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When Feelings Don’t Care about Facts

A Pennsylvania coal miner with soot on his face (John Collier via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an interesting headline:

Phoenix restaurant says this is a photo of coal miners. But I see offensive blackface.

And here’s an even more interesting subhead to the op-ed:

Opinion: Who determines what’s offensive? A photo in a downtown Phoenix restaurant raises this key question.

Even before you get the essay, you can tell we’ve wandered off the path. The “photo in a downtown Phoenix restaurant” didn’t raise any questions, never mind a key question. The question is raised by the author’s reaction to a photo on a restaurant wall.

Anyway here was go. Rashaad Thomas begins:

A few weeks ago, I attended a holiday party at a downtown Phoenix restaurant. I walked around to view the photographs on the wall.

Then a photograph caught my attention.

Friends said, “It’s coal miners at a pub after work.” It was a photograph of coal miners with blackened faces. I asked a Latinx and white woman for their opinion. They said it looked like coal miners at a pub after work. Then they stepped back, frowned and said it’s men in blackface.

I asked the waitress to speak with a manager. Instead, I spoke with a white restaurant owner. I explained to him why the photograph was offensive. Evidently, someone else had made a similar comment about the photograph before.

Yet, the photograph remained on the wall. He said he would talk to the other owners and get back to me. While leaving, I asked him had he spoke with the other owners. He had not spoken with them, but mentioned Google said it’s coal miners after work.

Thomas goes on to discuss DW Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation before finally getting to this stand-alone sentence that almost feels like an editor crammed it in there:

Fact: The photograph shows coal miners’ faces covered in soot. The context of the photograph is not the issue.

And here is the conclusion:

At the downtown Phoenix restaurant, my concern that the photograph of men in blackface was a threat to me and my face and voice were ignored.

A business’ photograph of men with blackened faces culturally says to me, “Whites Only.” It says people like me are not welcome.

The operators of that downtown restaurant can choose to take the photograph down, leave it up or create a title card with an intention statement. No matter their decision, I think the photograph should be taken down — sacrificing one image for the greater good.

Now, I don’t think one has to be absolutist here. I can imagine all sorts of hypothetical scenarios where emotional responses should matter. But in this case, it seems obvious that Thomas is bringing all of the emotion to this situation. After all, he was a black man who was served — presumably without incident or he would have mentioned it — at a restaurant where he had to go find a picture that supposedly says “Whites Only.” That should have been his first tip that his reading of the picture was wrong.

But the real problem is simply that there is no limiting principle here. The capacity for people to take offense is infinite and infinitely subjective. If the new standard is that if something — anything — gives offense to a single person who doesn’t think the facts matter at all,  then let’s take all the pictures down and be done with it.

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