This just in: Some things that were thought acceptable a generation ago aren’t acceptable anymore.
And that’s a good thing. Otherwise, a generation of the civil rights movement accomplished nothing. The fact that we don’t tell jokes and engage in activities that weren’t any big deal not that long ago means our culture has been paying attention.
But now those who most loudly demand tolerance are the ones who most loudly demand zero tolerance of the things they find offensive. There is no such thing as mitigating circumstances in the tolerance-free search for tolerance.
As you may have noticed, there’s been a considerable fuss involving the elected officials in Virginia.
It started when the governor appeared on WTOP Radio and discussed, in a positive and cheerful way, how children born deformed but alive might be put to death soon after birth according to a proposed law that he supported. (The law, I’m delighted to say, was defeated. Virginia, whatever its shortcomings, is not New York.)
The governor is or was a physician and, apparently in response to his on-air comments, one of his medical school classmates leaked the governor’s page from the school’s yearbook to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. It contained a photograph of two people, one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan-ish costume.
The eruption was immediate and unforgiving, even though the governor’s liberal credentials are otherwise pristine. The picture drew outrage but the proposed law allowing the killing of newborns didn’t. We live in strange times.
It seems that a generation ago – the yearbook is from 1984 – blackface was popular at costume parties and talent shows in Virginia, even among those who never had exhibited and never would exhibit any racial animus.
(Nor was it limited to Virginia. I imagine one would not have to look very hard or go very far back in time to find persons in blackface or other attire now deemed offensive in Athens, Ohio, at Halloween or some other costume event.)
Entertainments involving white performers blackening their faces have a long and mostly though not entirely sordid history.
Yes, there were the minstrel shows of days long past. But there was also Keenan Wynn in blackface to make an anti-racist point in the wonderful “Finian’s Rainbow,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola. There was Sir Laurence Olivier’s excellent performance of “Othello.” More recently, Billy Crystal and others have donned blackface for a variety of roles, some of them quite touching.
There has been lots of ethnic humor that isn’t vicious. Mel Brooks made fun of his own ethnic group and others in, for instance, “Blazing Saddles.” (It’s unlikely, though, that “The Claw” could appear today on television, as the character did in Brooks’ “Get Smart.”)
The point is, there was a time not very long ago when things such as blackface, employed without malice, didn’t raise an eyebrow. Intent mattered.
The New York Times on Nov. 29, 1874 published an article by Mark Twain, speaking affectionately of a young black man but using the idiom of the day. What does that tell us about The New York Times? How about the fact that the same newspaper, in a story that ran July 7, 1992, included a discussion of the circumstances in which what we now call “the n word” (they spelled it out) might properly be used? Must we denounce The New York Times as racially insensitive?
(What about The Washington Post, whose proud new slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness,” could be taken as racially offensive if one were looking to be racially offended or seeking cheap political gain? Does intent matter?)
It has always seemed to me that when looking back in time, we must take into account the standards in effect when events took place. But I seem to be in the minority in that view, and history tells us that though the mob may not always be right, it usually wins.
And make no mistake: we do now face the mob. Exemplary careers can now be wrecked because of one ill-worded “tweet.” Pitchforks and torches are all the more popular now that they’re “virtual” and one doesn’t have even to stand up in order to wield them. Their effect is real, not virtual. The mood sometimes resembles that of France in the 1790s.
In addition to the other issues it raises, the Virginia story is a cautionary tale especially useful in a college town such as ours.
Young people in college are sometimes known for doing things that seemed like a good idea at the time, things that in retrospection weren’t all that wise. In the past, with luck, no permanent damage resulted – a picture in the yearbook, maybe.
But the generation in college now is the first whose every action is made public and accessible. Everyone has a cellular telephone and fancies himself or herself a photographer. In effect, a whole yearbook is published to the internet every day, maybe every hour.
I’ve myself taken thousands of pictures at various protests and fests. People seeking jobs after they graduate might not like their prospective employers seeing that sign they were carrying or that memorable beer-bong stunt that seemed so cool when it happened. And my pictures aren’t even a ten-thousandth of the pictures taken of and by OU students over the same period of time.
Facial recognition software is becoming ever more powerful. That prospective employer soon will be able to type your name into the search box and get every online picture that includes you, whether your name is associated with it or not.
It gets worse: Look back 35 or 40 years, at the things that were socially acceptable then but aren’t now. It’s a long list. Now look ahead at the things that are OK now but won’t be in 35 or 40 years.
Then make sure you don’t do any of them.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.