Must Attention Be Paid?

For some time, I have been planning to write a Lingua Franca post on Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome. SSSSS (as I abbreviate it) begins when an individual writes or is recorded as saying something strikingly venal, inhumane, and/or dumb. The quote is then taken up and derided—in social media or blogs—by thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of other individuals. And then it spreads from there.

SSSSS is a growing feature of our discourse, for a couple of reasons. First: because so many more statements are recorded today than ever before, and humans are no less stupid than they have ever been, many more stupid statements emerge. Second, all the bloggers and posters need something to blog and post about, and Something Stupid Somebody Said (SSSS) would seem to be perfect fodder. All the more so when it confirms one’s worst imaginings about one’s ideological opponents.

Some striking recent examples of SSSSS were when some idiots posted racist comments about a Cheerios commercial about an interracial family and when (probably the same) idiots posted racist comments after a South Asian-American woman was named Miss America. In my imagined Lingua Franca post, I was going to make a three-pronged case for eschewing SSSSS. First, we only have so much space in our brains and time in our days, and there are more important things to spend them on. Second is the junior-high-school teacher’s wisdom: “Don’t pay attention to them. You’ll only encourage them.” Finally, SSSSS is rhetorically weak. It’s not so much an example of the straw-man fallacy—since someone actually said the stupid statement—as the ultimate in anecdotal evidence. The fact that you’ve found some number of people who said a horrible thing proves nothing beyond that those people said that thing. (Of course, when you find a big number of people–or people in power–who have said it, you’ve started to prove something important, and I will pay attention.)

Before I got a chance to write the post, I found myself standing at the curb of a road an hour every day, holding up a sign protesting something stupid somebody did.

Here’s how I got there. A couple of weeks ago, a neighbor drove me down a rather busy local street and said I should be prepared to see something disturbing. This is what I saw:


In case it’s not clear, the picture shows a skeleton wearing an Obama-Biden T-shirt hanging from a tree in a suburban front yard. I was indeed disturbed, as my friend predicted. Not only was the violence of the image well over the line in even robust political back-and-forth or Halloween iconography, but to me, the Obama shirt, the rope, and the tree added inescapably to a tableau of lynching.

I mulled what to do about the skeleton. Knock on the door and ask that it be taken down? Gather a posse and go to the house in the dark of night and actually take it down? Write a letter to the paper? Alert the media? While I was mulling, an admirable neighbor of mine named Clare Keefe Coleman actually did something: She decided to stand in front of the house with a sign indicating that this sort of display was not acceptable. She spread the word inviting neighbors to join her, and for an hour every day (5-6 p.m weekdays, 12-1 p.m weekends), between 20 and 30 of us have done so.


Clare (wearing the green windbreaker) has also attempted to engage the homeowner in conversation, but he’s made it clear that he’s not interested. He told the local newspaper, The Delaware County Daily Times, that the skeleton was “a joke” and had nothing to do with race: “I certainly hope we have gotten past that in America—people playing the race card all the time. It shows where they are if that’s what they think. In this day and age, I didn’t think people would make that association.”

Because that article has attached to it many toxic comments that make you despair of humanity, I am not including a link. So in that instance I’m following my SSSSS theory. But in making a big fuss about this idiot’s skeleton, and spreading the word on social media, I appear not to be. My defense is that I don’t want the homeowner shamed on The Daily Show or Reddit. I just want to stand up with my neighbors against what he’s done. Some people who are offended by the skeleton have told us, in effect, “Don’t pay attention to this guy. That’s exactly what he’s looking for. If you keep standing outside his house, he’ll never take that thing down.” My answer to them is, “You’re right. He probably won’t take it down. But he has created a public display that pollutes my community. It can’t stand there unopposed.”

Incidentally, most of the people who’ve driven by have given us a thumb’s up, a honk, or some other support. But a few have objected. One said, “Why do you say it’s about Obama? Biden’s name is on the T-shirt, too. Get over yourselves!” One neighbor said she was disturbed by our presence there, and didn’t know how to explain it to her children. Other people have said that the homeowner has freedom of speech. And obviously he does, as we have the right to declare that his speech is offensive and obnoxious.

The question remains: What if we wake up tomorrow and find that the skeleton wasn’t a Halloween joke after all but is still up, for who knows how long? Bearing witness on balmy fall afternoons is one thing, but no one wants to be standing out in a chilly November drizzle in the dark, spending our time on someone who doesn’t deserve it. Fortunately, our leader has come up with an excellent endgame strategy. Clare posted on Facebook: “I’ll see you out there, with candy in a Halloween bowl on Thursday and perhaps a festive conclusion Saturday at noon, as the clocks change?”

If you’re interested to know if the skeleton has come down after Halloween, hit me up on Twitter @byagoda and I’ll let you know.



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