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Cult of Outrage: The Low Bar of Offense

Don Lemon continues to make me eat my words when it comes to the Cult of Outrage. Yesterday, a story in a newspaper in the West Village of New York made national headlines because of its controversial title. While it received vast coverage, the headline – which essentially made this a story – was censored. Only Don Lemon of CNN showed the actual headline, which does have significantly more impact than the censored version (at least in my opinion).

After showing the uncensored headline, Lemon then explains why he is doing so. “Although I think that this word is toxic and used gratuitously too often by far too many people of all different ethnic backgrounds,” he said, “I do think it should be used if it is pertinent to a news story or the conversation.” He added, “We can’t talk about it without actually saying the word.”

While Lemon does not actually come down on one side or the other with regard to the original writer’s use of the word, by conducting the segment in an uncensored way it is not a great leap to assume that he’s okay with it (and it seems he wishes the writer would have focused more on the point behind the headline). He interviews James Lincoln Collier, the article’s author, who stands by his authorial decision.

Alvin Hall, the writer who wrote an op-ed about why the headline in the story offended him, closes his argument with a statement that, at least to me, seems to codify the central problem with individual sensitivity and larger-scope social commentary. Hall writes, “I don’t see how [the headline’s] use benefits anyone, but I do feel all too clearly how it deeply offends me.”

Early in his piece, Hall essentially agrees with everything Collier said in his article, and simply objects to the use of the word “nigger” in the title. Ironically, Hall uses the word in his article repeatedly whereas Collier’s use of it is limited only to the title. While it would be wrong to discount Hall’s feelings wholeheartedly, simply because he is offended does not mean the headline should have been censored.

I am not saying Hall should not be offended or feel as he does, but instead that individual offense should be the lowest bar by which we measure a particular message’s worth. To suggest that any word is more powerful that the context surrounding its use seems to be a step too far, that rather than fostering broader racial acceptance turns every racial discussion into a squabble over semantics.

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.