Do trees, calligraphy and a black Hermione offend you?

“I feel that this is definitely a turning point in our society — when everything offends everyone all the time — it just sucks the joy out of everything.” – Catherine Gordon, teacher, Bangor High School.

Ms. Gordon may be a math teacher, but she has a certain way with words. And she points out something key: we could all use more joy in our lives. To do that, we should take a lot less offense.

A pink “Hello Kitty” tree is not offensive. Period. Requiring Gordon to remove it is the worst type of censorship. But even if a teacher had the audacity to put up a green tree, the rush to remove it on the chance someone might take offense is farcical. Cities put up Christmas trees throughout our state — Bangor has a big one. If Hollywood Casino had a prop bet on what religious holiday the vast majority of Bangor students celebrate, “Christmas” would be a heavy favorite. Pretending the four walls of the classroom are untethered to the rest of the world does not add much value to students.

Bangor High School math teacher Catherine Gordon's pink, Hello Kitty tree. Photo courtesy of Catherine Gordon.

Bangor High School math teacher Catherine Gordon’s pink, Hello Kitty tree. Photo courtesy of Catherine Gordon.

The school department justified its decision by saying “[o]ur focus is educating students to become global citizens” and that the city’s schools only use holidays in conjunction with other lessons. In pursuit of that focus, the Bangor School Department likely would side with its educator peers in Virginia. Last week, a teacher had students write the “Shahada” — the Islamic statement of faith — in Arabic calligraphy. That hews much closer to religion than a “Hello Kitty” tree, but it was defended on educational grounds. Outraged parents took offense, and the administration closed the school.

Parents had a point insofar as they objected to the sentence itself, in light of the importance Islam places on the Shahada’s recitation. It would be more appropriate to write something from Avicenna, the Muslim philosopher, for example. Yet the offended reaction was overdone by some parents; calls for the teacher to have her head impaled are simply crazy.

But this past week also brought outrage on the news a black woman was cast as Hermione Granger in a live Harry Potter production. Apparently an imaginary magical world no longer makes sense to some people.

Taking offense from a casting choice for a work of fiction is a little silly. Yet the ridicule heaped upon “the offended” was overdone as well — accusations of “racism” flew blithely. Rather than finding joy in a work of art or ignoring something you disagree with, people on all sides rushed to stake out ground on how others’ decisions were offensive.

And that is just it. People are busy being offended by trees, calligraphy, and Hermione Granger. It is exhausting, and being perpetually offended desensitizes us. If everything is offensive, then nothing truly is, and there are some things to which we should take offense. The vile barbarism of ISIS, starvation of children, human slavery — these rightly offend anyone with a moral conscience. Wasting energy complaining about a Christmas tree seems trivial in comparison, and it should.

But being continually offended about offensive things is not correct either. To echo Gordon, we need to make room in our lives for joy. Even if you do not celebrate the birth of Christ, it should be a joyful time of year. Decorations are beautiful, carols are on the radio, and the flavors of the season are delicious. Similarly, a play or other works of art — Harry Potter! — should be enjoyable. If you do not like something, don’t participate in it. Simple.

We can always find things to disagree with, and even things that offend us. But, as Gordon states, we cannot let them suck the joy out of everything. Without joy, life becomes a pretty meager, bleak journey.

Of course, after finishing this column, Bangor school administrators changed their minds and let the pink tree back in. Maybe there is room for joy after all.

I hope that doesn’t offend you.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.