Not ev­ery un­kind com­ment is hate­ful or racist

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Paul Marx Paul Marx is a free­lance writer liv­ing in Tow­son; his email is PPPMARX@com­

Brent Sta­ples, an African-Amer­i­can colum­nist for The New York Times, wants to see the word “racist” used more freely.

A few days be­fore the elec­tion, in a col­umn with the head­line “The Elec­tion That Oblit­er­ated Eu­phemisms” Mr. Sta­ples, ex­pressed his plea­sure that the me­dia, or at least the print me­dia, had fi­nally got­ten it right. To Mr. Sta­ples, it was progress that Don­ald Trump was fi­nally be­ing called by a name that he said ac­cu­rately de­scribed him: racist. In say­ing this, Mr. Sta­ples was do­ing a dis­ser­vice to truth and in­tel­li­gent dis­course.

Mr. Sta­ples im­plied that “political jour­nal­ists” as a group had been cow­ardly by us­ing eu­phemisms — softer words — in de­scrib­ing Mr. Trump. Jour­nal­ists should not have been afraid to la­bel with “racism” or “racist” any­one in­volved in the elec­tion who said things crit­i­cal of African Amer­i­cans or any mi­nor­ity.

To Mr. Sta­ples, terms like “racially in­flam­ma­tory” or “racially in­sen­si­tive” were eu­phemisms. Jour­nal­ists should have had the guts to be in­flam­ma­tory them­selves and not worry about their own in­sen­si­tiv­ity. They should have done what was be­ing done on so­cial me­dia: Use a broad brush. So­cial me­dia, Mr. Sta­ples said, had helped “push frank racial dis­cus­sions to the fore.”

But be­ing truth­ful re­quires fine dis­tinc­tions, an aware­ness of de­gree. Jour­nal­ists — and all peo­ple with opin­ions — should not be afraid to hold back and ask them­selves whether a per­son has re­ally shown him­self to be hate­ful or crass or sim­ply care­less. Mak­ing an un­flat­ter­ing com­ment is not nec­es­sar­ily a mark of hate­ful­ness.

In the history of this coun­try, there have been times when ep­i­thets were freely thrown about. But we’ve come a long way from slav­ery, the Jim Crow years, the years of con­tempt for the Ir­ish and, later, other im­mi­grant groups. Those were years when ev­ery­one of a low so­cial stand­ing was con­sid­ered equally un­wor­thy. No in­di­vid- ual dis­tinc­tions were made. A nasty name ap­plied to ev­ery­one of the tribe, na­tion­al­ity or race. We’re be­yond that now.

But un­for­tu­nately we have smart peo­ple to­day who are too ready to call their op­po­nents names, too ready to use la­bels like anti-Semitic or misog­y­nis­tic or xeno­pho­bic — or racist. Some peo­ple use the max­i­mum la­bel for the cheers it will bring. To zealots, “in­sen­si­tive” or “in­flam­ma­tory” are words used by sissies. It is more manly to use the broad brush, to equate the po­lice shooter of a flee­ing sus­pect with the shooter in the Charleston church mas­sacre. Both racists. No sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences. That’s that.

In the law, the killing of a hu­man be­ing is not sim­ply mur­der. There is also man­slaugh­ter or killing with­out mal­ice. Taken into ac­count also are such con­sid­er­a­tions as rea­son­able provo­ca­tion or di­min­ished ca­pac­ity. Call some­one sim­ply a mur­derer and you may be leav­ing out an im­por­tant as­pect of what happened.

South Africa is a coun­try of mixed pop­u­la­tions. There are the in­dige­nous Africans but also sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of peo­ple of Dutch and English an­ces­try and also Jews whose an­ces­tors fled per­se­cu­tion in East­ern Europe. Dur­ing the years of the bru­tal apartheid regime, it was tempt­ing to call all white peo­ple racists. But there were white peo­ple in South Africa then who were im­por­tant in bring­ing about the end of apartheid — among them the No­bel Prize-win­ning novelist Na­dine Gordimer. How truth­ful would it be to re­fer to all white peo­ple who lived in apartheid South Africa as racists? Was ev­ery Ger­man or Ital­ian alive dur­ing the regimes of Hitler and Mus­solini a fas­cist?

In Bal­ti­more, rel­a­tively few white peo­ple ride the pub­lic buses. Some­times they may in­tensely dis­like be­hav­iors they wit­ness. At other times they may feel great ad­mi­ra­tion for what they hear or see. If they told a friend about the bad side of rid­ing the bus, would that make the white per­son a racist?

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