Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Breathtaking Expansion of Cultural Shunning

A guy no one accuses of actual racism wore a tasteless costume as a teenager 35 years ago, and this was the top story in American news for 48 hours, including wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, ala OJ in the Bronco.

Consider where we're at: non-racists who showed poor taste once are now to be shunned. They must lose their jobs and crawl up and die. They must be disinfected.

I couldn't have made this up as an extreme example of the sort of insane behavior backlashed by MAGA insanity. Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

The two poles of American society are stoking each other. Civil War imagery no longer applies. Rather, it's like two blazing stars caught in a gravitational death spiral, warping space-time so enormously that fundamental laws no longer apply. To the bitter end, everyone will see only the excesses of the other side.

What happens if someone dressed up for Halloween as Harvey Weinstein? Would it matter if it was done as a joke by someone unerringly respectful to women? If dressing up, strictly as a goof, as a klansman is beyond the pale, what do we do about Chevy Chase?

And if dressing up as a monster makes you a monster even if you're a reasonably nice person, what about anyone who's ever donned a Freddie Kruger or Charles Manson mask at a costume party?

There was a similar mass fainting spell recently over a photo of Prince Harry at a Halloween Party in a Nazi costume. No one imagines Prince Harry to be the least bit sympathetic to Nazis. But facts don't matter, because it's not about what he does or believes, it's about diligently minding one’s symbolic moves and gestures, so one isn’t rotely pattern-matched by the outrage machine. 

It's no longer a matter of one's history of actual discriminative, hateful actions or statements. You can be deemed a monster by stumbling into any of a fast-growing terrain of tripwires set to auto-sort you into the "beyond-the-pale" bin, where you must lose your career and crawl up and die. What's more, it all applies retroactively. Even as far back as three decades.

Update your outrage definition database frequently, watch your ass, keep your head down, and hope they never come for you. Better yet, join the mob and scream for blood even more viciously than your peers to get on the right side of all this and clearly signal (the reciprocal "symbol and gesture"!) your super-hyper-mega anti-racist bonafides (just like closeted gays are inevitably the most homophobic and vice versa). In any case, welcome to the future, where anyone might be disinfected.

Last year, I offered a cheeky suggestion about how to treat racists:
What if we simply let racists be racists, given that 1. racists are going to be racists whether we let them or not, and 2. we're all somewhat racist - in fact, nothing feels more racist to me than people who find my Jewishness absolutely delightful, or else something so potentially touchy that they feel compelled to very politely never ever mention it, though it evidently remains the top-most thing on their minds.

What if we let racists live and work among us, in peace? What if we tolerate their free use of language as part of that same glorious rainbow? And what if we club them over the head with the full weight of the legal system if they ever ever act on it by discriminating - i.e. doing actual harm? What if you can be a racist, think like a racist, talk like a racist, but we prevent you from acting on it? Conveniently, we have a legal system, with lots of preexisting legislation, to handle exactly that.
Just six months later, that's as outdated as a horse and buggy. We've evolved to shunning non-racists who jokingly dressed up like a racist 40 years ago. What's next as the righteous wildfire of outrage culture is given oxygen? As I've predicted before, Marx Brothers films and Road Runner cartoons will soon be taboo, and comedy, generally, will come to be seen a relic of the past. With smaller and smaller offense drawing geometrically greater and greater punishment, comedy will be a transgression no one dares risk.

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