It happens quite frequently. You are in a social situation and someone makes a comment in passing that displays a level of, if not outright bigotry, at least some insensitivity to issues of race or gender or sexuality. The remark is usually thrown out casually as if the speaker thinks that this view is the norm or correct. What should one do in such a situation?
I used to be quite conflicted about such things in the past, thinking that trying to correct or at least challenge the statement would take the conversation into areas of tension that were not appropriate for a casual, non-political setting. So I would take the easy way out and be silent.
But no longer. I have come to realize that silence is taken as agreement and not challenging such things only makes these obnoxious views more entrenched. So now I take on the issue, trying to present the counter-view as gently but as firmly as possible, usually with some apologetic preamble to cushion the fact that I thought the speaker was dead wrong. It has worked out well, with people not reacting as angrily or as defensively as one might expect and makes me deeply regret the fact that I did not speak out more forcefully earlier on. Of course, one explanation for the lack of hostility I receive may be that as an older grey-haired man, and an academic to boot, I carry a kind of default gravitas that makes challenging me harder to do than would have been the case in my younger days.
But not everyone has my protective shield of old, male, academic privilege and for them doing the right thing can result in angry responses. Amy Bailey, a journalist working for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, recently attended a Green Bay Packers football TV watching party where someone casually made a racial slur. Her immediate reaction was something that I am all too familiar with. As she wrote later in her column as the community editor of the paper:
Immediately, the buzzing started in the back of my brain as a flurry of emotion and flat-out blind rage swirled. I thought, “What? Did he just say that?”
I wasn’t in my own house and this wasn’t my guest, but I wasn’t going to not say anything. My response was not at all articulate; it was something along the lines of “That is totally inappropriate. You can’t say that.”
I was quickly criticized for being too politically correct. You know, in that broad-brush “the elitist journalist doesn’t think we should say that word” kind of way. Then there was a joke about it being inappropriate to even call the player pileup a “big group hug.”
So here I am, by myself, trying to articulate — on Sept. 28, 2014 — that you cannot possibly equate the horribleness of the N-word, a word that conveys sub-humanness, to a gutless PC joke about a “group hug.”
She wrote about that and similar experiences and ended up with a sentiment that I share.
But there is perhaps a road to eventually ending racism. I would like to think it’s paved with words and actions from me and plenty of others who, in the presence of ignorant slurs or actions, speak up and say, “Stop,” “You can’t say that,” or “That’s not right,” even if it’s totally uncomfortable.
But in response to her column she received an ugly letter from someone claiming to represent ‘real men’ who said that it was wrong for a woman to publicly correct a man and that she had no right to ‘regulate his speech’ and that a woman (he actually used a crude term) with views like hers had no right to be at a football watching party. He gave his reasoning in a two page letter that you can read here and here.
The letter was interesting for several reasons. One is that it was clearly the work of a highly educated person. There was not a single typo or major grammatical error that I noticed in two single-spaced typed pages. The second was that he seemed fully aware of the fact that certain language was derogatory to people of color and women. And yet, he felt that in certain contexts, it was appropriate. His argument was clear and yet repulsive and could be summarized in this one sentence that said “My point is that what is considered acceptable talk is very specific to the context and to the age, gender, sensitivities and degree of enlightenment of the people in a given setting.”
So basically, he was arguing that pretty much anything goes when it comes to the context of football, which does not reflect at all well on the people who watch this game.
What is interesting is that people who object, on the grounds of free speech, to being called out for saying obnoxious things seem to not apply that logic consistently. If you have the right to say racist things, then an observer has the right to call you out on it. After all, Bailey was not asking that the man be arrested and prosecuted for what he said. But for these people, the right to free speech does not just mean the right to say anything, it also means the right to not be challenged for doing so.
That is not a free speech claim. That is a claim of privilege.