Friday, November 14, 2008

Ready to Pounce: A Feline Frame of Mind on Culture

Looking at my RSS feed for We Move to Canada today, I saw an article titled " a Mistake, but Not an Outrage." Curious, I clicked through. In brief, is was all about a debacle where, offering a Remembrance Day special for people looking for relatives lost in the World Wars, inadvertently used an image of a German soldier instead of an Allied solider in one of their ads. Several veterans derided them for this; an "outrage" they called it.

Is it just me or are people these days just looking for things to be offended by?

OK, putting a German soldier in the ad intended for North American audiences was clearly a faux pas but I'd hardly call it an outrage; it'd only be an outrage is if that image was chosen specifically with intent to dishonor Allied soldiers. I doubt that was the case; it looks to me like an innocent mistake. Remember, was offering free service to help people affected by the war; it'd make no sense to deliberately dishonor veterans in such a campaign.

I'm not saying I don't sympathize with the veterans' feelings; I do. Don't forget what these men went through at the hands, from their perspective, of the Germans; I'm not surprised that most of them find letting go those memories and separating the men from the historical context difficult. Still, I can't help but get the feeling that these particular men were just waiting like cats stalking their prey for an opportunity, any opportunity, to pounce on something.

But I'm not here to talk about veterans and their attitude towards their former enemies; this incident goes far beyond that. Incidents like this, where one takes unreasonable offense to something that wasn't meant to offend, are becoming increasingly common in society today; sometimes, it seems like everyone is just waiting for an opportunity to take offense to something and pounce on it, no matter how insignificant.

So, what is wrong with people today that everyone has to be so sensitive?

Maybe it was too much off-color humor at the expense of minorities through the last century. I've always been a big fan of Looney Tunes; I've been watching a lot of Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show of late. I've been doing some research on-line. Apparently, there are a handful of Looney Tunes that are no longer distributed or aired because of ethnic stereotypes. Even those that are aired often contain hints of stereotypical views of minorities.

I've seen these stereotypes in the Looney Tunes. For example, Bugs Bunny once inadvertently tunneled his way to Scotland. The Scottish guy he squared off against in the story was the epitome of Scottish stereotype; he wore a kilt, carried around a set of bagpipes and has a Scottish brogue so thick you half expected his tongue to roll right out of his mouth. Bugs even greeted him with a modified version of his famous catch phrase: "What's up MacDoc?"

Then there was the time Porky Pig was in Ireland and had a strange encounter with a pair of leprechauns convinced he was there to steal their pot of gold. The very concept of the pot of gold and leprechauns are probably two of the best known stereotypes of Irish culture; the only thing missing was the rainbow. Of course, the leprechauns, too, were shown in stereotypical form, diminutive in stature and wearing bright green with green hats.

Of course, it isn't surprising that cartoons made in that era should contain such stereotypes; any piece of fiction or work of art cannot help but be a product of its era. Check out, for example, the miniskirts, go-go boots and beehive hairdos in Star Trek; the female uniforms in particular just scream "1960s." So it's not surprising that cultural and ethnic stereotypes, common in the 50s and 60s, should find their way into Looney Tunes.

Does this mean that the creators of Looney Tunes were racist? Not necessarily. We don't know these people personally. Their work may have been (and probably was) nothing more than the same innocent play on stereotypes we see nowadays in characters like Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons. Apu isn't meant to disrespect Indian culture; he's just a stereotype poking innocent fun at there stereotypical Indian in America.

Actually, like Apu, the Looney Tunes point of view on stereotype was often hilarious. I couldn't help but sympathize with poor Bugs who mistook the Scot playing his pipes as an old lady in a dress being attacked by a shrieking monster. I couldn't help but laugh at all the extraordinary lengths the leprechauns went to to keep Porky away from their pot of gold, sentencing him to the "wearin' o' the green shoes" that make him dance until he drops.

That, I think, is what these easily offended people should bear in mind. Everything in life, no matter what it is, can be poked fun at. There's humor in everything. Just because someone is making fun of your cultural, racial or historical background doesn't necessarily mean they're bigoted; in many cases, playing with cultural and racial stereotypes for humor is done as a form of affection for a given group.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is an excellent example. The whole movie plays off stereotypes of Greek culture. It is one of the funniest movies I've seen in the past decade, probably made all the more funny because it was written by somebody of Greek ancestry; who better to lampoon Greek culture than someone who knows it from the "inside?"

That's something else I've noticed. There is a fair amount of minority humor out there but, these days, only members of those minorities can generally get away with that kind of humor. I once saw an Indian comedian who just had a field day poking fun at his upbringing, particularly his father's thick Indian accent; he apparently has a unique, and totally priceless, way of pronouncing "ice cream" and "peanuts" (he mentioned Apu in his routine, too).

However, this only goes to show that anything can be made light of, and the fact that someone is making light of something doesn't necessarily imply disrespect. Bill Cosby's frequent stand-up routines poking fun at Christianity are an excellent example. You can tell from his attitude that he's not doing it to disrespect God; he's just having a little fun at His expense, just as most of us do with the people we love from time to time.

But today, it often seems the world is too sensitive a place for this kind of thing. I think that these easily offended people just create an atmosphere where one has to walk on eggshells when discussing certain subjects. This not only robs us of opportunities for humor but even makes going a good deed dangerous; do one wrong thing, no mater how inadvertent, and suddenly all the good you've done gets instantly forgotten.

Just because someone used the wrong photograph in an ad does not necessarily mean they meant anything by it; it can just be an innocent mistake. Just because someone is making fun of your culture does not necessarily mean they don't respect it; it could very well be done out of genuine affection. Just because someone pokes fun at your race does not necessarily mean they're racist; all races have unique physical characteristics that can be exaggerated for comedy.

In other words, I think it's important that, when we are offended by something, instead of pouncing on it like a cat jumping its prey, we need to step back for a moment and try to discover the intent of the person who offended us. Once we talk it out, we may very well discover that no offense was intended at all.

Yes, there will always be some cases where things said and done are said with genuine malice; such is Human nature. However, we can't afford to assume that everything said is said with genuine malice. If we start doing that, it's only a matter of time before we start putting ourselves right back on the same slippery slope that once lead us to The Salem Witch Trials and McCarthyism.

That is not the world we should be living in.

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