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We've Gotten Carried Away with Being Offended

by on May 02, 2019 4:45 AM

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” - Marcus Aurelius

Almost daily, social media produces an uproar over something someone wrote or said. Ours is the age of manufactured outrage as currency traded by the chorus of social media’s braying jackasses. For a nation prided on toughness, thick skin and a can-do attitude, we sure look like people searching for pity from someone who will put a Band-Aid on our fragile psyches.

People my age and older may be nodding in agreement thinking about millennials or college-aged “snowflakes.” But I’ll remind you that our 72-year-old President, the tough guy in the Oval Office, constantly decries how he is treated by the media and by others.

As a perceived benefactor of “white male privilege,” I know that my lecturing others may be “offensive” to some. But I’ve seen my share of outrageous lies and threats written and said about my family and me. Yes, people say and do things that are offensive, but being offended is a choice. How we choose to respond is completely within our control.

We must be careful. In our rush to outrage we equate merely offensive statements to the level of hate speech. Elevating distant statements can cloud the context of truly vile hate speech that ignites violence. It allows true threats to be more easily dismissed by those tiring of the constant clamor of lesser complaints.

Today, even minor slights create hashtag condemnation communities denying forgiveness to others for their non-sinister human imperfections. We sacrifice understanding our historical progress, lessons that can light the path toward the more perfect union to which we aspire.

Instead we judge every public figure’s life by the single worst utterance in their life. Their failing, regardless of intent, becomes the narrative of their lives overtaking and all the good they’ve done.

Increasingly we take offense from things said or written long ago. The New York Yankees decided to stop playing Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” The Philadelphia Flyers followed suit and removed her statue from outside their arena.

Why now?

Someone called up songs she recorded in the 1930s containing offensive or racist lyrics. The Yankees cast judgment on lyrics recorded long before they integrated their team in 1955.  For added perspective one of the songs cited was also recorded by black actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.

More to the point, the songs recorded by Kate Smith and Paul Robeson had largely faded from consciousness until someone went looking to push this into public consciousness. People chose to be offended by a judgment Smith made as an artist, a choice made without the ability to anticipate the societal mores and norms that would emerge over eight decades later.

But as you point the finger, look at the number of current artists singing or rapping lyrics that denigrate women, or use racial slurs. If we held up Kate Smith’s lyrics to any number of songs out there today you’d be surprised to see that there may be equally offensive things selling now. Is it fair to excuse contemporary music as artistic expression but then deny the same courtesy to a dead woman unable to defend herself against charges of being a racist?

The immediate emotional reactions we value now fail us in three ways.

First, historian Jon Meacham wrote, “Rendering moral judgments in retrospect can be hazardous. It is unfair to judge the past by the standards of the present.” The application of our values and expectations to people’s actions generations ago is to wield a standard by which almost all people of that time will fail. Views that we think are unacceptable now in some cases were seen as radical in their day — radical in a way we would view as progress.

Secondly, we are spending too much time looking to be triggered. When Joe Biden announced his presidential campaign he cited immortal words written by Thomas Jefferson: “All men are created equal.” Some took offense that Joe Biden used those words because they excluded the word women. We all know that Jefferson’s intent in that phrasing was to cover all humanity.

Thirdly, when trying to stoke passions we should tell the full story. On Tuesday, presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell tweeted that the word “woman” does not appear in the Constitution, as though it indicated some failure to protect women. He failed to mention that the words “man” or “men” do not appear in the Constitution either and certainly no one views that as in some way being a failure to protect men. It is a non-issue.

 

It is up to us. We can choose to focus on important issues here and abroad, including dangerous hate speech. We can seek understanding of our past to build bridges between us now. Or we can choose to waste energy being offended by words uttered long ago without understanding the context of their times.

 



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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