Saturday, May 02, 2015

Not Offending May Not Be Enough

Steve M. makes a interesting and thought-provoking argument  when he blogs

Mike Huckabee's PAC just put out a pugnacious ad for his presidential campaign. It blames Bill and Hillary Clinton for the poor treatment of Huckabee by then-majority Arkansas Democrats when he was elected lieutenant governor in 1993 (the ad implies that the Clintons were personally responsible for the mistreatment, but Bill had been president for nearly a year by then). The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza isextremely impressed by this ad, though it's no nastier about the Clintons than every other Republican's ads will be, and it sacrifices some of what used to be one of Huckabee's natural advantages -- his nice-guy persona -- for standard-issue GOP slash-and-burn.

But that's not why I'm writing about the ad. I want to direct your attention to something Huckabee says about 36 seconds in:

In Cillizza's words:

Ask yourself who in the current 2016 Republican (or Democratic) field could say the following words without sounding like a total phony: "Any drunken redneck can walk into a bar and start a fight. A leader only starts a fight he's prepared to finish." The answer is, aside from Huckabee, no one.
The problem isn't that anyone else in the field who said that would sound like a phony -- the problem is that anyone else who said it would be offending rural Southern voters. Jeb can't say it. Marco and Scott and Rand can't say it.

So why can Huckabee say it? Because he's a genuine son of the rural South. He's eaten squirrel. It's his group. So he can use a word for members of the group that would be offensive coming from an outsider.

Which is precisely how the N-word works. Black people have a certain leeway regarding its use that we white people don't, and it's not because black people are special -- it's because in-group members always have a certain leeway regarding in-group slurs.

I've said this before here, but I grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood, and when I was a child I regularly heard Italian-American adults use words like "guinea" and "greaseball" in reference to fellow Italians when talking to other Italians. Within the group it was fine. Outside the group, not so much. Whether you like the logic or not, that's how it works.


Sure, Huckabee can say things to a southern crowd that the other candidates can't because he is "a genuine son of the rural South."  Nonetheless, SM uncharacteristically misses a few points.

Leave aside for the moment that however offensive "redneck" (or even "drunken redneck") is, it is less offensive and incendiary than the "n" word.  SM evidently believes that Italian-American adults using words like "guinea" and "greasball" were inoffensive and thus acting appropriately when talking to other Italians.

But it wasn't fine. It was merely not offensive. The two colloquialisms still were (and are) derogatory terms. Moreover, use of the terms by Italian-Americans helped normalize them, implanting the message that they were acceptable- after all, even that group was using them.

Notice, additionally, how SM slips in the noun "adults."  Most blacks- as with most non-blacks- using the "n" word are not adults, but  juveniles.

Consider that not only are blacks using the word with other blacks often given a pass, but whites are sometimes, also. If you as a European-American, while clearly not in anger use the "n" word with a black friend, you may (depending on the circumstance) not be rebuked. Your friend, believing that you are not a bigot and don't mean it in a racist sense, may not be offended.

And that would be... what- okay?  It would be fine if our only consideration were whether an individual or a group is offended.  When increasingly these days we are armed with our exquisite sensitivity, our feelings become not only an inflated issue but the only issue.  We have lost sight of the term "derogatory" and the accompanying concept that some actions and statements simply are wrong.    Repeating an offensive word ad infinitum does not justify using it.

The members of the group may believe they are privileged and enjoy the untrammeled right, immune from criticism, to use the "n" word or, in Steve M.'s old neighborhood, the "g" word. Nonetheless, they can't escape the reality that outsiders are going to believe (or accept subconsciously) that the term- allegedly so offensive to the group- must then be acceptable. Whether you like the logic or not, that's how it works.

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