November 15, 2018

Is There a Right to Not Be Offended?

WHY WOULD A LIBERAL MAGAZINE like The Nation apologize for publishing a poem that tries to capture the desperation of a homeless Black woman? What kind of offensive language would make them regret “the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem”?

The Nation’s letter of apology was actually longer than the poem itself, which was written by Anders Carlson-Wee. Here’s the complete poem:

“How-To”
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

Evidently, what triggered the avalanche of protests on social media was the brazen use of Black vernacular by a white poet. Faced with the backlash, the editors caved, saying they made a “serious mistake.” Even the poet apologized.

To her credit, Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, called the magazine’s apology “craven,” saying it “looks like a letter from re-education camp.” The proper thing to do, she added, would have been to reprint the poem together with readers’ opinions.

Also to her credit, Grace Schulman, who was poetry editor at The Nation from 1971 to 2006, wrote in The New York Times that she was “deeply disturbed by this episode, which touches on a value that is precious to me and to a free society: the freedom to write and to publish views that may be offensive to some readers.”

Separate from the issue of free speech, however, is the issue of how offensive was the poet’s use of Black vernacular? Should white artists now stay in their lanes for fear of offending minorities?

The irony is that the language used by Carlson-Wee came from an honest place. This wasn’t a case of sensationalist art meant only to provoke. This was an artist trying to bring to life a voice of pain, a voice of despair.

If editors must stand up for free speech, they must especially stand up for the kind of artistic speech that brings us face to face with human desolation.

“We often say that we want whites to understand black pain, the black experience, black difference. We want them to empathize,” African-American author and academic John McWhorter writes in The Atlantic. “But upon achieving this understanding, white artists, as artists, will naturally seek to express it through their creations. Are we to decree that they must not?”

We have become so sensitive to hurting people’s feelings that we won’t allow a white artist to convey the authentic rhythms of the street if that means “appropriating” another race’s vernacular.

As McWhorter writes: “Carlson-Wee, as a young white man dedicating a poem to a homeless black person’s suffering and trying to get inside her head, would seem to be displaying exactly the kind of empathy that we seek. ‘Feel it but don’t show it,’ we tell him, instead. ‘Empathize, but block that empathy from your creative impulses, on the pain of hurting us by imitating us without our consent.’ ”

Even if we grant that many people were genuinely offended by the poem, should that guide editorial decisions about art? Which civil right is more essential to the American spirit: the right to offend or the right to not be offended? The question itself is absurd, because in a free and open society, the freedom to offend is the very freedom to speak.

We have become so sensitive to hurting people’s feelings that we won’t allow a white artist to convey the authentic rhythms of the street if that means “appropriating” another race’s vernacular.

When editors start to tell poets to watch their speech, they create the worst possible atmosphere for creativity: fear. As much as I feel for those who were offended by the poem, I feel more deeply for the poet who tried to capture the pain of a woman but instead got hijacked by the ever-intolerant armies of social media.

If editors must stand up for free speech, they must especially stand up for the kind of artistic speech that brings us face-to-face with human desolation, with homeless souls on our sidewalks who are so desperate to get our attention — because “you hardly even there.”