John and Jane Doe (not their real names) obviously loved Halloween. For 20 years they’d been putting up an elaborate display on their front lawn, for the amusement of their children and the neighborhood. Not just the usual witches, goblins, ghosts and ghouls, either.
For the Does have an off-beat sense of humor when it comes to their Halloween displays. There was “a clown in an electrocution chair and a ‘chop shop’ of strobe-lit dismembered body parts.” Dressed as a mad scientist, John joked to the passing children, “May I offer you a hand?” There was also a ghoul hanging from a tree.
All was well until last March, when Jamie Stevenson and her “partner” moved in next door. Stevenson says she chose the Oakton, Virginia neighborhood for its diversity, including interracial and same-sex couples. Though it’s not explicitly stated, one might infer that Stevenson, who is described as “Asian,” and her partner are lesbians and that they do not have children.
The jollity of trick or treating children in outlandish costumes coming by for candy on the one night of the year that parents aren’t obsessed with stopping them from getting a sugar high is usually infectious. You love it even if you don’t have kids or if they no longer live at home. But Jamie Stevenson was not amused.
Images have the meaning with which we endow them. That was René Magritte’s point in his “Treachery of Images,” when he painted “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” below his image of a pipe. Marcel Duchamp thought that an object was “art” if it was intended as such, and proved his point by getting galleries to install his urinals as exhibits. Between the thing itself and how we perceive it, there’s room for a lot of interpretation.
So the divide between Stevenson and the rest of the Oakton neighborhood as to the meaning of the ghoul hanging from a tree in the Does’ display might be understandable. Stevenson thought it was a black man being lynched. Everyone else thought it was a “Monster” with a bloody clawed head and face. No one in this diverse neighborhood had ever before communicated to the Does that it was offensive.
Stevenson and the Does both agreed that the figure was not intended to give offense. John was horrified when he heard from Stevenson. “I can promise you this,” he responded to her email, “I will NEVER ever put it up again.”
But Stevenson was on a tear. In addition to John, she communicated her displeasure to the president of the homeowners association and the Southern Poverty Law Center. She posted a flier on line calling the Does racists and listing their address. In case you did not understand how to see the ghoul, Stevenson’s flier featured a photo of a real lynching from 1889 next to a photo of the already-removed Halloween display. Ceci n’est pas un Halloween display!
About the fact that her neighbors did not see the decoration as she did, Stevenson said, “I expected it because when you point out racism, people have a choice to make: They either acknowledge it and have to do something about it, or they deny it and are complicit in it.” In other words, only the meaning that Stevenson imparted to the image was valid. If you didn’t share it, you were ipso facto a racist.
There could, of course, be no discussion about this. So when John Doe dropped by in person hoping to be able to explain himself face to face, Stevenson filed a police report. “She felt threatened.”
This is representative of America today. Either you sign on to the left’s interpretation of what is and what is not racist, or you are a racist. You can be a white man married to a black South African woman and have mixed-race children, and still be a racist who fears black children, according to CNN. It’s not what you do or how you live your life that matters anymore. It’s your refusal to make the entire world a safe space for every liberal nut case that decides she has a grievance.
One wonders whether John and Jane Doe will bother about Halloween next year or, if they do, whether the neighbors will bring their children. After all, Halloween is meant to be innocent fun, not a racially charged moment. And who can predict whether the dwarf costume might give offense to short people, or the witch costume to feminists.
“The Puritans hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators,” wrote Thomas Macaulay. One can’t help but think that Stevenson was more bothered by the pleasure that the Does’ display gave to the neighborhood than she was by the display itself.