[image-1] “Don’t read the comments” — I don’t know about you, but in the course of any given day, I hear or see this phrase, or some variation thereof, at least three, if not four, times. Sometimes it’s uttered by a colleague, other times by someone in my social media circle, and others by a total stranger pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, buck naked and pounding on the pavement as he or she attempts to defeat the invisible demons that constantly haunt him or her. Been there, done that, grabbed a shot of bourbon and got better.

The point here is not whether a brown water spirit is capable of keeping the devil’s spawn at bay — it is, it really is — but that many people simply cannot bear to read the comments section of any story that is of a political or controversial nature. It’s a problem that affects nearly every news site, although some are more beset with it than others.

The Post and Courier used to be a notorious hotbed of hot troll-on-troll action, but these days, the daily’s comments sections are as quiet as the after-midnight Upper King Street of Joe Riley’s dreams. In this world, even the dump trucks move as effortlessly as the wind and the sound of clanging trash cans are no louder than a mute’s whisper.

The City Paper comments section, however, is a lively hive of scrum and villainy, a battle-royale Thunderdome for Master-Blasters and Mad Maxes, and I’m talking about mad, mad, mad Maxes. And I love them all. In fact, I try my best to read as many comments as possible. I fail of course, but I try. 

The same goes for the comments on the City Paper’s Facebook page. No matter how infuriating they may be — and believe you me, they can cause my blood to boil — I want to know exactly what the masses think, not so that I can cater to them or goad them but so that I can understand them. And this week, the one topic that has caused me to read the comments more intently than any other revolves around the recent unpleasantness at The Citadel. 

As you know, photos emerged on social media showing several Citadel cadets wearing white pants and shirts, with what appeared to be white pillowcases over their heads, pillowcases that many say strongly resemble Klan hoods. Purportedly, at some time there were videos online of these covered cadets singing Christmas carols, but they have apparently disappeared like the Ghost of Christmas Past did to Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve.

Speaking of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the students in question reportedly were either practicing or performing some sort of skit involving said spirit, although it was unknown if the performance was intended to ever be made public. Nor is it known what carols they were singing, that is, if they were in fact singing carols at all. For all we know, they may have been cursing the same invisible devils that plague the bare-ass naked ranters on the sidewalks.

Needless to say, people were offended, most notably the president of The Citadel himself, Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, who issued this statement: “A social media posting, which I find offensive and disturbing, was brought to my attention this morning. It shows an upperclass cadet in front of seven cadets with pillowcases over their heads. In accordance with college policy, we immediately began suspension proceedings for those cadets known to be involved, and we are continuing to investigate this incident. Preliminary reports are cadets were singing Christmas carols as part of a ‘Ghosts of Christmas Past’ skit. These images are not consistent with our core values of honor, duty, and respect.”

While I have to applaud Rosa for acting so quickly to address this controversial matter, I must say that I don’t know what he found so offensive in the photos. Was it the same thing that so many other people found offensive, namely that the cadets appeared to look, at least in part, like Klansmen, or was it that he was upset that the shots were seemingly ruined by the presence of what appears to be a cadet hurriedly trying to get out of the camera’s eye? Rosa simply doesn’t say. And so determining what is disturbing and offensive about the photo is left to the beholder.

Therein lies the rub.

As fate would have it, there simply doesn’t seem to be an agreement when it comes to the controversial photographs. Some see a few cadets cosplaying as ghosts and goofing off, while others see a stark reminder of the sordid legacy of the Jim Crow-era South.

So it comes down to this: exactly when does a white pillowcase become a commonly agreed upon symbol of racial oppression, if it can at all? While the answer may have been obvious in the past, now it’s not as clear. Today, it seems as if the criteria for what is considered a racially insensitive act or statement is increasingly based upon what the perpetrator of that statement or act says he or she intended. 

Take Donald Trump for instance. No matter how many times he calls the majority of Mexican immigrants rapists or proposes an immediate ban on all Muslims trying to enter the country, regardless of their status as American citizens, some people refuse to believe there is any ill intent behind his statements. They’re willing to defend Trump until the end, whether that involves ordering a full-on Grand Dragon costume from the Hoods, Hoods, And More Hoods Outlet or something significantly less shocking. That’s their prerogative. Much like pornography, determining what is racist and what isn’t is subjective; it’s not a clear-cut exercise determined solely by facts. 

Of course, Trump isn’t alone. There’s U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In a Supreme Court case last week about affirmative action policy at the University of Texas, Scalia had this to say: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

Now you may find that to be racist, or you may believe that Scalia is simply speaking the politically incorrect truth. Once again, we don’t have universal agreement here.

And so the argument seems to be among many Americans that the only people who can determine whether or not there is racist intent behind these statements are Trump and Scalia themselves, the individuals who made the statements. As the thinking goes, only Trump knows why he said what he said and what he meant by it. The same goes for Scalia. If you subscribe to this line of thinking, then you likely believe that we simply cannot judge these men for their comments with any degree of certainty, and we can’t publicly call them that most dreaded pejorative, “racist,” without absolute proof of their intent when they made their comments. Sadly, Professor X is a comic book character. No one can read minds.

But what about the majority, you ask, don’t we have some sort of say? Haven’t we come to a consensus about what is and what isn’t racist? Shouldn’t our opinion be the one that matters? I would argue yes, but it seems that there is at least one argument against this and it comes from an unlikely ally, the LGBT community.

Over the past few years, we’ve made great strides as a nation in legally welcoming the LGBT community into the broader American community. Same-sex couples can now marry — hurrah — but gay people can be fired from their jobs simply for being gay — boo. However, things have gotten better, especially where it concerns the members of the trans community.

Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner, Larry Wachowski is now Lana Wachowski, Bradley Manning is now Chelsea Manning, and at least among progressives, no one really bats an eye. Or if they do, they keep it to themselves.

But what’s particularly interesting here is how quickly Jenner, Wachowski, and Manning, in print and the public eye, became a “she” after a life as a “he.” Almost from the moment that these three proclaimed themselves to be Trans Americans, society decided they had, indeed, changed genders. Whatever legal hurdles had to be jumped through or what, if any, follow-up operations had to take place to make that switch totally complete didn’t matter. Caitlyn, Lana, and Chelsea said that they were women and so they became women. And we, particularly those of us in the media, now refer to them as such. It wasn’t noble of us to do so. It was just polite.

As for what this means to Donald Trump, Antonin Scalia, and the Christmas Caroling Eight, think of it like this: If society has decided that people can change their gender at will — something that is so innately a part of who they are  — then we as a society have decided that individuals are no longer simply what they appear to be, much less what they actually are. They are now and forever what they say they are, what they claim to be.

And sometimes they are ghosts, even when many of us see something else entirely.