Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Context Matters

Recently, there's been a minor kerfuffle reported in the news over the use of the word "retard" by prominent newsmakers like Rahm Emanuel, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh.  The ensuing controversy has led to a publicized backlash against the so-called "R-word".  Amidst the hubbub though, this weekend in the Washington Post came a refreshingly level-headed column by Ohio State law professor Christopher Fairman, about the controversy.  While his explanation of the evolution of "retard" from politically correct to incorrect is interesting, it's his examination of word taboos in general that I find most interesting.

Fairman points out what is obvious to most of us: that phrases like "that's so retarded" or "that's so gay" are typically not meant as insults to the mentally disabled or to homosexuals, respectively, but are meant as generic put-down words.  I don't condone incivility or homophobia, and I don't think Fairman is granting a free pass to the users of those words--rather, just pointing out that the use of those words has a casual, inoffensive context (what he terms "readily identifiable alternative meanings"), and is not indicative of the user's personal insensitivity or bigotry.

We can all agree that reducing the frequency of saying phrases like the examples cited would be a good thing, making our discourse more polite.  However, usage of the phrase is not by itself indicative of malicious intent.  Given that we live in a culture that is all too often too quick to look for and take insult, it would be helpful to remember that words themselves are not the problem, but the meaning behind them

Context matters.  That's what I thought a few weeks ago when I heard about NBC apologizing for its cafeteria menu offering fried chicken and collard greens on its Black History Month menu.  Although I initially raised my eyebrows, I then asked myself, is this actually racist?  Was there a malicious intent?  Are those foods not historically associated with blacks in America, at least in the South?  Would there have been similar complaints if Salvadoran History Month featured pupusa specials, or Indian History Month featured dosas?  How exactly--if at all--do you want to teach a history lesson through a cafeteria meal?  It turns out the NBC menu was personally created by the cafeteria chef, a black woman, who had specifically requested to have that offering for one day.  Clearly there was no ill-will or patronizing stance coming from her.

All too often people forget about intent before crying "racism!" or whatever other grounds for offense they are taking.  Again, to be clear, if ill will was actually meant and a person is purely spewing noxious hate, I am against that, and that kind of speech or action should be challenged.  Regardless, I think it would be definitely helpful for people in general to not get offended so easily--toughen up mentally!  Ultimately, words or ideas only have what power you accord them, and if you don't let the mere sight of one affect your psyche, then you immediately defuse its destructive potential.  Put in simpler terms: shrug it off.  Crisis averted.


Andrew Tourtellot said...

I completely agree with both you and the linked column. I've argued against taking offense before, regarding mindless use of "gay", and received the expected level of backlash. Probably shouldn't have made my stand on an internet message board...

Jack the Blogger said...

Yes, context matters. Republicans need to be careful about getting too caught up in the use of the R-word because going forward Joe Q. Congressman (R) might convey a different meaning altogether to their Democratic counterparts! You might just want to consider "Do Republicans have a sense of humor?" as your next blog post?