What happens when concern about racism is focused on policing the words that antiracist people use, rather than the acts of actual racists?
Americans have a serious and complex problem with the notion of free speech. While everyone accepts the dogma that freedom of expression is an absolute right enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, more and more Americans appear to find some types of speech illicit, if not downright reprehensible. One approach to condemning other people’s speech — the one preferred by Donald Trump’s White House — consists of crying, “fake news.” Another, which most people associate with liberals, is political correctness (PC), which, in the minds of its practitioners, functions like a secondary legal system.
Though considerable overlap exists, most cultures make a clear distinction between speech and action. When talking about other people’s actions (not our own), we tend to speak of “behavior,” which though officially neutral always seems to carry a negative connotation. We tend to make a dubious distinction: we do something, we “act” while others “behave” (i.e., badly, incorrectly, poorly, inappropriately).
The Daily Devil’s Dictionary has already defined the word “behavior” as it was used in a specific context, by the US government accusing the Iranian government of “malign behavior” We come back to the same word today to analyze how it plays out in everyday US culture, and more particularly in PC culture.
The respected and accomplished actor Viggo Mortensen has provided the latest example of bad behavior in the eyes of his judges. While explaining the racist historical background of his most recent film situated in the South in 1962, he actually used an anagram of “ginger,” aka the n-word, in a sentence.
A right-thinking PC adjudicator, the largely unknown freelance director Dick Schultz — possibly seeking his first 15 minutes of fame — complained to The Hollywood Reporter about this violation of decency and is quoted by The Guardian as adding: “I have no idea why this isn’t a big news story. Viggo is wildly talented but that kind of behavior needs to be publicly checked.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
1. As used by scientists: comportment, the way individuals act in specific situations
2. As used by ordinary people: Action by another person that reveals a fault in that person’s character
As always with PC, Mortensen accepted to apologize. Deconstructing his full apology tells us a lot about US culture. Here is how it reads: “Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man. I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”
The first thing to notice is that if Mortensen was unambiguously speaking “strongly against racism,” his accusers consider that the speaker’s intentions, however obvious, are irrelevant. Mortensen states that he has “no right to even imagine the hurt … caused.” In other words, PC functions as the ultimate American “bill of rights,” defining not only what one can express, but what one can imagine. Dare we call this an attempt at mind control?
Mortensen adds a proviso: “especially from a white man.” We should thus understand that in a racist society, where white privilege continues to do untold damage to black lives on every level (economic, academic, law enforcement), the PC strictures applied to the n-word allow the white community to think that, if they refrain from pronouncing the “full word” (i.e., more than the first letter), they are not racist.
Despite the US Supreme Court deciding in the case of Shelby v. Holder that racism was no longer a serious issue in the US electoral system, a glance at the news demonstrates that racism is not only alive and well, it is still the defining, existential issue at the core of US culture. The issue of voter suppression targeting minorities in the recent midterm elections testifies to the persistence of institutional racism.
The weapons people used to combat racism in the 20th century were protests and sometimes riots, followed by the laws we associate with the heroic days of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson. Those laws included restrictions on states’ manipulation of voting rights (now permitted) and affirmative action, which racist politicians and pundits have successfully branded “reverse racism” to perpetuate at least some of the traditional economic advantages reserved for the white majority.
In other words, racists have succeeded in undermining the law of the land as well as the spirit of that law by convincing those who officially oppose racism (some of whom may be racists themselves) that shaming people who pronounce a word with a history we should all know about constitutes an effective defense against the prevailing racism. Hypocrites always prefer repression to the hard work of resolution.
Anyone who feels reassured by Mortensen’s forced confession should spend the next few days reading up about the Spanish Inquisition and Joseph Stalin’s show trials. They should also think about whether racism has anything to do with vocabulary, a mere symptom, but not the disease. Mortensen is absolutely not a racist, but the word he used has branded him with a scarlet W. And like Hester Prynne, and her scarlet letter, he has accepted it. However, one thing his speech was not is… behavior!
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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