Here’s the headline from SF Gate earlier this week: “Walmart is under fire for selling an ‘Israeli soldier’ costume to kids” (http://www.sfgate.com/technology/businessinsider/article/Walmart-is-under-fire-for-selling-an-Israeli-6593410.php).
The controversy around this costume is much like the controversy that this holiday seems to stir up year after year, whether the particular costume in question is an Israeli soldier, Ebola Containment Suit, Osama bin Laden or sexy [insert noun]. And the course of events is also familiar: Walmart advertised the costume, consumers objected, and Walmart removed the costume from its website. And so I wonder: could we be having more effective conversations about these costumes? Conversations that may not absolutely banish offense from Halloweens henceforth, but that may help us individually and collectively grow in our discernment and ability to engage each other from a more compassionate and communal place (because, after all, isn’t trick-or-treating, all about community?)
So much of our dialogue about Halloween costumes is about right or wrong: whether they’re offensive or innocent, insensitive or funny (you just don’t get it). But what if they’re both? What if the Israeli soldier costume is both offensive and innocent? And I say this as someone whose instinct is not to laugh at this particular costume. But that’s the point. The costume doesn’t exist in a world of just me. And when I shift from knowing it’s wrong to recognizing that it’s wrong to me and maybe funny or innocent or [insert what I hadn’t even considered] to someone else, then the nature of my engagement shifts. I can move from “What is WRONG with you?” (which more often than not, triggers a defensive, entrenched posture) to:
- What’s your intention? Walmart: What are you trying to convey to consumers about the Walmart brand through your selection of costumes and other products? Child/parent/guardian: What impression are you trying to make? How do you hope others will react to you/your child in costume? I may learn that the child has a relative who is an Israeli soldier, to whom they’re paying respect through this costume. But how would I know if I didn’t ask?
- Despite your intention, what are reasonable, anticipatable reactions and outcomes to this particular costume? This isn’t about the right or the only reaction. This is about the possibilities: recognizing different perspectives, and realizing that none of us is universally right.
- Given that people might laugh, be concerned, be offended, be inspired, think you’re insensitive, think you look adorable, want to avoid you, want to ask you what’s up with your costume, be personally triggered, think you’re ignorant, think you’re making a political statement… What do you want to do? As opposed to prescribing any supposed right or safe answer, I would hope that Walmart or the child/parent/guardian could come to discerning action: a choice about what’s right for them, according to their values and intention, given the inherently social context of this holiday. The truth is, some people do want to provoke with their costumes, others want to scare, while some want to seduce, and still others want to amuse.
The annual Halloween tradition of social debate over costumes may never go away, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In a way, Halloween gives us opportunities to talk about identity, values, diversity and inclusion that the other 364 days of the year don’t. Progress, then, is not so much sending one particular costume back to the warehouse (and being relieved that next year is some other group’s turn to be offended), but a shift in what we talk about and how we talk about it when we talk about what costumes represent with each other.