I seem to find myself in this position more and more these days. There’s just so many things one could comment on in the public eye. Initially, I wanted to talk about the Pepsi commercial that recently got pulled. But that’s getting to be old news at this point. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the White House Press Secretary supplied the masses with a new fresh-off-the-griddle social faux pas as only Sean Spicer can.
I’m not going to bother with that though. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve got anything to say that Nancy Pelosi and the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect haven’t already said. Rather, I’d like to take the opportunity to discuss the concept of offense and interpretation.
When I was about three-quarters done with my fine arts degree, I briefly studied under Dennis Dake. Dake’s courses at that time were largely focused on fully realizing artistic influences and being aware of audience interpretation. Collegiate art studios are plagued by students who create pieces that…shall we say easily lend themselves to explicit carnal interpretations and may be considered offensive. I saw a few examples during my time in studio but, if you’ve no idea what I mean, I suggest you look into Georgia O’ Keeffe’s series of flowers. There’s generally two distinct interpretations.
That’s where Dake told us we had to be careful. We had to be aware of how open to interpretation our work was.
“The only way you can be sure someone interprets your work the way you want them to is to stand next to it at all times and say, ‘This is what it means and nothing else,’” Dake once told a class.
This statement, in my opinion, applies to not only visual works of art but also written works, spoken word and human interaction of any kind. In the art world, the issue of intent leads to discussion and debate more often than it does offense and social unrest. Unfortunately, it’s the other way around outside of galleries and studios.
I only bring this up because I feel the idea that intention has anything to do with offense is on the rise. In many cases, intent has very little to do with matters that affect another person. Insurance companies don’t hold off on raising our premiums if we didn’t intend to hit the other car. We, as drivers, are expected to consider what our actions will result in and agree to be responsible for their effect on complete strangers. We’ve got a whole separate charge for unintentional murder because, apparently on some level, we as a society believe intention has little to do with liability.
Be it a company using a divisive social movement to sell soda or the mouthpiece of the President in need of a refresher course in world history, words and actions should be considered carefully. I’ve heard some say that such issues are blown out of proportion; that offense is taken and not given. But, again, I liken that to the argument that the car I collided with chose to be damaged or the other driver chose to be wounded. It was my decision as a driver that caused the damage, not a choice on their part.
That’s literally the consequence of an action.
That’s the power of our words and actions. They can easily go beyond our control and intent.
That being said, Pepsi has pulled their advertisement. Spicer has apologized. Essentially, both saw what they did from another point of view and responded appropriately.
That’s good, but we can do better.
If we can view life from outside our own perspective before we take any action, that will go a long way. That’s a concept called empathy. I’ll point out that empathy doesn’t require experiences to be shared, only compassion and a willingness to understand. Empathy may even cause us to echo Spicer’s words, “I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”