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Thursday, March 22, 2012

No apologies

Bill Maher in today's Times agrees with me: It is time to stop being offended (or feigning being offended) by everything, time to stop demanding apologies, and time to stop apologizing for everything. There is no right not to be offended, so stop pretending there is such a right.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 22, 2012 at 05:51 PM in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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Yes, a kind of faux naif move. I alluded to this before when wondering at the motivation of someone who in this day and age, after this issued has been aired in various venues humorous and not, would insist on using the term. Of course people can use it, but your point about having a possible motive beyond wanting to convey the point that someone is stingy, a skinflint, or cheap is right. It is not uncommon for talk that seems to be conveying a double meaning to incite anxiety or impatience.

Posted by: CHS | Mar 26, 2012 3:45:46 PM

I'm sure there are people who use the word "niggardly" because they've read it somewhere and haven't thought about the unfortunate connections people will draw. But for the most part, I get the impression that people use it nowadays because they know it's edgy, that people will get offended, and that they can then mock them for being ignorant. And that's not particularly behavior I feel any need to defend or encourage (though of course they have a "right" to engage in it).

Posted by: Katie | Mar 26, 2012 10:07:02 AM

I do not know what you mean. But, thanks anyway.

Posted by: CHS | Mar 25, 2012 3:56:19 PM

CHS, I interpreted your comment at 12:27 as insisting that taking offense to the word "niggardly" is a reasonable thing to do. I apologize if I misinterpreted you.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 25, 2012 3:48:13 PM

carry the same cultural...

Posted by: CHS | Mar 25, 2012 2:53:28 PM

AM-M -- I am not demanding anything. You cannot point to anything I said as a demand. I merely asked why the word niggardly means so much to people that they would risk offending someone who might misunderstand. The feelings of people who might misunderstand are not trivial, was also my point. Someone mistaking the meaning of "wherefore" does not carry same cultural baggage as someone mistaking the meaning of the words niggard or niggardly. Of course people are free to use niggardly or wherefore.

Posted by: CHS | Mar 25, 2012 2:51:47 PM

Joe, if there's a genuine misunderstanding that's one thing. But if the person either (a) knows that they do not know the meaning or etymology of the word and is still offended or (b) learns about the meaning and etymology of the word and remains offended, then that's ridiculous.

CHS, you're conflating two different things. My argument is something different: that the person who takes offense at it (in generic usage) is being ridiculous. Of course it may not be "worth it" to say something that may cause offense, even if that offense is ridiculous, but that's a separate point. And while I'm very sorry that a hurtful word like "nigger" has been directed at you as an attack, that doesn't give you license to demand that people respect the offense you take at a completely different and unrelated word.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 25, 2012 1:47:12 PM

"I think it's pretty ridiculous to be offended by a word that you don't understand, or to be offended by a word just because it's pronounced similarly to another word."

A person can misunderstand the meaning of the word, a word CHS notes is labeled "archaic," and think it is a form of a much more used offensive word. I don't know why such misunderstanding is "pretty ridiculous."

And, when the other word is not just "another word" but a word so offensive that in polite company even when alluding to it, it is often not said, again I don't know how "pretty ridiculous" it is for people not to want to hear it. This particularly when it is open to abuse like "bitch" is for female dogs, which perhaps why the word isn't used much. CHS makes a good point as to why is it worth it?

It is "civil" to have a bit of respect and give others space. When "niggardly" was not so archaic, concern of use of its sound alike was not anywhere as such today. I don't think that was a great thing.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 25, 2012 1:32:39 PM

I think that is a relevant question. Talking about this issue in an abstract and impersonal way, I do not think, does justice to the question. Why is it incendiary to ask if someone who insists on talking about this purely as a matter of semantics and/or intellect has experienced the force that the word can sometimes have? I thought the point was about feelings. I will say I have been called a nigger. There is not so much emotional force in that now, but it did hurt when I was a kid. I can imagine a teacher saying niggardly in class, for example, and have some understanding of what response that might provoke. All I was saying is that I wonder why it is worth it.

Posted by: CHS | Mar 25, 2012 1:13:30 PM

Please keep it civil and impersonal or I will just close the comments out. We're getting pretty far from the point here.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 25, 2012 12:40:08 PM

Oh, it does not smack of that at all. I have nothing against big words, and use them all the time. My curiosity about people who insist on using a near archaic word that they know might be misunderstood remains. I cannot believe that a thinking person in the United States, one who knows the word niggardly, does not know the association that will pop up in the minds even of those who know the word's meaning. That is another interesting question: can people in the US, given our history --and our current times, actually (see the posts above this)--say the words niggard or niggardly and not think of nigger or call that word to mind in listeners or readers? You will probably write back and say, "Of course they can!" or maybe, "What difference does it make? It is all about the individual and what he/she wants to say at a given moment." I will give my answer before you do that. I suspect that niggardly calls up nigger, but nigger does not call up niggardly, as nigger is much more the common usage. Have you or anyone in your family ever been called a nigger?

Posted by: CHS | Mar 25, 2012 12:27:57 PM

"particularly when there are perfectly good synonyms that are more likely to be known by the person to whom the word is addressed. Stingy, cheap,for example."

No synonym is perfect. They might be good enough in certain circumstances. But for people who like to be precise in their speech, niggardly might well be the best word in other circumstances. The desire to label people who speak precisely as "pretentious and/or contratrian" smacks of the same American anti-intellectualism that makes "big words" into an insult somehow.

"I would not call it ridiculous if people avoided the term so as not to be misunderstood."

I didn't call it ridiculous for people to avoid the word because it's not well-known. I called it ridiculous for people with small vocabularies to be offended by words that they don't know just because they sound a little bit similar to an offensive word. Big difference.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 25, 2012 11:29:25 AM

I am curious about the people who insist on using a word that sounds like another word that is incredibly offensive, particularly when there are perfectly good synonyms that are more likely to be known by the person to whom the word is addressed. Stingy, cheap,for example. Niggard is described as archaic. I guess we have to account for the will in some to be pretentious and/ or contrarian. They use the word, wait (hope) for a bad response and then lecture on the meaning of the word. Such people do exist. But I do not see why the game is worth the candle. Words fall out of the lexicon all the time. I would not call it ridiculous if people avoided the term so as not to be misunderstood.

Posted by: CHS | Mar 25, 2012 10:25:43 AM

"Interesting. I don't think it "ridiculous" to be offended by the word, partially since I think some aren't overly familiar with it, and don't like any "sound alike" to an offensive word."

I think it's pretty ridiculous to be offended by a word that you don't understand, or to be offended by a word just because it's pronounced similarly to another word.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 25, 2012 1:00:08 AM

It is the fetish for honesty for honesty's sake. Being willing to say whatever is on your mind at any given moment is seen as proof of some sort of purity of spirit.

Posted by: CHS | Mar 24, 2012 1:58:44 PM


Interesting. I don't think it "ridiculous" to be offended by the word, partially since I think some aren't overly familiar with it, and don't like any "sound alike" to an offensive word. It's like the use of "bitch" for a female dog. I was reading J.R. Ackerley and he used it freely, but who uses it these days in that context? Some, but I doubt it is used as freely in the past.

As to the general theme, aren't children taught to say "please" and "thank you" and "I'm sorry," even if they do really "mean it"? Now, it seems to be a controversial thing on some basic level. Interesting.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 24, 2012 1:03:10 PM

i agree. calling for an apology, even a sincere one, will not likely change someone's mind. so apologies are often just given to appease, which seems pretty pointless to me. if regular people aren't convinced by them, i don't think limbaugh supporters will be either; they might just think, rightly, that he was arm-twisted into doing so by a lot of other people. i think limbaugh should rightly be lambasted and that there should definitely be "push back," but empty insincere apologies don't make anyone feel better and if they do, it's likely because they feel they've exacted some form of punishment against someone for expressing views they think are wrong, than that they think the person apologizing has genuinely reformed. i'm all for a free market of ideas where the best and rightest ideas win out, but i don't think the mechanism for ideas winning out should be a form of mass emotional blackmail.

Posted by: jabir | Mar 24, 2012 10:36:37 AM

Viewing "niggardly" as offensive is ridiculous, since the two words are completely unrelated and just happen to sound similar. Similarly, it's ridiculous to see "a chink in the armor" as ridiculous, at least standing on its own; I don't know enough about the ESPN situation to say whether it's reasonable to accuse the guy of intending the rather obscure double entendre.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 24, 2012 9:32:04 AM

Yes, you should be offended not for "everything" -- tiresome hyperbole alert -- but by things that are offensive. Such as a three day barrage against a law student as a "slut" for talking about contraceptives.

There is no "right" not to be offended. There is a right to be offended and say so. As to apologies, yes, sometimes they are appropriate. Faux apologies are tiresome but sometimes it is polite to say something about going too far. It can be a restraint for going too far. Andrew MacKie-Mason makes a good point there too.

As an aside, "niggardly" to my understanding is not currently seen as an appropriate adjective for general use.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 24, 2012 9:00:02 AM

I tried posting this earlier. I hope it does not appear as a duplicate.

Why is it almost always privileged white men who insist that everyone is too sensitive,and should just accept the slurs and hatred spewed about women and minorities. With the loss of what was unchallenged privilege has come great anger, anger that gets expressed any time a woman, of any political stripe, steps into the arena. Left, right, middle of the road-- it does not matter.There are so many men who really hate women, and use the actions of individual women as an excuse to vent their misogyny. Just yesterday Paul Campos had to delete a post from his blog after it drew so many vile comments directed at women that the thread just degenerated into pure hostility. I suppose the good side is that women will always be reminded of how many men actually feel. That does not mean that we, women and men of good will, should not push back. Free speech gives us the right to persuade others that people who promote hatred of any group should not be respected.

Posted by: CHS | Mar 23, 2012 11:34:56 AM

Neither the phrase "chink in her armor" nor the adjective "niggardly" are in any way offensive. The former phrase only became offensive owing to the fact that the word "chink" is a homonym and "chink" as an ethnic slur might be construed as the intended meaning insofar as it was employed as a double entendre the ESPN/Jeremy Lin incident. Giving putative offense by "burning the flag" is, for most folks, of a different order than "pissing on the Koran and putting crucifixes in urine bottles."

There's of course nothing wrong with apologizing for giving offense (nor, for that matter, forgiving others who have apologized to us), the problem arises when such apologies are suspected of being empty, shallow, cheap, insincere, etc. In such cases, we might with Aaron Lazare,* view such "pseudo-apologies" as often doing more harm than good (Lazare provides us with more than a few well-known public examples of this), and their frequency in our society has undoubtedly contributed to the air of cynicism that surrounds apologies in general. Intriguingly, Lazare sees these failed apologies as testament to the real power of sincere apologies, in other words, as parasitical on that power, the basic elements of which include adequate acknowledgment of the offense, an expression of genuine remorse, a commitment to make changes in the future, and perhaps even some form of reparations. A genuine apology for a true offense requires such virtues as honesty, generosity, humility, commitment, courage, and sacrifice (perhaps a bit of wisdom as well).

The language of "rights" is, in any case, utterly out of place in such matters.

* See Aaron Lazare's On Apology (2004)

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 23, 2012 11:15:19 AM

Apologizing for giving offense is right-up-there stupid along with apologizing for doing or saying something "inappropriate."

Martin Luther famously referred to the Pope as a fart arising from Rome. We need to have an annual holiday for giving offense and doing inappropriate things like saying "niggardly," and "chink in his armor," and for burning the flag, pissing on the Koran and putting crucifixes in urine bottles.

Give me Larry Flynt over the prudes any day!

Posted by: Jimbino | Mar 22, 2012 9:08:05 PM

I don't think calling for apologies is ridiculous. Being satisfied with insincere ones is ridiculous, but calling for someone to sincerely recognize that they've screwed up and apologize for their actions is perfectly appropriate.

Not to mention that even an insincere apology by someone like Limbaugh helps as a signalling mechanism to others who are inclined to be crazy that they're being crazy and are outside even the broadest defined mainstream.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 22, 2012 8:57:10 PM

True. My point (and I think Maher's) is that calling for apologies is ridiculous. I don't want Limbaugh to apologize--he meant what he said, he's not sorry, and he should stand by his words.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 22, 2012 8:37:21 PM

There's also no right not to have people call out your offensive comments and tell you you should apologize, so.

Posted by: Katie | Mar 22, 2012 8:01:04 PM

How doea being offended and expressing that feeling of offense rely, implicitly or otherwise, on a "right not to be offended"?

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 22, 2012 7:07:41 PM

If I ever found myself in agreement with Bill Maher (on this topic or any other), I would think long and hard about where I had gone wrong in my life. Of course Maher is anti-apology; how terrifying would he find a world where people were actually held accountable for all the insulting, offensive, and degrading things they said to and about others?

Posted by: Ursula | Mar 22, 2012 6:23:15 PM

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