Wednesday, February 20, 2008

(In)sensitivity training

People will often say something that they don't truly mean. Plenty of times, racist or sexist comments will be made, many that are innocent and meant without any vitriol. However, due to heightened awareness on all sides, comments that ten years ago might have been met with little more than derision are now facing larger consequences. But we all understand that mistakes in speech can be made. So what about those among us that make such mistakes while serving in public office? And what about when those mistakes are compounded by more?

Such was the case with a Utah senator, who referred to a bill he was opposed to by saying "this baby is black." Sure, he could have meant something that was entirely without racial connotations, but it was his follow-ups that really made matters worse for him.

A meeting was scheduled with the NAACP, but the senator backed out when he learned that the meeting would be public. He referred to a storm of emails as a "hate lynch mob". And then, when he learned that he had managed to offend again (and, really, when one thinks about the usage of lynch mobs, doesn't one tend to think of a racial connotation?), he followed this up by saying, "How do I know what words I'm supposed to use in front of those people?" If he'd continued, he may very well have stumbled across the terms "tar baby", "Uncle Tom", or worse.

Look, we firmly believe that speech is a powerful tool, and we acknowledge the power of words. We'd also love to believe that people have a brain of their own, and that we don't need to police every little thing that gets said, simply because someone might be offended by the term. This is not detracting from the power of the words themselves, but it is merely pointing out that many people are just a little too thin-skinned to engage in conversation with.

That being said, a public official, elected by his constituents to represent them, who chooses to use such language in a completely careless way does need to get reprimanded, and, preferably, in a public setting. Why, we almost expect him to start talking about internment camps, and expressing his love for the Orient.

When celebrities are caught saying these things, we expect public outrage and open apologies. We crave these public shows, even if we never accept the individuals again (right, Michael Richards and Isaiah Washington?). So why should politicians be held to any different standard?

Oh, wait. Because more people voted for Sanjaya than GDub. Enough said.

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