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Macklemore, Permanent Outrage, and Forgiveness

By now you’ve probably seen the picture of Macklemore, performing “Thrift Shop” in a stereotypical rendering of a Jewish man.

Macklemore insists that it’s an honest mistake.  Like whoa, I just wanted to be in disguise and dress up to sing my song about thrift shops, and I just so happened to pull together this random black beard and hooked nose.  But like… I could be any random man with a black beard and hooked nose.  Like Abraham Lincoln.  Or Ringo Starr.  Why did y’all have to go there?

I sort of got the feeling he was calling all of us anti-Semitic in his apology for thinking that his costume was anti-Semitic.

I acknowledge how the costume could, within a context of stereotyping, be ascribed to a Jewish caricature. I am here to say that it was absolutely not my intention, and unfortunately at the time I did not foresee the costume to be viewed in such regard. I’m saddened that this story, or any of my choices, would lead to any form of negativity.

But here’s the thing: you can’t grab at the most basic visual caricature of someone Jewish — save for the fact that he didn’t include the payis, but hey, Shylock is rarely played with payis — and then say, “oops, I totally didn’t think that anyone would see my costume in that light.”  When Josh and I were talking about it, he brought up a point made on NPR.

But that would be like frolicking through a fruit patch, tripping face-first into a dirt pit, and then emerging, dazed and face blackened, clutching a watermelon. Your story might in fact be legit, but so many things would have to go wrong in a particular order that you would kind of have to understand if no one believed you.

So do I believe that the costume meant nothing?  No.

I would be more impressed if Macklemore, in the interest of transparency, said, “I made a grave error in judgment.  I was going for a hyperbolic laugh a la South Park and ended up falling short in my performance.  In the end, it made me just look like an insensitive, anti-Semitic beast, and I think I’ve learned my lesson by this point about trying to be a comedian.  I seem to be a failure at using stereotypes to make a statement or opening up an important conversation using humour, so I’ll stick to making music.”

Something like that.

But it all goes back to our lack of forgiveness these days.  Twitter has created a sense of permanent outrage, as if society is like the person in Munch’s Scream, standing with our mouth agape in horror at the actions of others.  People make mistakes.  Sometimes they make big public ones.  And they should be held accountable for their mistakes.  But what’s happening is something much larger and louder and angrier than accountability.

With our outrage, we’re creating a generation of careful artists; artists who are so scared to have their work recorded and replayed that they’ll stop pushing boundaries for fear of destroying their career with a false move.  It wasn’t that news of big public “mistakes” didn’t spread prior to this point (Sinéad O’Connor and the Dixie Chicks immediately pop to mind), but our outrage isn’t a special ember that we all gather around to self-righteously warm ourselves with anymore.  It’s like the California fires; out of control.

It’s not just careful artists.  If we keep going in this direction, people are going to be afraid to speak up, to try things, to take chances, to fail in the process.  We need to learn how to dial it back, to respond firmly but without bile.  Who the hell is going to run for office in the future if we keep dissecting our candidates during the election and trashing our policymakers after the election?  Who will be the conversation openers, asking the hard questions?

We internalize a lot when we observe the fallout from other people’s mistakes.

Macklemore made a big mistake with his costume, but I’m glad he’s out there, trying to push the envelope.  Yes, even when pushing the envelope opens up a big message of hate.  Because it has started a conversation about antisemitism that we now need to continue to discuss in a measured, intelligent fashion so we can actually effect change.

So I accept Macklemore’s insincere apology which sounds akin to the times a parent tells their child to say “sorry” (“Macklemore, you need to apologize to the Jews,” Macklemore agent/manager/producer says).  I’ll go back to not listening to his music because it’s not my cup of tea vs. not listening to his music because we’re supposed to remain permanently outraged at every lapse in judgment or malicious statement.  I just don’t have that kind of anger stored in me.


1 edenland { 05.21.14 at 7:37 am }

Brilliantly said!! At this point I have no idea how our children are going to navigate the travails of making mistakes in public, on social media. No idea.

2 Life Breath Present { 05.21.14 at 10:28 am }

I wonder, is it really social media or is it that there are so many people who internalize things that aren’t for internalizing which leads to the “public and permanent outrage”. I mean, we live in a society that pedestals people, doesn’t look to deeper (real) issues, creates distraction after distraction after distraction while we’re all still actually humans – with human failings and difficulties.

In other words, without actually looking at what’s really happening, in our society, we’re much more apt to display our judgmental feelings, attitudes, and actions for ‘all the world to see’, instead of facing our own crap….just my opinion.

3 Cristy { 05.21.14 at 10:36 am }

Yeah, this guy is an idiot. Do I believe he’s that clueless? Given past behavior, yes. But I still think he owes the Jewish community a sincere apology and a feature to make things right.

That said, I do agree with you about the public outrage. Though I believe it’s long existed (comments sections a anyone?) I think Twitter and Facebook play a big role in causing the wild-fire that takes off. The heart of the issue is why people get so heated. Usually due to them channeling anger and frustration from other aspects of their lives to focus on something that is safe to be angry at. Yes, Macklemore is at fault, but people also need to check their response and evaluate why they are so outraged about a stupid move from a supposed rapper.

4 Rebecca { 05.21.14 at 12:08 pm }

Hi from ICLW. Glad I had no clue who this person was until your blog post. Often if I find something irritating I just choose to turn it off if it is within my power. If it isn’t and I’m still able to leave the room I do so. Why should I give my precious time to hate when I can be loving something else?

5 ANDMom { 05.21.14 at 12:58 pm }

I had an interesting conversation with an 8th grade teacher from a very troubled school lately. The kids were using the n-word, which to people of our generation and older is a major red flag racist word … but to these kids, it had a whole separate meaning. When he asked them to define it, they said how it had 2 meanings, depending on if it ended in -er or -ah, either “you are my friend” or “we’re going to fight now”. To them it had no deeper meaning, it has evolved into something unrelated.

It’s the same as a stereotypical Jewish costume … does it have that meaning to him? To younger generations?

And I guess further – should it? Should we as a society collectively let these words and images evolve, or should we be outraged and try to stop it?

6 Kimberly { 05.21.14 at 1:19 pm }

I’ve been on a bit of an unintentional blog hiatus (both reading and writing) for almost 2 months. But this is the first post I’ve really read in a while, and as always, you knocked it out of the park. This is a great post to remember when anything really pisses me off. Sometimes were not going to get the response or apology we want, but people aren’t always going to hit our own high standards. So instead this serves as a great reminder to make peace with what happens either way instead of dragging it out. But always make sure that if something happens, that healthy discussion follows it so we can learn from it.

7 Ana { 05.21.14 at 2:04 pm }

Really great post. I think the perpetual outrage is similar to the idea of slacktisvism…you throw out an outraged tweet or blog post to stir up more anger and feel that you are “doing something” for the cause. While, really, if the issue is that important to you—do something real about it. Hell, have a talk to your kids or family or friends about it—that may do more good in actually changing minds and perceptions than throwing it out to the world at large.

8 nicoleandmaggie { 05.21.14 at 3:21 pm }

As a white non-Jewish person, I wonder how much of the outrage-backlash for this particular incident (I’ve seen more people saying that we shouldn’t be outraged than saying that he should apologize… really yoisthisracist is the only place that’s been like, dude, that’s whack, and your apology is whack, stop being whack: http://yoisthisracist.com/post/86320964083/there-is-no-worse-feeling-than-being-misunderstood ), is because Judiasm tends to get the short end of the outrage stick and because white male rapper privilege. (Along with yoisthisracist, I was not impressed with how he starts Same Love basically saying, “I’m definitely not gay”– was really that necessary? But you know, white heterosexual men get points for trying when any other group would get shot down for not being perfect.)

9 Mrs T (missohkay) { 05.21.14 at 4:17 pm }

Given that I’m a transracial adoptive parent, I write about race sometimes, and one of the reasons I find it so hard to write about is that if you’re not 100% perfect about it all the time, you risk being the object of the seething permanent outrage. It can be a nerve-wracking line to walk. However, I’ve also learned that there’s are good ways and bad ways to apologize for boneheaded “I didn’t intend it” prejudice, and Macklemore definitely did it the bad way. (Not to suggest that he was carefully walking a line to begin with, because he pretty clearly WASN’T.) I, too, will go back to not listening to him because I didn’t in the first place.

10 a { 05.21.14 at 7:37 pm }

I’ve got combat fatigue. I can’t be outraged about anything any more – insufficient energy. I don’t know how people do it.

11 chickenpog { 05.21.14 at 8:57 pm }

His costume looks like all of my husband’s relatives, who are Lebanese, not Jewish. Perhaps all people of Middle Eastern descent should be offended? I totally agree with what you are saying. How did everyone’s skin get so thin?

12 Justine { 05.22.14 at 1:42 am }

I happen to agree with you, because I think everyone is quick to judge. But I’ll turn this on its head for a minute: what if Macklemore had dressed in blackface? Yes, some people are angry, but, I’d wager, not nearly as many people as would have been angry in that situation. Or perhaps people would be slower to forgive.

While I do think that we are too quick to damn people who make mistakes (you don’t learn anything if you’re condemned the first time you misspeak), and that the neo-PC movement that makes people afraid to do anything that will ignite debate, I also think that we need to figure out how to respond to people who say things that offend hundreds or thousands or millions of people in one fell swoop.

13 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 05.22.14 at 3:52 am }

Very well said. This is more or less what I’ve been trying to articulate in the past. Often I agree that person X has crossed a line or made an error of judgement. Sometimes it’s worse and you can see that they’ve been taken the wrong way (or at least there’s room for doubt) – other times not.

In this context I’m not sure how the interpretation of the costume could have really come as a huge surprise.

But I can’t understand why people have to be quite so robustly ground into the dirt forever, why the OTT death threats, etc etc etc. There’s got to be a responsibility on the listener to a) try and hear what the person’s intending to say and/or b) be measured and reasonable in their response. Conversations are two-way.

14 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 05.22.14 at 4:19 am }

Second comment, because infertility.

Seriously, how well did we have to train ourselves to not email our insensitive friends with our knee-jerk angry rants? Can we not all do that, like, all the time?

15 deathstar { 05.22.14 at 11:25 am }

When I first became aware of Macklemore (I thought he was black at first) it was because of his song Same Love. It just rocked my world that a rapper could sing about gay rights and love. I damn near cried in the car listening to it on the radio. Then I read this and thought, oh, man, am I going to have to put him on my shit list? ANDMom had an interesting point, what do certain words and stereotypical images mean to young people? Are they even aware of those triggers for other people? Reminds with Oprah had rappers on her show and they talked about the n-word and to her it was definitely a no-no, a word not to be treated lightly and to some rappers it was a word of camaraderie. It may be a slang word to some, but to me it’s always abrasive and always offensive when coming out of white person’s mouth. I always find it telling when celebrities or well known people are called upon to explain their transgressions and how they actually explain themselves. It really does reveal more of their character than they think.

16 Amy { 05.22.14 at 4:36 pm }

I agree that conversation is more productive than anger. But I have a giant eyeroll for artists who think boundary pushing = pushing the envelope = stereotypes that were old a century ago. There’s been a big clash in science fiction fandom in the last couple of years over the acceptability of racist/misogynist remarks, and some people have brought out “intellectual fearlessness” as a defense for such remarks, and my thought is always, “really? here we are in the 21st century, and you’re saying it’s intellectual fearlessness to sound like you came straight from the 19th century?”

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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