SENSE AND SENSITIVITY

Keith argues that my article is “lacking in coherence” on two grounds: that I should not expect papers to print a word George Allen has not himself admitted to using, and that the choice not to print the word evidences a keen awareness of race and racism that we should approve of.

On Keith’s first point, I’m not sure why he thinks the certainty of the allegations should determine the specificity with which they’re related. Should the acts of admitted murderers, for example, be reported with more gruesome detail than those of alleged murderers? If the allegations weren’t newsworthy, they shouldn’t have been in the news at all. I’d say they were, since they came from a range of sources with personal interaction with Allen. I doubt they would have sparked the same interest or had the same staying power with reporters or with voters had they not fit into what was perceived as a pattern of troubling behavior on race. If one accepts that the story is newsworthy, the story is worth telling in full. My point was that leaving the speech act itself to be extrapolated by the reader lessens the impact of that news. I don’t think that’s a courtesy George Allen should expect or deserves. And I don’t think the willingness of friends of his to say he never said it, or of certain blacks to endorse Allen anyway, is particularly reassuring. Of course I was glad that papers printed the word “macaca,” which they must have done in part because the story would be difficult to tell with allusions, and relatedly, because the word doesn’t strike the same chords and isn’t on the same list of “epithets” that too many reporters place “nigger” and “shit” together on. My comparison between the reporting on those two words wasn’t about the proof of politicians saying them – it was about the use of allusion as if with the former, as with the latter, the problem was the coarseness of the language and not the outrageousness of the sentiment.

On Keith’s second point, I of course agree that “the n-word” is loaded and provokes strong reactions. Unfortunately, there are a not insignificant number of Americans who speak about it as if it were a matter of rudeness rather than racism. One of the blights on discourse about race in the United States is the confusion of racism and talking about racism (see Ward Connerly’s attempts to make it illegal for the government to keep track of racial profiling). That’s exemplified in the conflation of using the word “nigger” to refer to blacks and using the word to refer to how racists refer to blacks. The word strikes a chord for a reason. It’s a nasty, ugly word. The New York Times doesn’t demonstrate it’s racial sensitivity to only alluding to that nastiness and ugliness in a story about allegations that a (one-time) presidential aspirant made casual use of it. It just reduces our sense of the story.