The winner of the Miss America contest in 2003 campaigns for sexual abstinence. She is invited to speak at the 2004 Republican national convention in New York, where George Bush was nominated for a second term. She graduates from University of Illinois Phi Beta Kappa, and distinguishes herself at Harvard Law School.
But for some in downstate Illinois that’s not as important as her mixed racial background. When Erika Harold decided to challenge Rodney Davis for his congressional seat, Jim Allen, the Republican Party chair of Montgomery County, wrote the following: “Rodney Davis will win and the love child of the DNC will be back in Shitcago working for some law firm that needs to meet their quota for minority hires. . . . miss queen is being used like a street walker and her pimps are the DEMOCRAT PARTY and RINO REPUBLICANS.” Mr. Allen assumed this political analysis would be popular among his Republican colleagues, so he sent it to Doug Ibendahl, the editor of the Republican News Watch website, who used to be the lawyer for the Illinois Republican Party.
Politics can be as exciting as mixed martial arts, but many more people will have heard about the troubles that Paula Deen, a celebrity cook with her own TV show, has gotten into with her opinions on race relations. Deen and her brother are being sued by a former employee, who said the environment in their restaurant in Savannah was poisoned by racial slurs and sexual harassment. In court depositions, Deen admitted to using racist language, telling jokes denigrating minorities, and planning a “southern plantation wedding” for her brother in 2007, with black waiters playing the role of slaves.
These incidents would not have been news when I was growing up. Now they cause an uproar. Jim Allen has resigned his Republican Party office and Paula Deen’s show is being cancelled by the Food Network. The difference is that racist talk is no longer tolerated. North or South, liberal or conservative, public racism is unacceptable, and racist words are likely to have bad consequences for the speaker. Although some people complain about “political correctness”, the Jim Allen incident demonstrates that there are still plenty of white people who will publicly slander minorities.
But the effort to eliminate such nasty features of public discourse can go too far. Many institutions struggle with defining what constitutes a level of uncivil discourse that should be punished. The Office of Civil Rights, in the federal Department of Education, recently offered a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country” on what constitutes sexual harassment. The OCR stated that sexual harassment should be defined as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature”. What is “unwelcome”, however, is not to be judged by an “objectively reasonable person”. So who gets to judge whether a lecture about the AIDS epidemic, a discussion of a novel with sexually active characters, a poetry reading, or a film represent sexual harassment? Some commentators believe that speakers will be punished if anyone is offended at anything they say.
There are always complaints from parents of school children that particular books in classrooms or libraries are offensive. Recently a Michigan mother objected to the use of Anne Frank’s “Diary” in her seventh-grade daughter’s classroom, because of Anne’s discussion of her genitalia. In many schools, Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” was controversial because of the frequent use of the word “nigger”.
Some of these cases are easy to judge. Jim Allen’s email tirade was based in racism and designed to harm both Erika Harold and every other black person. On the other hand, we might label Paula Deen as an unconscious racist, if we assume that she doesn’t realize after 50 years of civil rights discussion that she needs to give up some elements of her Southern upbringing. Is her YouTube apology enough?
Finding acceptable solutions to such conflicts can be difficult. A ban on any use of a particular word doesn’t work. The politics of language is rooted in time and place. George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee in 1972 for disturbing the peace, when he performed the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. Now those words can be heard everywhere, but the N-word has nearly disappeared.
We will always have arguments about what we should and shouldn’t say. Our language will continue to evolve in tune with our changing political culture. Blanket condemnations of “political correctness” are themselves politically one-sided. Attempts to punish every speech which offends anyone will prevent healthy controversy and leave us stuck in the status quo. We have to understand speech from the points of view of the speaker and the listener, which will help us recognize the difference between Jim Allen’s hate speech, Paula Deen’s ignorant speech, and Mark Twain’s literary speech. As difficult as it is, we must use common sense.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 25, 2013