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.