippancy, a benign ignorance which has upset a lot of people who are far more closely connected to it than four white men from Canada.

Below: Watch the video for Viet Cong's Silhouettes

Gang Of Four’s Andy Gill has no time for the controversy, which he called “illiberal, undemocratic and anti-progressive.” It’s OK to be offended on someone else’s behalf, but Gill has chosen to be actively and outspokenly unoffended on someone else’s behalf… and that’s a problem. It is not censorship, nor is it undemocratic, to be sensitive and apologetic towards other people’s discomfort when you’ve made a naïve slip-up.

The statement that Viet Cong have released is articulate, thoughtful and, to an extent, repentant. But its carefully worded contrition makes the final sentence, “With love from the band Viet Cong”, come as even more of a slap to the face.

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Photo: Press