Canceling Context?

Words matter, but so does the intent behind them.


My wife and I went to lunch a few days ago — outside, in the fresh air, with all the covid-19 precautions — with an old friend from my New York Times days. Our discussion soon turned to the current brouhaha at the Times involving a longtime editor who was forced out for using the “N” word during a Times-sponsored educational trip to Peru in 2019.

The way I understand it, the editor used the word during a discussion with a student who wanted to know whether a classmate should be disciplined for a video in which she used the “N” word as a 12-year-old. The editor allegedly used the word while trying to understand the context it was used in during the video.

My friend and my wife looked around surreptitiously during the discussion, lest we be overheard. Suffice it to say, we never used the word itself, only “N.” I’ll ignore the irony: Our discussion was in ultra-conservative Naples, Florida, where I’ve heard the WHOLE word. But the very fact that just discussing the letter “N” was enough to elicit fear bothered me.

In fact, the whole Times thing bothers me. The top editor at the paper was quoted as saying, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” Huh? That sounds Orwellian.

(A disclaimer: I’m in a Facebook group with people who work or have worked at the Times. Some say there is more to the story. Some claim the editor said racist things in the past. Some argue that an editor shouldn’t lose his job over a single misstep after a distinguished career. A million opinions. I don’t know the full story.)

The whole ruckus is grist for the mill for Times haters, who are more plentiful than oranges in my neck of the woods. To many people, the Times is a “liberal rag” and “elitist” (those folks obviously never ate in the Times cafeteria when I worked there).

I’ve tried to argue that the Times, like most newspapers, and the media in general, may have a liberal bent, but 90 percent of the stuff they report is non-political: arts, sports, weddings, obituaries (a lot more of them since the “liberal press” revealed that the pandemic wasn’t a hoax), airplane crashes, wars, etc.

I’ve even argued that intelligent people can choose what they read — or agree with — in any media, and that the mainstream press isn’t as powerful as it once was. Such arguments usually get me a condescending nod and a comment about “brainwashing” and the “lamestream” media. While this only confirms my point about “intelligent people,” I still get irked.

Which leads me to my next point. Media haters aside, I wonder where all this political correctness will end.

As a writer of fiction, I often define villains by their bigotry and language. (They also curse a lot, and the “F” word they use is not “fiddlesticks.”) Will modern authors who create characters who use racial epithets be called out for it?

By the way, this may not be a problem only for fiction writers. People who write nonfiction histories often deal with figures who commonly used derogatory terms. Will they now be forced to use euphemisms? Can you imagine writing about a real-life Klansman that way? I suppose language in older books can be grandparented in (how’s that for P.C.?), but what about books written today?

Conservatives argue that liberals just want to “cancel” our heritage. They point to some of the nutty things being said on college campuses by both students and faculty. True, many students say radical, even stupid, things. And college administrators are reluctant to rein them in (probably because the kids are paying $60,000 a year in tuition).

But not everyone in college is nuts. I recently saw a documentary about the people who just landed a robot on Mars. They all looked like recent grads. And many students, including the nutty ones, will eventually have a mortgage, 2.7 kids, an SUV, and vote Republican.       

As for “cancel culture,” I, for one, am happy to revisit history when appropriate. Robert E. Lee and other Confederate “heroes” broke a solemn oath to defend the United States and killed hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers (not Union soldiers) in the process. Take down their statues and rename the military bases!   

But some history is just history. Many historical figures, even the ones we revere, were not unbigoted or paragons of virtue. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: If the present makes war on the past, it will lose the future.

And while I’m on my soapbox, I don’t believe all ethnic references are meant to demean. I just read that some Native Americans want Jeep to drop its Cherokee brand name. Next thing you know, the descendants of Lewis and Clark will sue Ford over its Explorer line.

I was at a party once where someone used the “N” word when referring to Tiger Woods. Everyone blanched. They would never speak that word! But most of those same people voted for a racist for president.

Yes, words matter. But so does intent.

Lawrence De Maria has written more than 20 thrillers and mysteries available in print or digitally on Amazon, or at www.lawrencedemaria.com. He drives a Hyundai and has no clue what that word means. And when he misses a two-foot putt, his curse of choice is not “fiddlesticks.”

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