The Culture of Offense

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Here's a really stupid argument:

1. Term X can be used in a racist way.
2. Other uses of Term X are therefore racist.

It's got to be one of the poorest excuses to call someone a racist I've ever seen. Yet people insist on doing it to unsuspecting politicians or other public figures. It's for this reason that Governor Mitt Romney of Massachussetts has been bamboozled into apologizing for an action that is in no way wrong. Tony Snow has also been criticized for using the same expression in its original, non-racial sense. A tar baby is generally a sticky situation, and nothing about race is implied by this use of the term. It's origins come from an African folk tale, and its function in accounts of sticky situations has continued undisturbed by those who ignorantly coopted it for racist purposes. In the northeast, where Romney is governor, most people have probably never even heard of the racist use of the expression, and those who do encounter it might easily forget it as so far out of their vocabulary that it doesn't enter long-term memory.

Another example I've encountered (in this case only very recently) is "call a spade a spade", which simply means to identify something for what it is. Some racists in the South have apparently called black people spades as a derogatory term. Since I've never hung out with those people, it never would have occurred to me that someone would do so. Why should an uncommon use of a term in a localized region, a use I've never even heard of, make my use of a perfectly normal idiom somehow immoral? Those who treat such statements as racist seem to me to be linguistically unaware at best and incapable of moral reasoning at worst.

It's completely unreasonable to expect those who did not grow up around racists to know everything that racists might say. So why should I be expected to know of some racist use of terms like 'tar baby' and 'spade' before I might happen to use some fairly standard figures of speech involving such terms? For the same reason that we do not expect a very small child to have committed a moral mistake by using terms that are unambiguously racist such as the N-word, we should not expect adults to know the racist meaning of a localized use of an expression that their linguistic community simply does not repeat.

Some might protest that everyone should be more aware of racial issues, and certainly that's true. But what racial issues should people be more aware of? The culture of offense that generates how Romney is being treated will encourage people to spend their time learning about racist speech in the past rather than encouraging them to identify real problems now that they can do something about. So it's a little unproductive. But that's only a minor complaint. The real problem is that it doesn't lead white people to spend time with black people, learning to appreciate them and interact with them on levels they may not have interacted with them before. It instead encourages them not to seek friendship but to guard themselves defensively from charges of racism, to research every possible way that innocent words might offend someone to stave off the attack. It thus causes white people to see black people as the enemy.

At this point in U.S. history, the charge of racism is one of the most damaging attacks anyone can make about anyone else's character. Those who so blithely throw it around this way are generating anger, confusion, and fear among those who would otherwise perhaps be spending their emotional energy in racially productive ways. That consequence is not just unfortunate. It creates further unfortunate consequences and prevents plenty of good consequences in the future by preempting a lot of good will that would otherwise be present.

So much for the case of someone who doesn't know of the baggage some people bring to their hearing of such terms. What about those who are aware of such racist uses? Surely they do know that it can be used in that way, so isn't that a reason to be careful and not cause offense? I don't think so. After all, those who thought 'niggardly' was a racial epithet were the ones making the mistake. No obligation falls on those who know that it is etymologically unconnected to the N-word and who know that its meaning is simply "stingy". The word has never meant anything else and continues to be a perfectly good word for what it's a word for. If people wrongly take it to be offensive, then it's offensive only in the sense that people actually do get offended, not in the sense that it itself is a legitimate cause of offense. No one ought to be offended by it, and those who are have made a mistake, one that gets compounded into a moral mistake if they pursue it even after learning what the word really means. So the mere fact that something might offend, even if I am aware of such potential offense, is not a reason for not using the word.

Is there something special about this case, then, given its actual history? The 'niggardly' case doesn't have that kind of history, nor does the case of 'picnic' (despite some claims to the contrary). Ultimately, this question depends on whether the racist use of 'tar baby' is the predominant and expected meaning in the context. Governor Romney was talking about a construction project as a political issue he doesn't really want to touch. Nothing in the context suggests anything racial. It looks to be exactly what he says it was, a sticky situation. Thus his use of the term hails back to the classic African origins of the expression and not the racist co-opting of it by ignorant white people whose efforts to change the word's meaning ought to be resisted rather than encouraged.

The original and most common use of an expression should be taken as the dominant, expected meaning whenever the context does not show another use to be more likely in that case. This is just a general principle of interpreting other people's statements. It is so with or without the existence of some deviant, racist use of an expression. Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply incompetent in the use of that term, and the fault is in the reception (whether a moral fault or just a linguistic one; I won't take a stand on that). In that way this is just like 'niggardly' except that in that case there was no racist use except in the ignorant imagination of the offended party who didn't know what the word meant. In this case there is a negative use, but it's not the standard meaning and therefore should never be our assumption as to a speaker's intent unless the context indicates otherwise.

Now if an expression's racist use gets so common, and its original use so uncommon, that the racist use gets assumed, then I think the situation is very different. I don't that's even close to the case with 'tar baby' or with 'call a spade a spade'. My complete lack of any awareness of the racist uses of those expressions demonstrates that. It's not even part of the linguistic toolbox of many speakers of U.S. English alone. So I think those who bludgeoned Romney into apologizing should apologize to him and take back any criticism they might have offered him. They should publicly condemn their suggestion that there was anything racially insensitive about his comments and ask his forgiveness for tarring his name in such a morally loaded way. The charge of racism is far too serious to throw around like this. It belittles real racism to do otherwise.

For more, see Eugene Volokh's post, which I didn't see until after I'd written most of this post. Also, CDR Salamander has a nice, informative post about the background to the term.

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11 Comments

A friend of mine was soundly scolded for being overheard saying, "There are too many coons in our neighborhood."

She was very angry because racoons had gotten into her back yard and eaten a pretty large dollar amount worth of koi.

Another note: I got called a "racist" by a high school student for using the term "that's like the pot calling the kettle black" - (She said "black"!!!)

Not I say, "that's like the ocean calling the river wet."

I suppose you might think the suggestion is that pots and kettles are both black even if the pot wants to think of itself as better than black. The assumption then would be that black is bad. Of course, there's no assumption that wet is bad in the second example you give, so I don't think such an argument can really be plausible if it's supposed to show that no one would use such an expression without thinking of black as bad, because someone can use the second expression without thinking of wet as bad.

I don't know what the kid thought...

It hadn't even occured to me that the cast iron thing would be a bad thing.

"My complete lack of any awareness of the racist uses of those expressions demonstrates that".

I wouldn't lean tot heavily on your lack of awareness as a proof. Having lived in Europe for six years now, I see my fellow Americans often show a shocking lack of awareness and sensitivity, one that a little effort could have overcome.

On a personal note, I was raised by a step-father who was racist. I could not have black friends from school spend the night and would hear racist jokes or slurs. I moved from Ohio into the South at eighteen and have spent 25 of my adult years there. Tar baby, spade, coon, and similiar expressions are offenisive to my ear. I don't use them with white people, anyone else, and they are not apart of my interior monologue.

Jeremy, I understand the logic of your argument on an academic level, but it "sounds" to me as if your lack of personal awareness or experience with racism directed toward you personally betrays an insensitivity your are indeed not aware of.

To my own ear, when my current Welsh or English white church memebers refer to our African members as "coloured" it is offensive to me, a white man, but because of my background I have kept the feeling to myself. Yet, for many "coloured" people in the UK it would be offensive and I think my members lack of awareness is no excuse in such a well-informed culture.

My congregation is multi-ethnic and multi-racial. To my knowledge, and I have enquired, there is no blatant racism among us. But experience has shown me that white majority members are often willingly ignorant of their "us" and "them" racist thinking.
My church, for a number of reasons, will be nearly all non-white in the next five years. And I am wondering what changes that will bring for us.

Last year my mother came to visit, her first time in Europe. She asked me, while in the car, why "they" drive on the "wrong" side of the road. I told her it wasnt' the wrong side, but the "other" side. If this was not such a typical American toursit comment, it could be dismissed as an isolated example of my mother's narrow unawareness. Unfortunately, Americans abroad are commonly known among the locals as patronizing and arrogantly ignorant, betraying the racist effects of isoloationism.

I suspect that such regional isolationism within the States results in similiar patronizing attitudes. That was certainly the case when I would return for visits to Ohio and have to put up with sterotypical remarks about lazy and ignorant Southern folk. Again, if it were not so common in southern Ohio, which joins Kentucky, I could account for it by family defects. Unfortunately, the close north-south proximity has done little to raise racial awareness and sensitivity to other sub-cultures.

I better stop here. I think I've scratched this itch long enough.

I think it's important to distinguish between not being sensitive to a localized phenomenon that one has no reason to be aware of and being insensitive. The latter has a very strong connotation that one has done something seriously immoral. If I'm being insensitive to my wife, it means not just that I didn't know better than to do something that happened to hurt her. It means that I had a strong obligation to know better. I don't think it counts as insensitive unless the obligation to know is strong enough.

Not being aware of something is in some sense not being sensitive, but the moral status depends entirely on how sensitive one should be. I don't think it's being insensitive to refer to a gooey substance as gook when the context shows that I'm not talking about an Asian in a derogatory way. It might be insensitive if the context involved an Asian person, but that's exactly what's not going on here.

If Romney had also been talking about someone in charge of the Big Dig who happened to be black, a case for racial insensitivity would be at least a little stronger. If the problem he was talking about was a racial problem or a problem that has a high proportion of people involved that are black (e.g. welfare), then it might be imprudent to call the problem a tar baby. You'd be at least in the ballpark. But there's nothing in the context of the Big Dig that remotely suggests anything other than what all the dictionaries Eugene Volokh checked said the word means.

In a comment on his post, Volokh indicates where he went to check the definition, and the list of dictionaries there is huge. Not one of them even includes the racial epithet meaning of the term. The mainstream, primary, original use of this term has nothing at all to do with race. When Toni Morrison realized this (she was well aware of the other use), she put in a good deal of effort to inform and correct her fellow black people about this by trying to reclaim the term in their minds in its original sense. That means that there is a sense in the minds of some black people that 'tar baby' just means this negative thing. I think most black people would take it as an insult if they were called a tar baby, even if they know the other use is the main one. But I don't think the offense in such a context is a reason to ignore the mainstream use of the term, which doesn't apply to people at all but to a sitution that doesn't necessarily involve race to begin with.

People who are unaware of the wider and original meaning of the expression are in a very unfortunate position, and education would be a good thing here so that they are more aware of the mainstream linguistic community. It is a good thing to be more aware, but that goes both ways, and the mainstream linguistic practice is always the dominant one that it would be good for those in sub-groups to understand. Obviously those criticizing Romney do not have all the information.

My primary advice here has not been to pretend that there is no deviant use of these terms. It's not as if I'd never heard anyone refer to the deviant use of 'tar baby'. I have seen the Chevy Chase/Richard Pryor SNL sketch. But when I saw that sketch I heard all sorts of expressions I'd never heard in a long list, and many of them were perfectly legitimate terms in other contexts. So why not 'tar baby' as well?

What I don't want to see is the culture of offense leading to such clear blame and derision at largely innocent and well-meaning statements as what I see here. I think that's counterproductive to the kind of movement I want to see in race relations. It causes resentment and fear, not understanding and appreciation.

I'm not recommending to those who primarily know the deviant use to work themselves into a position where they don't ever think of the deviant use when they hear the term. I'm recommending that such people resist the temptation to turn innocent, mainstream language use into an occasion for fostering bitterness and hatred on the part of the person who was doing something largely innocent and with no ill will. The culture of offense that this sort of thing is part of tends to do exactly that.

I also think there's a particularly higher call for those who are Christians. I can't see how the Sermon on the Mount allows for the kind of complaint of being mistreated that underlies the outrage against Romney's statement. At best, a loving aside to point out how the term will be perceived by some would be in order. I have done this many times when I've heard Asian people being called Oriental, something I would never have suspected anyone could find offensive until I went to college and had significant interaction with Asians beyond the occasional Asian classmate that I didn't know very well. But I would never condone someone standing up and calling on a politician to take back some statement about an Oriental, as if the person must automatically have said something deliberately offensive that betrays a racist attitude toward Asians. That's how Governor Romney has been treated. I don't know if the people doing this are Christians, but it's a thoroughly unChristian manner, and I would call them to rethink their actions from a Christian standpoint if indeed they are Christians, as I suspect some of them probably are.

I think I should clarify that there's a further sub-division between two kinds of insensitivity. One kind is not being aware of something you should be aware of that then allows you to do something that offends someone when you wouldn't expect it. Is that the kind of insensitivity that you say I'm displaying, Jan? If so, then I think you're missing something.

I am aware of the term 'tar baby' and its racist use and how offended some people might be at hearing it. I'm not diminishing the kind of feeling of offense that someone might have. I just have a philosophical view about the ethics of offense, and that view says it's wrong to respond a certain way when you are offended by something in a situation when there is a perfectly normal use of the term that shouldn't bring in such offense. I'm not denying the existence of the offense. I'm just stating a moral conclusion about what follows from the fact that someone is offended.

Another kind of insensitivity might be when someone is aware of something that might offend someone but not caring that it does. This is more an emotional disconnect rather than a moral failure to acquire information. Maybe you see that here, but I think that's also a misreading. I'm not trying to say that we shouldn't care about the feeling of offense. Otherwise I wouldn't make the efforts I do make to try to get people to be more concerned about how people will perceive things like calling Asians Oriental or using the term 'spade' for a black person rather than for a gardening implement.

So it's not that I don't care that someone is offended. It's that I'm putting forward a moral thesis about how to behave when people are offended by things like this, both how the offended person should behave and how the person who might say such a thing should behave.

Is there some other sense in which someone could be insensitive that fits better what I'm saying? I'm open to hearing what it is, but the only plausible ways I can think of don't actually fit with the facts here.

"At this point in U.S. history, the charge of racism is one of the most damaging attacks anyone can make about anyone else's character. Those who so blithely throw it around this way are generating anger, confusion, and fear among those who would otherwise perhaps be spending their emotional energy in racially productive ways."


Some of the things Jan mentions about living in the south ring true for our family. We moved to Mississippi three years ago, and since then any number of words have left my vocabulary due mainly to the confusion and fear you cite above. My wife has been accused of racism by elementary students in her Spanish class by responding to, "Are there any black people that speak Spanish," with "Plenty of black people grow up speaking Spanish." In that case, repeating the word black was seen as outlandish. My brother was visiting from Missouri when he was scolded by a counter clerk for placing his money on the counter while pulling individual bills from his wallet. When I explained later that the clerk probably saw his preoccupation as a personal affront, he remained confused for the rest of his visit.


War stories aside, though, I do see the culture of offense standing in the way of relationships in Mississippi. For some of my interactions, I can see that a black person is afraid of being discriminated against at the same time that I am afraid of being labelled a racist. Add to that the fact that some old school southerners take the culture of offense as a reason to hold on to obviously offensive sybols such as the confederate trappings and symbols still so prevalent here.

Jeremy, I suppose I'm arguing for a widening in the concept of localized context. Perhaps it is again my own locale in the UK that makes me feel the "global village" is about the size of the old neighborhood. In London there are three hundred languages spoken. Like it or not, those of us whose work depends so much on public and inter-personal communication skills need to make stronger efforts not to give unnecessary offense while at the same time knowing the nature of truth itself can be a deep offense to those who do not share the same moral committment.

I see this suppporting your moral argument for a more balanced understanding of racial sensitivity. Such a mix of racial and ethnic culture also needs a high tolerance in our use of language and I agree with you that this tolerance is rooted in a normative moral view, but not merely a utilitarian ethic of whatever works and is expedient.

I agree also with what you say regarding the Sermon on the Mouunt. And it is the Christian duty to uphold what "should" be.

I do think it is our natural tendency to over-estimate our awareness of others and we should take the greatest pains in looking at our own propensity to offend through self-assertion, being more concerned with how we offend than how we are offended.

Underlying racist language, unintentional or overt, lies deeper attitudes that concern me, primarily the attitude of being "better than" which seems ingrained in human beings, let alone in the majority race of any given group. The will-to-power gives energy to such attitudes and seeps out subtly in demeaning, culturaly coded language. Perhaps it is only my own personal corruption, but I find this is my default mode of thinking, behaving, and speaking, one that too often catches me out. Only a daily introspection and de-briefing seems to keep me aware of my leaning, in very hidden ways, toward a preference of my own race over others.

I try to control my language by controlling or changing my attitudes and core values as necessary, which means a constant effort to identify with those I perceive as "unlike" me. I find it very difficult and that may simply be because I was raised around racist attitudes. I would not suggest it is everyone else's problem and do not want to imply it is yours on any intentional level.

Let me close by also confessing a tension between the moral imperative of what "should" or "ought" to be and how I find myself actualy being on any given day. I follow a qualifying dictum that helps me: Knowledge when combined with piety is a power for good. Knowledge without piety is merely power. I believe in the first but often find myself in the second. Only God's grace helps me live as I should rather than as I would.

As an endnote, Jeremy, I lack your philosophical grounding. I'm doing the best I can to keep up. Sorry, if I miscontrue your position(s).

An added note. In my first comment, Jeremy, I said: "...I understand the logic of your argument on an academic level, but it "sounds" to me as if your lack of personal awareness or experience with racism directed toward you personally betrays an insensitivity your are indeed not aware of." I want to accent that when I said "sounds" I am aware that it is a very subjective value judgement. As what you may or may not have experienced with racism is beyond my knowledge, and rereading my statement, it strikes me as unfair, as does my reference to your insensitivity. I need to look at where that part of my response came from. Anyway, I apologize.

I discovered a post I wrote near the very beginning of my blog that makes essentially this point against a very specific version of the mindset that I disagree with in this post. I thought it might be worth pointing out that post in this thread. Essentially, it argues that we can't take a term to be offensive simply because a sub-segment of the population uses it exclusively in an offensive way.

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