There's a media-based disorder that has affected everyone from fired Business Insider chief technology officer Pax Dickinson to ousted Big Brother contestant Aaryn Gries to Seth Green, star of Fox TV's highly criticized new comedy, Dads.
And I have given it a name: Bigotry Denial Syndrome.
BDS is what happens when someone in media comes to the mistaken conclusion that, because they are not a full-time, 24/7 bigot or sexist, that they can never do or say anything bigoted or sexist.
In Dickinson's case, that led him to spout off on Twitter denying there were any problems with gender or race equality in the tech world, offering such messages as "it is not misogyny to tell a sexist joke, or to fail to take a woman seriously, or to enjoy boobies." In a different post, he speculated the female-centered film comedy Bridesmaids got so many Oscar nominations "because female comedians benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations."
Then there was a post citing the "unpopular truth" that women's voting rights and individual freedom are "incompatible." And the joke that a sequel to Passion of the Christ would feature the Messiah getting sexually assaulted "by a pack of n-----s." Dickinson was forced to resign by Business Insider, an up-and-coming business news website, soon after the tweets made news.
His explanation? Some of the tweets were old, so the humor context was lost. "I still think (the Passion of the Christ joke) was funny, so I don't apologize that much," Dickinson told New York magazine's Daily Intelligencer blog, insisting he wasn't racist or misogynist. "It was a funny joke, sorry."
On Fox TV's Dads, critics — including me — gave the show a hard time for jokes about maids aimed at both Latinas on the show and a storyline where two owners of a videogame company persuade an Asian employee to wear a revealing schoolgirl's outfit to impress Chinese investors.
Producers for the show, veterans of The Simpsons and the hit film Ted, insisted they didn't want to be known as "the racial insult comedy show." And co-star Seth Green, who plays one of the two company owners — both white males, of course — pushed back against charges of sexism and racism.
"I think we've become a real careful culture and soon as people starting suing each other over hurt feelings, people started getting more afraid to speak their mind or even point at something," he told TV critics during a press conference in July. "I've gotten into the weirdest conversations with people about what they think is racist, and it always speaks to their own personal, cultural sensitivity."
These jokes and images aren't about hurt feelings. They're about echoing stereotypes that are seductive, damaging and persistent. And those stereotypes can affect everything from how a prospective employer views a job application to how a police officer handles a traffic stop or a teacher disciplines a student.
Every so often, someone tries to repackage humor rooted in stereotypes as bold comedy. And every so often they have to be reminded, it's just stereotyping.
In the crop of 26 new shows debuting this fall, just one features a person of color as the star (NBC's Ironside with Blair Underwood) and five more feature people of color as co-leads, sharing top billing with a white actor. That's an underwhelming level of diversity in a country where about 33 percent of the population is non-white and Hispanic, and the industry has few good answers for why it is so.
On Big Brother, Gries looked shocked after she was voted off CBS's reality show, as host Julie Chen recited a litany of racist things she said during the competition to black and Asian competitors.
"I do not mean to come off as racist and I apologize to anyone I've offended," said Gries, who first tried to say she was taken out of context in an incident where she told an Asian competitor to "shut up and go make some rice." Later, her mother spoke publicly, saying Gries couldn't be racist because she attended her prom with a black man.
The problem wasn't just with Gries. Several other white contestants also made racist statements, but CBS didn't air their comments on the show (fans can also watch the contest's action on the Internet). Reality TV expert Andy Dehnart said such skittishness from CBS allows other contestants to remain popular with viewers — presented by the network as popular, all-American players — despite expressing such distasteful ideas.
Because open racism is so ugly, it is easy to believe that the only shape prejudice can take, in life or in media, is in its ugliest form.
But BDS shows that you don't have to be a card-carrying member of a white supremacist group to echo awful prejudices and stereotypes.
You just have to be in enough denial to believe you're above it.