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Linguistic Landmines: In Defense of the Offensive

Note: This installment of the Toteboard addresses some very sensitive issues, and in so doing quotes sources that employ offensive and denigrating language.

It’s very tempting these days to fall into a certain despair about America, what with the rise of racist and xenophobic populism, the decline of civil discourse, and the well-documented ideological and cultural polarization of society. But it’s also important to remember that much of this festering dysfunction has its roots in a backlash against the country’s gradual movement toward inclusivity and cosmopolitanism, developments that can present significant challenges but are clearly signs of an arc bending toward justice. And so yes, there is still systemic racism and aggrieved entitlement, but this country is not the America that many of us (or our parents and grandparents) knew not too long ago. Even at the beginning of the new millennium, it would have seemed like hopeless idealism to imagine that the next two decades would see a Black man elected president, twice, a checks-a-lot-of-boxes woman elected vice-president, a transgender woman nominated for a senior position in the federal government, gay and lesbian couples marrying legally every day, a boy with a stutter speaking at the current president’s inauguration, and so on. In many ways, we do live in a more inclusive America, and are the better for it.


One of the positive changes accompanying this broadening of American identity is a growing awareness of how destructive certain types of language can be, and with that a widespread public rejection of terms that insult or demean whole groups of people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, physical or mental capacity, and so on. In the light of contemporary sensibilities, one might be inclined to forget just how breezily those with power and privilege used to employ racial and ethnic slurs, even in “polite company,” with utter disregard for whomever they were maligning and no real fear of accountability. When the not-yet-legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich was a young marine serving at Naval Base San Diego in the early 1940’s, a (so-called) superior officer called him a “Jew kike son-of-a-bitch,” an experience that many Jewish veterans of that era reported was quite common. In this particular instance, the famously hot-tempered Rich (who was a judo instructor during his time in the Marines) responded by laying out the asshole, an action that probably felt great at the time, but also earned him a stint in solitary confinement. And he no doubt would have stayed there for a while had it not been for that force for all that was good and just in America, Harpo Marx, who threatened to pull out of a scheduled USO show if Rich remained in detention. A dozen years later, when Elston Howard became the first African-American player on the Yankees, team manager Casey Stengel notoriously “joked” to the press, “When I finally get a nigger, I get the only one that can’t run.” For what it’s worth, this was typical Stengel, a sexagenarian baseball lifer and Vaudeville-esque double-talker who played the New York press corps like a five-string banjo. Stengel’s biographer characterized him (without any intended irony) as “racist only in the casual, unthinking way that most of his generation of Americans were,” and Howard’s widow Arlene even claimed that “there was nothing malicious about what Casey had said.” In fact, Arlene Howard noted that her husband was actually more offended at the implication that he – a former track star and one-time International League leader in triples – was slow, though years of crouching behind home plate would eventually take a toll on his legs. For those who don’t know the rest of the story, the gentlemanly Howard would later become the first Black player to win the MVP in the American League, and the first Black base coach in the AL, and he really should have been the first Black manager in all of Major League baseball. In any event, this is the kind of language that surely still exists, but no longer passes unnoticed in the public sphere. It’s pretty telling that in a 1981 episode of the award-winning sit-com “Barney Miller,” a Black character used the word “nigger” for comic (albeit darkly comic) effect, even as you’d never hear anyone on that show come close to uttering the word “fuck.” On “Schitt’s Creek” forty years later, exactly the opposite is true. As the linguist John McWhorter notes, times, and attitudes, have indeed changed.

This emerging sensitivity to language has also in recent years been extended to homophones/homographs and words with phonetic similarities. Two years ago, the New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz received some heat and later apologized for a crossword where one of the clues was “pitch to the head, informally,” and the answer was “beaner.” Until it was brought to his attention, Shortz (and the Toteboard) had been unaware that the latter term (which autocorrect does not even acknowledge to be a real word) coincided with an anti-Hispanic slur. But if the “beaner incident” came and went quickly, perhaps because it was confined to a fairly narrow swath of nerd-world, controversies over the various employment of the word “niggardly” – by journalists, politicians, college professors, elementary school teachers, businesspeople, and others – have persisted for decades, and continue to percolate, sometimes giving rise to lawsuits, reprimands, firings, and resignations. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the word in question actually has a long and noble literary history, far longer and more noble than the similar-sounding racial slur, and its connotations of a kind of small-headed and curmudgeonly lack of generosity are not fully captured by synonyms like “parsimonious,” “miserly,” or even “scrooge-like.” In any event, for all of the litigation and public recrimination, the teachers who got in trouble probably dodged an even bigger bullet by not explaining “niggardly” in terms of whether or not one displays “largesse.”


If you have read up to this point, you’ve no doubt noticed that the Toteboard has been directly quoting when historical figures, fictional characters, and even crossword puzzles have employed offensive language, though the current convention for most journalists, educators, and scholars is to adopt various strategies for sidestepping the linguistic landmines. During the abundant (though obscenely belated) coverage of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing, NBC News reported that one of the murderers allegedly referred to him in the aftermath as a “f---ing n-word,” while NPR abbreviated the same phrase as “f****** n*****,” and the BBC left it simply as “an epithet and an expletive.” In a similar vein, during a lecture on religion and cognitive disability in postwar America, a young scholar presented images of several newspaper and magazine articles, in each case covering up or whiting out appearances of the word “retarded.” Of course the irony here, as any card-carrying member of the Naturist Society would attest, is that the act of conspicuously concealing something actually serves to draw attention to it, which is why naturists disdainfully regard string bikinis and other “micro swimwear” (yes, that’s a thing) as exhibitionistic or even fetishistic. At the very least, it does create at least some degree of cognitive dissonance, a kind of schizophrenic mental mood, where someone actually invokes something by not invoking it. It’s like someone introducing an obnoxious earworm and then saying that whatever you do, don’t think about pink elephants.

But all this is not really the Toteboard’s issue. The bigger concern here is that when language is paraphrased, edited, or excised completely, it creates the very real possibility, even the likelihood, that it will initiate a lengthy game of “telephone,” where the overall account becomes gradually diluted, distorted, decontextualized, recontextualized, and recast over time, to the point that the actual historical record becomes lost or contested. If you’re a bit skeptical about this, well, here are a pair of examples dredged out of the American political past.

First, have you ever heard the phrase “walk and chew gum at the same time,” or heard someone disparagingly say that some poor schlub “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?” If so, are you confident that you know the locus classicus of the expression? The Toteboard’s highly unscientific anecdotal evidence suggests that many people recognize “walking and chewing gum” as a metaphor for the ability to multi-task – online dictionaries generally note this meaning – and that saying someone can’t do so is to say that he or she is clumsy, uncoordinated, or perhaps not very bright. Some friends who have been around the block a few times also recall that the phrase was historically applied first to Gerald Ford, often on venues like Saturday Night Live, though they’re hard-pressed to identify either the original speaker or the context. Believe it or not, it was our old pal Lyndon Baines Johnson who first described Ford that way, and he didn’t really say that Ford couldn’t “walk and chew gum.” He actually said that Ford was “so dumb” that he couldn’t “fart and chew gum at the same time.” Well, some sources say that it was “shit and chew gum,” but you probably get the idea. This was not some good-natured boys-will-be-boys across-the-aisle ribbing. This was an attack that (like Johnson himself) was crude, and personal, and mean. And it was also strategic. If few people today can place Johnson as the voice behind the insult, the Toteboard would bet you shekels to sufganiyot that none but the junkiest of political junkies could identify the when or the why of it. In fact, Johnson characterized Ford this way during the latter’s stint as House Minority Leader, when he and his Senate co-conspirator, Everett Dirksen, were pulling out whatever stops they could to thwart Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda. So what better way to emasculate your political adversary than to cast him as an addled, incompetent (and perhaps incontinent) stumblebum? This was a serious political attack during a serious political moment. But by sanitizing the language, and allowing it to play as a relatively innocuous punchline, the press completely bleached out the tenor, and power, of the insult, and ignored its original context altogether. Pretty much all that remains today from this highly charged elocution is a barely-used idiomatic expression.

And speaking of Gerald Ford, the second example also dates to his administration, though it is considerably edgier. In the aftermath of the 1976 Republican National Convention, Ford’s future ex-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (whom he had inherited from Nixon) responded to a question (from Pat Boone, of all people) about why the republican party, despite its Lincolnian roots, was having trouble attracting African-American voters. The erstwhile dairy farmer from a lily-white town in northeastern Indiana quipped that the “coloreds” only cared about three things: “a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.” As might be expected, few media outlets reported the quote verbatim, with many opting to illustrate the racist “gist” with milder barely-synonyms like “sex” and “clothes,” and others engaging in more creative editorial calisthenics. But while the press did faithfully report that Butz made a truly disgusting and obscene racist remark, their paraphrases seldom captured the most disturbing aspects of his quip. First, the comment in its raw and uncensored glory portrayed Blacks as primitive and animalistic, motivated by little more than bestial and carnal desires. Second, the comment was utterly gendered – the “coloreds” here were not Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens,” but were clearly Black males, who by implication were not only irresponsible freeloaders, but would (perhaps) dangerously act on those base instincts with predatory lust and moral indifference. Finally, and this is important, Butz‘s insult was clearly structured like a vaudeville joke, i.e., the classical three-part framework of establishing a theme or phraseology (in this case, “a tight pussy”), repeating the theme/phraseology with slight variation (i.e., “loose shoes”), and then finally departing from that theme/phraseology for the comic payoff. The delivery of such a vulgar and bigoted line for laughs, without any consideration that his audience might find it offensive, reveals not just generic racism, but a smug and hegemonic sense of privilege. Privilege to assume one’s own self-importance. Privilege to assume the primacy of one’s own cultural identifications. Privilege to construct, degrade, and other-ize those who don’t happen to share that privileged birthright. This wasn’t just a racist republican stooge getting caught in a gotcha moment – this was a high-ranking public official revealing the very worst qualities that you want to see in someone with that degree of power and influence. And it says a lot that Ford only reluctantly called for Butz to resign.

But wait a minute. Would we really be all that intellectually and morally impoverished if we don’t know the details of the “walk and chew gum” reference, and can’t reconstruct the social and historical significance of Butz ramming both feet down his own throat? Well, maybe not. But multiply this sort of episode by thousands, and it’s starting to seem like all the paraphrases, euphemisms, ellipses, elisions, and lacunae, which have been adding up for decades, turn our historical record into a pretty spotty one. Now yes, a record can withstand a few dings and scratches, and at a different moment in American history this might not have been all that big a deal. But this is not an ordinary moment in American history. It is a moment marked by a pervasive climate of mistrust, and by what the Toteboard has previously labelled a “crisis of authenticity,” where it often seems like reality itself is under assault.


It’s not a particularly brilliant observation to note that politicians lie. The notion of a “credibility gap” was so common fifty-plus years ago – first coined during Johnson’s Vietnam War fiasco – that a musical comedy troupe (with some surprisingly familiar faces) took that phrase as its name. And certainly, Trump and his republican enablers have brought lying and the devaluation of truth to depths one would not have thought possible. But what is particularly disturbing today is the widespread normalization of public fictions and the systemic incentivizing of dishonesty, and how inured people have become to living in a world where such things are simply taken for granted.

What exactly is a public fiction? In it’s broadest sense, it’s any widely disseminated statement by an individual or institution that is presented and repeated as though it were wholly self-evident, but which actually withers on close intellectual scrutiny. As the Toteboard has noted previously, it’s a public fiction that the United States Constitution is actually a coherent, internally consistent document. It’s a public fiction that everyone in America has equal rights and is treated equally under the law. It’s a public fiction that justice in America is color-blind. It’s a public fiction that the country is not subject to an implicit Christian “civil religion.” It’s a public fiction that credit card contracts and similar documents are fair, when they contain pages of legal jargon that is utterly unintelligible to the average layperson. Of course, the biggest problem with such public fictions, especially when propagated by politicians or commercial enterprises, is that they often conceal how their own interests (which may be less than righteous) are actually served. For example, Major League Baseball team owners claim that they have been instituting asinine sandlot-style rule changes to accommodate a totally fabricated fan preference for shorter games, while failing to acknowledge either their own responsibility for the increase in average game time (i.e., longer inning breaks to fatten their broadcast revenues) or their own desire to cut back on staff and security expenses. When Delta Airlines gives you a post-flight survey asking how comfortable you found your seat, it may seem like they are genuinely interested in being accountable to their customers, when they are actually trying to figure out how close together they have to squeeze rows before you’re willing to pay for an upgrade. And sadly, such chicanery is rampant in places where we really should expect better. When the exalted City Schools of Decatur dismantled the system of K-5 neighborhood schools, they claimed it was to create a transitional space between elementary and middle schools, when they were really trying to do something about the racial/economic achievement gap, but everyone was too chicken-shit to talk about it honestly. Along these same lines, when CSD expanded the calendar to incorporate week-long breaks every six weeks, they claimed it was to provide remedial workshops and educational enhancements during the off-times, when in fact it was to accommodate faculty and staff who simply wanted more frequent vacations. Naturally, once changes were made to the calendar, these phantom enhancement activities disappeared from the conversation as quickly as Bush’s Iraqi WMDs. And during this covid year from hell, university administrators have been lying outright when they’ve tried to convince their students (and probably more importantly, their parents) that their campuses are actually safe places for living and studying, conveniently omitting how much of a financial hit the schools will take if students don’t have to pay them for food and rent. At the other end, they have been lying outright when they’ve tried to convince students that they can get a perfectly good education through remote learning, When educational institutions lie, it’s especially infuriating. And heartbreaking.

But for all the public fictions, the more corrosive contributor to the crisis of authenticity is probably the systemic incentivizing of dishonesty, and unfortunately much of this can be traced to a dysfunctional American educational system, which has been overwhelmed by a deluge of metrics, rubrics, “measurable learning outcomes,” “quantifiable standards of performance,” “numerical targets,” and other bullshit straight of out of the corporate linguistic cesspool. The resulting mania for standardized testing has created a high-pressure environment of “teaching to the test,” where students quickly internalize the lesson that what is important is what score they can produce, rather than what they have actually learned. This message is repeated and reinforced throughout the public education systems, culminating in that grotesque parody of education, i.e., the college entrance exam prep course, which pretty much teaches students how to game the system in order to “earn” a score in excess of their actual abilities. In fact, skilled “teachers” at Kaplan et al provide students with strategies for guessing a correct answer without even looking at the question! And then, while students are touting their doctored SAT scores, their guidance counselors shamelessly advise them what keywords and loaded phrases have been algorithmically proven to look good to college admissions committees. With this background in place, it’s hardly surprising that far too many students enter college thinking their reason for spending four years there is to get credentialed (as opposed to educated), and they simply assume that the way to do so is to adopt the most efficient strategies for end-running around the actual learning. This explains the exponential increase in academic dishonesty (and blasé attitude toward it) in recent years, the abundance of students who won’t read and can’t write, and the emergence of a huge swath of graduates with sterling metrics and minimal skills. Of course, this attitude translates directly from the classroom to the workplace, as job applicants routinely rehearse interviews and practice what they should or shouldn’t say (i.e., what they think the interviewer wants to hear), transforming the whole process into a cartoonish exercise in who can best follow a script or wear the best disguise. Did you ever wonder why more and more interviewers are asking job applicants seemingly arbitrary or even off-the-wall questions about the last book they read, what super-power they secretly possess, or with what leafy vegetable they most identify? It’s because they are desperate, absolutely desperate, to break through to one unscripted, untailored, un-curated moment, where they can actually catch a fleeting glimpse of who the candidate really is. The fallout from all this is a society where people habitually interpret systems and structures that have been established in good faith as roadmaps for manipulating those very systems and structures. So, Obama designs an Affordable Care Act for the purpose of getting as many workers as possible covered under their employers’ insurance plans, and how does the University System of Georgia respond? By developing a policy that keeps as many employee as possible under the threshold that would entitle them to benefited coverage. Websites like TripAdvisor create a forum where people can exchange honest reviews of commercial services, and so companies sabotage the system by padding it with reviews from relatives or people on the payroll. A florist in Delray Beach, Florida, actually posts a sign promising a future discount to any customer who leaves a positive online review – and they don’t seem to be embarrassed that they would publicly flaunt their own duplicity. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this is that people are becoming increasingly indifferent to such debasing of the truth, as though the constant barrage of dishonesty has anesthetized our moral sensibilities and left us simply accepting it as “the way things are.” It’s not just that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discern what’s real; it’s that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to convince people why that matters.


While fully aware that this may be met with some sincere and pointed disapproval, Herman’s Toteboard is taking the position that in light of the contemporary crisis of authenticity, it is crucial for educators, archivists, journalists, scientists, museum curators, and anyone else responsible for chronicling, analyzing, and critically interpreting the historical record to chronicle that record faithfully, even if that involves directly citing offensive or horrifying words and images. This is not a position that the Toteboard comes to lightly, and it is probably fair to say that the Toteboard is applying something of a risk/benefit analysis in making this determination. Yes, the risks of directly quoting offensive language are very real, and very substantial. It risks insulting, disempowering, dehumanizing, and/or traumatizing our colleagues, neighbors, and friends. It risks inadvertently normalizing language that so many people have labored tirelessly to get banished from the public sphere. And it risks giving insalubrious lowlifes an opportunity to talk smack while hiding behind the guise of academic neutrality. This is all serious stuff. And it is only because the risk today of not recording history or citing sources accurately is so great, that the Toteboard is taking this particular stand. With truth and authenticity in such a precarious place, scholars et al are probably the last firewall against the onslaught of “alternative facts” and intentional misinformation, and it is their responsibility to hold the line against any cracks in that firewall.

In fairness, one may question whether the Toteboard has standing to put forth this opinion, as it is not its ox that has been verbally gored for centuries. And that point is well taken. One may also wonder why the Toteboard isn’t going after more pressing scribal lapses or shortcomings, of which there are indeed many well worth targeting. To this, the Toteboard confesses that it owns a somewhat parochial attitude toward this tenuous reification we call “the truth,” a conviction that there is nothing more important than the commitment to “getting it right,” and that there is nothing more elemental about "getting it right" than recording something accurately, especially during these challenging times. And as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and the other great muckraking journalists quickly discovered, the process of “getting it right” can involve wading through some very dirty and disturbing muck.

One of McWhorter’s most fascinating observations is that the language a society regards as “taboo” provides a window into that society’s broader collective values, specifically what it considers “profane” and, by extrapolation, what it considers sacrosanct. And so, the taboo against racial (or other demographic) slurs in contemporary American society ultimately reflects the sacralizing of values such as inclusion and sensitivity, values the Toteboard certainly shares and seeks to propagate. By the same token, what the Toteboard views as taboo is dishonesty, even when it is in the service of sensitivity and compassion. And this follows from a stubborn, naive, and perhaps infantile belief that the truth really does trump everything. Or as the late English poet Sydney Carter wrote sixty years ago of George Fox, the progenitor of the Quakers:

“If we give you a pistol, will you fight for the Lord?”

“You can’t kill the devil with a gun or a sword.”

“Will you swear on the Bible?” “I will not,” said he,

“For the truth is more holy than the book to me.”


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