Monday, January 3, 2011

Hope for 2011: Sense and Sensitivity

I have high hopes for every year, 2011 being no exception. If I didn't, then what would be the point of going on?

Of course, I won't hold my breath for some things. For example, I hope that more people learn to use some common sense, which is rather an oxymoron isn't it? Sense is very uncommon. I'm not talking about intelligence. Sure we could use more intelligence to go around. But the really rare commodity, even among pretty smart people, is good judgment.

I think about this when I see an attempt at using wit to catch someone's attention. I'm not talking about irreverence or even obnoxious humor in the right context. On the other hand, when you're addressing a general audience of millions of readers, is it really so clever to play off of a historical event with millions of victims, who probably wouldn't find much to pun about in the terror, torture and death they endured?

Friday morning I came across the newspaper headline "Cultural Resolutions" and was a little surprised that editors thought it would be fun or clever to make a pun with the Cultural Revolution. Sure, it takes a bit of wit or skill with language to create a pun. A bit.

But would those same editors give the green light to a headline such as "Retail Holocost: Big box company's low prices wipe out small stores"? (After all, it's just playing with the reference to the Holocaust and not even spelling it the same way. Would they be Shoah it would pass a good taste test? This ridiculousness is just to make a point, in case I haven't been clear.)

How about "The Shilling Fields: Sports event revenue grows with memorabilia sales." Was the Khmer Rouge so bad that we can't try to lighten things up a bit? In fact, wouldn't it be terribly clever for a cosmetics company to introduce a beautiful blood-red lipstick and name the shade C'mere Rouge?

I do think the news media should have the courage to offend someone -- if it serves a purpose. But if the only reason for giving a big fat middle finger to people who still bear the physical and psychological scars of a horrific event (not to mention the dead) is that a writer or editor can't think of something smarter, then I see failed judgment, or at least laziness. Isn't the motto of a journalist supposed to be "Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable," not "Afflict the Afflicted"?

Friday wasn't the first time I had seen a "witty" reference to the Cultural Revolution. At one of my local supermarkets last year I came across Cultural Revolution yogurt. Yes, I get it, yogurt is a cultured product, and the company described this one as "revolutionary in every way, including its appearance and texture." I was open minded enough to buy a cup of it just so I would know whether it was a great-tasting product in a tasteless package. Turns out, it was good, but not my favorite and not amazing enough for me to swallow my objection to the name.

But while I'm pragmatic enough not to hold my breath waiting for sense to prevail, I always have hope, and in this case it was justified. This past fall, the maker of Cultural Revolution yogurt rebranded its product Kalona SuperNatural.

If anyone still doesn't understand why I oppose frivolous puns that refer to the Cultural Revolution, then maybe a few recollections from survivors will at least offer insight into my point of view.

In a BBC report, one family member of a victim recalled, "My mother was also severely beaten because of my father. It was so bad there was blood in her urine."
Another survivor said, "Around that time people were dragged out and shot in large numbers in Shanghai - sometimes 50 people in one go."

One compelling account is in "Life and Death in Shanghai," by Nien Cheng, a memoir that details her years of solitary confinement and torture in prison during the Cultural Revolution. When she finally did get out, she learned that her only child, her daughter, had died at the hands of the Red Guard. If Cheng, who died a little more than a year ago, had lived to see the headline flippantly playing off the horror that she endured and that her daughter didn't survive, I can't imagine what she would have thought.

 A University of Chicago scholar who lived through that period, Youqin Wang, said during an interview that to some people "Chinese victims’ lives are cheaper than those of other nations." I hope that's not true.

When I see a newspaper headline, blog post, brand name or online comment that seems to lack judgment or taste, sometimes I wonder whether the author gave it any thought. When people turn something like the Cultural Revolution into nothing more than an easy pun, I wonder whether they know what the Cultural Revolution was, not to mention any other modern history. If so, did they weigh the pros and cons and make a conscious judgment that the negatives are worth it? And would a person with any class be able to look someone in the eye and say in person what they wrote anonymously?

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