Offensive vs. Racist


During the past week vast numbers of blogospheric pixels have been spent in posts and comments about a editorial cartoon by Pat Oliphant.  Critics of the cartoon say it is offensive and I agree with them.  In fact, I believe that Mr. Oliphant intended it to be offensive.  The cartoon was a strong political statement and such statements are always offensive to someone.

“Offensive” as used in this context is defined as an adjective meaning “causing displeasure or resentment.”  The problem is that there is no objective standard for what is offensive – it is always in the eye of the beholder.  Pretty much everything will be offensive to someone, but only an idiot would deny that certain words, phrases and ideas are far more likely to cause offense than others.  The question is whether something can be too offensive to be considered part of legitimate discourse and, if so, where the line should be drawn.

There is an overwhelming (but unfortunately not universal) consensus that racism is too offensive to be considered legitimate – we can talk about it but anyone supporting it would be treated as a pariah.  However while we agree that racism is bad we don’t always agree on what is or isn’t racist – racism is often “in the eye of the beholder” as well.

Merriam-Webster defines racism as:

1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2 : racial prejudice or discrimination

As we saw last year, some eyes behold racism in strange places.  The words “fairy tale” and “presumptuous” were alleged to be racist, and even the timing of a candidate’s tears was cited.  But we could all agree that the use of derogatory racial stereotypes and racial epithets is racist, right?

Have you ever seen comedians Dave Chappelle or Katt Williams perform?  They and many other black comics use lots of derogatory racial stereotypes and racial epithets in their acts.  What’s that you say?  It’s okay for them to do that because they are performing before black audiences?

The audiences that view the performances live may be mostly black, but the far larger audiences watching on HBO, Comedy Central and DVD are mostly white. To be fair I will point out that white comics like Jeff Foxworthy use derogatory racial stereotypes and racial epithets too, they just use different ones.  But imagine the outrage if Foxworthy (or Michael Richards) got up and told the same jokes as Williams and Chappelle.

My point is that sometimes it’s not just what’s being said but who is saying it as well as the context in which it is being said that determines whether we deem something offensive or racist.  If there are contexts in which the use of something as odious as the “N-word” is acceptable then how do we objectively define the boundaries?

Who makes the rules?  Do we need a majority consensus, a super-majority or just a substantial minority?  How many people need to be offended before the rest of us ought to defer to their feelings?  Does each racial group have exclusive rights to determine what is racist in regards to themselves or does everyone get to participate in the decisions?

Unfortunately we too often see an approach that goes “We think it’s racist.  If you don’t agree with us then you’re racist too!”  As we saw last year that approach tends to inhibit rather than enhance discussions.  But can something be deeply offensive to a racial group without being racist?

This brings us back to Mr. Oliphant’s cartoon.  It’s definitely offensive to a lot of people – very offensive to some.  How many?  I have no idea, but does that matter?  It’s a very strong political statement condemning the nation of Israel for its policy and conduct towards the Palestinian people in Gaza.

It clearly compares Israel to a brutal and oppressive fascist regime, probably but not necessarily the Nazis.  Whether that comparison is accurate and justified is hotly disputed but the “brutal and oppressive” part is not entirely baseless because there is a body of evidence that, if believed, would support it.

From everything I’ve read the arguments that the cartoon is anti-semitic are:

1.  The cartoon is similar to past and present depictions of Jews by antisemitic groups like the Nazis that are/were used to incite hated of Jews.

2.  The comparison of Israel to the Nazis is itself so vile and hurtful that it demonstrates hatred of Jews.

3.  The allegation that Israel is brutal and oppressive to the Palestinians is obviously untrue and is intended to incite hatred of Jews.

Whether it is anti-semitic or not, the cartoon has provoked such a strong reaction that we are discussing it instead of the issues it addresses.  Although “discussing” probably isn’t the right word, the blogosphere is divided into several camps that aren’t talking to each other.  Emotions are running high.  Some people are so outraged over the cartoon that they are angry that everyone isn’t outraged.

As for myself, my outrage is reserved for more important things than a stupid cartoon about events in another country that I can’t do anything about.  People are dying from violence and the lack of healthcare in this country.  Americans are losing their jobs, homes and life savings.  I’m not defending Mr. Oliphant or his cartoon, I’m saying they aren’t important.

Not to me anyway – YMMV


One Response to Offensive vs. Racist

  1. native11 says:

    The cartoon was intended to cause a strong reaction in its viewers. A cartoonist has a very limited canvas to get his/her point across. If the point is vast such as the I/P dilemma the cartoonist must use symbols that have a very “concentrated” meaning. Try drawing a picture that gets across the idea that the Israelis are the bad guys and are guilty of war crimes against the Palestinians in the recent past with only two or three symbols that are easily recognized and are so emotionally packed that they cause wide discussion and or debate such as we are seeing now. Oliphant purposely used these emotion concentrated pictures to drive home his point like a steamroller, it obviously worked judging by the reaction across the web. This is not a defense but just my take on the cartoon issue. In my view Oliphant crossed the line into what I see as almost a perverse abuse of the audience. The manipulation is or borders on obscene.

    Having said this my reaction is to not react at all. I won’t give anyone the pleasure of manipulating me in this cheap way. This cartoon really has no bearing on the I/P problem at all, it only emotionalizes the issue and hardens the resolve to only view “my” view as the moral/ethical/religious/RIGHT WAY! This is why the issue won’t be resolved. If those that have their panties in a wad about this cartoon spent as much time trying to honestly define the true problems and solve them maybe, just maybe there would be some movement, even if small, towards a solution that gave the Israelis peace and the Palestinians dignity.

    My 2 cents, if worth that.

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