Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learning to Be Offended

I am a man born in the United States to two white, religious, upper-middle class parents.

In other words, I've been dealt a pretty good hand. Much like Louis C.K., I don't mean that to brag - I'm just being honest. Never in my life have I missed out on an opportunity because of my race, gender, beliefs, or financial situation. This doesn't mean that I've been able to do everything I've ever wanted, but I pretty much started life with every door open to me and began closing them when I decided I didn't want to walk through them.

But I've learned to develop empathy. I self examine. I don't want to be racist or sexist but I'm not very well equipped to answer the question "Is this racist?" or "Is this sexist?" because I've never experienced either personally. As a white male my perception of racism and sexism must be defined by the minorities that experience them.

And that's not an easy thing to do. 

I remember telling a very racist joke in high school. I thought it was hilarious and thought my friends would enjoy it. It didn't even cross my mind that one of the listeners was of the race I was joking about. Some of my friends laughed, but only when I met her gaze did the situation become apparent to me. I still feel the sting of embarrassment just thinking about it.

And so my perception of racism and sexism has had to change through the eyes of others. My natural perception is that nothing is racist and nothing is sexist because I'm culturally favored in both. But, through either my mistakes or the mistakes of others my perception has changed. In other words, I've had to learn when to be offendedThat may sound strange to some. Many say that being offended is something to "get over", so why would I make a conscious effort to be more offended? 

Remember that my natural state is to be offended at nothing. Learning to be offended has helped me comprehend when things I say are hurtful to others. I benefit from this by not looking like a jerk but more importantly I hurt people less often.

I've done a lot of learning in the past 3 months. Not because of anything I've said or done, by watching others. The incidents involving Danielle Lee and Bora Zivkovic began a tidal wave of stories from women in science sharing their stories. On Twitter, #ripplesofdoubt united men and women sharing how they have been affected by sexism. Others shared their stories on blogs. I was touched by every story. I was becoming offended with them and it wasn't really about anger. I felt hurt with them. It's a powerful experience to feel hurt for things said about someone you don't know. 

This past week I saw video by Joe Hanson from "It's Okay To Be Smart". It's a horribly sexist video featuring bobble-head Marie Curie. I'd like to point out in great detail why I find it offensive. 

Joe, and PBS, here are some things I think you need to learn to be offended about:
  1. 0:44 - Marie Curie's introduction begins the sexism. Although she is the only one at the table to have won two Nobel prizes she says it was "very nice to be included". Like she owes something to the men at the table. This comment, on it's own, wouldn't be too bad but the entire video follows this same tone.
  2. 0:53 - When Isaac Newton introduces himself we hear Marie Curie's voice ask "Who are you?" - I'm sure Marie Curie new who Isaac Newton was - she won a Nobel prize in Physics! Now, I suppose it may have been sarcasm on Marie's part, but I don't understand why. If anyone Einstein, whose theory of relativity greatly expanded physics past Newtonian physics, should have made the comment. As in "I'm Einstein, who are you?"
  3. 1:12 - Einstein begins flirting with Marie Curie. It begins as a harmless compliment, I suppose, but this video is supposed to be about the contributions that each has made to science. This makes it the wrong place to make that joke. In a different video you may have gotten away with it. 
  4. 1:21 - "That's a good one" - No it's not, Joe. It's what starts your video down a pretty dark path.
  5. 1:23 - Marie tries to get Einstein to leave her alone (Joe, do I have to tell you that "no means no"?). Einstein asks Marie: "Wear me like a parka". That's creepy. Again, I suppose in a video whose premise was something like "Einstein is a creepy old man" this might work. But the premise is supposed to be about their contributions. Creepy Einstein takes away from the message. If you need proof just look at the reaction to the video. People aren't talking about contributions they're talking about the awful jokes.
  6. 2:25 - Joe and Marie talk about the difficulties that women face in science. Okay, so good news is that Joe understands the problem. But wait, isn't this the part where each scientist describes the lasting impact their work has had? So Charles Darwin is a scientist whose contributions matter but Marie Curie is a woman
  7. 3:36 - All these great men did such great things! Again, this probably wouldn't have been a problem if it were isolated. In fact 3:36-4:09 contains a great message that I believe is what you wanted the tone of the video to be. Unfortunately, the actual tone of the video makes it more obvious sexism. 
  8. 4:29 - Einstein exposes himself to Curie. Hey, do you guys remember that time when PBS said it was ok to expose yourself when flirting didn't work?
  9. 4:48 - Einstein rapes Curie. Hey, do you guys remember that time when PBS said it was ok to rape a woman when exposing yourself didn't work?
  10. 0:05 - Bottom left corner, small print non-pology. Telling someone you know they've been offended is a poor way to apologize. It shifts the blame from you to them. It makes it "their problem" instead of "your problem". Own the issue, learn to be offended, and do the right thing.
Now Joe (and I seriously hope you're reading this) I know you've felt attacked this past week. I know you probably feel embarrassed.
Good.

That's part of the process. Take that embarrassment and learn to be offended. You've presented the world with a bad video and a lot of people have criticized you. Fix the Problem, Thank Them, Move Forward.

You've also received a lot of support. Many people have rallied around you telling you how funny the video was and how everyone else just didn't "get it". 

Ignore them.

Remember my story from high school? It was the worst, most disgusting joke I could imagine and still some of my friends laughed. There will always be someone willing to laugh at a racist or sexist joke. Be better. Learn to be offended. Write a real apology and publicly ask PBS to take down or dramatically change the video. Learning to be offended isn't about becoming an angry person. It's about becoming empathetic, and I'm trying my best to learn. I invite you to join me.

Edit: Joe has made the decision to take down his video. I applaud the decision. Some say that it was just an over-sensitive vocal minority that caused him to take the video down and that he "caved". I don't think that's the case. I think he realized that the tone of the video wasn't congruent with what his message was meant to be. Kudos, Joe.