Wednesday, April 02, 2014

You Cannot Lose If You Do Not Play

American society has vastly differing sensitivities to treatment of different groups. But in trying to protect people's feelings by further sanitizing language, we only give bigots ammunition. A better solution is to see slurs as ridiculous, not taboo.

#CancelColbert was the Twitter protest movement that spiked last week in response to an allegedly racially insensitive tweet made by the official account of The Colbert Report. That tweet was a relay of a joke Stephen Colbert made on his show, skewering Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for trying to counter criticism of the "Redskins" name--which many consider a slur--through his new Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Colbert demonstrated the absurdity of using offensive language in the group's very name by comparing it to an Asian-focused group called "The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever".

So when the anti-Colbert backlash arose, I paid it little attention, figuring this was another unfortunately-common-on-the-Internet incident of undue outrage being whipped up due to context unconsidered, or worse, willfully ignored in order to advance an agenda. Surely, anyone familiar with Colbert's work would not consider him a racist, and seeing the clip would no more lead a person to conclude he wished to denigrate Asians than reading "A Modest Proposal" might convince a person Jonathan Swift advocated cannibalism to keep the numbers of poor Irish in check. Further, I feared such unwarranted outrage would give ammunition to true bigots who often hide behind claims against an overzealous "P.C. (politically correct) police". A comment on one blog cheekily captured my fear: "This is why liberals can't have nice things."

The protest movement's backers soon coalesced around the narrative that they understood satire, but were against making Asians "collateral damage" to prove a point about racism. The ever-insightful Jay Caspian Kang wrote in the New Yorker, “If I were to predict which minority group the writers of a show like The Colbert Report would choose for an edgy, epithet-laden parody, I’d grimace and prepare myself for some joke about rice, karate, or broken English.” In Salon, Brittney Cooper wrote "If Colbert had used the N-word instead to prove his point about Natives, we would have been outraged." Now that this episode had revealed the different standards our society has for treating different groups, my attention was piqued.

The uproar showed mainstream America is not particularly sensitive to potentially offending Native Americans, but with other groups there is much more caution. I concur with the #CancelColbert folks that it is impossible to conceive that such a joke would have ever been made about blacks. Nor do I suspect Colbert and his largely liberal audience would go for that joke about Arabs or people of Muslim descent, given the contemporary Islamophobia of the extreme right-wing in this country. Asians, on the other hand, stereotyped as academically and professionally successful, make a safer target.

Where I differ vehemently from Colbert's critics is the lesson to be learned. Whereas they want to protect Asians from being exposed to insulting language, I feel that marking off certain words as "taboo" gives bigots a powerful tool they do not deserve to have. Far better to defuse those of their loaded significance instead. I once argued with two dear Asian-American friends after watching Gran Torino that "slant-eyed" was only a "dehumanizing" term (as one of them characterized it) still if they really believed that was a negative characteristic to possess, as opposed to the natural appearance of literally billions of people.Meanwhile, "nigger" is rightly considered a horrifying and filthy word, given America's shameful history of slavery and oppression of blacks. But constantly euphemistically referring to "the N-word",2 while maintaining that the word can be reclaimed positively as "nigga" or celebrated in rap music--but only by blacks--is not logically sound. It keeps the word ultra-controversial and divisive, allowing it to scandalize and continue to cause hurt, rather than it just being seen as an ugly vestige of a less-enlightened past.

The only way to change this, and move on to a better, "post-racial" society is to see these taboo words as stupid, not destructive. One of my favorite quotes from my favorite TV show of all-time, The Wire, is "You cannot lose if you do not play." Applied here, that means, you will not be victimized if you do not allow yourself to be hurt by idiotic, antiquated bigotry. Every right-minded person knows that race -- or gender, or sexuality -- is a construct that has no importance when it comes to a person's worth as an individual and their capabilities. Did someone call you a "turbanhead" or make monkey noises or crudely refer to your sexual preference? Demeaning words and slurs lose their power if you do not let them affect you, if you see them as outdated relics of a backward society, if you see people who use them are sad and desperate. In short, don't feel like a victim. And let's save our outrage for the still innumerable instances of real bigotry -- codified discrimination, conscious and unconscious biases, even physical violence -- that hurt people whether or not they choose to feel hurt by it.

1. In a previous blog post, I noted how I saw while living in Peru people with traditionally Asian features are routinely referred to as chinos or chinas or having "Chinese eyes", with no offense intended nor taken.

2. As Louis C.K. has brilliantly pointed out, "When you say 'the N-word' you put the word 'nigger' in the listener's head. that's what saying the word is... Don't hide behind the first letter!"


Philip Ries said...

Isn't the real problem the fact that many groups have no choice but to live with institutional and interpersonal discrimination? Their ignoring the background of a word wouldn't change the discrimination behind that word, would it?

And it's one thing to ignore a slur used in the media, but when it's used in polite one-on-one conversation, can you really ask people to let it slide all the time? Victims have the right to be sensitive.

Anonymous said...

Hail to the Redskins!

Jay said...

Phil, no one's arguing that folks don't have the right to feel offended. However, we are all better off in the long run if slurs lose their power because we view them as ridiculous, not devastating -- inducing an eye-roll instead of furious indignation.

The ability to hurt people with words is a tool of bigots that we need to strip from them. They will still discriminate, but would-be victims strengthen themselves by becoming impervious to being hurt by slurs, and thus, bigotry as an institution is weakened.

As for your hypothetical, it's not really "polite one-on-one conversation" if someone is slurring you, is it? In that case, I'd be more appalled by the other person's rudeness than specific phrasing.

Philip Ries said...

Even if this was just about slurs themselves, is there any literature that supports the effectiveness of the adage, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me?" How many slurred students have been bolstered with this saying, yet still feel hurt and dehumanized by bullies? Anecdotally, quite a few. I think there needs to be evidence that this plan can work before we tell minorities that one way to move forward together is if they could somehow manage to suppress emotions tied to hearing slurs. It may indeed be true, but it's asking too much and comes a little too close to blaming the victim for my taste.

Regarding offense in polite one-on-one conversations: of course it happens. One of Suey Park's groundbreaking points is that well-meaning white liberals frequently cross the line from help to condescension, and never realize it. For example, asking "Is that your real name?". Joking about slurs can sometimes fit this description.

Philip Ries said...

Study shows that people observing a slur, and reacting negatively, still subconsciously fault the slurred person. Slurs are not OK.

Jay said...

I'm not arguing that slurs don't have the potential to cause harm, my point is that by making them taboo they retain a potency they wouldn't have if we encouraged reaction to them to be some combination of incredulity and pity that the person trying to feel empowered by putting down another person because of their race/religion/etc. still believes in this day&age in such stupid notions.

Until my teenage years, I grew up in public school environments where I was a minority and was frequently made fun of for (among other things) my ethnicity, my name, the way I pronounced certain words, the ethnic food Mom used to pack me for lunch (and which I revolted against, much like the scene in an early episode of Fresh off the Boat). Having a teacher or authority figure tell kids not to say such things didn't make feel me better, it just felt like proof they were right and that I should be ashamed of those things.

What was actually helpful was later developing the self-confidence to realize it's cool to speak multiple languages, have a broad palate, etc. With that perspective of empowerment, it's easy then to correctly view bigots not as people who can deeply injure you, but as people to be pitied for not being able to appreciate the things you can, for not having had as rich a life experience, for having such a sheltered and bitter worldview. (In this way, too, it's easy to separate malicious intent from otherwise nice, earnest people in cases like "Is that your real name?" -- instead of feeling emotionally crippled, you can answer "Yes, my parents named me for their favorite actor, David Hasselhoff!" or "Actually, I was borne Xiaoke/Mohammed/Abhijay, but only my grandma calls me that. I've preferred 'Joe' ever since watching GI Joe cartoons as a kid.")

Tl;dr: The paternalistic approach many liberals take on this issue doesn't actually empower minority victims of discrimination; it validates and reinforces discrimination.