Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Modifiers

I write this with some trepidation. So I'm going to begin with a disclaimer: I am not trying to suggest anything about what is right or wrong or what should be treated as right or wrong. I just want to think about how we treat certain speech. Please keep that in mind in any responses. OK, I just set myself up for some very high (or low) expectations, so here we go.

Steve Williams is a professional golf caddy who worked for Tiger Woods  for more than a decade (earning a lot of money, as well as a reputation as being Woods' overbearing bodyguard/hitman on the course). Woods unceremoniously fired Williams last summer, a move over which Williams is still just a bit bitter. Williams caught on with a golfer named Adam Scott (who himself has a rivalry and tension with Tiger); Scott won a tournament earlier this year, after which Williams preened and called it the greatest victory of his life. Over the weekend, at a caddie celebration dinner, Williams explained "I wanted to shove it up that black arsehole."  Word of what Williams said at the closed, "off-the-record" event quickly got out. Williams issued a typical famous-person denial by the next morning, saying "I apologize for comments I made last night . . . I now realize how my comments could be construed as racist. However, I assure you that was not my intent. I sincerely apologize to Tiger and anyone else I've offended."

Williams is being criticized for making a "racist" remark and he used that term in his sort-of apology. But should his remark be considered racist and why or why not? Do they suggest he is racist? Or are the remarks, and therefore Williams, just stupid?


The upshot is that Williams is in trouble for using a bad modifier. Had he simply called Woods an "arsehole," people would have thought Williams was an obnoxious ass, but not racist. Same thing had he called Woods a "cheating arsehole" (in reference to Woods widely reported infidelity) or a "sex-addict arsehole" (in reference to Woods reportedly seeking treatment for sex addiction) or "washed-up arsehole" (in reference to Woods struggles on the golf course). But Williams mentioned, in a purely descriptive way, the unquestioned fact that Woods is (part) black. And the narrative is that this modifier made his comments, and perhaps him, racis. Indeed, Williams' apology was all about his own state of mind--that he did not have racist intent in what he said and therefore is not racist.

But Williams did not use a racial slur. He did not attribute his dislike of, or anger at, Woods to Woods' being black (as opposed to being an arsehole). He did not make a statement about what type of person Woods is because of his race. He did not suggest Woods is inferior or incapable because of his race. He did not make a comment grounded in any racial stereotypes (compare when another golfer was criticized for joking about Augusta National serving soul food at the tournament dinner after Woods won the Masters). Williams made an observation and stated a fact--Woods is black. He also is, in Williams' view, an arsehole. And, therefore . . .
So that has been the change in our discourse: We have made the mention of race (along with other characteristics, such as ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.) improper even as a purely factual matter when criticizing someone. You can call someone a #$*&% with relative impunity; you no longer can call him a [Race/Gender/Ethnicity/Religion] #$*&%. And doing so tags the speaker as racist.

My best guess at a justification is that because race is (or should be) irrelevant to our opinion of someone, mentioning race serves no purpose. Thus, mentioning it, even as a factual modifier, calls attention to the target's status as a member of a minority or historically weak or disempowered group. The use of the modifier highlights the target's "otherness" or singleness in society. Williams would not have called a white golfer a "white arsehole", because emphasizing whiteness does not call up that otherness. Racializing the insult makes that insult worse by calling up and highlighting that otherness, even if that otherness is merely a descriptive modifier and not the heart of the insult. Or maybe the explanation is slightly different: Because race is irrelevant, anyone who mentions actually is using it as the basis of the opinion. In other words, Williams dislikes Woods because of his race (and not because of his arseholeness), otherwise he wouldn't have mentioned it.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that I am not defending what Williams said or did. I only am trying to consider how and why we characterize the act a certain way.