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August, 2006

Offensive Ideas

Do The Right Thing is one of my all-time favorite films. Spike Lee says some stuff in that movie that scares the vast majority of people. It tells a story of race relations in this country that I believe was accurate in 1989 and still holds water today. The center of the story is the fact that urban businesses are often owned by outsiders not looking out for the well-being of the neighborhood. In the case of the film an Italian owns the pizza shop and a Korean owns the bodega.

Now I bring this up because yesterday morning I read this in the paper: "[Andrew] Young said Wal-Mart should displace mom-and-pop stores in urban neighborhoods. 'You see those are the people who have been overcharging us,' he said of the ownsers of the small stores, ' and they sold out and moved to florida. I think they've ripped off our communities enough." Then the Wal-Mart spokesman put the nail in his coffin, "First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs."

Now the point of all this is not to engage in the debate that Young brought up (though I have a hunch he's right), but rather to use it to illustrate Paul Graham's excellent "What You Can't Say" essay. He says if you're looking for ideas that are correct you can look no further than the ones that people are most offended by. "The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed," Graham explains. "I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true."

Nobody came out and said Young was wrong, they just said that he was offensive. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation league said, "The sad part [is that] even people of color and even minorities who suffered discrimination and prejudice are not immune from being bigoted and racist and even anti-Semitic." Of course the Wal-Mart executives who have a vested interest in coming into those urban centers didn't claim Young was wrong either, explaining "Ambassador Young's comments do not reflect our feelings toward the Jewish, Asian or Arab communities or any other diverse group."

I expect this is because Young is not wrong in his ideas, but rather in his delivery. As Graham explains, "When a politician says his opponent is mistaken, that's a straightforward criticism, but when he attacks a statement as 'divisive' or 'racially insensitive' instead of arguing that it's false, we should start paying attention."

The problem is that Young engaged the wrong people. It's a double-edged sword, however, because in order to get attention sometimes you need to be shocking. If you choose your words incorrectly, however, you run the risk of wasting all your breath arguing with people on the points that don't matter instead of the ones that do. In this case, Young is stuck talking about racism instead of talking about the problems in urban centers.

So what's my point? Well, at its most basic, I'm sick of hearing the same things over and over again. I am always looking for voices of opposition, for people who take a different route. Graham's equation of looking for offended people and figuring out what offended them is one way to find those voices. It might not be the right way, but anything is better than listening to the world on repeat.

August 20, 2006
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