Saturday, December 19, 2009

East Coast Offense

A few years ago, ESPN radio morning show hosts "Mike and Mike" initiated using the term "man up" to describe acts of fortitude. One day, searching for an antonym for this term, Mike Greenberg tossed out the phrase "woman down." A trickle of complaints came in to ESPN offices, and Greenberg responded with extreme contrition, offering a heartfelt on-air apology.

I suspect that no one remembers this anymore. The only reason I remember it is because of what I saw on an on-line forum shortly after the incident. People were outraged--not at Greenberg's statement, but the fact that anyone would take offense to it. This depiste the fact that there was no fallout from the incident; unlike the Don Imus situation that occurred around the same time, Greenberg was not punished, and there was no lengthy public debate. Reading people's reactions, it was obvious to me that there was something bigger in play than this one comment and subsequent apology.

I came to the same realization this week while reading about a song and youtube video made by students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The song is entitled "What's a Coastie?" and then proceeds to answer that question by describing a certain type of female UW student: out-of-state, from a priveleged background, attention-seeking, and obsessed with materialism and fashion. The most controversial lyrics single out the "Coasty" as Jewish: "East Coast Jewish honey" and "Jewish American Princess, baby."

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a story about the song and video, and invited reader comments on a forum. A minority of posters found the song offensive, but most were vehement in attacking anyone who would take offense to it. Here is a sampling of responses:

Big Deal. Who Cares. Get over it. Find something interesting to print. Quit trying to be sensitive about others feels. I am Polish and never attempted to stop someone from telling a polish joke. Stop being so dam PC.

To those who took offense, I guess we can’t decide what does or doesn’t hurt your feelings but maybe grow some thicker skin?

My God, everyone needs to relax! This was a light-hearted song about the differences between east and west coast kids and kids from the midwest.

Give me a break!! It a silly song and not meant to hurt anyone!! All of the "political correctness" we endure in this country is absurd!!

Should be a harmless song in most people's eyes. If one is looking for a reason to be offended, one will undoubtedly be offended.

These comments show that 90% of people are in favor of the song, and 10% are on a quest to ruin the song for everyone else.

This literate morons at UW who are offended will have a lot more to cope with when the get out of Fantasy Island South and enter the real world.

The people who complain about this need to get a life.

Give me a break. This country is so full of overly sensative babies, that shriek victim at every possible turn. Frankly, I'm sick of it. Get over it, already. And why are you SEARCHING for reasons to be offended.

I think those offended by this should get a life - they must not have enough to do in their lives if they have time to be offended by what is obviously a joke.

The only people who would complain about this either have absolutely no sense of humor or just like to hear the sound of themselves whining.

Anyone who seriously thinks the whole idea of "coasties" is based purely on what your religious heritage is, is a complete idiot. Get over yourselves, and find a hobby. You clearly have WAY too much time on your hands.

Please find something else to complain about. Or better yet, quit complaining all together.

Of course, there is a lot of irony in these statements. Those who are complaining about people being offended sound pretty offended. Those who complain that people have too much time on their hands seem to have some spare time themselves. And the cacophony of voices that bemoan a lack of humor demonstrate little wit of their own.

Yet in amongst the anger and vitriol, I detect a hint of fear. And I find this to be understandable. People know enough to ascribe the term "political correctness" to the phenomenon they are observing. But the scary thing for them is that they don't know who the guardians of "poltical correctness" are; there is no rule book to describe what is in-bounds and out-of-bounds, and as such they are subject to criticism or censure for any utterance, or even any "slip of the tongue" (which is apparently what happened to Greenberg).

Making this fear and frustration more palpable is that in the "Coastie" video there is no overt offensive content. If there was a picture of Hitler right after the video flashed the star of David, the reaction would have been much different. But what's wrong with simply showing a star of David and using the term "Jewish princess"?

But that is not to say that the song and video is not problematic. Check out these other two reactions from the Journal-Sentinel forum:

I find this hilarious. I am midwestern transplant from Milwaukee now residing in South Florida. "Coasties" are everywhere down here. And yes, down here it does pertain to the priviledged east coast women who sport the Ugg boots in 90 degree weather. Jewish? probably. But Remember, Delray Beach is a southern borough of NYC. They also hang with the shaved-head, tattooed-laden, beater-T wearing, dirt-bag poseur guys at Starbucks, who sit on their laptops, smoking cigarettes acting all important while they are unemployed.

Coastie song? One. Hundred. Percent. Accurate. The only problem is that it narrows the scope to females. The coastie dudes are as insufferable, if not moreso. Summer is the only time to visit Madison--when they're all gone.

One doesn't need to be a Freudian to find some truth in his observation about jokes--that they are a way for people to work out taboos and sublimate troublesome conflicts. A further reading of the forum indicates that there really is and historically has been a cultural clash between "Coasties" and "Sconnies" on the Madison campus:

When I was in Madison a decade ago, they were called Easties. I guess the people from the west coast weren't nearly as conspicuous back then.

As far as I know, the term "coastie" wasn't around in the late 80s/early 90s when I was there, but the stereotype sure was. We all got along more or less, and had some fun at each others' expense, some inappropriate in hindsight. Looking back, what bothers me most is that the coastie/sconnie communities rarely if ever interacted - it was like two completely separate groups that might show up in classes together, but ate, lived, and partied in different quarters.

I attended UW Madison in the late '70's. There were many Jewish students from the east coast living in my dorm. I didn't have a stereotypical name for them, but they had one for me. Because I was from Wisconsin I was a hick.

I went to UW for undergrad and then grad school earlier in this decade, and I must admit that the Coasties were often a source of debate and frustration. They seemed to want attention by talking loudly during lectures, whether to each other or on their cell phones. They liked to flaunt their wealth, be it through Juicy Couture outfits, North Face puffy jackets, or even Range Rover SUVs. They acted like they were better than everyone else, and in the Midwest, most people will not condone that kind of behavior.

While I have no doubt that the authors/artists involved in "What's a Coastie?" amused themselevs and others, I would assert that it is only funny to those who have experienced this cultural conflict (hence a number of other comments on the forum questioning why this is newsworthy).

Ultimately, if humor is a method by which we work out conflict, there will inevitably be humor that will be disturbing. And disturbing humor could potentially be counterproductive to actually addressing the conflicts. The key to making such statements (or as in this case, products) productive would be to engage in dialogue about A) what makes them funny, and B) what makes them potentially offensive. Unfortunately, although there is a whole lot of dialogue being generated, very little of it is focused on either of these two categories. We get assertions like "This is funny," and "This is offensive," without any further exploration, and then the discourse very shortly degenerates into lamentations about "political correctness."

I'm rather pessimistic that such a productive dialogue will be forthcoming. I wouldn't anticipate that Internet forums will become outlets for enlightenment anytime soon, so the failure of the Journal-Sentinel website to serve as a gateway for dialogue isn't a disappointment. But the institutional failure of University of Wisconsin to facilitate a better negotiation of an ongoing cultural divide that has persisted though generations strikes me as a more troublesome phenomenon...perhaps even one that could inspire offense.


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