If you get offended by the calling out of things that are offensive, you may as well stop reading now.
As generational gaps widen between today’s more senior members of our society and those who have come after them, instances of incompatible views regarding many facets of our culture increasingly result in conflict and polarization, especially between parties who disagree on what constitutes offensive behavior.
As time passes and younger generations step into the authority of adulthood, long-held views become challenged. This is a good thing. Cultural progress means to shed ignorant views of the past that forego facts in favor of emotion. Cultural progress emphasizes personal responsibility and forces us, through shifting societal norms, to hold ourselves accountable for our thoughts and especially our statements made publicly. It forces us to evolve as humans and develop more empathy for our fellow citizens.
This isn’t to say that this sort of shift can’t go too far in the opposite direction either. To be offended over everything – even, say, something as innocuous as someone wishing you a merry Christmas – undermines the issues that actually warrant taking offense, and such individuals who attempt to use the taking of offense as a means to instantly shut down a conversation are doing far more harm than good for our collective societal growth.
But when we hear a member of a public board – in this case Carlo Pisaturo of the Warwick Sewer Authority – utter something as objectively offensive as what he said recently in regards to Native Americans, we cannot simply chalk up such comments as coming from someone “set in their ways,” or otherwise not responsible for the words that they say.
The normalization of offensive, inflammatory language in our discourse has unarguably been increasing since the election of Donald Trump, a candidate who rose in the political ranks because of his proclivity to say whatever he wants to whomever he wants, regardless of who it offends.
Normalizing offensive speech is dangerous for a number of reasons. The foremost reason, in our view, is that it emboldens those who exercise such speech to demean, humiliate or attack minority groups. Offensive speech easily can elevate to hate speech under the guise of “just telling it like it is,” which can be especially dangerous if this behavior is seen by impressionable age groups, such as teenagers, who are in the midst of forming their identities for how they will choose to behave going into adulthood.
But offensive speech is also dangerous because of how it can attempt to revise historical context, which is more how we view Pisaturo’s comments. We don’t see reason to believe Pisaturo holds any hatred of Native Americans in his heart, but his comments represent a historical insensitivity and ignorance that is far more than just troubling, especially for somebody who holds an appointed position of authority within the community.
When viewed through our modern lens, the history of how Native Americans have been treated within the United States is one steeped in objective shame. Although wars, raids and the targeted spreading of disease waged by early Americans against the indigenous peoples of North America are far from the only instances of such atrocities worldwide, the sheer scale of the strife warrants a deeply respectful reflection of what occurred, why it occurred and how we can make amends through our actions today.
The fact that we take into consideration not wanting to disturb Native American burial sites when doing things like excavating ground for sewer projects is a good thing. It shows that our collective humanity has progressed significantly from times – not too far in the past, mind you – where we viewed indigenous people as Satanic savages. It shows a healthy respect for a culture that was not only treated with fear and ignorance, but outright hatred and cruelty.
To nonchalantly brush off means to preserve these sites, while utilizing the stereotypical terms “Tonto” and “Pocahontas” to generalize an entire ethnicity of people – all in the name of possibly saving money and time to get a sewer project done faster – is the very definition of offensive ignorance, especially considering that utilizing the supposedly “money saving” method of plowing through a historic Native American burial site wouldn’t actually save any money at all due to other costs it would incur.
Mr. Pisaturo should apologize immediately for his comments, as they not only demonstrate an outdated, offensive opinion of our indigenous people – who, in Rhode Island especially, play an integral role in our history and culture today – but they also showcase that he is unwilling to even put in a little bit of time to research the factual legitimacy of what he’s saying before shamelessly, and publicly, putting forth such a thought.
If he is too proud to apologize, or thinks that reactions like this one are unwarranted, Mayor Solomon should re-think his appointment to a board that represents the interests of the people of Warwick.