the ever-diminishing lexicon

Ruben Navarrete, Junior, is a syndicated columnist who frequently writes about the problems of Hispanics in America. I often agree with him, either entirely or to a limited extent. Sometimes I think he’s nuts. Today, I’m pretty disgusted.

In his latest column syndicated through CNN, he complains that people feel too free to use the word “wetback.” Apparently Bill O’Reilly said it and then was condemned by a bunch of people who said, “I can’t believe Bill O’Reilly called Mexicans ‘wetbacks.’”

Navarrete is upset because they should have said “I can’t believe Bill O’Reilly called Mexicans the w-word.” In other words, he’s saying that “wetback” is so offensive that it shouldn’t even be spoken aloud, even when the speaker is speaking about the word, and not about the people whom it is used to deride. The parallel he draws is between “wetback” and “nigger,” saying that none of these people would have dared say, “I can’t believe Bill O’Reilly called blacks ‘niggers!’”

This is exactly the wrong position. Nobody is going to forget that the word “nigger” exists because we only reference it obliquely. It will go away as a term of hatred when people stop using it that way, and it seems absurd to suggest that referring to the word “wetback” (as a term that one shouldn’t use to describe Mexicans, no less) is a gateway to using the word to refer to them.

The only thing this kind of thinking accomplishes is to shift the emphasis from wrong thinking to wrong speech. As more and more words become entirely taboo, it will become safer and safer to say nothing against those who use hate speech hatefully than to take a stand.

He writes:

But just because O’Reilly acts like a jerk doesn’t mean that Rich, Kurtz and O’Donnell should get a pass to follow suit. Here’s a tip for liberals and those who play them on TV: If you’re trying to come off as more enlightened than the next guy, it helps not to mimic the very behavior you’re going out of your way to condemn.

Or else people might question your sincerity and conclude you’re not really progressive – as much as pretending.

In other words, a real progressive believes that condemning hateful speech by referencing it is, itself, a continuation of the original speech.

He’s right, at least, to say that none of these people would have been likely to decry the use of other slurs without some euphemism. That is their failing.

Written on April 24, 2007
language   stupid