Michael Richards’ comedy club tirade has been practically ubiquitous in the American media this last week. I happened to catch a non-Wolf Blitzer Situation Room and two of the objects of Richards' tirade were being interviewed.
I confess to being a charter member of the vast right wing conspiracy, and as such have little, actually no tolerance for political correctness. Yet I must also confess to some ambivalence as I see all the hubbub surrounding this latest installment of an offense against modern public verbal decorum.
When I hear two of the “victims” tell how much “pain” they claimed as a result of the event I get more than a little annoyed. It didn’t help that attorney Gloria Allred was threatening to sue Mr. Richards for infliction of mental and physical intimidation. One of the offended party even said his goal was to “punish” Mr. Richards if he wasn’t willing to apologize to them in person.
My first reaction was to say to these guys to just get over it. Quit being such wimps. As an American of Italian heritage being called dago, guinea, greaseball, goombah, or wop (thanks to The Godfather for the exquisite combination) wouldn’t faze me. Yet how would my grandparents and great-grandparents have responded in an atmosphere of real and virulent discrimination that existed early last century?
Not being a person of African-American decent I cannot claim to be able to put myself into the shoes of those who were the object of Richard’s calumny. So when I immediately discount the offense I have to question my initial reaction. Is it valid? Do I diminish the hurt or the threat or the pain simply because my ancestors were not slaves?
I would argue that Black Americans are a special case not because of slavery or Jim Crow, but because their worldview of a hostile and oppressive country has been shaped by a warped civil rights establishment and a great heaping of liberal white guilt (see Shelby Steele). The resulting perception of victimization and thus powerlessness is a recipe for hypersensitivity and a very large chip on the shoulder.
Am I saying that throwing verbal assaults at black Americans is acceptable? Of course not. What I am saying is that the power of such assaults has as much to do with the perceptions of the offended as the words of the offender. This is obvious from a psychological point of view, but in modern American PC culture it is not allowed to be stated in polite company. Words are important, but if we imbue them with too much power we end up treating Mr. Richards in a way that is disproportionate to the offense. We also play into and contribute to the mentality of black victimization, which in my mind makes the cure worse than the offense.