PORTLAND, ORE. — I wish I had been a fly on the wall when the honchos at Abercrombie & Fitch sat down and decided it would be totally cool to release a line of T-shirts decorated with cartoon images of Asians. I can envision laughs and high spirits as the creative juices flowed. "Hey!" somebody may have yelled, "I've got the perfect gag: A couple of little guys in cone-shaped hats and the slogan 'Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White.' It'll be a hoot!"
In fact, the shirts were quickly hooted off the racks and into the recall bins after Asian-Americans failed to see any humor in the new apparel and reacted with angry protests. Abercrombie spokesman Hampton Carney stated, "We're very, very, very sorry. It has never been our intention to offend anyone."
The triple-very apology was impressive. I don't think I've heard anyone say "very, very, very sorry" since the Watergate hearings.
But Mr. Carney made a more telling point by explaining, "The thought was that everyone would love them, especially the Asian community. We thought they were cheeky, irreverent, and funny, and everyone would love them."
This incident is the latest example of a weird dichotomy developing in American culture during the past decade. While our schools spend years telling students to show respect, celebrate diversity, and behave responsibly, the moment kids step off the bus and tune into the real world they are confronted by media personalities and promotional campaigns that send the exact opposite message.
The most blatant example of this "anything goes" approach can be found on the radio dial. In many cities, including mine, high ratings are being garnered by teams of obnoxious morning announcers who pride themselves on being rude, crude, and insensitive. Program directors justify the low-brow antics by saying: (a) it's just entertainment, (b) people who don't like it can switch to another station, or (c) we're simply giving the market what it wants, as evidenced by our huge audience share.
The last excuse is the most troubling. Every student of human nature knows there is a market for almost every product, no matter how disturbing or degrading. If you extend that line of reasoning far enough, past the boundaries of good taste and social responsibility, you soon enter the realm of pandering.
Too many companies these days behave as if the only guideline in business is the bottom line. That attitude sets a terrible example for our children, and leads to the kind of muddled thinking that assumes ethnic stereotypes printed on T-shirts will be loved by the people who are being mocked.
Followers of the "anything goes" mentality may think I'm unhip, stodgy, and possibly even repressive. But I don't want my daughter to wake up one day and find out that our entire society has turned into a giant red light district. That would be a very sorry situation for all of us. No, let me amend that: It would be very, very, very sorry.