Thoughts on bigotry

First, here’s a series of quotes. If you’ve been reading the entertainment news lately, you can probably figure out what inspired this post.

  • “Jew me, Sue me…Kick me, Kike me” – Michael Jackson, “They Don’t Care about Us”
  • “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” – Mel Gibson
  • “Shut up! Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a [expletive]
    fork up your a–.” – Michael Richards
  • “[Buddhism is] auto-erotic spirituality” – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — 1997 (often paraphrased as ‘spiritual masturbation’)
  • “I guess I’m part Jewish because I don’t spend a lot of money or make a lot of bets.” – Barry Bonds
  • “I don’t give a hoot that [Columbus] gave some Indians a disease that they didn’t have immunity against” – Rush Limbaugh (Way Things Ought to Be – p. 45)
  • “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. ” – Ann Coulter, 9/12/01
  • “The Jews, I find are very, very selfish…When they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog.” — Harry S Truman, Truman’s Diaries
  • “Gay people, well, gay people are EVIL. Evil right down to their cold black hearts which pump not blood like yours or mine, but rather–a thick, vomitous oil that oozes through their rotten veins and clots in their pea-sized brains; which becomes the cause of their Nazi-esque patterns of violent behavior. Do you understand?” — South Park episode (Mr. Garrison).
  • “Throw the jew down the well. So my country can be free. You must grab him by his horns. Then we have a big party.” – Borat (Sascha Baron Cohen) – “Throw the Jew Down the Well”

Note: I’ve tried to use quotes that have been well-documented.

That’s a pretty good cross-section of quotes. So how would I categorize them? Are they all equally offensive?

  1. There are probably some people who would say ‘yes’
  2. still more who would say that while not equal, they are all offensive.
  3. Another segment who believe that at least a few of the quotes would be offensive if said by someone else, but in context, they are funny — and vice versa. The ones that are offensive, could be funny, if said by someone else in a different context.
  4. And probably some people who laugh and cheer all the quotes.

I fall in group 3. It would be easier to fall in groups 1, 2 or 4. Much easier. As someone in this category, I see a responsibility to come up with consistent guidelines to apply to each situation.

1. State of mind at time of quote

After Mel Gibson’s drunken tirade, there were many who said that what you say when drunk ‘reveals your true self’. Similar statements over the past few days have been made about what one says while enraged, as Michael Richards was at the comedy club.

The argument goes: while sober, and in control of our emotions, our brain tells us when ‘not to say something’. Most individuals in the public eye know what they “shouldn’t” be caught saying if they don’t want to be crucified by the press. So while drunk or enraged, our true feelings are being revealed.

There is that, but I argue there is something else to consider. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I know that there have been times an irrational thought floated through my brain, and I’ve told myself how irrational it is, and ignored it. The irrational thoughts aren’t my ‘true’ thoughts. My brain isn’t telling me it’s ‘incorrect’ to express these throughts. It’s telling me the thoughts are incorrect in the first place. Get me drunk, and I might express some ideas I don’t really believe. I’ve never had any rage issues.

So how do we know which one it is? Well, both Mel Gibson and Michael Richards have apologized and expressed horror at what they said. I say, unless new instances occur that suggest otherwise, we believe them. And, if anyone is curious, this is pretty much what I said back in July.

In all of the other quotes above the individuals, to the best of my knowledge, were sober and in control of their emotions.

2. Context of quote

A. Written vs. Spoken

As a writer, a lot of thought goes into what I write. I have written columns for newspapers, fiction, poetry, and song lyrics. If something I have written offends you, I have much less defense than if something I say offends you. Occasionally I might be a bit sloppy and not do enough research, and I might write something I later regret.

Anyway, what Michael Jackson wrote into his song lyrics, what Rush Limbaugh wrote in his book, what Ann Coulter wrote in her newspaper column, and what Harry S Truman wrote in his diary? Those are/were their thoughts. Michael Jackson did apologize. I’ll give him that. More will be said about Truman below.

B. The identity of the speaker

Normally you’d think who says something shouldn’t make a difference in whether or not it is offensive. However, many people feel it is OK for someone to say offensive things about his/her own “people.” Many people see this as humorous.

Borat is a character played by Sacha Baron Cohen. He went to some Southern US bars and got (drunk) patrons to sing the anti-Semitic song along with him. The video of this is viewed as an expose of the anti-semitism in the South. And of course Sacha Baron Cohen can’t be anti-Semitic because he’s Jewish. The same thing is said about Jackie Mason, and other Jewish comics who make a living from this humor. There was a joke on an episode of Seinfeld where a stand-up comic converted so he could tell Jewish jokes. I both laugh at the humor, and find it uncomfortable.

The same thing happens with other minorities. Gay comics make jokes about gays. Italian comics make jokes about Italians. Black comics make jokes about blacks. (This happens in countries other than America.) And the audience, whether they are gay, Italian, or black, are expected to laugh. I guess the audience members have to ask themselves why they are laughing? Are they laughing because the comedian is getting away with saying something taboo, but which the audience member believes to be true?

Barry Bonds brings up a related issue. Here is a fuller quote: “”My agent is Jewish. They call me a black Jew. I guess I’m part Jewish because I don’t spend a lot of money or make a lot of bets.” It appears Bonds was quoting or paraphrasing his Jewish manager. Does that excuse him? Partly, in my mind; especially since he did apologize for his statement. However, not entirely, as he was still spreading the stereotypes.

C. Fictional Characters

South Park makes fun of everyone, and this is often used by fans as a reason why it’s acceptable humor. Of course, when the words are taken out of the mouths of the animated characters and put into the mouths of public figures, the public figures are pilloried. Why do we laugh at Eric Cartman and Mr. Garrison, but we don’t laugh at Mel Gibson and Michael Richards? Put what Michael Richards said into the mouth of Eric Cartman, and we’d be laughing hilariously at the TV set. Sure, accusing a fictional character of bigotry just makes you look silly, like Dan Quayle attacking Murphy Brown. But one can ask what the intent is of Matt Stone and Trey Parker (the creators of South Park). And we, the viewers, need to ask ourselves why we are laughing, and are we comfortable with our laughter.

Personally, I find the Lonely Jew song funny. I was uncomfortable with the episode that had the Catholic Priests all under the control of a horrific alien monster. But a friend who was raised Catholic found it humorous.

3. Historical considerations

Can we excuse Harry S Truman because he wrote what he wrote in 1947? Yes, I think we can, at least partially. Abraham Foxman’s op-ed column is pretty good. We need to realize that sometimes actions are more important than words, be thankful for how far this nation has come, but also cognizant that bigotry still remains, and needs to be exposed in others, and fought within ourselves.

Video of Michael Richards’ outburst on stage (lots of language NSFW)
Video of Apology on Letterman
Borat video (also NSFW)