It seems to me that the word “offended” is thrown around a lot nowadays, particularly in the current Presidential election. It seems to me that there are a good number of folks so quick to be offended by things and a second group so quick to tell the first to get over it that the word has lost all meaning. That people are routinely offended by things and getting over them so quick that none of us has the chance to really stop and think about why we’re offended in the first or if it’s something we need to get over or not.
Which brings me to the New Yorker. Ah, the New Yorker.
I’ll say up front that the current cover depicting racialized stereotypes of Mr. and Mrs. Obama rightly offends me. It offends me for several reasons.
The first thing that happened when the New Yorker caught the flap over its cover was that folks were quick to point out that the cartoonist, Barry Blitt, had done parodies of Still President Bush, et al, as if offending Barack Obama is okay because he’s offended Bush. Or, conversely, he didn’t mean to offend Obama, because “look! look! I make fun of Republicans all the time!” This line of reasoning really irritates me. I will not excuse offensive behavior simply because you and I share the same political views. Offensive behavior is offensive behavior. Period.
Which brings me to the crux of the issue. The previous work of Barry Blitt isn’t offensive. It’s satire. Satire, as I’m sure you all know, uses humor or irony to ridicule or criticize someone, usually someone of some import or authority. Blitt’s previous covers did that expertly (I particularly like his cover of the Oval Office waist-deep in water after Katrina). The object of the satire is clear. With the Obama cover, not so much.
The day the magazine hit the news stands, David Remnick went on the defensive saying, “Look, we’re not making fun of Obama, we’re pointing out the ludicrous ideas of those idiots that think Obama is a Muslim! I mean, c’mon people! We’re the New Yorker!”
If you have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.
As one online commentator put it, if they’d put this caricature in some context, like in a poster on the wall of the RNC or something, then the satire would be self-evident. Decontextualized, it isn’t. Is Blitt satirizing the Obamas? Or is he poking fun at someone else? If anything, the cover is just confusing. You have to think about it. Sure, it might be satire. But if it is, it’s pretty lousy satire. I, for one, expect better of the New Yorker.
The other thing that rightly offends me is the notion that we should just get over it. I’m not a big believer in getting over things simply because it’s a joke. I am a big believer in the notion that jokes are contextually specific things. That is, they have audiences. They’re funny only insofar as the audience thinks they’re funny. Really good comedy knows this. (I’m reminded of Chris Rock’s bit about money and wealth, an bit that could come across as offensive except that he knows his audience and the subject of his satire is clear. VoilÃ ! Funny!)
Now, to say that something offends you should not mean that either (a) you’re being too sensitive as those who tell us we should get over it imply, or (b) that the world has come to an end, that we should stop talking about whatever it is that we’re offended over, and nothing short of a full public apology and recant of the offending material will satisfy us. Like I said at the outset, “offended” gets thrown around a lot. All it really means is to cause someone to feel upset, annoyed, or resentful.
I’m going to take a cue for the corporate human resources folks I’ve worked with and point out that the quickest way to avoid a lawsuit is, when someone tells you you’ve offended them, even if you didn’t mean to, even if you think they’re an annoying, thin-skinned ninny, your only response should be, “I’m sorry if my behavior offended you; what can I do to avoid offending you in the future?”
That second clause there is crucial. It’s crucial because it opens the door to an honest-to-buddha conversation. Being offended does not mean that all communication comes to an end and we stop talking about offensive behavior. Being offended is an opportunity to discuss exactly what it is that’s irritating to us and why. And how the offender can change his or her behavior.
I think this is of deep importance when it comes to race in America. As I’ve said before, Americans don’t know how to talk about race. We don’t know how to talk about it because we’re out of practice. Whenever someone offends someone else, what do we do? We set up the news cameras for a public apology, we fire someone, then we go about our business. Rather than actually talking about exactly what it is that irritated us, why, and how we can do better.
The cover of the New Yorker is offensive because it’s decontextualized. Because it’s bad satire. I agree with Remnick and Blitt’s point, that there are those who are capitalizing on the worst, basest feelings of a small segment of the American public; there are those who exploit those ignorant feelings for political gain. But this bad satire does little to expose that larger and more insidious problem. All it really does is give those who will perpetuate these rumors a convenient image to play around with in PhotoShop. In other words, it give the other side more arsenal.
That larger and more insidious problem, of course, is that there are people out there that believe that Barack Obama is going to destroy America. It does not matter if he gets elected. What matters is that we find a way to undermine racist attitudes in our culture in order to effect true change, to work toward a more just and harmonious society. In this light, the cover of the New Yorker fails. And that is why the cover upsets me, annoys me, irritates me. That is why it offends me.
Like I said before, if you have to explain it, it’s not funny.