Acting NiggardlyDONALD DEMARCO
The “right to be offended,” at virtually any time and under nearly any set of circumstances, is considered to be one of the more sacrosanct contributions of political correctness. What stern judgment should we impose then, on the poor, unenlightened soul who washes his floor with Spic and Span, paints his walls with Day-Glo, serves sauerkraut, Swedish meatballs, and Aunt Jemima pancakes to his guests whose necks have been reddened by exposure to the summer sun?
The “right to be offended,” at virtually any time and under nearly any set of circumstances, is considered to be one of the more sacrosanct contributions of political correctness. Moreover, in exercising this special “right,” it is assumed that the offended party is never acting out of ignorance or misunderstanding, but is displaying a highly refined moral sensitivity. No distinction is made, therefore, between a real and an imagined offense. The college campus, these days, seems to be a kind of PC Mecca where one can expect to find a particularly high concentration of such finely sensitized and easily offended people.
A case in point: Amelia Rideau, a student at the University of Wisconsin, is aggrieved over her professor’s use of the word “niggardly.” He used the offending word, she charged, once on January 25, 1999, during his class on 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and again in a subsequent class when he explained its meaning. Ms. Rideau, outraged by what she describes as her teacher’s “offensive” language, has demanded that her school institute a “speech code” that would authorize punishment for anyone who uses such offensive language. She has urged the university not to require proof of intent before punishing verbal villains such as her professor (Associate Press, via The Star Tribune, 02/03/99).
In more tranquil times, the university placed a high priority on learning and saw little value in ignorance. We now witness, thanks to political correctness, a movement that wants to champion ignorance and punish the learned. The “Closing of the American Mind,” that philosophy professor Allan Bloom witnessed, has led to something even more ghastly the “Cloning of the American Mind.” Nonetheless, at least at this writing, the embattled Chaucerian scholar has not lost his job.
David Howard, however, was not so fortunate. He lost his prestigious position as director of the District of Columbia’s Office of Public Advocate for using the same word, “niggardly,” once, during a private staff meeting. On January 15, 1999, when reviewing the services budget with two of his aides, he commented, “I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money” (The New York Times, 01/29/99 by Melinda Henneberger). One of the aides, who is black, was offended by what he took to be a racial slur coming from the mouth of Howard, who is white.
The word “niggardly” for 600 years has meant “stingy” or “grudging.” It has a lineage that, according to the Barnhard Dictionary of Etymology, reaches back to Middle English of the 1300s when the words nig and ignon meant “miser.” It also goes back to hnoggr, an Old Norse word for “miserly.” Never has the word “niggardly” denoted or implied a racial slur.
Nonetheless, the charge of racism quickly reached the intensity of a furor. Howard tried to explain. One of his aides accepted his explanation, the other did not. Said Howard, in his own defense: “I used the word ‘niggardly’ in reference to my administration of a fund. Although the word, which is defined as miserly, does not have any racial connotations, I realize that staff members present were offended by the word. I immediately apologized ... I would never think of making a racist remark. I regret that the word I did use offended anyone” (The Washington Post, 01/27/99, B 1, by Yolanda Woodlee). His efforts in appealing to intelligence and reason, however, were in vain. Vicious rumors continued to spread. Succumbing to the pressure, and sensing the inevitable, Howard submitted his resignation.
The new DC mayor, Anthony Williams, less than a month into his term, immediately accepted Howard’s resignation, an act that was tantamount to firing him. “I don’t think the use of [that “N-word”] showed the kind of judgment that I like to see in our top management.” But was Howard’s choice of an entirely legitimate synonym for “stingy” a “judgment,” on which his job security should perilously hang? Granted, we must weigh our words, but if we were to agonize over each epithet, fearing the worst, we would never finish a sentence and our work would never get done. Howard would have been on safer ground had he uttered a conventional obscenity. Inducing a state of paranoia is hardly the way to solve racial tension. Advocates of political correctness abhor the “hostile environment,” though they show curiously little disdain for engineering the “climate of terror.”
Mayor Williams, nonetheless, remained adamant. He acknowledged that the word “niggardly” is innocuous, but still judged Howard’s loss of employment to be “appropriate. “I think what David did,” the Mayor went on to explain, “was [get] caught smoking in a refinery with a resulting explosion” (The Washington Post, 01/29/99).
There was an “explosion:’ to be sure. But it was the exploders, not David Howard, who were behaving irresponsibly. And it was Mayor Williams, ironically, who, as one journalist jibed, was acting “niggardly. “STUPIDITY has no color,” wrote Michael Myers, “but ignorance sure is transparent” (The New York Post, 02/02/99).
Although the issue on the streets of the nation’s capital was split, the Press was ganging up on the Mayor. Jeff Jacoby charged that “Williams is anxious to appease the city’s pernicious racial extremists who have been hounding him for not being ‘black enough’” (The Boston Globe, 02/01/99). The editor of an Afro-American weekly commented that “The problem with Anthony Williams is that many people feel that a lot of white people are pulling his strings” (The San Jose Mercury News, 01/30/99, by Tony Pugh and Tracey A. Reeves). “The crime of David William Howard,” wrote the Editor in Chief of The Washington Times, “is that he paid attention in high-school English class” (01/29/99, by Wesley Pruden).
Turning up the heat on the new mayor, Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP (a curious acronym whose last two letters stand for a combination of words that is fatally politically incorrect) got into the act. “You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding,” said Bond. “David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them” (The Washington Post, 01/29/99, A24).
Bond, who teaches at the University of Virginia and is a wordsmith as well as a serious student of languages, given the immunity he enjoys in virtue of his personal prestige and public position, was able to venture into far more turbulent waters than was David Howard. “Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on the issue,” he wrote. Going even further, he added, “We have a hair-trigger sensibility, and I think that is particularly true of racial minorities” (The Detroit Free Press, 02/19/99)).
Bond, unlike his illustrious namesake 007 who has a license to kill, has a more valuable license (and one that might be more rare in Washington, DC), namely, a license to speak. One may hope and pray that given Julian Bond’s leadership and example, freedom to speak might one day invade the university classroom. Then education would remove the straightjacket that is political correctness.
Another figure who apparently has a license to speak (and write) is Colbert King. He asserts that “a few arrogant white people” have been giving Mayor Williams the “jitters.” They are individuals, King claims, “who fancy themselves free from prejudice but who are really obsessed with the ‘blackness’ of prominent African Americans to the point of pathology” (The Washington Post, “Much Ado About an N-Word,” 01/30/99, A 19).
The word “niggardly,” oddly enough, has an impressive history of coming to the defense of liberal values. In dissenting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Griswold vs. Connecticut, Justice Hugo Black argued that to treat the first amendment “as though it protects nothing but ‘privacy’ . . . to give it a niggardly interpretation, not the kind of liberal reading” the Bill of Rights deserves. More recently, U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene admonished the Navy for failing to obey a federal order to remedy discrimination against an African American employee, ordering Navy lawyers to, “Do something, that rectifies the discrimination. That’s what I want you to do, that’s what the EEOC wants them to do, instead of being niggardly and parsimonious about this whole thing and giving him the job that has the least potential for advancement and has the least supervisory authority.”
The Washington Post, a bastion of liberality, has, itself, employed the word “niggardly” an un-niggardly 65 times over the last few years. And the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, a supposedly liberalist’s delight, has Paul saying, in II Corinthians 9:6, “But do not forget that he who sows with a niggardly hand will also reap a niggardly crop, and that he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
In 1981, philosopher Mortimer Adler published a book entitled, Six Great Ideas. He divided the sextet into those we judge by (Truth, Goodness, and Beauty) and those we act on (Liberty, Justice, and Equality). The major significance of his precise arrangement of these great ideas is the fact that we need the ideas we judge by so that we can then move on to the ideas we act on. We cannot act without first judging. In other words, if we know nothing of truth (or the truth of a specific situation) we are completely incapable of rendering justice. In a very real sense, justice is merely truth in action.
One salient reason that liberty, justice, and equality seem to be elusive, despite their immense popularity, is because libertarians (especially those of the politically correct brigade) are either skeptical or nihilistic about truth, goodness, and beauty. If Mayor Williams is unconcerned about the truth of what David Howard said, then he is equally unconcerned about rendering him justice.
Truth is the key to liberty. It is the truth that makes us free. An obsessive concern for liberty that has no room for truth is inevitably counterproductive. We must be concerned about the ideas we judge by as well as the ideas we act on, for, in the practical order, the two are inseparable. We must be sensitive about words as well as sensitive about race, but not so hypersensitive about race that it makes us insensitive to the meaning of words.
Josef Pieper makes the point in his masterly treatise, The Four Cardinal Virtues, that the person who seeks justice but rejects the truth is really “wicked.” To buttress his position, he cites the words of Goethe: “All laws and rules of conduct may ultimately be reduced to a single one: to truth.” Wickedness may exist in high places, but wrapped in politically correct language, it becomes difficult for the masses to recognize.
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio makes reference in three separate places, to the primacy of truth, goodness, and beauty. “Once the truth is denied to human beings,” he writes, “it is pure illusion to try to set them free” (n. 90).
If a hypersensitivity to justice that is unaccompanied by a just regard for the truth of words is counterproductive, it can also be ludicrous. What stern judgment should we impose on the poor, unenlightened soul who washes his floor with Spic and Span, paints his walls with Day-Glo, serves sauerkraut, Swedish meatballs, and Aunt Jemima pancakes to his guests whose necks have been reddened by exposure to the summer sun? How should we feel about the sexagenarian who employs the Heinlich maneuver after serving a Whopper to one of his customers? And should we not ban the complete works of Charlotte Bronte for writing, “Little niggard ... refusing me a pecuniary request”? On the other hand, we would be less often offended if we were more often enlightened.
St. John’s University in New York became nervous a few years ago about its “Redman” basketball players, thinking the nickname might offend native Americans. The name was innocent enough, referring back to the time when its players wore red shirts. Nonetheless, if only to provide a margin of safety, the name had to be changed. There was an interim period between the “offending” moniker and the “politically correct” one in which the basketeers were known as the “Johnnies,” an infelicitous appellation that brought to mind the disagreeable thought of portable latrines. Finally, the new name was chose the “Red Storm” (insensitive, no doubt to sensitive Iraqi). The only way to avoid any chance of using language that will offend someone is to avoid using language altogether. Then people would be offended by each other’s hurtful silence.
Mayor Williams, by accepting the resignation of David Howard, exemplified the very injustice he was apparently trying to denounce. The Press recognized this as did a horde of influential and intelligent social critics. Williams, seemingly had no choice. On February 3, 1999, the now embattled Mayor announced that he was rehiring David Howard, but at the same time, looking for a “less controversial” position for him (presumably one that did not require him to use words). Thus, justice was finally served, but rather imperfectly, and through rather torturous routes. To do things politically, rather than rightly and justly, can be very confusing as well as expensive and time-consuming. In this dense thicket of political intrigue, we wonder what role “gay” activists played. David Howard is the Mayor’s first openly “gay” appointee. His ill-treatment offended his colleagues in the “gay community” who came to his defense.
What are the rules for playing this game of politically correct poker? Does the hand of white, civil servant, homosexual, scapegoat, pro-use of the word niggardly win or lose against black, mayor, heterosexual, bureaucrat, anti-use of the word niggardly? Who can know this before the battle is fought in the Media, on the political field, and in the courts of self-interest? It surely makes life more tense, uncertain, and turbulent than it needs to be. Is there not a way of figuring things out without fighting? Would it not be so much more sane and simple to learn what is true, good, and beautiful, and then put them into action in the form of liberty, justice, and equality? Or would that spoil the fun?
Have we learned a lesson from the Howard/Williams fiasco? John Leo thinks he has. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he states: “The resignation of Howard, of course, a shock and a tragedy but it had a good result too. It sensitized us all to the hidden and hurtful ethnic slurs that darken oops, sorry that afflict American life and allow the wily perpetrators to get off scot free er, without any punishment at all” (U.S. News, 02/08/99).
Can we find a way to be sensitive without being stupid; and to be intelligent without being offensive? The culture wars continue to rage because we, as a society, are still clueless about how to combine intelligence with love.
DeMarco, Donald. “Acting Niggardly.” Social Justice Review 91, no. 3-4 (March-April, 2000): 45-48.
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