I just read a news story about some people who showed up for Halloween as a KKK member and one of his victims (somebody dressed up in “black face”). They showed up at an event at the Campbellford branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, kicking off a firestorm of protest and indignation over the blatant racism being portrayed.
I’m all in favour of being sensitive to the climate of people around you. That’s why I recently argued that the owners of Burlington’s own breakfast spot, Russell Williams, should seriously consider changing the name of their restaurant – given the recent events surrounding the serial killer of the same name. I recognize that the restaurant has been in existence for a long time, and that there is nothing wrong with the name per se, but a name change might lend a degree of sympathy towards the situation, fending off any criticisms by people who are upset by the association and generating good will on the part of the owners. Some people might react by saying that there was no need, but others might nod in appreciation. As a business, I see more of a potential downside to not changing the name.
In the same light, as in the case of the KKK costumed party-goer, if I do something that seriously offends a lot of people, or which I believe will offend a lot of people, I should carefully consider if I really want to do it or not. Of course, that never stopped the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Tom Green, or, in the past year, Joaquin Phoenix, all of whom have gone out of their way to deliberately offend or cause extreme reactions. And perhaps that was the intent of this costumed pair. In which case they likely deserved the reaction that they got. Or maybe they were just so short-sighted as to not realize what would happen. Then again, maybe they really are racists and simply don’t care. For either of those situations the reaction is still just as deserved.
However. There’s another part of me that can’t help but think about Halloween in general. As it’s become in modern times, it’s a celebration of the grotesque and macabre. The “very best” outfits are those that revel in death, destruction, and the callous mistreatment of others by the characters being portrayed by those dressing up in their likeness. Do we really want to say that it’s perfectly okay to dress up as hideous, depraved monsters – and make fun of those who’ve been horribly mutilated and mistreated? How is it okay to be perfectly content with that message but still get riled up over somebody dressing up in a KKK outfit? Surely torture and murder would seem to be at a higher level of moral repugnance (and unacceptability) than just racial intolerance. If it’s all just in fun – why is it that some things still can’t be?
I’m sure it has something to do with both the fact that the KKK outfit is representative of a real-life situation – and also that it symbolizes events that are still too recent in our collective conscious for us to easily forget. I don’t think that anybody would have a problem with somebody dressed up as Genghis Khan – but they would almost certainly have a problem with somebody dressed up as Hitler. While both represent the same level of moral reprehensibility – one is so far in the past that any sense of immediate outrage has long ago passed, making it easy to accept the “fictional myth” rather than fighting against communicated personal pain.