Fourth of July duds: Coarse in­sen­si­tiv­ity and hearty ap­plause

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION - KAren Gross lO­CAl CON­TRIb­u­TOR gross is adl austin Com­mu­nity di­rec­tor for the anti-defama­tion league, www.adl.org.

There are rights and there are wrongs. This past Fourth of July, I joined some friends at a hol­i­day gath­er­ing. The event fea­tured friendly com­pe­ti­tions, in­clud­ing a cos­tume con­test. By al­most all ac­counts, the gath­er­ing was a com­plete suc­cess. Ex­cept for the last-minute en­try of team “Aryans.” These two peo­ple, dressed in Nazi mil­i­tary uni­form cos­tumes, sported swastikas on their arms clev­erly fash­ioned to match the party’s theme.

My friends and I were shocked at the ca­sual dis­play of such his­tor­i­cally of­fen­sive sym­bols that rep­re­sent the murder of 11 mil­lion and the geno­cide of a peo­ple. Sym­bols have mean­ings, and they con­vey mes­sages.

Re­gard­less of what these two in­tended, the sym­bols they pa­raded were much larger and pointed and con­veyed mean­ings and mes­sages they could nei­ther con­trol nor redi­rect. They were of­fen­sive, hurt­ful and scary.

Un­for­tu­nately, their ap­pear­ance did not seem to have the same ef­fect on many of the folks in the crowd as it did on me. Af­ter I had left the gath­er­ing, the oth­ers — through crowd ap­plause — awarded the two peo­ple the best cos­tume prize.

In the hours and days that fol­lowed, the or­ga­niz­ers of what was in­tended to be a fam­ily-friendly gath­er­ing com­mu­ni­cated their sin­cere apolo­gies for not act­ing in the moment to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion. They asked the An­tiDefama­tion League for as­sis­tance in draft­ing right of re­fusal lan­guage that will help them avoid this type of in­ci­dent in the fu­ture. For this proac­tive ap­proach and sin­cere ef­fort, we ap­plaud them. Lessons were learned for many of those in­volved in this un­for­tu­nate turn of events.

What leaves me sad­dened is the re­al­iza­tion that in this bas­tion of en­light­ened val­ues we call home, two peo­ple act­ing so of­fen­sively were hon­ored rather than be­ing booed off the stage. On July 4, we cel­e­brate our in­de­pen­dence and all of the hard-earned free­doms that fol­lowed. Thanks to the First Amend­ment, we have a le­gal right to ex­press our­selves as we wish, even if many in the com­mu­nity find that ex­pres­sion of­fen­sive. But, as a com­mu­nity, we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to rec­og­nize the dif­fer­ence be­tween what is le­gal and il­le­gal and what is right and wrong.

Austin should not be OK with this type of in­sen­si­tive ex­ploita­tion of a se­ri­ous event in our re­cent his­tory. Those two peo­ple should have been called down, rather than up­lifted and awarded a prize. Are we so de­sen­si­tized? Is it an is­sue of ig­no­rance? Have we lost the abil­ity to walk in each other’s shoes?

The two peo­ple apol­o­gized for of­fend­ing, and I do not be­lieve they had ill in­tent. But as a com­mu­nity, let us step up and hold one an­other ac­count­able when this type of in­sen­si­tiv­ity rears its head. Just be­cause we have the right to do some­thing wrong does not mean we should ex­er­cise it. Austin should be no place for hate.

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