Every reader has an opinion on what’s ‘offensive’

Last week, I was reminded that “offensive” is in the eyes of the beholder. I often hear criticism that The Kansas City Star hews to the too-genteel conventions of political correctness — but multiple callers and e-mailers pointed out a metaphor that they found insulting.

Their objection centers around a Sept. 20 letter to the editor, which read: “When you live in a monkey house, you don’t know it stinks. This is what is going on in Washington.”

“As an African American woman I consider the letter racist and obviously extremely offensive,” wrote one reader. “As a child I was taught about the ugliness of racism in the 30s, 40s and 50s by my parents and grandparents. They spoke of the various picture posters displayed in public buildings. They were quite degrading and vile. There were blacks drawn with monkey faces and tails, hanging from trees, heads stuck in oversized watermelons and so on. … Instead of Americans complaining and criticizing, we should come together and stop the racism and selfishness.”

“I enjoy reading all the differing outlooks on our national problems but this kind of indirect hate-filled nastiness is not helpful in any way,” e-mailed another.

I have to admit to some of the blame here. I’m one of at least three people who reads the letters before they are printed. Since the writer was referring to “Washington” and not President Barack Obama specifically, my own taste-level alarm wasn’t triggered.

But I’m also a white man, and I am fortunate that I rarely hear anyone spewing racist nonsense. I have my own view on the world, as does everyone. Bigotry of any kind is pretty rare at my lines — a fact that speaks well to The Star’s readership — so it’s sometimes not on my radar as it should be.

In retrospect, I should have cut or rephrased the letter. I suspect strongly that the writer had no intention of anyone reading racism into it, but there are other ways to express a similar sentiment that would avoid that possibility completely.

Another letters topic that took me by surprise: Astute reader Donna Clark took a close look at the page over several months. Admittedly making assumptions about traditional names and gender, she came to the conclusion that The Star publishes far more letters from men than women most of the time.

By her count, only six days over the past almost six months have seen a page with more letters from women than from men. “There seems to be a definite pattern,” she wrote.

Is that a problem? Just looking at the numbers, it’s a compelling reason at least to consider gender in selecting letters.

Anecdotally, I know the feedback about political topics I hear from readers comes overwhelmingly from men — but nobody has the lock on good, solid arguments. This is a topic I will discuss with everyone who works in the Opinion department.

This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Sept. 25, 2010.

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