Thursday, November 14, 2013

Flap over Richard Cohen post illustrates how context and insensitivity can get blurred, an issue for columnists and bloggers

Bloggers and columnists often have drawn ire of others for merely mentioning unpopular ideas or sources with the intention of commenting on them or contrasting them with other views.
A recent example was provided by Washington Post’s columnist Richard Cohen, when he was writing a column about the Tea Party and right wing and commented on what he thought the right’s opinion would be of New York City mayor elect’s interracial marriage and family – something we indeed see all the time today (but at one time was a Supreme Court case in Virginia in 1967).  Were people angered when they read its prepositional phrases?   Or were they mad because he suggested that “conventional people” were now bigoted.   The story about the passage appears in the Post today, by Paul Fahrl, link here.   Reportedly, the Huffington Post broadcast a tweet to fire the columnist , and Salon ran a story, “Richard Cohen: Please Fire Me” here
There’s a double dip of confusion here: he’s supposedly attributing an offensive view to others. I found the article (“Christie’s Tea Party Problem”) in Tuesday’s Post and didn’t find it all that startling.
But I have run into issues where people think that I just mention an objectionable source, I’m giving it credibility. The fact that I am an "amateur" may add more fuel to ideas about my motives.  In the bibliography of a book manuscript that I just turned in, there’s an entry for a particularly notorious anti-gay book (and one can tell that from the title).  Is that showing insensitivity? It’s balanced against other sources, but a particular reader might not bother to notice the context.  But I think you have to account for and understand “what everyone thinks” in assessing “your” own situation.  My own father used to say this (especially after the William and Mary incident in 1961).  Of course, one could take this idea further?  In assessing racial issues, should we understand what white southern plantation owners thought in the early 1800s?  Well, Margaret Mitchell’s classic “Gone with the Wind” does just that in its first half.  But a film like “12 Years a Slave” doesn’t give those views any moral space at all.
Jesus would say, “Love your enemies.”  That isn’t easy, but it is certainly self-interest to at least understand them, and know how their place or station in life came to be.
Back in the 1980s, well before the Internet age, I was living in Dallas when the AIDS epidemic broke open.  There was a vitriolic right wing group called “Dallas Doctors Against AIDS” which tried to construct particular arguments that gay men were endangering the entire general population.  I took their argument seriously enough to write to them and get a response, and made other gay leaders angry.  Their theories didn’t pan out, but at for some time there was the political danger that they could.  It never pays to have your head in the sand.  


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