Talking the code
On Thursday, Professor Mark Liberman did me the honor of quoting me in a post at Language Log. Please excuse the exposition that must follow before I can get to the point.
He was demolishing the latest article on the recurring theme that President Barack Obama’s use of first-person pronouns indicates that he is a narcissist. This time, to the standard cautions—that there is no foundation for the premise, that a raw count of pronouns out of context is meaningless, that Obama in fact uses first-person pronouns less frequently than his immediate predecessors—Professor Liberman pointed out that the author hadn’t even counted the pronouns in the text accurately.
He then speculated on the popularity of this meme, quoting one of my blog posts: “I do not reflexively assert that every criticism of President Obama is based in racism, and I think that accusing anyone of racist attitudes is something not to be done casually. But I grew up hearing racist remarks and racist attitudes, and when I see complaints that President Obama uses I excessively, what I hear is 'That boy is getting uppity.' ”
His gloss on my comment: “John McIntyre's point is ... that there's a specific and well-known traditional response to members of low-status groups who fail to conform to caste expectations of self-effacement (and, for that matter, to caste-related expectations about speech patterns).” And further, “When a meme like this one takes hold of the punditocracy's imagination, without any rational basis in fact, it's natural to look for an explanation in irrational areas.”
In response, for the past three days, one Alan Gunn has been commenting, with vehemence, that my hearing racist overtones is without foundation and without “evidence,” is a slur, and is a symptom of the universal practice among journalists of making statements of fact without any substantiation.
So let me say a few things further.
The first is that I did not accuse anyone of being racist. I said that that argument about Obama sounds racist. People can make racist statements without realizing it. It is also possible for people who are not racist to make racist statements in a cynical maneuver for political gain. I’m not peering into people’s hearts; I’m listening to their words.
Second, I want to talk about “evidence.” Mr. Gunn seems to expect me to produce a videotape of authors saying. “I think black people are inferior,” or brandishing one of those cartoons depicting the president and first lady as monkeys dressed in human clothing. Surely he must be aware how much expression of attitudes about race is in code words.
In 1966, the Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, George P. Mahoney, ran on the campaign slogan “Your home is your castle.” Mr. Mahoney was no James Otis; he was universally understood to indicate that he would protect white people from encroaching black people, and it was nakedly enough racist that Marylanders elected Spiro Agnew, because he looked more like a moderate(!). This is a specimen. If Mr. Gunn demands more, more can be furnished.
Third, that reaction to “low-status groups who fail to conform to caste expectations”—read black people who give themselves airs above their station—is so commonplace as to be a theme in literature and popular entertainment. Think of the reaction to Sidney Poitier as a Harvard-educated black man in a suit, speaking standard “white” English in In the Heat of the Night.
And last, the main point. Racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia continue. But they are, to varying degrees, no longer respectable, so expression of these sentiments has become covert, coded. Thoughtful people recognize those codes by inference and take care to avoid them.
The sneers at President Obama’s imagined fondness for the first person are, as Professor Liberman has repeatedly demonstrated, based on an undemonstrated premise, methodologically flawed, and historically inaccurate—and in some cases evidence of an alarming incapacity to identify parts of speech and perform simple arithmetical calculations. And because they single out our first African-American president for a kind of criticism leveled at no previous chief magistrate, they also sound racist.
Lord knows there is plenty to criticize about President Obama’s policies and decisions, and neither I, nor Professor Liberman, nor anyone else I know who hears these overtones has attempted to muzzle the president’s critics or shout them down. But if they want their criticisms to be respectable, they should endeavor not to appear bigoted.