Dean Obeidallah, who is entirely unknown to me but is apparently a comedian and a frequent CNN commentator, thinks that we all get outraged about insignificant things, like all of Seth MacFarlane’s sexist jokes at the Oscars.
His argument, such as it is, has two parts:
1. It’s too easy to be outraged these days and so everyone gets outraged all the time about really insignificant things;
2. There are significant things about which we should be outraged but we, apparently, aren’t sufficiently outraged about those things because we’re wasting our outrage on MacFarlane.
My friend at the Squashed blog has a thoughtfully rejoinder to Obeidallah:
To the extent that Obeidallah has a cogent thesis, it’s that rather than being upset about sexist jokes at the Oscars we should be upset about other bad things like domestic violence. This is the same line of reasoning I use when I try to persuade police officers that they shouldn’t get so worked up about my drag-racing through a school zone while hopped up on meth because Hitler was way worse.
The problem is that Obeidallah misses the connection between his casual support of public sexism and the grislier violence against women he contrasts with it. Monsters do not spontaneously generate, fully formed. The neighbors saw it coming. It feeds on the smaller things—the casual disregard for the humanity of others. The little excuses. Boys will be boys. The magazine cover promoting invidious stereotypes. And yes, the jokes.
For my part, I can’t figure out the reasoning behind telling people not to be offended by the things that offend them or telling them to lighten up when comedians say terrible things … except that Obeidallah is a comedian and thinks he shouldn’t ever have to worry about crossing lines.
Even more than that, though, I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around the backlash against apologies. Michael Moynihan seemingly equates bad public apologies with all apologies, and argues that we’re living in a time when everyone is offended by everything, when the claim about being offended is overblown and often ridiculous, and when apologies do no good for anyone because they’re all completely insincere. But the problem with bad public apologies (and bad private ones too) is that they’re insincere and badly done, not that they’re apologies. That’s why I collect them on the Terrible Apologies blog.
If you read Moynihan carefully, he’s arguing that there’s no point in apology because the people who were offended are offended by everything or are being insincere in their claims about being offended. If you were offended by the Onion's tweet during the Oscars or by Seth MacFarlane's jokes, then the problem is clearly with you. You like being offended or you don’t understand comedy or you like making celebrities prostrate themselves before the masses. The jokes themselves aren’t the problem, nor is the insincere apology; the problem is with us because those people haven’t really done something that was so very wrong.
The exception is with Jonah Lehrer, a case with which Moynihan is very familiar because he was personally involved. In that case, he argues that Lehrer’s apology “failed miserably because he committed a real, quantifiable offense.” The other apologies he mentions — which include “Fox News host Bob Beckel, who apologized last week for doubting that rape existed on college campuses” and “New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who earlier this week defended wearing backface to a Purim party” and then quickly backtracked and apologized — failed because of the insincerity on everyone’s part, as those incidents were just due to “bruised feelings” and “accusation of an -ism.”
I’m sure we won’t hear an apology from Moynihan since he doesn’t think apologizing is ever done sincerely or ever makes anyone feel better … and since he likely doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with dismissing people’s honest outrage about “an -ism” or two.