Magic Word Politics

I’m pretty sure this will just recapitulate what’s been said on a language log post somewhere, but here goes.

Over at Acephalous, a few idiots have picked a fight with Scott Eric Kaufman. The context: NIT, a blog run by an ABC affiliate set itself the task of linking to posts from various blogs in the Nashville area, with little or no editorial activity. The idea was just to be a clearinghouse of other people’s statements. If I judge things correctly, it was a glorified RSS reader that was a pain in the ass for someone to maintain. As such, linking to material is not credibly seen as an endorsement of it. Some people didn’t get that, but they did ensure that the author was fired. Kaufman pointed out that people who adamantly refuse to pay attention to context, well, suck. Saying this makes Kaufman a white supremacist, who will be exposed to his department (the links give a lot of details, but if you just read the acephalous posts, that’s enough).

What’s striking about all of this is the underlying ideology of people like Rupp. For them, the very words used in hate speech are so dangerous that they cannot ever be uttered. Rupp wouldn’t put things that way-it’s crazy, but it’s the only way to make sense of what he does say. The words don’t have power because they’re used to to demean people and express racist attitudes, they just have power by themselves. Anytime they are mentioned, it is dangerous. Even if context makes it clear that the words are being quoted without endorsement, it is equally culpable, because the words still do their damage.

How could that possibly be true? Slurs have their force because they are a certain type of speech act, backed up by the attitudes and the intentions of the people using them. That’s why it isn’t offensive for Google to show results which have offensive material-it’s just mechanical reproduction.

Rupp’s response to this is that it’s just stimulus-response. I see something that looks like offensive material, I exhibit outrage. I don’t stop to ask if my outrage is justified, if there is actually anything offensive, I just react based on my gut. But while we all sometimes respond without thought, we’re not entitled to do so. What Rupp et al. do is self-consciously elevate stimulus-response patterns to the entirety of political activity, backed up by a fewself-serving rationalizations.

Aside: I should note that there’s a reasonable point that sounds a bit like what I’m attributing to Rupp, but which is actually much different. Obviously, the words used in hate speech have some psychological effect on people, and so it’s wise to avoid using them, even in quotations. It was hate speech when one debater I knew of responded to the question “so, what is hate speech?”, by the giving the example “go suck on a banana, you dirty monkey…”(with much more in the same awful vein). There are exceptions though: sometimes it is impossible to explain what was said without using the very slurs in question. This case was actually one of them, because the material that was quoted on NIT wasn’t an otherwise ordinary post with a single slur in it, but rather a string of phrases. I don’t think that any of these phrases are normally expunged from reports of what people said, by the way. So the choices were to either reprint it or print the uninformative “So and so offered a racist obituary. That’s bad.”


One response to “Magic Word Politics

  1. Scott Eric Kaufman

    Just wanted to thank you for kind words here, and defense at JG’s. I appreciate it more than you know.