Friday, January 19, 2007

The delicacy of hint and the mellowness of sneer.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it but one of the few public discussions of racism is in the Geico caveman commercials. You know the one: Neanderthal caveman repeatedly tried to get Modern Homo Sapiens to understand how hurtful their racist comments are and they just don’t get it. That’s the joke: they don’t get it. And because Homo Sapiens are the powerful majority they deem themselves right and impugn our hero by implying that he is overly-touchy about racism.

Commercials are great teachers. Firstly, because they are ever-present. Secondly, because they are short and have little time to hammer at their hearers. But thirdly because they are so subtle. In the guise of selling a product, they hint at and skate around the hedges of some theological, cultural, personal, or inspirational idea.

Of course there are other commercials which urge humans to look within.
Nike’s Just Do It certainly was successful. Not only did it get a few people to exercise, but because of its subtlety and spareness, it pretty much hinted that we "do" more than exercise. Write that novel. Apologize to your mother-in-law and learn to live with her. Learn to Drive. Whatever.

In Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s novel, "The School For Scandal," a character dismisses another character’s speaking skills by saying she "lacked the delicacy of hint and the mellowness of sneer." There’s a lot to be said for delicacy and mellowness. The racist (anti-caveman) people in the Geico commercial have that mellowness of snare down-pat. Most Americans recognize the types: the sleazy spokesman who insists on speaking about a subject even though a small minority had objected; the primly-dressed self-satisfied middle-class woman pundit who smugly psychoanalyzes the overly-sensitive-but-nevertheless-right minority spokesman, the supposedly-open-minded liberal therapist who tries to help the troubled minority but really has no clue about her own prejudices. Sneer is all over the place.

But thank heavens for delicacy. The average American knows what’s going on in this commercial. Or perhaps I should say that they "should" know. Sometimes delicacy goes over the heads of some people. But only some. In hearts hardened against any talk of racism, it’s hard to sow any kind of seed of understanding. But I’m a believer in creativity and the power of creativity. On some level the caveman’s trials are understood by the Homo Sapien audience. In some powerful way which only story-lovers can understand, the lot of being a member of an unheard minority is being acknowledged. Whether it opens the minds of its homo Sapien audience is another matter. But it’s one of the only continuous public discussions of racism out there. I’ll give the commercial its honorable due.

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