You Can’t Say That! Is It Time to Write the Epitaph for Epithets?

By Glen Martin

Pity the poor bigot. The racist, the homophobe, the sexist—nowadays, they launch their contumelies at their own peril. It’s not that we’ve all learned to link hands and sing “Kumbaya” in high, clear tenors, of course. Bile remains a most abundant humor, as demonstrated by any website that allows anonymous comments.

But here in the second decade of the 21st century, most people respond negatively to derogatory comments based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation. It’s simply not done—unless, of course, you are the duck-hunting patriarch of a highly rated reality television show on A&E, or a syndicated radio host. For us regular folk, bigotry restricts opportunities. At certain times and in certain places, it can get you chucked into the slammer. Or worse, humiliated online. It’s like having a big “L” branded on your forehead. For Loser.

And yet, the slur remains with us, making it a valuable cultural tool, one that can be used to gauge both a society and its constituent members. Indeed, it provides more information on the employer of the slur than the target—on the slurer than the sluree, as it were.

Consider what is now the most radioactive of slurs: N––––r. It is considered so vile, so freighted with associations of past evils and extant sociopathy, that it is virtually unspeakable, and as this copy attests, unprintable. (There is one exception to this rule: African Americans may employ it with impunity. In such usages, it can be a sign of solidarity or affection.) Still, n––––r generally has always been outré—though not for current reasons.

“It was in common usage in the 19th century, but it was considered vulgar, especially among middle- and upper-class people,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor with UC Berkeley’s School of Information whose pithy insights on language are regularly featured on the National Public Radio show Fresh Air. “Around the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Edwin Stanton said that Douglas could never be elected president because he used the word. It was considered a marker of low social status.”

But while disparaging remarks linked to personal characteristics probably have been around since our hominid antecedents first grappled with language, they were designated slurs only recently. Nunberg notes the word was mostly used to describe an attack on one’s reputation—as in, a slur on honor or character—until the mid-20th century.

“It first showed up in its current usage in the African-American press in the 1940s,” Nunberg said. “Before that, though, there was no word specifically used to indicate the derogation of an individual on the basis of race or ethnicity. By the early 1960s, however, slur was widely used for that purpose, including in the mainstream press—it was cited, for example, in Life magazine.”

Since then, racial slurs have evolved—or rather, expanded. Any reference to race that does not fall within a narrow set of “acceptable” descriptors may now qualify as a slur. Indeed, said Nunberg, some terms that were previously considered progressive or enlightened are now viewed as slurs—Negro being a foremost example.

Further, some seeming slurs are now used in a reclaimed fashion by their intended targets as a marker of unity or pride.

Most recently, thug has undergone a double evolution. Originally describing Hindu assassins and bandits who plied their trade from the 12th century to the 1830s, thug was widely used to describe any low-level violent criminal through much of the 20th century. Over the past two decades, it has been adopted as an admiring term to identify anyone deeply devoted to the ethos of gangsta rap and gang life. And at the same time, it was picked up by conservative whites as a pejorative descriptor.

“Hip-hop culture has used thug in something like the way they’ve used gangsta,” emailed Nunberg. “[It has also] become popular lately on the Right. There were lots of charges of ‘union thug’ during the [state Senate recall elections] brouhaha in Wisconsin in 2011…. Still, for a lot of whites, the word is clearly coded for race. It was all over the place in the ‘knockout game’ story, and in connection with any black-on-white violence.”

“‘Redneck’ [had been] largely employed as a term for poor, rural white people from flyover country, particularly the Deep South,” Nunberg says. “It was a synonym for ‘white trash,’ and wholly derogatory. But now its most common usage is by right-wingers either as a badge, or as an accusation—‘This is what the liberals think of us.’”

In fact, Nunberg continued in an email, “redneck” is employed about 20 times more often in the premier conservative political journal, National Review, than in liberal organs such as The Nation and The American Prospect. “In ordinary conversation, liberals use ‘redneck,’ but I suspect not as often as working-class southerners who are reclaiming the word,” Nunberg wrote.

Moreover, regionalism has always played a role in defining American slurs—and more in the past than the present, he continued.

“In the 19th century, there seems to have been a disparaging nickname for the inhabitants of every state,” Nunberg writes. “Texans were called Beetheads, Alabamans were Lizards, Nebraskans were Bug-Eaters, South Carolinians were Weasels, and Pennsylvanians were Leatherheads…. Folks from Missouri used to be known by the endearing name of Pukes.  Originally, these names may have been applied by the inhabitants of neighboring states, but most of them were adopted by natives in a spirit of rough frontier humor: ‘You bet I’m a Bug-Eater, son, and proud of it.’”

Slur usage doesn’t always connote poor breeding or a lack of sensitivity. When employed deliberatively by—for a lack of a better description—people who should know better, slurs can emphasize a highly charged emotional state, injured feelings or an outraged sense of justice.

“It can be a way of saying, ‘I’m aware of the vulgarity of this word, and by using it I’m telling you I’m so angry my emotion is overcoming my sense of propriety,’” said Nunberg. “I’m saying, ‘You’re not worthy of my respect.’”

Is there any group that can still be slurred with im­pun­ity? Pos­sibly….But Geof­frey Nun­berg says us­ing any slur can be tan­tamount to so­cial sui­cide.

Still, the power and toxicity of slurs make their usage dangerous—and virtually everybody knows it. Even when people utter slurs, they tend to do it at a remove, opting for third-party rather than second-party usage. To confront a person directly with a slur is too provocative, too fraught with potential consequences.

“You’re far more apt to tell your friend that your boss is an asshole than say it to your boss,” Nunberg observes.

With everything from skin color to physical handicaps off-limits, is there any group that can still be slurred with impunity? Possibly. Some sociologists opine it remains permissible to lampoon overweight people.

This may seem odd, in that we are a nation deeply invested in living off the fat of the land. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35.9 percent of Adult Americans over the age of 20 were obese in 2010, and 33.3 percent were overweight. We have met the enemy—or at least, the butt of our jokes—and he is us.

But some academics caution that fat prejudice may not be about fat at all—at times, it’s simply the same old biases in masquerade.

“Fatness is often used as a proxy,” observes Lynne Gerber, a post-doctoral research fellow at Berkeley’s Religion, Politics and Globalization Program and the author of 2011’s Seeing the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America, from University of Chicago Press.

“It’s now highly impolitic to say, ‘I don’t like gays’ or ‘I don’t like African Americans,’” continues Gerber. “But fat prejudice can function as symbolic racism. It presents a convenient intersection where one thing is said but another is meant. A person may be saying, ‘You’re fat,’ but what they mean is ‘You’re a fat person of a race or sexual orientation I don’t like.’”

Additionally, says Gerber, using fatness as a foil allows the racist or homophobe to cast his or her biases as issues of moral character.

“Unlike race and gender, obesity is widely perceived as a matter of volition,” Gerber says. “So to be fat can be seen as consonant with being morally bankrupt.” Thus, says Gerber, unacceptable biases can be justified when presented sub rosa as fat phobia.

But Nunberg isn’t convinced. He acknowledges there is predictable backlash against the censorship of slurs, with claims that heightened sensitivity to them is merely political correctness run amok. And sometimes people use slurs simply to challenge or test the anti-slur paradigm. Still, he emphasizes, using a slur—any slur, including those pegged to obesity—can be tantamount to social suicide.

Further, targets of such derogation can turn the tables on their attackers, provided they substitute humor and self-confidence for angst. Case in point: the kerfuffle over actress Gabourey Sidibe’s weight during the Golden Globe awards. Twitter lit up with snide comments about Sidibe when she stepped out on the red carpet. In due course, she responded with a tweet of her own: “To people making mean comments about my GG pics, I mos def cried about it on that private jet on my way to my dream job last night.”

But we’re all human, and hence flawed. What of those occasions when you are irate enough to employ a slur? Is there any you can use that doesn’t peg you as a degenerate or reprobate, that doesn’t jeopardize your career or social status?

“I kind of favor calling someone ‘Sparky,’” Nunberg says. “I think it’s fairly safe, and it diminishes a person by turning him into a bright-eyed child.”

Glen Martin is a frequent contributor to both California and California Online.

From the Spring 2014 Branding issue of California.
Filed under: Human Behavior
Image source: Illustration by Melinda Beck
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Features like this keep proving that we must be much more serious about implementing problem solving recommendations from psychologists because our social, political, economic and environmental problems have produced far too many threats to our long-term survival, threats that are increasingly out of control. Around the world today, far too few people are able to achieve Maslow’s physiological needs and that is a totally unacceptable fact of life. And far too few women are allowed to lead us in all institutions, far too many women are threatened daily and we fail to take advantage of the fact that their brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy along with a larger prefrontal cortex to control destructive emotions, at our increasing peril. These are two of the most important social failures throughout the world that must be overcome immediately.
Please let me comment on Mr. Glen Martin’s recent article, You Can’t Say That! (Spring 2014): “Pity the poor bigot. The racist, the homophobe, the sexist… most people respond negatively to derogatory comments based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation. It’s simply not done—unless, of course, you are…” At this point let me insert: “an MD calling chiropractors by the q-word (quack).” I was first introduced to this epithet after sustaining a serious back injury while playing football at Cal in 1968 in a game against Syracuse when I was blind-sided by a 230 pound defensive end who drove me into the ground, misaligning my spine and partially separating my shoulder, leaving me with permanent impairments that I still live with daily. The team MD gave me pain pills and muscle relaxors that didn’t help, so he then recommended possible back surgery. Thankfully, a teammate took me to his chiropractor in Oakland who also cared for members of the Oakland Raiders. After a few chiropractic spinal adjustments, I was back at practice where the team MD approached me and said, “Well, Jim, I see those pills worked.” “No, they made me dizzy and constipated. I was still in pain, so I saw a chiropractor instead.” His usual friendly demeanor suddenly changed. “But chiropractors are quacks and that crap doesn’t work,” he told me in no uncertain terms. Not being familiar with the medical bigotry against chiropractors at that time, I naively responded, “But I’m back playing, doesn’t that count for something?” A few years later after my graduate school/ teaching/coaching stint at Rutgers University, my chiropractor urged me to change careers and enter chiropractic college. Little did I know I was enlisting into the most profound war ever fought by the medical society, including its war on cancer and heart disease. Certainly there is no denying the chiropractic profession has suffered the worst defamation campaign ever perpetrated by one rival profession upon another to create a contrived image that chiropractors still suffer with in the eyes of many people. Even Judge Susan Getzendanner mentioned this quandary in her opinion in the historic Wilk v. AMA antitrust trial when four chiropractors sued the AMA et al.: “The [illegal] activities of the AMA undoubtedly have injured the reputation of chiropractors generally…In my judgment, this injury continues to the present time and likely continues to adversely affect the plaintiffs [chiropractors]. The AMA has never made any attempt to publicly repair the damage the boycott did to chiropractors’ reputations.” For 35 years now, I’ve been subjected to this medical witch hunt. Having never been the object of discrimination as a WASP high-achieving male (after all, I am a Cal grad and was All-American in track in 1968), this bigotry bristles my spine, to say the least, and motivated me to write my book on this medical war against chiropractors. Indeed, after 35 years, I’ve come to a few noteworthy conclusions. As I read Mr. Martin’s article in the alumni magazine, I felt compelled to interject my experience of the largest remaining epithet in our country foisted by the most chauvinistic, politically powerful, and wealthiest of all segments in our nation—the medical society. While it is politically-incorrect for people to refer to African-Americans with the taboo n–word as Mr. Martin suggested, many MDs have no qualms about using the q-word in reference to chiropractors. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, yet there has never been any media outrage at this degrading and unjustified epithet. Like racism in the South, the present brand of medical bigotry is nothing less than professional bullying that includes segregating chiropractors from hospitals and the mainstream medical referral system. Moreover, medical “hate speech” remains the last bastion of acceptable bigotry that goes unchallenged and ignored in today’s media as well as among people who fancy themselves as social progressives. For example, does Cal even have a chiropractic program? Indeed, when was the last time you’ve read an in-depth article about the epidemic of back pain and the benefits of chiropractic care, now the third-largest physician-level profession in the nation that deals specifically with spine-related disorders? If you’re like most people, probably never, and for good reasons. The Origin of Medical Bigotry Unlike the diffused origins of racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism, medical bigotry can be traced to one man, Morris Fishbein, MD, the executive director of the AMA from 1924 to 1949. Fishbein, dubbed the Medical Mussolini, made no bones about his bullying when he wrote, “Scientific medicine absorbs from them that which is good, if there is any good, and then they die.” According to Harper’s Magazine, Fishbein set the tone when he transformed the AMA from a “panty waist” organization that promoted education and research into “the most terrifying trade association on earth.” Unknown to most people, inexplicably Fishbein financed his war chest by jumping into bed with the tobacco industry in 1930 until 1986. Many Old Blues are old enough to remember when MDs were featured in cigarette ads on TV, and this windfall enabled the AMA to carry on its destructive propaganda campaign with the aid of a compliant media also profiting from tobacco sponsors. Under Fishbein’s tyrannical leadership, during the first half of the 20th century, over 12,000 American chiropractors were prosecuted over 15,000 times, and some 3,300 were sent to jail for practicing medicine without a license. Their real crime was, in fact, competing for patients since chiropractors never used drugs or surgery. When the AMA’s illegal Committee on Quackery announced in 1962 its goal to “contain and eliminate chiropractic,” it almost eliminated what now has been deemed the most effective non-drug, non-surgical treatments for the majority of back problems. Poster Child for Inefficient Care What is the net result of this medical boycott today in America? Most notably, back pain has become the #1 disabling condition in the world with total costs approaching $300 billion. Research estimates 90% of Americans will suffer from an acute back attack in their lifetime; 20% consider their back pain to be serious, crippling, or disabling. Ironically, while medical bullies defamed chiropractors, medical spine care has drawn criticism from leading research journalists. Many experts now agree that the epidemic of back pain is a direct result of medical mismanagement of spine problems—misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and misinformation. Spinal medicine in the US has been called the “poster child for inefficient spine care” and has become a “national scandal” with the growing evidence of opioid drug addiction, ineffective epidural steroid injections, and spine surgeons “gone wild” doing hundreds of thousands of unnecessary fusions based on the debunked disc concept. The seminal MRI research in 1990 found “bad discs” in pain-free people; spine researchers now chide disc abnormalities as “incidentalomas.” , Researchers at Dartmouth suggest nearly 40% of back surgeries are unnecessary, which explains the high rate of failed back surgeries. The official paradigm shift in spine care toward chiropractic care began in 1994 after a coalition of spine experts comprising the Agency of Health Care Policy and Research, under the guise of the US Public Health Service, listed spinal manipulation a “proven treatment” for acute low back pain in adults. This agency also found only one in 100 back surgeries to be helpful; physio-therapeutics such as ultrasound, TENS, hot packs, and other standard treatments by physical therapists were also short term at best and considered ineffective to change the underlying causes. Spine experts now agree most back pain is “mechanical” in nature due to joint dysfunction and, considering the spine has over 300 joints, this explains why manipulation works well by restoring proper joint play. This new found science underscores why chiropractors survived the massive and unjust genocidal war by the AMA—because it works so well by addressing the primordial problem with most back pain—joint dysfunction. Simply put, you don’t slip discs, but you do slip joints. The proof is positive and research studies cannot be clearer that chiropractic stands at the top of spinal treatments as Anthony Rosner, PhD, testified before The Institute of Medicine: “Today, we can argue that chiropractic care, at least for back pain, appears to have vaulted from last to first place as a treatment option.” Indeed, the medical bigots and the media cohorts owe both the public and chiropractors an apology. Freedom of choice for patients, the right to informed consent in treatment options, and professional cooperation should be the hallmarks of health care instead of medical bullying and segregation. JC Smith, MA, DC, is a 33-year practicing chiropractor, author of The Medical War Against Chiropractors, and he maintains a website, Chiropractors for Fair Journalism.