Just a bully?

I’ve been having some trouble trying to figure out how I feel about this whole Ann Coulter thing.

For those of you out of the loop: Coulter, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend, said,

“I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I’m – so, kind of at an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards, so I think I’ll just conclude here and take your questions.”

Now, part of the reason I’m having trouble figuring out what to make of this is that coverage on my favorite blogs turned into a slapfast instead of a discussion.

Personally, I’ve never felt the same about the word “faggot” since I was in high school and a really great guy from GLSEN brought up the word and its possible etymology–namely, that gay men were used as kindling when burning witches. I don’t have the historical background to know how accurate that origin is, but it’s pretty chilling either way.

Interestingly, someone I respect a lot wrote an op-ed today, which includes the following:

“The complaints of an injured minority with a reputation for hypochondria are not as effective as the reprimand of unanmious condemnation. In order to adopt a more powerful rhetorical position, the HRC and its peers have to be willing to resist the temptation for didactic speeches about the power of words and school yard bullies.”

This is the first such criticism I’ve heard of HRC regarding this incident. Most of what I’ve heard, in fact, criticizes HRC for not focusing more on the actual word, calling it out specifically as unacceptable hate speech.

I think what bothers me most isn’t that Coulter (sort of) called John Edwards a faggot. Objectively, that’s just a wacky thing to say. What bothers me most is that a huge crowd of CPAC attendees applauded Coulter’s remarks. And I think we have to address the “power of words” to address why that’s unsettling.

It occurred to me that this has a lot in common with my feelings about Eminem, so I think I’ll go with that analogy. I personally think Eminem is a pretty talented guy. His voice is kind of nasal and I don’t think I could listen to a full album of his music, but he does have a knack for clever rhymes and has some really slick songs. He also writes some pretty intensely misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. Whether the guy is being ironic or sincere in these lyrics is entirely beside the point. What’s more important is that a significant chunk of his fan base (adolescent boys) doesn’t make a distinction between irony and sincerity. Instead, these kids just hear misogyny and homophobia.

Similarly, Ann Coulter isn’t stupid. She has no real reason to call John Edwards a faggot, and admitted that she used it more as a schoolyard taunt than a homophobic slur. You can even make the argument that she was using the Isaiah Washington hoopla as an analogy, and didn’t make her full comments about Edwards (whatever they would have been; from her comparison, we can only know that they would have been inflammatory, and may indeed have included different hate speech) because she doesn’t want to get sent to “rehab.” But that part doesn’t really matter. Had she said

“I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that when you use inflammatory language in public, like Isaiah Washington, your agents send you to rehab, so I’m – so, kind of at an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards, so I think I’ll just conclude here and take your questions.”

…the crowd’s reaction would have been a lot different. Instead, she used “faggot” as shorthand, and the crowd went crazy.

Here, then, are my problems with this whole mess:

1) “Faggot” has evolved. It’s no longer just shorthand for “person who deserves to be kindling” or “effeminate man.” (Although it certainly still is shorthand for the latter, and not just for schoolyard bullies.) It’s now also shorthand for a larger incident–one that conservatives use as an example of how out of hand “political correctness” has gotten–and the punchline for a very public joke.

2) A huge crowd of conservatives reacted like that was the greatest joke a person could have made.

I don’t care what Ann Coulter said. Whatever. She says vile things pretty much every time she opens her mouth. It doesn’t surprise me at this point. I do care that people still embrace the vile things she says.


5 Responses to Just a bully?

  1. alden says:

    compare this to, say, kramer’s crazy rant. if you are a public figure, and you get caught dropping the n-bomb, you have to do a bunch of tv apologies and get jesse jackson to forgive you. it always seems pretty ridiculous- this ceremony whereby somehow racists get absolved of their racism by jumping through a very specific set of predictable hoops. but at the same time, it’s great! ‘rehab’ is a stupid word for it, but people SHOULD have to mope around with their tails between their legs when they pull these stunts. so i think that that crimson column was way off. of course coulter is crazy. frankly i think that it’s a real problem that coulter’s slur doesn’t have the exact same status of the n-word– a slur so vile, that you worry about using it even for reference purposes. (granted, no one would know what you meant if you said “the f-word” as that shorthand is already taken.) it’s not enough to say ‘oh she’s crazy. no one listens to her.’ the bully thing isn’t great either, of course. i think the line from gay rights organizations should be, ‘we succeeded in getting this slur banned from polite society, so until coulter apologizes a bunch of times, and meets with whomever is the gay equivalent of jesse jackson, she’s banned from polite society too.’ obviously she can’t Actually be banned from polite society, although that would be awesome. but you know what i mean. this is not something we just brush off like edwards did. (and of Course edwards didn’t take it too seriously- he’s straight, and it can Only help him out. i daresay we ought to expect more from HRC, etc, than from edwards.)

  2. Cindy says:

    For what it’s worth, I contribute my reference skills here:

    The OED gives the earliest printed use of the word “faggot” in reference to gay men as 1914. In 1706, heretics who had recanted their … heresies were made to wear patches embroidered with faggots (the bundle of stick kind) probably to remind them that if they hadn’t recanted, they would have been torched. So one possibility would be that the word started being associated with deviants in general, and eventually male ‘sexual deviants’ in particular. The etymology that I think is even more likely goes back to 1591, when the word was used as an insult to women. Since this was toward then end of the Inquisitions, it could have been a nod to the burning of witches or female heretics (though there were plenty of male heretics as well.) It seems to me that the female insult was probably directed at effeminate men (the same way people now might tell a whiny male to stop being such a bitch) and it stuck.

    So, that’s what my madd master’s degree skillz have to say.

  3. pandanose says:

    I’m surprised more people haven’t brought Kramer into this. I mean, imagine if Coulter had said “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, but it turns out…”

    Instant shitstorm.

  4. pandanose says:

    Wikipedia as an authoritative source? Really?

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