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Acceptable and unacceptable speech


In a discussion on the appropriate ways to talk about the South and southerners on this post esteemed reader and frequent commenter Erik says

Third, it’s good that we can’t really make fun of blacks, Jews, and other ethnic groups anymore without consequences. But there are still 2 groups it’s OK to make fun of–southerners and fat people. And it’s just as bad to make stereotypes about southerners as blacks.

Now I have no comment at this time on the primary claim here about the appropriateness or lack thereof about making fun of southerners vis-a-vis other forms of prejudice. I take issue with the underlying empirical claim–that “we” can’t make fun of Jews, Blacks, and most other groups. I don’t mean to pick on Erik here, I only point to him as an example of a claim I hear and see all the time.

But I have to ask, who are “we”, and what do we mean by “allowed”? Me, my co-bloggers, most all of my friends and colleagues don’t make fun of black people and Jewish people as groups because, well, we don’t want to. We know better. We’re not bigots. And I imagine if we did begin speaking this way, it would result in lessened respect and esteem from like-minded peers (as well it should).

But is you mean “we” in the sense of the larger national conversation, the public sphere or some such thing, I think the empirical claim here is flat-out wrong. There are large parts of the public sphere, most prominently but not exclusively talk radio, where mockery of Blacks and Jewish people is sometimes thinly veiled, and often not. Add to this list feminists, gays, Democrats, etc. and things look even worse. (On Savage’s Anti-Semitism, see here)

As far as I can tell, these people are regularly condemned by organizations and people they care little about, and their reputation amongst their fans generally remains untarnished. Sure, when they try to pedal this stuff in markets where it’s not popular, they often fail, but that’s the market at work, not some PC police forcing them back into their lucrative radio ghetto.

The crux of my objection is this–when we use this kind of language about speech (not “allowed” to say X about Y) we unintentionally repeat one of the pernicious and false message of the right about the dominance of some sort of authoritarian PC police who force us all to keep our inner bigots locked away. That just doesn’t describe the reality of our discourse, taken as a whole.


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