I’m Offended that You’re Offended that People Are Offended

December 15, 2018

Once upon a time, in 1944, a married couple was hosting a party and wanted to perform something to entertain their guests. So they wrote a song, a duet that musically acted out an evening that was regretfully coming to an end. I’m certain they never imagined the controversy the song would cause 70 years later. 

If you don’t know, that song is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a now oft-covered song appearing on countless holiday albums over the past several decades and a staple on radio stations playing Christmas music. Well, not all radio stations.

It all started in Cleveland, Ohio, where WDOK decided to stop playing the song after complaints from listeners that the lyrics hadn’t aged well in the current cultural climate. Other stations around the country have followed suit.

And because this is America, the backlash against the backlash is in full swing. Sales of the song are soaring, listener surveys are putting the song back into the rotation, and memes are clogging up Facebook newsfeeds everywhere mocking the sensitivity of folks offended by a classic Christmas song (e.g., calling out that Frosty the Snowman doesn’t wear pants or Yukon Cornelius from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer openly carries a .45).

What’s missing is empathy.

But wait. Hold on a minute. This story isn’t really about song lyrics or politics. It’s about what’s absent in any conversation about the innocence or innuendo of lines like “Say, what’s in this drink?” “I’ve got to say no, no, no, sir,” and “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?”

What’s missing is empathy.

Instead of trying to understand why some people (and there are a lot of them) say that this song hasn’t aged well 70 years after its inception, many people have rolled their collective eyes at “snowflakes” with “sensitive skin,” mocked their opinions, and even petitioned musical gatekeepers with demands that their opinion be the one that matters most.

So, what is the role of empathy in our families, communities, and societies, and how do we employ it more in our day-to-day lives?

What is empathy?

Empathy refers to imagining another’s feelings (as opposed to sympathy, which implies sharing the feelings of another.) The good news is 98 percent of people are already wired to be empathetic. The bad news is that most people don’t tap into that ability in their everyday lives, whether that’s with strangers they pass on the street or read about in the news, coworkers, friends, or even members of their family.

Why is empathy important?

It’s not hard to realize why empathy is valuable. Empathy is what drives us to help others. When we lack empathy, it’s because of our cognitive biases; we dehumanize others or blame them.

Having empathy has a wealth of benefits, and the more you practice empathy, the happier you’re likely to be. For example, when you’re empathetic, you find it is easier to:

  • deal with interpersonal conflict
  • deal with the negativity of others
  • understand the needs of others
  • predict the actions and reactions of those you interact with

Author Chad Fowler had this to say about empathy, “You will be a better leader, a better follower, and most important, a better friend.” Although he is framing this from the viewpoint of business and career, it still applies to our personal lives as well.

How do we show empathy?

Several skills contribute to being empathetic, including intentionally listening, withholding judgment, challenging your prejudices, and practicing a curiosity about strangers. Having an interest in other people, particularly those outside of your social circle can help you understand their world.

A nonprofit organization called Final Bow on Yellow Face—founded by Phil Chan, a former dancer and art director, and Georgina Pazcoguin, a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet—is challenging the representation of Asians and Asian culture within ballet. With a particular focus on the Chinese Tea scene in “The Nutcracker,” simply because of its widespread productions and ties to holiday tradition, the organization is working with ballet companies across the country to take a pledge to make the art form more inclusive.

Empathy is what drives us to help others. When we lack empathy, it’s because of our cognitive biases; we dehumanize others or blame them.

Salt Lake City’s Ballet West was one of the first companies to sign this pledge and has taken steps to change the choreography, makeup, and costuming for this scene that is part of the series of dances from various cultures, including Arabian coffee, Spanish chocolate, and Mother Ginger. Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director, was uncomfortable with the spinning parasols, bobbing heads, and shuffling feet that made up the choreography of the Chinese dance. It’s what Chan refers to as a “caricature” rather than “character.” Through a lot of work and negotiation, Sklute has incorporated a Chinese street dragon and a Peking Opera Warrior, honoring the choreography of the past while paying respect to Chinese culture.

“Hopefully what we have now is a much greater celebration of Chinese culture than the mockery it used to be,” Sklute says. “I remain committed to working for improvements in this and every other aspect of ballet that is offensive.”

So what does this have to do with empathy?

Ballet is an art form steeped in history, so there is a pull toward tradition. In an NPR broadcast with Chan and Pazcoguin, a question came in asking if they’re going to re-choreograph traditional ballets, why not rewrite Twain’s classics? Where is the line between free thought and a person’s right to not be offended?

Chan said that past productions are accessible, particularly with available technology, to anyone. Ballet productions from the ’50s are available on video. For him, the question is “what are we choosing to put on the stage now?” We can honor ballet as a whole without denying it the ability to evolve and change.

So this leads me back to “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Yes, it’s a classic and actually was born around the same time as The Nutcracker choreography in question. There are lots of things that were acceptable in the past that aren’t acceptable now, from language to art to fashion and even to behavior.

There’s honor in paying homage to tradition and history. There’s also honor in understanding that we live in an evolving society that hopefully learns and grows as it progresses through the decades and centuries. 

Whether you believe this song evokes holiday tradition or triggers prickly memories, it’s OK for both of those things to exist. It’s even better if you try to understand why everyone doesn’t feel the same way as you. And whether the song is banned or continues to play is ultimately of smaller consequence than learning to practice empathy.

Jessica Eyre is a writer and marketing strategist. She loves movies, going to see live music, and has a firm belief that most any life situation can be related to an episode of “Seinfeld.” She is a mother who does her best “I’m interested” face when hearing about the latest YouTube video her kids want to re-enact for her, and yet, at the same time, finds them to be the most interesting people she knows.

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