What Did You Mean?

A blue maze

What makes something offensive? In the contemporary context, some attempt to censor (often through social media campaigns) presentations that they consider offensive, making that label particularly useful for restricting public discourse. Two stories from December highlight the complexity of labeling something offensive.

A shopper in California during the holiday season noticed that wrapping paper in the Hanukkah section of a store had swastikas incorporated into the design. Deeply troubled by this symbol that the shopper associated (for obvious reasons) with Nazism, she reported it to the manager. With the story reaching the media, the store removed the wrapping paper with the offensive design nationwide and began an investigation into how the design was created and approved.

Of course, a swastika is not only a symbol related to anti-Semitism, Nazi ideology, and white supremacy (as I have written about previously). While one Youtube video ascribed intent to the manufacturer, asserting “what an evil thing for the maker of that wrapping paper to do!”, the manufacturer in their apology said that they took the design from a Chinese vase (with a pattern similar to the photo above). Some have expressed displeasure at the store’s removal, emphasizing the positive meaning of the swastika in various cultures, particularly in Asia.

Similarly, during a protest march in Chicago concerned with violence by police against African-Americans, an officer played “Sweet Home Alabama” in his car. Some understood the song to represent a racist display to antagonize protestors. The department suspended the officer for 10 days when the video of the incident went viral. The officer, though, claims that he was playing it as a fan of the University of Alabama football team, playing in the SEC Championship game that day.

The song itself has been a center of controversy concerning its meaning. Some interpret it as an anthem supporting segregationist policies of figures like former Alabama governor George Wallace, alluded to in the song. The writers of the lyrics, though, assert that the “Boo Boo Boo” following that allusion reflected their opposition to Wallace and segregation. They also contextualize the song as an effort to complicate representations of the South, where some opposed racist policies. Since the song has been adopted in different venues, including white supremacist rallies and University of Alabama football games, the meanings and associations that people give to the song vary considerably.

The complexities of intent and meaning in both of these cases become readily apparent. The earliest uses of these symbols (whether image or lyrics) do not limit or determine their meaning. Neither does the intent of the person using it now. Even when people report what their intent was, it is impossible to know their sincerity or level of self-awareness. Their own perception of their intent may even shift over time. In both cases, the offensive meaning primarily comes from what some people who view it/hear it (though not all) place on it. While interpreting these symbols as offensive is certainly understandable in the specific contexts, taking offense draws on interpretations of meaning and assumptions about the intentions of the person employing the symbol now.

The issues then are not whether something is inherently offensive or what someone’s intent was in using a particular symbol. These occasions become contests over power to influence and restrict both what images are acceptable in public discourse and who has the ability to define what those images mean.

Image credit – from Alexandre Hamada Possi via Flickr (CC 2.0)

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