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Nice talk

I’ve got to let go of this hon stuff. For my non-Baltimorean readers, it is boring and pointless. For my Baltimorean readers, apart from the small group of people rabid about Denise Whiting (and I wonder sometimes if that usage is metaphoric), I’m wasting time on a synthetic controversy. And besides, it feeds my impulse to tease the humorless, which is not one of my more admirable qualities.

But there are two things about it that I want to mention today.

The first—and doesn’t it strike you as odd?—is that this involves a group of people who are attempting to organize to damage, and perhaps destroy, a woman’s business, because they dislike her personally. I’ll grant you that Denise Whiting, whom I do not know and have never met, appears to be a pushy person with a tendency to overreach, but if we were to put all such people out of business, commerce would grind to a halt.

But the main thing, and the thing that keeps drawing me back to this non-issue, is the degree to which the conversation about Denise Whiting and the hon caricature she has incorporated into her business exemplifies the coarsening that dominates our public discourse.

There are basically two arguments to be made, one that Denise Whiting is acting within her rights to make money legitimately. The other is that she is riding roughshod over the feelings of the public in doing so. I understand the second argument, but look at what happens if anyone attempts to articulate the first.

The way we talk now

I can’t hear you, la-la-la-la-la: When I wrote last year that a case could be made for the trademarking, or when I laid out similar arguments Friday,* no one, except Andrea, made any attempt to respond directly to them. Instead: Anyone who disagrees with me must have sinister motives: The Sun was a sponsor of Honfest, so nothing in its positive coverage in Sunday’s editions can be trusted. Never mind that Friday’s editions carried a front-page story quoting the people who want to boycott Honfest. Denise Whiting must be sleeping with someone at The Sun. I must be in the pay of Denise Whiting.

Anyone who disagrees with me is not entitled to an opinion: You’re an outsider, like those “suburbanites” and “tourists” who come to Hampden. You’re not from here. A couple of people have generously suggested that I should go back where I came from.

Anyone who disagrees with me is subject to miscellaneous abuse: In a way, the sweetest example was on Boycott Cafe Hon’s** Facebook page: “DonnaAnn Ward He's white trash from Kentucky.” Not that I blush at my humble origins or have ever attempted to conceal them, but the people I come from, Appalachians, are, ethnically and culturally, pretty much the same people whose hon heritage is, you know, deserving of respect.

(Neither do I object to being called white trash, mind you. I’ve been the recipient of obloquy from experts, and DonnaAnn Ward is, sadly, not in that class. )

So there you have, in epitome, how we conduct disagreements today. When Republicans say that Democrats are spending the country to ruin, or Democrats say that Republicans are going to cancel Medicare and let old people die in the streets, you have the Honfest kerfuffle on a national scale, with serious rather than laughable consequences. We ought to be able to fo better.

 

*For the record, this is the comment from Friday's post:

All right, I’ll grant you that the boycott line was an exaggeration—but there is still something inherently comic about the proclamations of people who have never patronized Cafe Hon that they will shun it.

Since Andrea asks, I’ll explain what’s back of the mockery.

Denise Whiting is an aggressive businesswoman who has taken legal means to protect her brand. That she had trademarked “hon” years before last year’s kerfuffle shows how little effect that action had on just about everyone. Her restrictions on vendors at Honfest may be elaborate, but they are not extreme. (My parish runs an annual street fair in the fall, and I’m sure it controls what vendors are present.) I’ll grant you that she looks pushy, but so?

And “the economic gain of one businessperson” puts it a little strongly. I’m fairly sure that the tens of thousands of people who attend Honfest patronize businesses other than Ms. Whiting’s. And despite the complaints about “outsiders” coming to Hampden, I doubt that the neighborhood businesses want to turn them away. Anybody close up shop this weekend in opposition to Honfest?

As to the cultural heritage, the “hon” figure is a cultural stereotype. John Waters may have manipulated it in more aesthetically sophisticated ways than Denise Whiting, but it is a stereotype nevertheless, and he has surely profited from it. Perhaps rather than “stereotype,” I should say “kitsch.” If the articles and booklets and cheapjack souvenirs about the local dialect, “Bawlmerese,” don’t mock the cultural heritage, then Honfest is no worse than them.

But the fundamental thing—let’s get down to it—is the disproportionate rage. I don’t see than anyone has been injured by the trademarking or by the Honfest activities. So where does all the anger come from?

I suppose there may be some business rivalries at play, and there may be some hostility toward outsiders in Hampden’s cultural heritage (manifesting itself when I first lived in Baltimore to the risk that African-Americans took if they ventured into the neighborhood). There may be some anxiety about the changes in the neighborhood as new elements, like the hipster population, make it their own. But I think that there are deeper roots: unhappiness that the blue-collar culture has been eroding as the jobs that supported it have vanished. Honfest is a synthetic and sentimentalized version of what used to be a broad reality.

Denise Whiting is a convenient representative of all those changes, and thus an obvious target.

 

**Let it not be said that I am ungenerous. On Twitter, @BoycoittCafeHon has fourteen followers. You can’t make a mass movement out of fourteen people. You Whiting-haters out there, it’s time to step up to Twitter and sign on with @BoycottCafeHon. Otherwise somebody is liable to think that I am right in calling you a noisy fringe group.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:13 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

Amen. We Americans do indeed appear to lack the ability, or at least the inclination, to participate in reasoned, civil discourse.

So here's the $6M question: how do we change this? I don't have any good ideas on that point. What's worse, any attempt to do so must deal with two unpleasant realities: first, participating in reasoned discourse is *hard.* Second, it's altogether too easy for a small number of people to use argument-by-intimidation to derail any such attempt.

Thank you, John, for explaining what has struck me as an odd preoccupation with what you fairly call "this non-issue," in particular your past several days of remarks about Honfest.

I agree wholeheartedly with you that overheated rhetoric is harming this country on the local and national levels.

I agree that overheated, illogical and demonstrably false attacks were made against you, and should not have. (I was not aware them until I read them here today.)

And I don't hate anyone.

I don't agree with all that you've written (including that no one has been injured -- the owners of the fledging Thanks, Hon shop in Towson that went out of business after being threatened with legal action by Denise Whiting even before she had the trademark serve as an example). I also can attest that I have friends who oppose Whiting's actions without hating her personally.

As someone who lives on the edge of Hampden, spends money there and has attended past Honfests, I see changes in the neighborhood on a daily basis for the better and worse. I'd also sensed unfortunate changes in Honfest before the past year's trademark kerfuffle. Perhaps that accounts for the differences in our opinions on this. Maybe not.

But I agree that hate accomplishes nothing.

Increasingly it seems that emotions trump reasoned argument; gut feelings are given more weight than demonstrated evidence. See: truthiness.

With such arguers, the one who gets the last word wins.

It's frustrating to try to have a discourse with someone who will not even admit that there are facts that do not agree with their worldview.

And hon is such a relatively recent phenomenon too. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Baltimore and the only person that called me hon was my grandmother. I left before the 80s hit; when John Waters was reviled by the majority of the denizens and The Block was still a shameful blot on the city. Now hon is embraced as a signature expression and Waters is a pop culture icon. Eh. Next decade it'll be something else to grab the public's affection.

You really do have to let this hon thing go. Enough already.

Say not the struggle naught availeth. Andrea clearly feels strongly on this issue, but was perfectly able to express those feelings in cogent argument rather than invective. It's true that blogdom is awash with bile, but there are islands of civilisation like this one where we can discuss and argue and bicker and drift off into nonsense, and rarely descend very deeply into name-calling.

So, yes, there is something we can do about it. Take this site: the more people (particularly Baltimore people I would suggest) who contribute intelligent comments here, the safer it is from the barbarians.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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