When experts pretend to discuss: What do pseudo-discussions look like?
Consider the pseudo-discussion of the term “Uncle Tom” on Don Lemon’s CNN program last night.
Last weekend, Rep. Bennie Thompson dropped the UT-bomb on Clarence Thomas. He then defended his use of the term to CNN’s Dana Bash, who didn't seem to know how to question him about it.
(Basic question: Are such insults OK? As always, opinions may differ.)
Was it OK to drop that bomb? Last night, Professor Ogletree offered this analysis:
OGLETREE (4/30/14): I'm a good friend of Bennie Thompson. I've known him, and he's represented Mississippi very well. And the whole idea is that this is a black-on-black discussion. And I have heard that word, "Uncle Tom," from the time I was growing up as a kid until very recently. And so it's a common use of language to, in a sense, downgrade somebody who's not embracing the race.Huh? That was as clear as an unrung bell. Lemon tried it again:
And I think that people have to figure out what can you say, what can you not say? And I'm really, really worried that this is going to be a discussion about getting rid of words.
LEMON (continuing directly): Is it OK for the congressman— He said, "I called him Uncle Tom," and he goes, "I'm black." Is that OK?Huh?
OGLETREE: I don't think it's because he's black it's OK. But what I'm saying is "Uncle Tom" is a word—Uncle Tom is real, right? And the question is, can people use that word? If they do, they don't use it as openly as they should. But I think that they should make it clear that there's a difference between them and some other people. I think that makes a lot of difference the way we have a discussion about what does Uncle Tom actually mean?
We can’t find tape of last night’s program. But that’s pretty much what we heard when we watched the show—and that is an incoherent mess, as anyone can see.
That’s also a pseudo-discussion.
If professors are going to talk that way, why do we even have them? Lemon didn’t fare much better when he turned to Bomani Jones:
LEMON (continuing directly): Let's talk more about the comments from Congressman Thompson, Bomani Jones. I mean, is it ever acceptable for a U.S. congressman to call a black Supreme Court justice an Uncle Tom?According to Jones, a lot of white people find the term offensive. And it actually is offensive! It just isn’t racist!
JONES: Well, the thing about Uncle Tom that I find interesting is we have a discussion about whether or not it's an appropriate term. And it seems as though to me, and I could be mistaken, I don't hear the outcry about calling someone an Uncle Tom coming primarily from black people. I find it seems a lot of white people find it to be offensive. And if you were being called an Uncle Tom, it is offensive, but I don't think that that's a racist term that you happen to use.
I do think if you call somebody an Uncle Tom, you better absolutely be correct, because if you're not, well, you know how that goes.
Mark O’Mara then offered this thought: If calling someone an Uncle Tom generates a discussion of race on TV, then “I think that’s what’s most important. I really do.”
After that, Lemon made a final try with Michaela Angela Davis:
LEMON: I understand what you're saying. But those words, words like “Uncle Tom” and the N-word, end the conversation. Those are words as weapons, and it's hard to move beyond those words, Michaela Davis, once someone has called you that—Stay with that? Why bother?
DAVIS: Yes, but—but this is a messy situation, and we have to be brave enough to make mistakes and say the wrong words.
DAVIS: How long have we been hearing the other narrative? We're having all these counter narratives, and we have to be brave to make the mistake, hear the words, dissect them, put them in context and then move on.
But I think we have to be really clear where we are in history, right? So this is the first time for a lot of time—for a long time that people are actually able to speak publicly, and then there's this big public discourse around it.
Democracy is messy. Slavery was messy. Civil rights was messy and complicated and diabolical. So how are we supposed to have polite conversations about crimes against humanity that have colored our entire civilization? Right?
So I think we need to give ourselves some room to make mistakes and say the things that are touch points so we can unpack them and give each other some education. If we're tip-toeing around words, we're not going to get through the mess. Democracy is a messy process. And we just have to not be cowards around whether a word is going to hurt someone. And we need to educate what that word feels like when you yield it like a weapon, or do you just not know?
LEMON: Uh-huh. All right. Stay with me, everyone. We're answering your questions when we come right back.
Davis at least seemed to answer the question—or something. She seemed to say that it was OK to make mistakes in difficult discussions. We shouldn’t be cowards about hurting people!
Except for Lemon himself, no one was willing to say or suggest that a discussion almost surely can’t be built around insults. Nor was Lemon willing to push. For example, he wasn’t willing to tell Ogletree that his second jumble of words made no apparent sense.
For ourselves, we often think that Ogletree is a complete waste of time. Where do we get these professors?
Can we explain what happened here? Thompson called Thomas an Uncle Tom. For tribal reasons, none of these experts was willing to say that this might have been unwise, imperfect, perhaps unhelpful or even potentially wrong.
Such possibilities aren’t permitted! As a result, the various experts floundered about, serving giant bowls of word salad. When our experts stage such discussions, why do we bother to have them?
Other discussions were equally useless. At one point, Davis mockingly said that she hasn’t heard the term “inner city” since 1976.
That’s strange! According to Nexis, the term appeared in the New York Times 166 times last year alone (in calendar year 2013).
Maybe Lemon should go back to searching for that missing airplane. Unless they’re beating up on the nation’s most clownish men, this guild is essentially useless.
Go ahead—read those statements again. You’re sampling a pseudo-discussion!