Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I'd Like to Thank Hitler

NO! I don't thank Hitler! Because everything Hitler stood for, I stand against. The title of this post refers to a skit by The Kids in the Hall, summarized here that depicts a career-destroying utterance of an idiot.

A literary analogue was recently perpetrated by Ms. Victoria Foyt who claims not to be a racist. Yet, she has written a series of books "Save The Pearls" that refers to blacks as "coals" and whites as "pearls." This is not prima facie evidence of racism. But close.

I detest those who find racism where it is not. For example, Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain has been called racist.

Look at the illustration, the black guy is kneeling! It's racist because Huck uses the n-word! 

But Huck is saves the life of his friend Jim who happens to be black and learns to recognize an escaped slave is a far better man than the white scalawags called the duke and the king.

Is it worse to use the n-word or to make a codeword of "coal?" I don't know. I will not judge Ms. Foyt innocent or guilty of racism, because nobody will pay me to gather the evidence to render an informed judgment. Instead, I'm interested in the controversy.

Sometimes, the way you make a point makes it impossible for anyone to hear that point. A good example an idea that Ann Coulter advanced a few years ago. One must separate sympathetic feelings for a person from the merits of what that person is advocating. If Hitler advocates that two plus two is four, then we cannot let our distaste for Hitler make us innumerate.

Instead of saying something like that, Ms. Coulter referred to 9-11 widows as crying, hysterical women. Passions have cooled a little in the intervening years, but the colossal insensitivity of saying "crying, hysterical women" drowned out anything else she had to say. Yes, she gained a lot of notoriety from the remarks, and she was invited to all the chat shows, but nobody cared a fig about the essence of her argument, just the outrageous clothing it wore.

When you sit down to write, have in mind what you want to say. There are live, high-voltage lines that if you brush up against them, the sparks and fire will blind your readers to it. (If you think some politician is a poopy-head, half the people in the country voted for that poopy-head and the other half voted against him. Do you want your reader response to depend upon party affiliation? I don't, because I'm a Whig.) You need to be sensitive to where the high-voltage lines are and stay clear of them.

Our words are not judged by what we intend, but by how they are received.

If you have a character say, "that's mighty white of you," your readers might not appreciate the fact that you intended it as a gentle dig against white people. My sainted mother never held any ill will against followers of Judaism, yet she used the idiom "Jewing him down" when she meant nothing besides negotiating a better price. You can use idiomatic language like that, but when you do, sparks can fly. Those sparks may not be what you want.

Just ask Ms. Foyt.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent, eye-catching post. A few years ago I was horrified when I realized that a term from my youth - one intended to mean cheated - was a slur against the Romany. It makes one want to check the etemology of all colliquialisms. (Had to look up the spelling on that bad boy.)

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    1. The OED has gypped as a contraction of gee-up, from flogging a horse, so I think that's another "niggardly". Nothing to do with gypsies.

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  2. Well stated. A while ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing the controversy over use of the word, "niggardly." A guy passing the table stopped and said, "You better shut your mouth!" By then, it was already too late to explain that the word was etymologically unrelated to the one he thought that he heard us say and that that was the point of our discussion. We could only agree to shut our mouths.

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  3. The guy passing by was a bully, no more no less. And bullies generally swim in the shallow end of the gene pool.

    A local politician got in trouble for using that exact same word and the charge of racism against the fellow actually got traction. I did not dare use it for that same reason. I just say, the other n-word meaning stingy.

    For the record, I am the sort of sexist who will not advocate to end Women's Sufferage.

    And I'm convinced President Obama is a Keynesian.

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