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.
— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) May 18, 2014
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.