Why Aren’t You Outraged?

At PrawfsBlawg, Howard Wasserman points to the Atlantic’s post about the Reedies Against Racism protesting the required course, Humanities 110.

At Reed College, a small liberal-arts school in Portland, Oregon, a 39-year-old Saturday Night Live skit recently caused an uproar over cultural appropriation. In the classic Steve Martin skit, he performs a goofy song, “King Tut,” meant to satirize a Tutankhamun exhibit touring the U.S. and to criticize the commercialization of Egyptian culture. You could say that his critique is weak; that his humor is lame; that his dance moves are unintentionally offensive or downright racist. All of that, and more, was debated in a humanities course at Reed.

But many students found the video so egregious that they opposed its very presence in class. “That’s like somebody … making a song just littered with the n-word everywhere,” a member of Reedies Against Racism (RAR) told the student newspaper when asked about Martin’s performance. She told me more: The Egyptian garb of the backup dancers and singers—many of whom are African American—“is racist as well. The gold face of the saxophone dancer leaving its tomb is an exhibition of blackface.”

Howard uses this extreme example of classroom protest, which serves to not only impair students’ ability to learn, but makes profs who, for whatever reason, lack the capacity to do their job cry to raise the question of whether this reflects an elevation in the level of evil, mandating the level of responsive protest. The problem is not, as would appear to someone like me, that the kids are on an outrage trip, but that oldsters just don’t appreciate how offensive conduct is.

Whatever else is happening, this demonstrates a point that came out in the comments to this post: The level of offense and the level of evil that protesters see in objectionable speech is beyond what we saw previously, which explains the more-intense reactions and confrontations between speech and counter-speech.

The comments in the linked post, relating to a tepid, bordering on insipid op-ed by Chemerinsky and Gillman, and the comments there, are illuminating. One commenter draws the distinction that’s both obvious and clear to supporters of free speech.

Were they being assaulted and injured they would have every right to redress and protection. But they aren’t. They are merely being offended and that’s the price of a free society.

This evokes a response that he just doesn’t get it.

Brad, I don’t think it’s such a clear distinction between physical harm and mere psychic offense. For some people, hateful speech may represent a real threat that causes actual suffering. Someone calls me a jerk and I’m mildly offended. Armed, torch-wielding neo-nazis march through my town calling for my extermination, and I might well see that as an existential threat.

Notably, the retort to the speech/conduct distinction is “but this really offends me.” This begs two replies, the first being to call bullshit on the commenter’s sensibilities. You might well see this as an existential threat? So what? Who made your delicate feelings the bar of other people’s speech?

The second is to call bullshit on his rhetoric, his attempt to use hyperbole to exaggerate the “threat” to appeal to emotions. Even if the Naxos March was threatening, what does that have to do with the protesters shouting down and shutting down campus speakers? Does Charles Murray have a gun, a tiki torch?

Howard’s King Tut post evokes another attempt to explain why his offense meter is broken.

I think this does have something to do with “the level of offense and the level of evil,” but that the seeming novelty here, and the dismissiveness of some of the reactions to the offense taken (like the title of this post), also has something to do with who’s taking the offense and about what.

From the perspective of the unduly passionate, the failure to appreciate the level of outrage is called “dismissiveness.” From the other side, the level of outrage is the product of undue sensitivity. But the commenter, Asher Steinberg, a Georgetown law student, posits that Howard’s inability to grasp the problem is because it’s not his ox being gored.

It’s probably easier for you to understand that when, e.g., The Producers was released, many people objected to “the bad taste and insensitivity of devising a broad comedy about two Jews conspiring to cheat theatrical investors by devising a designed-to-fail tasteless Broadway musical about Hitler only 23 years after the end of World War II.” Perhaps you might even object yourself if Martin’s skit had him playing Moses in a similar fashion; at least we can easily imagine a version of a Martin-as-Moses skit that would have raised hackles from the Anti-Defamation League, and I don’t know if it would have taken much more than what’s going on in Funky Tut. (For a lot of people, it would probably suffice for Martin to play Moses in front of a bunch of sexualized Jewish backup dancers.) There’s an interesting conversation to be had about whether it’s less reasonable to object to this sort of thing when the ethnic target of the comedy is extinct, as the ancient Egyptian “race” is (I guess?) and we Jewish people are not, but I don’t think the answer to that question is obvious.

I’m going to take a wild guess here, that Steinberg is Jewish, and assumes that because Howard is Jewish that he will draw the line at his tribe being the target of offense. This projection is a common response from people who can’t believe that everyone doesn’t have a button to push, and the only question is what pushes the button.

As Howard noted in the horrifying title to his post, “Are The Bangles no longer welcome at Reed College, either?” There were some people who objected to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, but it was a huge hit, including among Jews. So too were Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. It had nothing to do with Jews, of which Brooks was one, being insensitive to the feelings of others, but with all of us having a sense of humor about ourselves and others.

It wasn’t that our outrage meter was broken. It was that we preferred to enjoy humor rather than look for reasons to be offended by everything.

23 thoughts on “Why Aren’t You Outraged?

  1. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    These children don’t seem to understand that they are producing great material for a script of yet another terrifically funny absurdist comedy. It would open with Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries playing loudly in the background.

    All the best.

    RGK

      1. Mario Machado

        The conductor in the Strauss clip is a curly haired dude in his mid-30s from Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Of all places 😉

        I’m starting to think that eventually everything becomes connected…

  2. albeed

    I would give a thousand dollars to Reed College if I could show Blazing Saddles in this course with the students restrained and their eyeballs fixated as in a Clockwork Orange, and then I would show them A Clockwork Orange.

  3. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    You are a genius. The title to my imagined comedy could be “Nietzsche Comes to Reed and Commits Suicide in Solidarity.” Thank you! Your the best.

    RGK

  4. Ross

    One of the best comment sections ever. I can see one of the Reedies running across this and holding it out as an example of just how depraved and indifferent to suffering us older white shitlords are. At which point, I would have to tell them to go to the store and buy a sense of humor before their head explodes, making a mess all over my new shirt.

    King Tut, The Producers, Blazing Saddles – great works of entertainment art, the likes of which we will likely never see again, since we aren’t allowed to laugh at stereotypes any more, even when those stereotypes are being used to mock the stupidity of the subjects.

    I also have to mention that Susanna Hoffs, at 58, is still amazing.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s always been the irony, that these aren’t works of prejudice, but mocking prejudice. Humor has always been a great weapon in the battle against the stupid, but have the stupid won the war?

      More Bangles for your viewing pleasure:

  5. B. McLeod

    Like a non-event, with a bunch of non-entities, too lacking in basic sapience to even comprehend their own irrelevance to any and all things real. The Velveteen Rabbit will be real before any of these children.

  6. Jyjon

    Outraged at Steve Martin? I would say I am, as everyone SHOULD be. The students at Reed are right in their condemnation. But they are insufficiently woke and there are many subtleties their young minds are unable to uncloak still. They did not look at all the ways that Mr Martin is culturally appropriating concepts and ideas from Africa.

    The music in the video is R&B, yes that’s right R&B.

    And what of it being satire? Mr Martin is NOT jewish, not even an ‘Honorary Jew’* as Robin Williams was, so if you want to use that as a defense realize you are admitting to his cultural appropriation of comedy from one of the most oppressive races on the planet. Which if you were to actually burden your wits with the weighty effort of consideration, you’d realize it is more damning than all the other execrable transgressions.

    Mr Martin’s Mental health. He has some serious mental issues, schizophrenic perhaps. You know that he dyed his hair black. That’s right, his hair was prematurely white. And his teeth, he goes out of the way to whiten them with a special paste and chemicals. He can’t decide which he wants to be, a sign of a sick mind.

    Everyone knows that africa is the first content to create humans. He is claiming to be human, just another in a long list of african appropriation.

    His list of sins against humanity is long and devious, to brush away layer after layer of his malicious iniquity would require more space than is available in this comment section.

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

        1. Skink

          I had to look it up. I’m not sure if I understand the concept literally, as I get a couple double-negative reversals. However, I’ll make believe I get it and hope it applies. I feel better that way.

          1. SHG Post author

            We take comfort where we can find it. I waste far too much time trying to decipher the intent behind comments.

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