Wednesday, January 05, 2011

I was discussing my recent nasty comment at dinner with Bob, who has no patience for such foolishess. He doesn't appreciate the world of blogging, or even of the print environment, where stating opinions can cause one to be attacked. It has happened to me a few times, and he doesn't like it at all, can't see it the same way I do.

This made me think of Heslep's (1996) The Moral Presuppositions of Multicultural Education, which is a journal article I assign in toleration class. Heslep asserts that because of multicultural education’s limits on tolerance, some of its advocates have tried to restrict hate speech, politically incorrect speech, and other “linguistic modes of cultural disrespect.”

I always get a lot of appreciative laughter when I explain what this means in a real-world way. I use the ethnic example of 1940s intermarriage between a quiet, reserved family - such as my maternal side, rural upstate farmers of northern European descent, and an exhuberant, warm family, such as my paternal side, urban ethnic folks of southern European descent. Did one side view the other as cold, distant, judgmental? And the other perceive vulgar, loud aliens, because of the different body language and communication styles?

I go from that example to a more contemporary one, purely cultural - that the "F" word is almost as common as "the" for many downstate folks, while to my ears it is grating, offensive, obnoxious, lazy, along with its four letter compatriots - such as the "C" word, and the longer swear words, for instance the "C-S" word.

I close with the "N" word, a racial example, commonly hurled among friends within groups of young people of the same culture, males in particular, yet taboo when said by an outsider or even "insider outsider" - the ultimate put down, with ugly overtones that go far beyond a simple insult. The students all "get it" at this point.

According to Heslep, cultural respect is a virtue in multicultural society. Cultural disrespect is a vice because it is the opposite of cultural respect. Disrespect is also bad because it is offensive to individual members of targeted cultures; being offensive, it also is antagonizing, thereby encouraging cultural discord, another vice for multicultural education.

He argues that the use of a linguistic sign of cultural disrespect might offend members of the involved cultural group regardless of the innocent intention of the user of the sign. Such is the case with youth - sometimes they absorb elements from popular culture and don't understand the context of the words they casually use.

Then, some cultural groups have language of cultural disrespect as one of their features. Think of my "N" word example, or the swear word one. Teaching intolerance of the language of cultural disrespect might be self-defeating in that it might promote cultural disrespect. Outsiders may judge users of those linguistic signs as being offensive, when the insiders do not mean each other harm. Heslep writes that multiculturalists answer that such intolerance is simply a necessary socially therapeutic act. A multicultural society cannot exist in harmony if any of its cultural groups are inclined to speak ill of each other.

How to remedy? It is not enough for multicultural educators to instruct their students to be intolerant of linguistic signs of cultural disrespect, explains Heslep. Students must be taught discernment - how to determine what the user of a linguistic sign actually intends in using it. Both speaker and listener are important. It is one thing to be intolerant of ethnic jokes whose users intend to be culturally disrespectful in telling them; it is another to be intolerant of such jokes when their users do not mean to be culturally disrespectful. They may be innocent, or ignorant, or mean-spirited.

I was thinking about this in reference to Bob's feelings about my obnoxious commenter. I see posters on blogs, mostly anonymous although occasionally not, use that word and others like it rather casually. Lefties use it to describe women like Palin, and righties use it to describe Hillary types. Do the users intend it to be culturally offensive? Is it a purposeful, gender-based insult? I think so. Did my commenter? Oh, definitely.

So is it OK to be sensitive to the slur? Or is there something special about the medium of the Internet that waters down the offensive nature of the linguistic sign of cultural disrespect? Or is it nothing more special than simply that anonymous cowards are comfortable with invective?

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