March 15, 2017

The Winter of Our Disconnect

My Trump Timeout has timed out. It’s high time to get on with things. A few of my more daring friends are way ahead of me, and one or two never tuned out. They’ve actually been reading the papers every day. The president, they tell me, has reassured us all: things couldn’t be better. (The only person I know who admits to voting for The Donald says that things are at least all right.) But just because I’m in the dark—I don’t know anything, I swear, about the attorney general’s lying under oath, or Congress’s failure to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act immediately, or the EPA’s plan to renounce its mission, or the president’s press secretary’s amiable ignorance (he couldn’t be lying, could he? they don’t do that sort of thing)—doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on elsewhere. I’ve been poking around during my little holiday from reality, and have pulled in these tidbits from the offensiveness barricades. It’s allowed me that deep sigh of relief: Despite all the dystopian wailing, my subject has emerged unscathed. Offensiveness, and the fear of it, thrives. Here are some low lights.

A bookstore apologizes, just in case
It’s not true that I get a new book every day—the real number is one every 1.2 days. (Part of the story is here.) Generally, I buy online, enthralled by the worldwide inventory and in thrall to an aching back. Most books arrive with an invoice, some with a bookmark also. But until recently, none had ever come with an additional “important notice to all customers,” beginning thus:

[We have] made every effort to inspect each book prior to shipment to ensure there are no markings and/or inscriptions of an offensive nature in the book you have purchased.

There it is: a used-book seller concerned that you might actually receive a book with notations from a former owner. And not just any old markings, like “!!!” or “true?” or “✔.” What you want to avoid is an over-the-top critical put-down, like “X$#!*^ptk” or “phooey.” The seller goes on to say that if a book with “offensive markings” did slip through its vigilant search, the customer will be refunded not only the price but also the shipping cost, though apparently only if the markings are offensive. Good news for squeamish book buyers.

Sensitivitometer
Publishers Weekly recently reported that publishers are turning to “sensitivity readers to detect prejudicial or inauthentic content” in manuscript submissions. A panelist at a roundtable discussion on the subject in New York said that “a key aspect of privilege is that you don’t see the patterns” of stereotyping in narrative. You want to watch out for master-slave romances or “black boys using basketball to get out of the hood.” An editor at HarperCollins said that vetting for insensitivity is as important these days as reading for grammar. No one explained whether this is the death knell of master-slave romances, or merely of conventional wordplay. But I guess it will be good to delete a protagonist’s reference to his inamorata as “my treasured possession.” Much better to let the sweetheart know that “although you are the captive of my heart, you may leave the building at any time.”

Defending Animals’ Honor
Cruelty to animals? No one I know defends animal abuse. But the honor of animals? That seems to be a horse of a different chintz. Yet just the other day, I was reading Daniel C. Dennett’s new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (W.W. Norton, 2017), and in due course came across this passage:

[O]ther social mammals — apes, wolves, elephants, whales, bats, for instance — could make spectacular use of language if they had it, and some of them have well-known communicative talents, but no other species has a faculty remotely like human language in its power (p. 251).

Dennett reports that this bravely proffered conclusion stirred up his classes: “I find that some of my students are offended by this complacent generalization, and insist that we simply cannot know that dolphins, say, don’t have productive languages like ours.” Offended! It’s bad enough that professors are, well, liberals (isn’t that the claim?), but bad-mouthing dolphins? OMG! You do have to admire Professor Dennett’s plucky retort:

Yes, dolphins may conceivably have language and intelligence the equal of ours, and if so, they have done a heroic and brilliant job of concealing that fact from us, sacrificing themselves on countless occasions when a little dolphin chitchat could have saved their lives or the lives of some of their conspecifics (note 73).

He didn’t report whether his students were further offended at the suggestion that dolphins might be first-class con artists.

Imaginary Offended People
Just found out that members of the human species have been putting out fake news reports. Imagine that. About offensive things that people did who didn’t do them.  (“The report of my death was an exaggeration”? Oh, you thought Twain said it was “greatly exaggerated”? Better see here. ) But before you start laughing at me for having vivid hallucinations, reckon with the website “imaginary offended people.”

And more
Lots else, but I know it’s offensive to run a blog post too long. So you’ll have to take my word for it that a couple of students at Pitzer College near Los Angeles condemned white women for wearing “hoop earrings” because doing so appropriates black culture. Supermodel Karlie Kloss has already apologized for appearing in Vogue as a geisha; she’s not Japanese, you see, so she’s appropriated a culture not hers. And, of course, Yale University did an about-face, announcing that it was, after all, dropping the name of John C. Calhoun, one-time vice president of the United States, from one of its undergraduate residences. The decision to erase Calhoun’s name from the college gates is no doubt correct, even if widely misunderstood. (Have you ever met an institutional policy that hasn’t been widely misunderstood?) More on that, then, in my next post. Soon, I promise.

  • VAN LANCKTON

    It’s about time, Jethro. I was deeply offended by your long silence, then worried that perhaps I had offended you, then took comfort in the fact that you send this to about 70 people and we can’t have ALL offended you? Can we? You’re the expert.
    Very good to see you and Jo last week in our nation’s capital.

  • Arthur S Leonard

    Imagine! An entire blog post about offensiveness without invoking Milo Y.

  • Fred Stone

    I’m actually quite annoyed by the fact that Jethro has 70 friends, many of whom are unknown to me, and including my cousin Susan Bluttman, who wants nothing to do with me presumably because Aunt Betty didn’t like me,