Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Tolerance a Sophisticated Substitute for Mutual Respect?

Everybody's talking about it.

If this use of satire is meant to draw our attention to the ridiculous nature of recent misrepresentations of the Obamas, is this cover going to provoke discourse that changes people's misconceptions or is it likely to reinforce them? Does calling it satire make it okay?

The person who sent a related article to my inbox asked, "uh-oh are we in for another teachable moment?" Yes, if we are to advance the struggle toward social equality, I think we should consider pedagogy--I mean how we teach and learn about difference. I think lots of people suspect that this cover is communicating something sinister, but they don't really know what. Is Michele meant to be depicted as a terrorist or a Black radical activist? Do most people understand the distinction?

Humor that pretends to be sophisticated such as this is a bit like telling a student struggling in calculus class to look up the answers in the back of the book. If you don't get it, when and how are you gonna learn?

Meanwhile, media folks (e.g., Racewire bloggers) have started the conversation, inquiring what's behind this sarcastic wit and how people feel about it. In my view, in the following quotation from an article in the Washington Post, editorialist Philip Kennicott nails the big, righteous point about humor that we hope this controversy will finally raise:
"Successful" satire -- mildly funny, generally anodyne and broadly therapeutic -- needs an "April Fool's" moment, when the joke is revealed and everyone is at least invited to have a laugh. No, Bob, it's not Friday, it's still Thursday; that report isn't due for another 24 hours and you can climb off the ledge now. Like a practical joke, satire can be hysterically funny without a shared catharsis, but that's often a cruel form of humor. To be effective -- if by effective one means a teachable moment, a transformative bump forward in self-awareness -- the humor must be widely appreciated.
Race humor told from a distance is so rarely funny. What we hope is that ironists and other putative humorists are learning something that they will in turn teach us, since that's the job they've chosen. Calling this cover image "satire" implies that the New Yorker has the intention of challenging certain widely held misconstruals regarding Muslims, African-Americans, Black women, Black activism, etc.

I wonder, though, if once the controversy achieves selling a requisite number of magazines, any of the editors and readership of the New Yorker (self-styled liberals with advanced education) will modify their views or think particularly deeply about these issues of representation?

What would a more sophisticated view look like, and is this magazine genuinely prepared to re-tell a history of political change that acknowledges the grievances of such groups as Black Panthers and flag-burners?

I seriously doubt it, but I'll let you know if I see any positive signs.

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