Celebrities and Racist Talk
First it was Mel Gibson with his drunken anti-Semitic remarks to police officers and now it is Michael Richards (aka "Kramer") and his anti-Black remarks. People ask me what I as a linguist feel about what this sort of talk means.
I am not sure I am qualified to say anything genuinely authoritative but I shall blog on and perhaps inspire some of you to comment. First, we may take as a given that what these men said didn't come from nowhere. Gibson did not pluck his statement that"The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" out of the air. He owns this statement.
We could sympathize with him and note that he was drunk. He was probably too drunk for the mechanisms we use to monitor and edit what we say to work properly. And, but this is just a wild ass guess, I suspect that once one has "crossed the line" and can't get back one is likely to continue along a self-destructive verbal path. Of course, if you are Mel Gibson, you may think you are ultimately bullet proof and can survive anything.
In my opinion, Gibson's statement that the Jews were responsible for all the wars in the world is very likely not to be a repetition of something he has heard someone say for it is difficult to imagine anyone saying such a thing since it is so transparently false. There were wars before there were Jews. I would submit that it was just the ugliest thing he could think of to say about Jews. About others he had things like this to say, according to the TMZ site linked to above.
The report says Gibson told the deputy, "You mother f****r. I'm going to f*** you.I believe that the target in this case was a woman. But if not, the women out there can tell you that they are frequent targets of vile comments by men whether drunk or sober.
Michael Richards presents a different sort of case for it seems that he may not only have said some pretty ugly things about Blacks but has also said ugly things about Jews -- a real equal opportunity ranter. On a different page of the TMZ web site it is claimed that he said
"You f***ing Jew. You people are the cause of Jesus dying."during a comedy routine when being interrupted. Now this statement is something that we have all heard. In fact, we heard just this sort of thing in connection with Gibson's Jesus movie. Whether Richards is stupid enough or sick enough to actually believe in the notion of collective Jewish guilt, I cannot say but in his Kramer role he didn't specialize in being intelligent. Maybe he was being himself on "Seinfeld." It is of interest that Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish. Wonder what he thinks.
Of course, Richards is more famous for his anti-Black rant. In general, he seems to have stuck to N-Bombs. The one really remarkable thing he said was
"Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a f***ing fork up your ass."Of this we can say that fifty years ago, we were on the cusp of the civil rights movement and any such forking would have been rather unlikely. Moreover, what happened to Blacks who were lynched was not an up-side down forking anyway. So, again, we have a claim, like Gibson's Jews and wars claim, that is well off the charts of credibility as claims. Richards does not claim he was drunk but does claim that he was in a rage due to his comedy routine being disturbed by cat calls. Once I was in a rage and said some things to my father that I would normally not have said so I think that "being in a rage" is a legitimate mental state and in such a state the monitors we use to block out socially unacceptable things may not be functional.
In my opinion, it is nearly impossible to grow up in America without some sort of subterranean negative thoughts about various groups whether one endorses these remakrs or not. I grew up virtually entirely insulated from the Black community in Enid, Oklahoma except for meeting the Blacks that worked for the family company. These men were treated the same way as White men by my Grandfather and Uncle. They had been elevated to positions of responsibility during WWII and were not replaced by White men who came back from the war. So that was a positive racial lesson. Once driving with my father, I used the N-word to refer to a kid walking down the street. My father gave me hell. While at Rice I participated in the Civil Rights movement. I have never used the N-word and have twice haranged White men in stores (hair cutting place and coffee shop) in the fairly racist city of Grove City, OH,, the closest town to where I live, for speaking ill of Blacks. I called them fools and other such things and stomped out. So, my public life has been pure. Nevertheless, I know that I harbor subterranean thoughts and feelings about Blacks that are less that pure of heart.
I have not come here to excuse Gibson or Richards. Most of us, I suspect, harbor subterranean negative feelings and thoughts toward groups different from us. I would include Blacks, of course, in this for no one can persuade me that Blacks typically do not have racist feelings about Whites. Some Blacks came out some years ago with a song and dance to the effect that they couldn't be racist since they were the victims of racism. That, of course, is bullshit. Indeed, the frequency of claims that this or that bad thing that has happened to a Black happened because of White racism proves that they harbor negative feelings and thoughts about Whites. Why else would they say such a thing?
In my opinion, we are all responsible for what we say whether we are drunk, in a rage, or highly drugged. How much blame should attach to what we say in those circumstances is for others to decide. Gibson got pilloried. Jews do not respond kindly to remarks like his. Richards is continuing to take heat. More important than statements that arise out of altered mental states such as drunkenness or rage or being stoned is what we do and say when not in a mentally altered state. I think racisms of all sorts may be the real "original sin" of human kind. We are biologically disposed to be suspicious of others and this disposition provides a welcome mat for the specific feelings and thoughts we acquire about others, usually when we are too young to know any better.