By Isaac Butler
Here's a small note to all the great work that people are doing around Ferguson....
You may have heard about this syndicated cartoon by illustrator Gary McCoy that ended up published in the Columbia Missouri Daily Tribune. I'd rather not publish the cartoon here, but it depicts Black picketers with misspelled signs that read "Burn Ferguson" "No 60" Plasma TV No Peace!" and "Steal to Honor Michael Brown."
That the piece is racially offensive is fairly obvious. Romenesko got in touch with the Daily Tribune's editor and he had this to say:
I admit I didn’t anticipate the reaction. I’m responding to complaints, most of which have come through the Twitter universe, by asking them to consider the context. On three of the preceding four days our editorial page featured local cartoons about the Michael Brown tragedy, the militarization of the police response and a likeness of Lady Justice with six bullet wounds.
The editorial cartoon yesterday accompanied a Rich Lowry column about the unfortunate presence of looters and how that is not a legitimate form of protest. Provocative yes. Racist? Certainly not in intent.
This is a pretty standard issue defense when these teapots become entempested. In short, editor Jim Robinson is saying, "I've done other things in the recent past that are good on this issue and there was no intent to be racist in publishing the cartoon."
Let's call these two defenses the Savings Account Defense and the Intentional Defense. The Savings Account Defense is fairly ridiculous. Yes, some people have a long track record of working on these issues, of "being one of the good guys" and then they screw up. There seems to be a desire when this happens to point to that history. And certainly that history can be part of the conversation. But your past is not in and of itself a shield against all future behavior. If I suddenly started calling gay men in my life the f-word, it wouldn't really matter that I had worked since the age of 12 for gay rights causes. I am not beattified by my past.
As for the Intentional Defense, I can see why this is so seductive. After all, in most legal settings where discrimination is alleged, intent to discriminate on purpose must also be shown. I would say both personally and legally, we are making a mistake by insisting on this standard because, simply put, "why" is often unknowable, even to ourselves. "Why" is a game.
When you're trained as an actor, you know this. As you try to pick apart your character and "discover" their intentions, their objectives, their desires, one thing you also know is that these are changeable. You can shift them at a whim, or in response to someone else's choices, or a director's notes. The same exact action can have a plethora of whys behind it.
If you've read up on your mind sciences, you also know that an enormous amount of our decision making is done automatically, that subconscious processes can deceive the most well-meaning person into seeing a gun in the hands of an unarmed Black man or in thinking that Black people look "criminal." We can adopt body postures that communicate subtly our fear and discomfort, without being entirely conscious that we are even feeling those emotions.
We are not fully conscious beings. We do not regulate our own heart rates or our breathing. We do not consciously choose what sensory data is important and what is not. A great deal of what we do happens automatically.
I would suggest, then, that it does not matter whether or not Gary McCoy intended to depict a group of Black protestors as illiterate thugs. It does not matter whether or not Jim Robinson intended to cause injury to Black people reading his newspaper. What matters is that both those things happened.
"I didn't mean it," is an argument best left to philanderers and small children. It shouldn't be too much to ask for adults (and their employers and managers) to take responsibility for their actions.