Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Malicious Intentions

Perhaps you've seen some of the recent DVD releases of classic cartoons. Most of the major studios are doing them (for example, Warner and Disney), not to mention a lot of really old stuff that you can find in the bargain bins because they're now in the public domain.

In the more recent Warner and Disney collections, they've started including disclaimers, both on the packages and on the videos themselves, that some of the material included on these older cartoons is now understood to be racist, even if the material might not have been understood as such at the time. The actors speaking on the videos have tried to smooth over this harsh reality somewhat by telling viewers that the racist material was not intended to be hurtful or malicious, even if it was indeed racist, and was wrong both then and today. Such material is generally included in these collections with the understanding that it is wrong to deny the fact of racism within our past, but we need to acknowledge its presence within our culture's history. By acknowledging the reality of this evil, it is hoped that we might begin to overcome some of the still-present racism within our own time.

I tend to follow a philosophy that says "Never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance." The idea isn't original to me, but has taken a few forms over the years. For example, I myself often replace "ignorance" with "incompetence," while retaining the same basic concept that it is possible to say that something is wrong without attributing malice to the perpetrator. I have no resistance whatsoever to identifying racism in the cultural artifacts in question. That said, I tend to believe that the people who were responsible for these racist depictions tended not to create them out of malicious intentions (in agreement with the disclaimers on the cartoon DVDs).

A person with whom I was talking about this matter did not agree. She suggested that such an attitude too quickly gave people an "out" when performing racist acts. They could (and often do) simply say "I didn't mean anything by it," as if such "innocence" absolved them of all responsibility. Moreover, she suggested that the people creating such depictions more often than not knew exactly what they were doing. Perhaps she would agree with this variation of the philosophy I described earlier: "Any sufficiently advanced ignorance is indistinguishable from malice."

Both of us certainly agreed that a protestation of innocence (even an honest one) does not absolve racists (whether or not they acknowledge being a racist. In fact, few do) of responsibility. Racism is racism, and it is wrong regardless of whether there was malicious intent or not. And we both agree that fighting such injustice requires conscious and deliberate effort to overcome latent tendencies that are in all of us.

And, in fact, does it really even matter if cartoons depicting racist stereotypes were created in this way with malicious intent? The damage that it causes remains the same whether the racism was intended or not. What matters more is that we become conscious now that these racist stereotypes exist, both historically and in our present culture. It is only as we become aware of these problems that we can begin to apologize for them, and to work to remove them from our society.

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