All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


01 March 2014

Portrayals,Caricatures, and Stereotypes

It sometimes seems that you can't move your foot on a college campus without kicking a controversy involving some sort of racial or cultural stereotype.  A lot of times this involves Fraternities dressing up, or having a "theme" party, but sometimes it's a cartoon, a student being clueless, or some stupid faculty member making a generalization.

I think, though, that civil society could really do with a refresher course on the distinction between something that is merely subjectively offensive to someone, and something that is (for lack of a better term) "objectively" offensive in the sense that it's the sort of thing a reasonable person would find offensive.

A lot of things can be subjectively offensive to some particular person or another.  But that fact alone doesn't make that behavior objectively unreasonable.  Sometimes people are trafficking in stereotypes that aren't offensive, and sometimes they aren't trafficking in stereotypes at all -- sometimes it's just a caricature, or even less bothersome, a straight-up portrayal.

The reason that this matters so much is because of the response that the different sorts of behavior warrants.  If someone inadvertently hurts your feelings, the thing to do is to let them know that they've hurt your feelings, and perhaps ask them not to do it again.  For example, if some fraternity or another is having a "Mexican" theme party, with sombreros and 'staches, and it really bothers you, you might send the fraternity a letter expressing your displeasure.

But here's the truth: the stereotype of Mexicans as thick-mustached and Sombrero-wearing just isn't objectively offensive: Mexicans really did (and do) wear Sombreros.  Ditto the 'staches.  And the bandoliers, if you want to take it that far.  Pancho Villa really did look like that.  So did Emiliano Zapata (scroll down).

Look at the bottom picture on this page.  Revolutionary heroes, all of them... with big thick mustaches and all wearing Sombreros.  They WANTED to look like that for their picture.  It's an ideal picture of what a certain kind of Mexican man is supposed to look like.  Portraying that, or even caricaturing it a little, simply is not trafficking in any sort of offensive stereotype.  It's trafficking in a stereotype, to be sure.  But the stereotype isn't offensive.

When someone does something that is objectively offensive, it's appropriate (if perhaps a little excessive) to publicly demand apologies, to write letters in the newspaper, and maybe even to talk about a climate of racism if there's really grounds for that.  People who do objectively bad things should be treated appropriately.  But if a bunch of people are having a little bit of fun with a cariacature that's at once legitimate and not objectively demeaning in any way, then taking to the ramparts and making accusations of racism is probably something of an overreaction.  Of course, execution matters.  Attitude matters.  If you're dressing up and pretending to be illegal aliens, or acting lazy or drunk, well, that starts to sound downright racist.  But the behavior itself isn't necessarily offensive. 

Likewise, if someone puts on blackface -- shoe polish blackface or even worse, the sort with the exaggerated lips -- that's a deliberate invocation of a negative, nasty portrayal of a racial group from a time when they were oppressed by law.  It's either culpably ignorant or mean-spiritedly racist.

But if a model actually makes themselves look different by using make-up -- I'm thinking of something like this -- that's not trafficking in an offensive stereotype.  It's not just that the stereotype isn't offensive, it's that there's no stereotype to begin with.  That's just dressing up like something else. And playing dressup is not objectively offensive in and of itself.  Once again, the specific execution matters.  If you're acting like an ass and talking with an exaggerated ebonics accent... then no matter how well-done your make-up is, what you're doing is, as a whole, offensive.  But if someone dresses up as Samuel L. Jackson for Halloween, I'm not going to call them a racist just because they're trying to do a good job of it.

I'm not saying you can't get upset about it.  People feel what they feel.  And like I said, there's nothing wrong with letting someone know that they've hurt your feelings.  But I think that we all have a duty to be mindful of when we're lodging justified complaints about real, objectively offensive behavior, and when we're taking the time to let our fellow citizens know that they've pressed on one of our sensitivities.  Our response to those two different situations should, I think, be correspondingly different.  It's easy for us to say that others should be mindful of our feelings, and that others should always keep our sensitivities in mind when acting.

But we might all want to try following the same advice, and spend some time thinking about our own sensitivities, and whether certain behavior by others really calls for all-out political warfare, or whether maybe something a little more moderate and humble is called for.

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