The Surprisingly Affordable Cost of Cultural Sensitivity
The world has changed an awful lot over the course of the last five years or so. Many of these changes are terrible, of course. Donald Trump is President, for starters. But many of these changes are encouraging signs of cultural progress.
As a white, heterosexual middle-aged man who has been writing about pop culture for half of his 42 years on Earth I like to think that I have grown and evolved with the culture. I’ve hopefully become more sensitive and tactful with age as I’ve come to understand the power of words to harm.
The parameters for what is considered offensive have changed dramatically. That has affected the way I see myself and my work. In the past, when I was worried that I wrote something in possibly questionable taste, the question that I would ask myself before sending off an article would be, “Is this offensive?” If I determined that it was offensive, then I either changed it to make it less offensive or even unoffensive or discarded it completely.
These days, however, when I’m worried about the potential response to an article or an idea the question that I ask myself is, “Could anyone conceivably find this offensive?” Obviously I’m not terribly concerned about the Alt-Right or racists or Proud Boys finding my ideas deplorable and my manner of expressing them obnoxious. I’m not worried about offending Trump supporters. But I do worry that a poor word choice or insufficiently examined idea could inadvertently hurt someone who is already vulnerable.
To give an example, when I saw that Keith Richards had stopped drinking at 75 my immediate, knee-jerk response was to write a tweet that I was inspired by Richards’ self-discipline and was going to follow his example, and also quit drinking at 75, so thankfully I had thirty-three years to wean myself off the sauce.
I thought it was a cute joke and mildly amusing but then when I ran it to through the “Could anyone conceivably find this offensive?” filter I thought about the people in a Facebook group I’m in called “That sounds like romanticized alcoholism but okay” and how an alcoholic, or a recovering alcoholic, or someone wrestling mightily with their sobriety might look at that joke, how it might seem glib and cavalier to someone battling alcohol addiction.
I ultimately had to ask myself whether the tweet was funny enough, or insightful enough, to risk potentially hurting someone struggling with serious issues. That’s a bar the joke did not clear so I deleted the tweet.
On a similar note, when I was writing my Literature Society article on Joan Crawford’s lifestyle guide My Way of Life, I was lazily tempted to describe the book, and its advice, and its author, as batshit insane. Thankfully we are not slaves to our first inclinations. So I soon realized that it would be mean, and snarky and unfair to write about Crawford as being crazy instead of a woman of her time obviously wrestling with deep-seated mental illness. From that perspective I was able to write about Crawford a lot more empathetically, incisively, and compellingly because I saw her as a fellow depressive and someone who clearly wrote a book under the influence of powerful stimulants and not merely as a target for cheap mockery, ridicule and snark.
Not allowing myself to caricature Crawford as a crazy lady not only made the article less offensive and mean, it also made it better.
To cite another example from my time writing for The A.V Club, in my My World of Flops article on I Am Cait, I referred to the show’s star by their former name early in the article. A reader called me and The A.V Club out for dead-naming the controversial trans icon and even though I had just spent 16 hours having my consciousness regarding trans issues raised alongside Caitlyn Jenner’s, I did not even know what dead-naming meant, let alone why it was offensive and wrong.
I’m not proud of that fact. In fact, I’m embarrassed. So I wrote the woman who pointed out the dead-naming to say that I did not know what I had done was wrong, and was deeply sorry and would never make that mistake again. I was grateful for the commenter and their comment, in no small part because she assumed, rightly, that I made a stupid mistake out of ignorance, not out of malice. I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes through the years. We all have. That’s part of what makes us human. Hopefully I’ve learned from them.
Is the world missing out because I feel too self-conscious about the possible consequences to make mediocre jokes about alcoholism and mental illness? Of course not, just as we as a culture aren’t poorer because college audiences are too sensitive for Jerry Seinfeld to be able to make his joke about kids flipping through their iPhones looking like gay French kings.
We can still say whatever the hell we want, but there are increasingly rapid, dramatic consequences for saying, and tweeting, and joking the wrong thing, unless of course you’re President Trump. The cost of cultural sensitivity is really not that high, and the rewards of a more just, kind and egalitarian society make it infinitely worth the exceedingly modest hassle.
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