Does This Offend You?
Imagine opening up your door to greet some trick-or-treaters on Halloween night or showing up to synagogue on Purim evening and seeing a nice 10 year-old girl dressed up as Anne Frank.
Well, this is actually a realistic possibility, and a quick search on Amazon will leave you with multiple choices of where to purchase such a costume. Of course, the availability of these offensive costumes was met with an immense amount of backlash, and rightfully so. People left nasty reviews of the various companies, blasted the retailers on social media, and started a movement to boycott Amazon until the costumes were taken down. The day after Halloween, the costume was still up for sale, though it no longer appears in a search.
Now the vast majority of us are immediately offended by this type of costume and for good reason. Dressing up as Anne Frank is making light of the atrocities of the Holocaust and there seems to be no positive outcome (whether educational or ecumenical) that can come from it.
But what about opening your front door on Halloween to reveal a child dressed up as a Hasid? Or dressed up as the Disney character Moana, which was the subject of massive backlash this Halloween season? Should we be offended in this case?
At first glance, it may seem like an unreasonable question to ask if someone should be offended by a costume. One may argue that offense will either happen or it won’t, and if someone or a group is offended by something then we, the public, need to stop.
However it isn’t that simple. To start, offense is a natural outcome of living in a free society. To a group of Evangelical Christians, it is offensive that Jews gather to pray in synagogues while refusing to accept Jesus as their lord and savior. To Republicans and Democrats alike, it is offensive every time a political pundit claims that their party and supporters are responsible for negative situations in the country.
To put it quite simply: the fact that a person or individual takes offense to something that you do or say, is not, in it of itself, a sufficient reason to not do something.
Nevertheless, it is important to qualify that last statement. If you are doing something for the sole purpose of offending an individual or a group, you probably shouldn’t do it. If you are doing something for another reason or higher objective, but in the process, a person or group may be offended, then there is discussion to be had about what constitutes celebration of a culture and what is inherently disrespectful to it.
Now the reason why I think that the Anne Frank costume is offensive while a Hasidic costume is fine is very simple. Imagine opening up your door on Halloween to reveal someone wearing either of these costumes. In the Anne Frank case, the majority of Jews would be absolutely horrified and ask you to remove it immediately. Given that Anne Frank is reminiscent of a particular historical event, using her to be the center of a Halloween costume is equal to using the Holocaust as a way to make a quick joke. On the other hand, dressing up as a Hasid is not poking fun at any one event or series of events in history; it is simply dressing up as another culture on a day where the entire point is for people go out and dress up as identities and characters who are different from their normal selves.
Of course, there will always be those who are upset by the Hasidic costume, or a Moana costume, or a sumo wrestler costume (which one of my friends dressed up as this past year) but I believe that it actually helps society to not dwell on these complaints for long. Without getting too deep into the debate about PC culture, there is a very real risk when everything starts to be labeled as offensive.
There are certain taboos in our society that we do not want people breaking. And, for the most part, I think that we do a pretty good job ensuring that this remains the case. If someone posts something racist on their Facebook account, the rest of the population will see, react negatively, and it will consequently hurt the original poster in a way where they will hopefully not continue to post such material.
The problem is that our society seems to be going through offense fatigue. In other words, as more questionable things continue to be included under the category of “offensive”, the mainstream population will simply become increasingly tired of dealing with the entire situation.
Things that are genuinely offensive will be grouped together with things that are questionably offensive and the line will be blurred. Then, because societal taboos (of causing offense) will be broken with an increased frequency (simply because more things are now “offensive”), people will become accustomed to offending others and the cycle will continue. This is why provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos are able to amass such a following, even though their content consists of the slew of name calling, epithets, and ad hominem attacks.
Part of being a decent human means limiting the purposeless harm you cause to others. To ensure this however, the reverse is also true. Part of being a decent human being is not abusing the claim that someone has harmed you. Because if you continue to cry wolf, people will stop caring when the real harm begins - and then the fabric of society will begin to tear.
Have something to add? We'd love to hear from you. Please comment below to share.
Is it offensive to forbid a non-Jew from turning on the stove to cook for a Jew? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
If you have a question about Jewish values that you would like to ask rabbis from multiple denominations, click here to enter your question. We will ask rabbis on our panel for answers and post them. You can also search our repository of over 700 questions and answers about Jewish values.
For more great Jewish content, please subscribe in the right hand column. Once you confirm your subscription, you'll get an email whenever new content is published to the Jewish Values Online blog.