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?