Comment of the Day on “The NAACP’s ‘Gotcha!’ Games”


An exchange between a spirited newcomer to Ethics Alarms, Roger, and me led to this Comment of the Day by Proam [ whom I keep meaning to ask whether his screen name is pronounced “Proam, ” and in “foam,” or “Pro-Am” } Here is his complex take: I’ll have a response at the end. Proam’s Comment of the Day on “The NAACP’s “Gotcha!” Games” :

“My $.02: the NAACP’s and Roger’s objections to what Santorum said are valid “gotchas.”

“It matters neither what Santorum really meant, nor what is the sum of Santorum’s character and values (call that his “heart”). What he uttered (“blacks”), insofar as how it matters to certain recipients, is off-putting and alarming, regardless of its timing, place, vehemence, or other quality, and therefore must matter to all recipients. It was worse than “lazy;” it betrayed a lack of sensitivity that others have (and are justified and deserving in having) about a matter of justice. It only takes one word – even part of one word; even no words at all but some other fleeting sound or sight, like a raised eyebrow – for one to make oneself clear, even clearer than ever had been intended, or than ever could be communicated with many words.

“Santorum revealed himself, and did himself in, with one word. One. Word. Santorum did address a valid point, despite what he said. Roger addressed a valid point too, despite writing, “But all blacks have been the victim of racism at numerous points in their life. This gives us a credibility and perspective that you and the majority of whites will simply never have.” My sensitivity causes me to judge that “part of Roger” as all fine and fair – up to “that.” The words following “that” caused me to react by remembering words penned by famous racist Mark Twain (to wit, in essence): “Everybody’s ignorant, just on different subjects.”

“But, since similarly ethical persons can be so unbelievably, exasperatingly dissimilar in perceptiveness and sensitivities, the last ten words of Roger’s written sentence completion don’t bother me nearly as much as Santorum’s utterance of one word – and still wouldn’t bother me as much, even if Roger was seeking election to the White House. That isn’t a double standard, or nitpicking, or paranoia, or what I often call pathological pettiness, such as the insensitive presumptousness and arrogance that persists in discussions of “code” in “race card” contexts. I think Roger sees alarming wiggle room for perpetuated prejudice that can be, and is, accommodated in dismissals referring to “playing the race card” – while others, in the same incidents where it appears that “the race card is being played,” see alarming wiggle room for other nonprogressive, bullying behavior and tyranny. I don’t want to sound too Darwinian, but in my lifetime, it seems that one continuing “struggle” in the U.S.A., culturally and politically speaking, has stemmed from “natural selection” of sensitivities (never mind sensibilities). With overall populations continuing to grow, I am not optimistic for stability stemming anytime soon from selection.

“I respect the NAACP and Roger for stepping up to be what I’ll call curmudgeons of culture, along the lines of the meaning of curmudgeon suggested here; more on Jon Winokur here. The NAACP and Roger, as they exemplify in this Santorum case, are vital, constructive observers, critics, advocates and activists who are serving all of us well by sustaining awareness of, and appreciation for, sensitivities “that others may simply never have.”

“To conclude, I reiterate what I said often in high school: I hate people who don’t love each other.”


My reaction: I think Proam loses his argument, well stated as it is,  at the very beginning.

If it doesn’t matter what Santorum, meant, then this is the  essence of an unfair “gotcha!”: the objective is to subject an unwary individual to condemnation as a racist or crypto-racist based on an intentionally harsh interpretation of his ambiguous and quite possibly benignly intended words. How does this achieve any good at all? It intensifies mutual suspicion and resentment, bullies the speaker into apologizing, not for his words but how an adversary has interpreted his words, and undermines efforts at collaborative, open discussion of race and related issues. If it is the choice of words, rather than meaning, that is deemed offensive, this is nothing but word=censorship and political correctness.

Requiring a speaker to self-edit according to how his words might be misinterpreted in the perspective of the most sensitive, aggrieved and easily offended listener is unreasonable (impossible?) and a prescription for stultified speech and restricted expression.

Proam: If you hate people who don’t love one another, how do you feel about people who take every opportunity to accuse others of not loving? Exploiting “gotcha!”s is a clear breach of the Golden Rule, is it not?

12 thoughts on “Comment of the Day on “The NAACP’s ‘Gotcha!’ Games”

  1. I’m loving this dialogue because we’re closer to “getting down to the nitty”. Race, and how we think, react and generally deal with it, is and for the forseeable future will be the preeminent social issue of our time. We are not a homogenous society. A significant portion of us have ancestors that were forcibly brought here to work as slaves. Others that look like those ancestors regardless of their actual origins are defacto members of the same group. Black folks. African Americans, negroe’s whatever. The experience of being black in the United States is unique. At this point in our history, most were born here, and have few if any remaining links to the motherland. Yet find it difficult to feel full status in all aspects of a culture that is just as much ours as any other Americans. So our reactions vary. Some hurt so much, they look for and see slights where none may exist. Others simply take any opportunity to call attention to the fact that they’ve been slighted. Others yet do their damndest to to fully participate- go to school get good grades, a job, financial success; they chase the “American dream all out. But it never seems to be enough for some folks. Perhaps as we continue to age as a society, this will fade. But I suspect we’re still generations out.

    In an earlier post I wrote, and “Proam took exception to these words- that you and the majority of whites will simply never have.” I respect Proams reaction, but I’m correct. The fact is, I didn’t say that all except African Americans will never have. I was careful to say that I felt the majority of whites would never gain this perspective. I actually hope and pray for the opposite. or better still that we can get over this whole thing without need for this. It wasn’t meant as a slight either. the simple fact is that most of us live in self segregated communities, or even those that choose to live in urban environments, tend to stay closer to their tribe, and fail to take advantage of the opportunity to develop real relationships with those in their neighborhood who look different. It is what it is. But it makes some uncomfortable, and god knows, it isn’t easy. I’ll never know certain things about white or hispanic people because I’m neither. I should be able to empathize. (and sincerely do) I don’t believe that Proam has a big problem with this, but I also don’t think it was an ignorant statement, and would welcome thoughts to the contrary.

    My issue with Santorums comments, and for the record Newt Gingrich’s which were far worse, is that many republicans continue to speak about welfare in general terms, and in 99% of this speech, feel the need to make an analogy or statement with blacks at the center. Given the actual statistics of those that are on welfare this is terribly unfair to blacks who are obviously sensitive to it. I admit I am. If we’re discussing welfare, discuss it in the context of the actual issues. If we’re discussing the problems of black folks, then thant’s an entirely different discussion. When politicians are only discussing welfare using terms and instances specifically involving blacks, I’m sorry, but it’s racist, and blatantly racist at that. Proam obviously understands that coded inuendo are absolutley involved in this. Keep the discussion going. It’s a lot better than the usual talk about race. More on Jacks response in just a bit….

  2. On Jack’s response, Santorums words were hardly benign or unintended. Nor was this the first instance of someone suspecting, insinuating or calling him a racist. I get your argument, and believe it has merit in situations where those that don’t have a history of sketchy comments misspeak or are genuinely uninformed. But not here. It absolutely is a legitimate “gotcha” to use your language.

    We’re all taught to think before we speak. We absolutely should weigh the impact of our words on all potential recipients, then make them anyway. Own them! If Santorum said, “I’m tired of lazy black people taking white folks tax dollars via the welfare system. Get a job man”! I would have rightly crucified him for it. But it at least would have been honest, and a starting point for a real debate. The issue, is we simply don’t know each other well enough to say what we really feel. This is terribly unfortunate, because so much more good would ultimately come of that, than by continued attempts to justify f’ed up statements meant to garner votes through code, then trying to convince everyone that you really didn’t mean it ‘that way’. I completely agree that self editing is not productive. But I equally believe in honest clarification of word or thought that is taken in a manner for which it was unintended. What serious contributor to a discussion wouldn’t readily explain misconstrued words, or apologize for them if they caused offense? Perhaps we shouldn’t have to, but if it keeps the discussion going, and leads to a better one, “I apologize if any of my words caused offense, and am happy to clarify anything that is unclear or might need additional context”.

    • Just a note on this, Roger—I happen to be suspicious of Santorum’s true beliefs on race, but the fact that he’s been accused or suspected of being a racist before shouldn’t be dispositive in this discussion, and I wonder it it’s even relevant. Glenn Beck and others have said that President Obama is a racist–does that mean we should interpret Obama’s comments in that context? Many, many commentators, and too many Democrats, have argued that opposition to President Obama is based in racism. The sheer volume of those accusations proves something to me, all right, but it has nothing to do with racism.

  3. I’m sorry Jack but if Santorum knows his audience and knows how to push their buttons. Also you are too removed from the “every man” voter to understand. Come work on a construction job site with me for a week or two and you will soon see that when people talk about welfare recipients they mean black people. The people that he is trying to rally behind himself with that statement see welfare as something that only blacks receive. I don’t know if he is a racist but I think he is willing to take advantage of other peoples ignorance and racism to get elected.

    • 1. Don’t be sorry.
      2. All candidates, Obama included, are willing to take advantage of public ignorance and racism.
      3. That is true of Santorum, but that statement was not an example of it.
      4. I don’t think he was talking about welfare. He was talking about the tax system, food stamps, welfare and income redistribution in general.
      5. His statement was unobjectionable in its message. Any reasonable listener would extrapolate that he was talking about the unemployed generally, and using blacks, as the group hit hardest by the recession, as his example. He has to win the votes of white unemployed voters—a much bigger bloc. Why would he intentionally leave them out of the equation?
      6. A sympathetic listener rather then someone looking for coded racism could even argue that using blacks as his example proved that he was especially concerned about that group’s special problems and willing to make them a priority, something black leaders (like Maxine Waters)have been criticizing Pres. Obama for NOT doing.

  4. Jack, we’re regressing here. You’re guessing that Santorum was using an analogy to talk about the issue of tax’s, food stamps. welfare etc. I don’t buy it for a second, but let’s asssume for a minute that you’re correct. Why would he then speak about blacks when they so clearly do not comprise the majority users or represent the largest costs to these programs? You further give rise to the notion that he might actually be wanting to help blacks, and is showing concern, by linking their plight to these programs, and showing concern in a way that Obama has been criticized for. You seem to be unwilling to accept the fact that we have a history of white politicians use of blatant and later coded language to garner votes by pitting one racial group against another. An objective listener, neither sympathetic, nor looking for easily spotted code, would only arrive at this type of reasoning after first weighing it against history, experience and context. By all three measures, few would actually get to where you seem to be. (I’m not fully sure, but strongly suspect so I’m giving you some room to convince me) I’ll again remind you of the actual recipients of social programs are, and the fact that in the OVERWHELMING majority of instances, they are not being given other peoples money, but their own. I’m struggling to understand why you continue to defend Santorum’s comments. I don’t get it.

    • Roger—I don’t like Santorum, and I don’t trust him.I would not put it past him to use coded messages. But in the arena of race, I think it is critical to always avoid reducing the argument to “you are racist, and therefore your opinion has no validity.” Of course…the vast majority of those Santorum’s comments apply to are not black, and yes, Americans are infuriatingly misinformed on this issue. (They also think blacks are a much larger minority than they are…most polls show that Americans think African Americans are between 25 and 33% of the population.) My problem is that Santorum’s statement, as policy, is benign (not necessarily correct, but benign) in relation to every group, and the fact that he chose blacks should not be presumed to be malicious. This is Golden Rule stuff—what is gained by leaping on a poor choice of words—indeed one word—, or a gaffe, or a slip, or even a moment of insensitivity, OR even a revelation of innate bias, rather than explaining in a non-inflammatory, reasoned, non-judgmental way what is wrong with the statement? That advances the discussion. Simply condemning Santorum does not—it immediately becomes a word game. And that’s what’s wrong with “gotcha’s!”–they are meant to score points, not illuminate. Their objective is to say, “Don’t listen to this man!” I think that is foolish, I think it is wrong, and from the NAACP, I think it diminishes the organization.

      I know my position requires standing up for Santorum, but my intention is not to defend him, but to defend the concept of not constricting discussions of race by being so quick to cry racism…even when racism it might be.

  5. OK. I’m getting closer but still see a few holes. I agree that being quick to cry racism can constrict discussion. Yet in instances where it exists, I’m sure you can understand why the minority party might not always be in a position, emotional or otherwise to take the high ground of restraint. What you’re asking is that blacks be consistently able to put aside their own bias’ and experiences, and make a well formed, reasoned argument on an issue that is so personal, and wrought with pain. Physical and emotional) Further, you’re asking them to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has a pretty clear history of exhibiting bigoted behavior. Santorum might have deserved a pass for such statements in his college years. But at this point in his life, he’s owed no such leeway. I understand you feeling that the issue is more important than the issuer. But it depends on who that person is.

    I now know that you are more aware than most of what the facts are as it relates to blacks and welfare. I really doubt that the majority of those in Santorum’s audience, and the media watchers his comments were aimed at, share your knowledge or understanding. So when he makes what might appear to be a benign comment to you, it had damn well better be factual. Now while his may be “technically factual, his linking, as well as the words he chose far outweighed this technicality. Especially in light of the fact that to deal only with the alleged facts in his statement would lead one to believe that blacks were the cause of welfare issues. Given the history of such discussions, it just not that far a leap for one to make. Additionally, if Santorum himself felt that his comments had a deeper or misconstrued meaning, he would have owned them beginning to end. He would not have offered up a half assed explanation about not really saying the word black. He would have said “no”! My comments as it relates to blacks and welfare were taken out of context”. The proper context was….. Instead he attempted to minimize the importance of what he said as it related to the statement, and even the specific word. I mean trying to deny that he used the word black was insulting.

    I don’t believe that blacks go thru life looking for instances of bad behavior, words, or deeds to call out others on. I think this simply because so many cases and examples of this are so easily available, that it would dominate our time chronicling it if we so chose. Hard as it might be for some to understand, the instances of truly racist behavior far outnumber the instances of blacks trying to exploit them in a “gotcha” format.

  6. Jack, all in this comment is to you. It’ll take me more time before I say any more specifically about the Santorum “gotcha” utterance – if I say any more. Your and Roger’s comments on that topic are so rich and well-said, I doubt I can say any more to add value. If you think I’ve “lost an argument,” it is probably best if I just ruminate, rather than engage in any more “rounds.”

    “Proam” is for Pro-Am – intending to declare my likely life-long status as “professional amateur” on ethics. You are an ethics “Pro;” I am only a very late student of the subject, thus (I have concluded) never likely to be more than just an “Am.” On ethics, you have all my deference. I am resigned, just being realistic: there is no way I will ever be able in my lifetime to grow to understand, articulate, apply, and propagate ethics at your level of competence and effectiveness. If I live long enough and work hard enough, at most I might (I hope!) come close to understanding ethics at your level, and to being able to articulate ethics as well or better than most people I interact with.

    You had me terribly worried until a few hours ago. I said,“You had me,” but I really mean just, “I was” (worried). I did not realize until Sunday afternoon, after reading one of your posts of Sunday (and commenting briefly there) that my Saturday comment on “gotcha games” was a Comment of the Day. Yesterday after I commented, I saw the little italic one-liner that said my comment was awaiting moderation, so, I moved on awhile to do other things. When I came back to the blog to see if more comments had been added, I did not see my comment. You’d have to be me to fully appreciate what that observation set off: immediately, I was stricken with anxiety – probably akin to that of the little boy who shed a baby tooth, but got a scolding note from the Tooth Fairy before bedtime about his failure to tidy his room or somesuch – a note implying that the next morning, he might, just might, wake up to find that tooth he tucked under his pillow for the Tooth Fairy was gone, but with NO QUARTER TO REPLACE IT!

    I wondered, being me: “UH-OH! What’d I screw up THIS time? Did I write something that Jack could not even abide in his blog? Was something I wrote so unclear, ridiculous, obnoxious, insidious…appearing so incongruous, insensitive, unethical, offensive, hateful, racist…??” It may be just me but, if, after a couple of re-reads (proofreads) I have written something that misses something that I probably did not mean to write, then someone else is going to have to point out my error or other failure; I can’t assure myself of 100% awareness or detection of my own blind spots.

    So there I was, hand-wringing (mentally) since Saturday afternoon – without thinking once to check a couple more times to see if my comment was posted. But I even checked my personal e-mail, hoping that if you had a reason not to post my comment, maybe you would tell me why privately (but, I held that hope with the thought that I would be unfair to expect that much attention from you). So on I went, anxious, until this afternoon. WHEW! I feel much better now. Even if I did lose an argument…

    That last thing I said, about “I hate people who don’t love each other” was just an old absurdism I had not spoken or written in years, that flashed back from my memory suddenly. I was being “too cute.” I shouldn’t have included it in my comment; it is too vague and was tangential to the topic, except in my own head. My lame defense: I was just trying to lighten-up in my closing. But, since you asked a couple of questions about “I hate people who don’t love each other”…

    1) In my opinion, people who take every opportunity to accuse others of not loving (are you meaning to infer to anyone in particular who behaves so?) may be fairly suspected of “defending themselves [lamely] by going on offense” – guilty precisely of that which they accuse others of – perhaps, more guilty than their accused. This may be a bad analogy: in the behavior we can generally agree is “homophobic,” for at least a portion of my life and in the places where I lived, the most egregious homophobic rhetoric came from the most fastidiously “closeted” males.

    2) If I understand your question, I do agree that exploiting “gotcha!” can be a clear breach of the Golden Rule. But, I also feel that eschewing such “exploitation” can be a manifestation of avoidance stemming from intimidation – a kind of rolling-downhill of a “dirty snowball” that enables continuation of unethical behaviors that deserve fastidious application of “gotcha!” assertiveness.

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