When do insensitive words destroy reputations? It all depends.
Celebrity chef Paula Deen was dropped by her TV network, her publisher and many of her corporate partners after she testified in a legal deposition that she used the N-word some 30 years ago. The deposition was filed in a lawsuit against Mrs. Deen and her brother over allegations of sexual and racial harassment.
Actor Alec Baldwin recently let loose with a slur of homophobic crudities. Unlike Mrs. Deen, Mr. Baldwin spewed his epithets in the present. He tweeted them publicly, along with threats of physical violence. So far, he has avoided Mrs. Dean’s ignominious fate.
Does race determine whether a perceived slur is an actual slur?
Some blacks use the N-word in ways supposedly different from those of ill-intentioned white racists. Testimony revealed that Trayvon Martin used the N-word in reference to George Zimmerman and also referred to Mr. Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” who was following him.
Some members of the media have suggested that we should ignore such inflammatory words and instead focus on whether Mr. Zimmerman, who has been described as a “white Hispanic,” used coded racist language during his 911 call.
Actor Jamie Foxx offers nonstop racialist speech of the sort that a white counterpart would not dare. At the recent NAACP Image Awards (of all places), Mr. Foxx gushed: “Black people are the most talented people in the world.” Earlier, on “Saturday Night Live,” Mr. Foxx joked of his recent role in a Quentin Tarantino movie: “I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that?”
Mr. Foxx has not suffered the fate of Mrs. Deen. He certainly has not incurred the odium accorded comedian Michael Richards, who crudely used the N-word in 2006 toward two black hecklers of his stand-up routine.
Yet whites at times seem exempt from any fallout over the slurring of blacks. Minnesota state Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Democrat, recently tweeted of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ vote to update the Voting Rights Act: “VRA majority is four accomplices to race discrimination and one Uncle Thomas.” Mr. Winkler’s implication was that four of the jurists were veritable racists, while Justice Thomas was a sellout. After a meek apology, nothing much happened to Mr. Winkler.
The “Uncle Thomas” racial slur was mild in comparison with the smear of Justice Thomas by MSNBC talking head and black professor Michael Eric Dyson, who made incendiary on-air comments invoking Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.
Does profanity against women destroy celebrity careers?
TV talk-show host Bill Maher used two vulgar female slang terms to reference Sarah Palin, without any major consequences.
Those Palin slurs were mild in comparison with late-night television icon David Letterman’s crude riff that Mrs. Palin’s daughter, who was 14 at the time, was impregnated by baseball star Alex Rodriguez.
In contrast, when talk-show host Rush Limbaugh demeaned activist Sandra Fluke as a “slut,” outrage followed. Sponsors were pressured to drop Mr. Limbaugh. Some did. Unlike the targeted Mrs. Palin, Ms. Fluke became a national icon of popular feminist resistance.
So how do we sort out all these slurs and the contradictory consequences that follow them?
Apparently, racist, sexist or homophobic words themselves do not necessarily earn any rebuke. Nor is the race or gender of the speaker always a clue to the degree of outrage that follows.
Instead, the perceived ideology of the perpetrator is what matters most. Mr. Maher and Mr. Letterman, being good liberals, could hardly be crude sexists. But when the conservative Mr. Limbaugh uses similar terms, it must be a window into his dark heart.
It’s apparently OK for whites or blacks to slur conservative Justice Thomas in racist terms. Saying anything similar of the late liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall would have been blasphemous.
In short, we are dealing not with actual word crimes, but with supposed thought crimes.
The liberal media and popular culture have become our self-appointed thought police. Politics determines whether hate speech is a reflection of real hate or just an inadvertent slip, a risque joke or an anguished reaction to years of oppression.
Poor Paula Deen. She may protest accusations of racism by noting that she supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. However, the media instead fixate on her deep Southern accent and demeanor, which supposedly prove her speech was racist in a way that left-wing and cool Jamie Foxx purportedly never could be.
We cannot forgive conservative Mel Gibson for his despicable, drunken anti-Semitic rants. It appears we can pardon liberal Alec Baldwin, though, for his vicious, homophobic outbursts. The former smears are judged by the thought police to be typical, but the latter slurs are surely aberrant.
The crime is not hate speech, but hate thought — a state of mind that apparently only self-appointed liberal referees can sort out.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.