2016 election

I, Virginia Bergman, pledge not to vote for a male presidential candidate in 2016 just because he's male.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fallout From the Language of Hate



The above photo is from the 2002 Juneteeth Celebration, Minneapolis, Minn.

My concern for the harmful effects of negative stereotypes is rooted in my own life experience. I’m from a large displaced Appalachian family that moved to rural northwestern Ohio shortly before I was born, the 10th of 11 children.

We were sharecroppers in my early childhood, and the family income never rose above the subsistence level.

Bearing the double burden of poverty and our Appalachian heritage, my brothers and sisters and I were often ridiculed at school for our shabby clothes and hill country speech.

Decades later, after graduating in 1990 from United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities, I enrolled in the Appalachian Ministries Educational Program at Berea College in Kentucky, not too far from Magoffin County, the place my parents had once called home. That two-month summer program was my first visit to Appalachia.

In one of my classes, Dr. Helen Lewis, known as the mother of Appalachian studies, explained how the media has perpetuated negative stereotypes of mountain people. The comic strip, Lil Abner, and the TV programs, The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw, were offered as contemporary examples.

By then the people of Appalachia had begun the process of rejecting the images imposed on them by others and were creating their own images. Listen to mountain poet, Jim Wayne Miller:

You’ve heard the prayer that goes:
Help us to see ourselves as others see us.
Buddy, that’s not the prayer we want to pray.
I believe we want to pray:
Lord, help us to see ourselves – and no more.
Or maybe: Help us to see ourselves,
Help us to be ourselves,
Help us to free ourselves
From seeing ourselves
As others see us.

It’s been awhile since I’ve experienced regional or class discrimination, but launching my blog this past August reminded me with a jolt that our nation still excludes groups of people from full participation in society on the basis of such factors as age, gender, race, national origin, religion, and sexual preference.

I’ve heard the Internet described more than once over the years as an open sewer; and for what it's worth, I’ve had Google’s safe search on since the first time I dialed up.

With little experience in the outer limits of cyberspace, I was already nervous about staking a claim on the Web even before reading Ellen Goodman’s timely column on the risks involved.

Goodman marveled that a convention of progressive political bloggers the previous week had attracted seven out of the eight Democratic candidates. But what she really wanted to talk about were reported incidents of harassment of female bloggers, who remain a minority in the blogosphere.

Citing an ABC interview, Goodman quoted progressive blogger Markos Moulitsas: "I learned to talk the way I do in the US Army. And we don't mince words. In politics, I don't see it any different. I see it as a battlefield."

Goodman reported that another panelist, the American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta, had this to say: "If you're an angry man you're righteous. If you're an angry woman, you're crazy or a bitch."

Goodman continued, “Women have been talking about this since blogger Kathy Sierra was threatened with a picture of her next to a noose. Convention organizer Gina Cooper has two e-mail addresses, just one carrying her female name. Only ‘Gina’ gets the hate e-mail with sexual threats and such comments as: "I'm going to hunt you down."

“Who knows,” Goodman wondered, “how many women are scared silent.”

The noose symbolism has caught on with the hate-mongering crowd. Just ask Dr. Madonna G. Constantine, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Dr. Constantine specializes in the study of how race and racial prejudice can affect clinical and educational interactions.

Quoted in a New York Times article, Dr. Constantine said she remained mystified over who could be responsible for leaving a noose dangling on her office door at Teachers College this week.

The same article mentioned a separate case in which an “anti-Semitic smear” had been found the day before in a bathroom in a campus building.

And this past Sunday, a suspected copycat incident was reported in which a noose was found outside a post office near ground zero.

As far as I know, none of the above has yet been described as a legitimate expression of free speech. You’ll recall that famed First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus defended Don Imus after CBS fired the talk show host for describing the Rutgers women's basketball team on the air as "nappy-headed hos.”

Just before his dismissal, Imus had reportedly signed a five-year $40 million contract to continue his nationally syndicated radio program.

Now here’s the shocker: The New York Times recently announced that Citadel Broadcasting Corporation, owner of ABC Radio Networks, has been negotiating with Imus about a possible return to radio.

Blogging for the Huffington Post, Carol Jenkins reported reaction to Imus’s possible resurrection: “Women we worked with earlier this spring to address this situation were appalled that, just weeks after the U.S. House of Representatives hosted a hearing titled ‘From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degrading Images,’ Citadel and ABC would be considering providing a new platform to Imus.”

From the first, Imus deflected criticism of his offensive comments about the Rutgers team by pointing his critics toward the rap industry. Jim Abrams of the Associated Press reported two rappers present at the House hearing took opposite sides on the need for hip-hop artists to clean up the sexist and violent language from their works:

“Former gangsta rapper Master P apologized to all the women out there and said he is now committed to producing clean lyrics. He said the angry music of his past came from seeing relatives and friends shot and killed.”

Master P added that he didn’t want his own children to listen to his music, "so if I can do anything to change this, I'm going to take a stand and do that."

Rapper and record producer Levell Crump protested: "I'm like Stephen King: horror music is what I do. Change the situation in my neighborhood and maybe I'll get better.”

Abrams noted the two rappers were joined by music industry executives and scholars, who disagreed over who was to blame for sexist and degrading language in hip-hop music but were united in opposing government censorship as a solution.

Focusing on the problems in the black culture might not be all bad, according to Thomas Chatterton Williams, a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.

Williams argues in the Washington Post that hip-hop culture is not black culture; it’s black street culture. He says, “Like neurotics obsessed with amputating their own healthy limbs, middle-class blacks concerned with ‘keeping it real’ are engaging in gratuitously self-destructive and violently masochistic behavior.”

“Sociologists have a term for this pathological facet of black life.” Williams continues. ‘It's called "cool-pose culture.’ Whatever the nomenclature, ‘cool pose’ or keeping it real or something else entirely, this peculiar aspect of the contemporary black experience -- the inverted-pyramid hierarchy of values stemming from the glorification of lower-class reality in the hip-hop era -- has quietly taken the place of white racism as the most formidable obstacle to success and equality in the black middle classes.”

Williams concludes: “Until black culture as a whole is effectively disentangled from the python-grip of hip-hop, and by extension the street, we are not going to see any real progress.”

Williams raises some good questions, but let’s be clear: his critique in no way justifies white male Don Imus mimicking phrases from hip hop to slur a women’s college basketball team.

Responding to controversies stirred up by talk radio in New Jersey, Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo shakes his head at the whole phenomenon.

“What puzzles me,” Caraballo said, “is the number of people who defend the racism, misogyny, and other indecencies spouted in hip hop lyrics, gangsta rap, and radio trash talk. I’ve given up trying to fathom people who actually find entertainment value in listening to a Don Imus or Rush Limbaugh.”

A key insight we’ve forgotten from the 1960s and the 1970s is that language shapes our thoughts, and thoughts inform our behavior. Remember when we promoted inclusive language, even in God talk?

In recent years, inclusive language has been pushed aside in favor of increasingly sexist, degrading, and violent verbal assaults.

Not surprisingly, the FBI recently reported the number of violent crimes in the United States rose for a second straight year in 2006, marking the first sustained increase in homicides, robberies and other serious offenses since the early 1990s.

I won’t argue the coarsening of our language is the only factor in the nation’s recent rise in violent crimes, but I’m betting it’s had an impact. In her column mentioned earlier, Ellen Goodman wondered how many women in the blogosphere had been silenced by hate-mongers.

We could ask the same question about all those in our country who are routinely subjected to slurs or threats in the blogosphere, the rap industry, trash talk radio, or even more frightening — in their own neighborhoods or workplaces.

I’m not among those scared silent, but in launching my blog last August, I initially avoided providing any more information about myself than required, and I didn’t post my picture until weeks later.

I’ve gradually gotten braver, though, and I’ve become increasingly confident in expressing my thoughts and ideas. I’m especially grateful to those who have submitted thoughtful and encouraging comments.

Let’s hope the day will come when no American will have to overcome fear before starting a blog or otherwise claiming the right to participate on an equal basis in a democratic society.

Note: Today's post is an edited version of a presentation I gave this past Sunday at Groveland Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship. Groveland meets in the St. Paul Area Council of Churches Building across the street from Macalaster College. For more information, go to GrovelandUU.org.

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