The word-nerd and the ‘n word’

You can make a lot of money if you pull a big enough audience. Back when there were only a few TV channels, producers worried about losing audience through airing something too shocking. Since the advent of the internet, however, instead of a half-dozen TV channels and a few radio stations, there are literally millions of separate streams of entertainment and information.  The trick is to stand out from the enormous crowd, and the more shocking you are, the more clicks you get. This has turned ‘outrageousness’ on its head – performers and producers now chase after it.

(Of course, if you happen to be a kitten, you get audience without any ploy at all!)

Words that used to be are no longer considered shocking, except for one. In America, you should never use the ‘n word’, especially if you are not black. Even the new TV series ‘Empire’, a black centered show, has not used it, causing a lively debate on social media.

I recently sat in while some young black people discussed ‘micro-aggressions’. One of the adult discussion-leaders suggested that the ‘n’ word was an example of a verbal outrage. I was surprised to hear that the young people were used to being called ‘nigga’ by other black people, and instead of being offended, thought of it as a term of affection. When one or two expressed their doubts, the others assured them that the ‘a’ at the end made it OK. They talked about singers, especially rappers, who use ‘n….a’ a lot. Some had even been called it by young white people, but, as they explained, only by guys trying to adopt black urban culture, the same ones who wear their pants low on their behinds and say ‘Yo’.

When I hear the word, my reaction isn’t modulated by its use in rap but rather by its origins. From the earliest times, the word ‘nigger’ has carried with it “all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks”.  I associate it most strongly with slavery, and the contempt of slave owners.

You could see the growing use of the ‘n’ word among black youth as empowerment because they are ‘taking back’ a word formerly used in oppression. On the other hand, it is also a reflection of the cheapening of many aspects of the human condition by the media machine.

Personally, every time I hear the word I feel shame on behalf of us whites. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

Thanks to Anthony Quiroz Heredia
Thanks to Anthony Quiroz Heredia

A nerdy post on how an American word dumbfounded me

A gentleman engaged me in conversation recently in which he listed the things he believes are wrong with America: social security, Obamacare (of course), fathers losing their authority in families, gay rights, the loss of Christianity as the foundation of the country, and pets having rights.

When he mentioned that the Supreme Court was undermining the rights of Americans, I thought we had come to some common ground. (As readers of this blog will know, I consider that some of the recent decisions of the Court have given too much political power to big corporations and big wealth.) I agreed that democracy in America appeared to be at risk. He corrected me and said ‘America is not a democracy, it’s a republic’.

His concern with pets having rights was new to me, and astounding. His claim that America is not a democracy was also new, and dumbfounding. I am a devotee of words, their derivations, and their meanings, and so I knew that the word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin ‘res publica’ which literally means the rule of the people, as does democracy, which is derived from the Greek for rule of the ‘ordinary citizens’. To me, the words are synonymous. They refer to the basis of political systems which can and do develop in different ways.

Then, to my amazement, the Cumberland Times-News published two letters this week on the same subject. I was so puzzled by this that I did a little probing on the web and found that indeed, ‘republic versus democracy’ is a ‘thing’ here. Sites that discuss it reference James Madison, who believed that political parties, businesses, and other interest groups need to have the power to contest policies, and that this leads to the best representation of the interest of citizens. This sounds like a democracy to me.

Madison was concerned that, in a ‘pure’ democratic system, the interests of all but the majority would go unrecognised. This has been a concern of democracies around the world and has resulted in institutions like preferential voting for the federal lower house in Australia, among other constitutional safeguards.

It appears, however, that when Americans refer to a ‘democracy’ they refer to the idea of a ‘pure democracy’. says, for example, that ‘a democracy is a form of government in which the people decide policy matters directly–through town hall meetings or by voting on ballot initiatives and referendums’.

Gary McLeod, a Republican conservative Christian who stood for Congress in 2012. In his opinion, democracy is:

  • A government of the masses.
  • Authority derived through mass meeting or any other form of “direct” expression.
  • Results in mobocracy.
  • Attitude toward property is communistic–negating property rights.
  • Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether it be based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences.
  • Results in demogogism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy

Why has this interpretation of the word ‘democracy’ taken root in America? Is it a legacy of the fear of Communism?

Even more baffling: why do Americans care so much about these words? Is it because Republicans want to distance themselves from anything that could be associated with the Democratic Party? Or do people want to emphasize the glory days of the struggle against the rule of a King to establish the republic – the ‘rule of the people’?

I am puzzled.

With thanks to Great Beyond
With thanks to Great Beyond

Cats, elephants, and the Holocaust

Circus elephants will no longer be part of Ringling Bros. shows. A fair proportion of audiences have become uncomfortable with the idea of keeping animals captive to perform, and increasing numbers of local authorities have legislated against it. I can’t imagine such a thing happening during my childhood- it just wouldn’t have occurred to us then.

‘Animal rights’ is a recent idea, dating back no more than a century. Humans have treated animals with extreme cruelty as a matter of course, and it is only in the last 100 years or so that ordinary people have felt revulsion to it. ‘There’s no room to swing a cat’ did not originate from the ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ whip, but rather from a common form of entertainment using live cats. Cats did indeed suffer even worse treatment, but I can’t bear to detail it here.

Just as human executions used to be a popular entertainment, public displays of cruelty, most notably to cats, used to be commonplace. I first heard about the extent of these horrors from a book by Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  Pinker traces the history of human violence since before recorded history and details the atrocities and how audiences relished them.

This is nevertheless an uplifting book because Pinker shows, through careful and detailed research, how the ‘better angels’ of human nature have been emerging and subduing our demons. His evidence is clear: all forms of violence against humans and animals have dwindled and are now widely condemned. When you read the stomach-turning atrocities of past millennia it is impossible to deny his contention.

This is not to say that we are on a smooth upwards trajectory towards sainthood. This morning, for example, I heard on Inside Europe that racially-motivated violence against Jews has grown by 10 percent over the last year in Germany, and that ‘Jew’ has become a common term of abuse in German schoolyards. This is happening despite tough laws against of the evils of racism in Germany, which developed as a response to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Let’s pray that our ‘better angels’ are strong enough to fight the rise of this demon.

With thanks to Jimmy Hsu
With thanks to Jimmy Hsu

Who is behind the ‘outrage industry’?

The amount of outrage expressed in American public life has increased dramatically since the early ‘90s. The new media and especially the internet have created literally millions of sources for news and entertainment, and as a result it is hard to be heard. Outrage is exciting, makes its audience feel morally superior, and is very cheap to produce, and so it has grown.

But who is behind this ‘outrage industry?

Here’s a test:

‘When the xxxx speaks of “tolerance,” they don’t mean “tolerate people different from you,” they mean “tolerate ME and people who think like me, until me and my sort gain enough power to stifle people different from us.” True tolerance is not their goal, it’s a mantra they repeat as a means to impose their own conformity on everyone else.’

What is the missing word in this quote? Which group did you assume was the most likely source of this, and which group were they accusing of intolerance? Which side is it that doesn’t understand the meaning of tolerance and cynically uses it to impose their ideas on others?

Were you able to catch yourself assuming what the ‘xxxx’ stood for? I’m pretty sure that if you tend Left, you ‘knew’ that this quote must refer to those of the Right. And vice versa. (Did you in fact think of political factions when you read the quote? Most people do, but it is quite possible to read religion, race, and neighbors fighting over parking spaces … any group that we label ‘they’.)

Another test: what is the emotion behind the quote? That’s right, outrage. The statement assumes moral superiority and stereotypes ‘those people’. As I explained in my previous post, outrage is not the same as anger. Whereas we can feel angry with ourselves, we always need ‘other people’ to be outraged about.

Outrage is toxic because it relies on stereotypes and builds and deepens divisions between people, like those between Left and Right in the USA. Both sides need to remember when times were different, and opposing arguments could be decided without demonizing the opponents. After all, the United States was founded on liberals and conservatives who were able, through simple opposition and without the weapon of outrage, to frame the United States Constitution.

(For the curious: I scooped the quote from a right-wing site, and the original word was ‘Left’.)

With thanks to Carmen Kong
With thanks to Carmen Kong


Outrage in Ferguson and Selma

The Department of Justice has just released its report into the fatal shooting in Ferguson Missouri last summer when a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot a young black man, Michael Brown. The DOJ found that Wilson did not violate any Federal laws in the shooting, but also called on Ferguson to overhaul its entire justice system, this it appears to be a just and even-handed decision. On the other, it is fodder for the beast of public outrage.

Since I have lived in the United States I have been surprised, even horrified, by what appears to be an epidemic of outrage.  Ferguson is an especially fertile source. There is outrage at the police: ‘This case, simply put, seems to be another case of an unwarranted use of deadly force. And Officer Wilson’s use of the “I was afraid for my life” tired excuse, is laughable’.

Outrage at the ‘left-wing’ media ‘…the media attempted to cram the square peg of the Wilson-Brown shooting into the round hole of white police racism. That meant portraying Brown as the latest sainted racial victim…’

And ‘all you can eat’ outrage: ‘Obama administration officials are using the Ebola virus, immigration, and the riots in Ferguson to “spark a race war” that will ultimately allow them to destroy the Constitution’. (The leader of the Oath Keepers quoted on Armed American Radio)

Outrage is close to anger, but with an important difference. We never feel outrage about ourselves. Outrage is always a response to the behavior of other people, never to our own. And outrage depends on who and what we identify with. If someone insults a member of my family, I am likely to feel outrage. However, if that same person insults a public figure I strongly dislike, I probably won’t. Outrage depends on what we perceive to be our country, our team, our beliefs, our party – in short, people like us. (for a discussion of this, see this paper )

Outrage always feels morally just– unlike anger. Even people who believe that anger is bad and try to eliminate it from their lives feel entitled to outrage, and that most likely includes outrage at people who cannot control their temper! Not only does outrage substitute for anger, it increases our sense of our own high morals.

‘I am outraged because I am a good person and if they were good like me, they would not act that way’. ‘I cannot understand how those people can act like that!’

Outrage is always directed at ‘those people’. It is always based on the divisions between us and it digs those divisions deeper. And, like all strong emotion, it can easily be corrupted to achieve just that.

Outrage has fueled much good, however. I reckon that many of the people who marched for voting rights in Selma (50 years ago today) were fired up by it. But I also think that outrage inflamed many who beat them with billy clubs.

Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.
With thanks to the Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.

Don’t damage the world

Why do I write this blog? One commenter accused me of ‘clickactivism’. I think he meant that I talk a lot but don’t do anything. That hooked me. I have been wondering ever since about why I write, and whether it is indeed a waste of time.

One thing I know – the chance of me changing anyone’s mind through this blog is about zero.  I have written about the blowback effect of arguments – research has shown that they just make the person holding the opposing view even more adamant.

My own ‘research’ of comments on this blog and others confirm that we will do almost anything not to change our minds. Posts are misunderstood, so much so that no clarification seems to help. Parts of posts are ignored to prove the opposite point. Facts quoted are disputed- for example, ‘you can’t trust any data that the government puts out’. When facts cannot be disputed, for example, that Muslim countries are engaged militarily against ISIS, irrelevant counter-facts are posted. When all else fails, insults are hurled.

I write is to try to overcome in myself the urge to stereotype, the need to ‘win’ arguments’, the need to have everyone agree with me. I also write for those on the same journey as me, because it is important to know that we are not alone.

A very important motivation for writing my blog is to contribute in any way possible, no matter how small, to uniting people.  I once heard that the word ‘religion’ comes from roots that mean re-uniting – for me that means religion is the sacred work of fording the gaps and mending the bridges between us, the work we pledge ourselves to when we pray ‘thy kingdom come’. I believe that truth, justice, peace and love start with each of us in our everyday lives.

Every time we overcome prejudice in ourselves we do it for humankind, and when we think or speak in fear or anger we damage the world.  If I can conquer even one of my prejudices by writing this blog, that will be quite something.

With thanks to Elyce Feliz
With thanks to Elyce Feliz

It is Biblically orthodox to spread love, not fear

Michael Youssef, founder and pastor of the Church of The Apostles, recently said: “I fear Islamic jihadists less than I fear the Christian church departing from Biblical orthodoxy. The reason I say this is because historically, Islamic expansions have taken place every time the church of Jesus Christ departed from living under the authority of the Scriptures.” I agree, but I doubt that Dr. Youssef and I have the same understanding of ‘Biblical orthodoxy’.

Christians are indeed departing from the ‘authority of the Scriptures’. Instead of radiating the love of our Lord and Savior, Christian groups are engaged in publicizing the evils of Islam.  For example, claims that Muslims are engaged in a five-step program to institute Sharia law. Not ‘some Muslims’ or even ‘many Muslims’ – this site, as do so many of the same ilk, speaks of  ‘Muslims’ as if all are the same, with the same intentions. , and by doing so they demonize all Muslim people. While the Brotherhood is indeed active in many countries, including the United States, but it certainly does not represent ‘Muslims’.  Just one example: the governments of Bahrain Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates consider it to be a terrorist organization, just as the US does.

This focus on ‘what is to fear from Islam’ is endangering Christianity. The great and wonderful thing about Christianity is that it is a religion for which ‘orthodoxy’ is love, the love of one’s neighbor whoever he or she may be. By demonizing, we turn away from the ‘orthodoxy’ of love.

Some claim ‘Of course, we love Muslims – it’s just their religion/ISIS/Sharia/Al Qaida/whatever that we are exposing as evil’. If we ‘love Muslims’, then we will take care not to demonize them. And where does Jesus tell us to put our energy into creating websites and programs that focus on the wrongs that we think others are doing?

Where there are forces that can create hatred in our hearts, the Church must be on the side of love. Instead of fanning the fires of fear with ‘evidence’ that Muslims are evil, the Church is called on to use its energy to argue for love.

Truth is the foundation of love. Some Muslims, like the Muslim Brotherhood, intend to take over America, and the state must fight against this, just as it fights against any force with this intention. Some Muslims have joined ISIS, and we must fight with all our strength against this entity. But we must filter our words through love when speaking about any publically demonized groups, including Islam and Muslims. Most of all, we must focus on spreading love, not increasing fear.

With thanks to
With thanks to