But I didn’t mean to offend anyone! Halloween displays, campaign signs and related issues

01 Nov
But I didn’t mean to offend anyone! Halloween displays, campaign signs and related issues

Can we talk about public display? Putting words, images, objects out there to communicate with anyone who has eyes to see. Beyond bumper stickers, which just zip by. Campaign signs. Gory Halloween displays.

Heard an interview on CBC of a business owner who had been keeping up a Halloween tradition that many found offensive. In her sidewalk store front, she and her team would create a gory window display for pedestrian passersby to view. Blood, body parts, violent scenes were mentioned. The reporter was tremendously respectful and neutral-sounding, but tried to ask questions that made sense of the situation that had arisen, that teased out relevant information and perspectives. The business owner was asked what was happening with her display, and why there were some who had problems with it. The creator showed little or no understanding of why anyone would take offense at being exposed to a model of graphic scene of carnage. All she did was identify the “sides” in the controversy–on one side, herself and her team, who, she said, “did not set out to offend anyone,” and were therefore innocent, along with those who appreciated or had nothing to say about the display, and on the other side, those who expressed their view of being offended or bothered by it. “What about small children, who might walk by and be frightened by the display?” asked the reporter. “I’m not going to bow down to a minority.” was her answer. It was about artistic freedom, freedom of expression, for her.

First, I really don’t believe she meant to offend in creating that display. But on the other hand, she showed tremendous insensitivity to others who did not know they were going to be exposed to the display, and didn’t seem to have a rationale for this, other than artistic expression. Furthermore, she didn’t express any clear idea of what worthy message she wanted to express. I think there was an element of protest about violence towards women, but it seemed to be mixed up in a horrid kind of spirit of fun. And I got the sense that she had completely blocked out certain messages others might want to communicate in response. To listen and respond to critique, to modify the form or clarify the truth of the message she put out was not an option. And her use of the word “minority” was just weird.

In further research, I found many similar stories of mixed public responses to Halloween displays. People who set up these things are an interesting set. Nice people with an interest in gore and shocking people. And people who want to be freaked out and flock to the displays. (I’ll write more soon on the ideas communicated through Halloween–an interesting topic in itself.)

At my house, I continually remind my kids that “I didn’t mean to” is no excuse. I believe this. While it can be a real comfort to an offended person to hear the phrase (if it is believable), I expect everyone in the family to grow in understanding others’ sensibilities and treat others as they would wish to be treated. Some “I didn’t mean to” offenses are out of ignorance or neglect. Many are out of tunnel vision–one’s own needs and wants take precedence over accommodating and considering others. So we try to “wake up” to others around us, understand what’s important to them and why they see things the way they do. Especially if we want to influence them in some way. It’s a life skill in which we all need to grow.

I also teach that there is a balance to this. We do not compromise our core beliefs or violate our consciences in order to accommodate or placate others. As we grow in understanding, we communicate the truth as we see it, but try to do so in humility and love. And sometimes, it’s appropriate to come on strong. We are all learning that so much of the effectiveness of our interpersonal communication depends on the level of trust in the relationship, of feeling accepted and appreciated. Effective communication also depends on timing. O, so much.

That’s within the close community of the family. But in public, the complexity of communication through public display is tremendous. Some people for that reason simply don’t engage in it–no bumper stickers, no yard signs. These are not necessarily folks who are short on opinions–not at all, but they shrink from the one-way kind of expression where one can’t really know what’s communicated to the many individual minds that perceive the message. Except maybe when they “like” on Facebook. (That’s another interesting topic.)

Others see it as valuable to go public with their stuff: “Hey, here’s what I think! I care about this!” They trust the folks out there to make something of it–to clarify, inform, influence, or not–whatever, but expression is better than lack thereof. Or they think that the more people publicly display their views, the more people are swayed by them. That doesn’t work all that well with certain people. In my family, for example. I think we’ve all learned at our house that “best seller” doesn’t necessarily mean best choice.

Where the message is non-verbal, as in art, communication is more complex. Impact can be more powerful, the the message more personal and visceral, but also for those reasons I think artists need to consider the audience and choose the venue carefully. People should be allowed to forgo the experience if it could be psychologically or emotionally harmful for them. And they may as well forgo it if they are not open to it.

Personally, as far as wanting to go public, my position flexes, depending on the nature and importance of the message and the likelihood of being misunderstood. I have a powerful desire to communicate, but I do hate to be misunderstood, or to see an important message badly communicated. The importance of the communication should make people either more careful in how they communicate (in case of oversimplification or misunderstanding), or bolder and more open (if it’s a simple message). I also feel how important it is to know others thoughts and views, and as I’m no CBC reporter, asking all the right questions, I appreciate being told. Now I know which of my neighbors are for Romney, which for Obama, which for and against gay marriage rights, and I can handle that. But I hope that those who take the trouble and risk to communicate can always be open (as the above store owner did not seem to be) to listening. A different store owner with a different Halloween window display did listen, and removed the most offensive mannequin from his display. While I question the value of gross-out Halloween displays in general, I do appreciate his showing some sensitivity. May he show more and more as Halloweens come and go, and may we all.

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Posted by on November 1, 2012 in Culture & Society, Ethics


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