David Rosman's recent column "Otis the steer-cow has some identity issues," as well as Sarah Palmer's response, says volumes about what we have become as a nation in our acceptance or tolerance of that which we may safely find humorous.
Although Ms. Palmer's opinion is extremely well-written and establishes her point clearly, I see an example of a continuing decline in our ability to laugh together and at ourselves.
Among the aggregate fruits of multiculturalism, political correctness and diversity is the overstimulation of sensitivity and a tendency to view oneself or associations as victims. The resultant emotional stress or distress is often seen as overreaction to perceived abuse of religious beliefs, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, ethnicity or country of origin.
Only utter fools or frauds would claim these abuses do not exist in society; nevertheless, as one who has lived, worked and studied among extremely diverse cultures for a period of 75 years, I have observed our collective sense of humor become a casualty to a heightened intolerance. Any comment or action — however innocent or unintended — that can be interpreted as deprecating, insulting or tactless will be a veritable "Murphy's law" of insensitivity.
A major contributing factor to this heightened self-awareness and hypersensitivity is the unintended consequence of classifying certain offenses against persons perceived as belonging to the social groups described above as "hate or bias-motivated crimes."
Although the underlying intent of protecting such groups (in addition to federal prosecution, 45 states and the District of Columbia have also criminalized various types of hate crimes) is praiseworthy, in practice it has proven in many ways to be impractical or unsuitable.
Regrettably, these are not isolated instances. On our university campus, there were calls to treat the February incident in which two students spread cotton balls on Black Culture Center's lawn as a hate crime. Cooler heads prevailed but not before it was blown out of proportion.
Getting back to the theme of tolerance through humor, the seeming lack of ability to recognize and enjoy amusement across racial, social and cultural lines is a disturbing trend.
As recently as the 1970s and early '80s, we were treated to such television series as "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Soap." Through the medium of innuendo and satire, these comedies treated the subjects of race, gender and sexual orientation with humor while labeling bigotry, prejudice and discrimination as the practice of fools.
Earlier examples of political correctness affecting ethnic humor are seen in the reaction to Mark Twain's novel "Huckleberry Finn" and the popular radio show "Thee Amos 'n Andy Show." Today, the former is maligned as racist and the latter as a racial stereotype.
In reality, the runaway slave in Twain's satire of that era was intelligent and the hero. On the air from the 1920s to the early 1950s, "The Amos 'n Andy Show" was popular with both white and black audiences as it was authentic and included ethnic humor.
Somehow we have lost the ability to react in a positive manner, and instead we have retreated into our own comfortable social, racial, cultural, religious and other enclaves. Those who are in the majority must attempt to understand and be tolerant of those who are different.
Finally, those who are of lesser numbers and influence differing in ethnicity, race or sexual orientation must realize that there will forever be ignorance and bigotry on both sides of the coin. And though the bias always appears intensified toward minority groups, the vast majority of today's society is a fair-minded and increasingly tolerant. Laughter is still the best medicine.
It could be worse — you could be an old, Christian white guy and be blamed for the multitude of sins and disasters affecting the world today.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.