The recent ethics quiz about the apparent swastika pattern in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle triggered many fascinating responses, none more so than curmie’s Comment of the Day. Here (again) is the provocative puzzle:
…and here is curmie’s COTD on the post, “Ethics Quiz Of The Day: ‘Gotcha!’ Or ‘Benefit Of The Doubt’?”:
This one is fascinating. Were I still in the classroom, I’d definitely be using it as an example of the way the postmodern idea of meaning being created by the receiver rather than the sender plays out in real life as well as in art per se.
There’s a little bit of Hanlon’s Razor, a little bit of Paul Simon’s line in “The Boxer” that “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.” However we frame it, it seems to me that an individual’s response to this stimulus tells us more about the respondent than it does about the creator of the puzzle. I say this as neutrally as possible: there are those, like Steve Witherspoon, to whom “the white outlined swastika jumped off the page.” There are those, like P.M. Lawrence, who struggle to see the design even when knowing what to look for.
Two observations, both of them important. First, neither response is wrong, although they seem totally at odds. Second, I am not suggesting that an individual’s response is necessarily linked to an ideology or demographic. That is, having a positive or negative view of the NYT, leaning to the left or the right politically, being Jewish or not… any of all of these considerations might influence our reactions, but I’d be surprised if there aren’t a significant number of people from every combination of these factors on both sides of this issue.
I think we can take as given that few if any readers of this particular blog have any sympathy for Nazis, or for the intentional use of Nazi symbology except in a carefully circumscribed, clinical, manner. And outrage at such a perceived usage is certainly a reasonable response. But I must confess that had I been the editor charged with approving this puzzle, I would have done so, because I just don’t see a swastika. Steve would have me “demoted or fired for blind stupidity.” So be it.
I can also say that I would describe myself as being “visual,” although after a career as a stage director and sometime scenic, lighting, or costume designer, I’d hardly claim otherwise, even if, as the Gershwins caution us, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
There are enough “coincidences” (scare quotes quite intentional) to give Steve’s verdict of “malign motive” credence: the timing, the title, the first clue, the unconventional grouping of black spaces. Are these dog whistles? Perhaps. But I can’t say that with confidence. Alternatively, it would certainly be stupid to intentionally print something offensive to a significant number of your readers. And it’s certainly true that some people are in a continual quest for the ability to claim victimhood. Does that mean the NYT is off the hook? Not to those who see an obvious swastika, of course… or to those to whom “stupid” seems a reasonable description of NYT policy-makers.
Perhaps there’s a larger issue here for which this incident could serve as a useful metaphor. It is one more example of the way two people can look at precisely the same objective information and come to radically different conclusions (remember the “what color is the dress” meme that dominated social media a couple of years ago?). We all find it difficult to believe that someone could fail to see what to us is obvious, or that someone could make a serious accusation based on what we fail to see at all. Maybe we should consider that none of us is omniscient.
We seem to be left with the most ethical choice being a variation on Reagan’s “trust and verify.” I’m with the “benefit of the doubt” crowd on this one, barring future revelations, and I don’t think the previous day’s editorial is relevant at all: criticism of a particular politician’s policies hardly qualifies as anti-Semitic. Still, it’s worth keeping our eyes open to the possibility of emerging patterns, should they in fact come to light.