Offense of the Month, June 2020
I’ve generally used the Offense-of-the-Month space to highlight knuckleheaded instances of offensiveness: not usually premeditated, but ostentatious nevertheless, produced by that sui generis creature, the Great American Dimwit. This month I offer the Tale of the Offensive Name, a story much making the rounds the past ten days.
It began in mid June when Matthew Hubbard, a math professor at Laney College in Oakland, California, encountered a Vietnamese-American student in an online trigonometry class. Her name: Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen. On the second day of class, Hubbard asked Ms. Nguyen to anglicize her name because the Vietnamese original sounds offensive in English. In a widely viewed set of emails posted as screenshots, first to Twitter and then, by Ms. Nguyen’s sister, to Instagram, he wrote: “Could you Anglicize your name. Phuc Bui sounds like an insult in English.” Ms. Nguyen responded 22 minutes later and said that unless he agreed to address her by her given name, she would treat his request as discriminatory and seek redress through the school’s Title IX office. Nine minutes later Professor Hubbard wrote her back, saying that while he understood that she was offended, “you need to understand your name is an offensive sound in my language.”
Offenses of the Months: Winter-Spring 2020
By mid-April, according to NASA satellite images, Covid-19 has prompted a 30% drop in air pollution in the northeastern United States. Social distancing seems to be having a similar effect on commentary about offensiveness, even if our propensity to offend hasn’t much changed (and who could measure that)?
In the opening days of this year, the attentive reader could find the usual choice stories about tone-deaf commentators and their equally tone-deaf audiences. In early January, for instance, Babson College fired a staff member and adjunct professor who, in response to a statement by President Trump that the White House had a list of 52 culturally-significant targets to bomb in Iran, posted on his Facebook page that Iran should focus on 52 American targets, like the Kardashian family residence and the Mall of America. The college said the post did not represent its “values and culture.” The staffer protested that his posting was merely a bad attempt at humor and accused Babson of caving in to social media criticism. One wonders what Babson might have done had the errant staffer repeated Trump’s statement as his own. It’s a complicated world; you’ve got to think at least three steps ahead of your potential detractors. Continue reading
Offenses of the Months, 2019
A good way to appreciate our times is to sample tidbits and morsels from the slush pile of reportage on the American penchant for being gratuitously offensive. I offer here a small sample, in random categories and without regard to chronology, of stories that have bubbled up through 2019 to delight any taste.
I’m O.K., You’re KK
In November, I learned that it’s now considered rude to type “O.K.,” in response to a routine request or inquiry in an email, at least if you’re corresponding with a member of the Millennial Generation (commonly supposed to be those born between 1981 and 1996) or Generation Z (born after 1996). So says Caity Weaver, a Styles writer at The New York Times. The younger folk, it seems, will take you as boorish, even more so if you type simply “k.” (I’ve never actually seen that done—why would you?—but I’m so old there’s not even a proper name for my generation.) The polite response, it seems, is “kk.” Ms. Weaver says that she rarely uses that locution, preferring “O.K.!” (which, she says, “feels more natural, but still conveys to the recipient, through its superfluous exclamation point, the same frantic message that I’m not annoyed or angry (omg why would I be) so please don’t feel bad!!”). It’s apparently come to this. (Or she’s having us on.) But it’s certainly not O.K. Continue reading
Offenses of the First Quarter, January-February-March, 2019
Voltaire, that incorrigible philosophe, the celebrated Enlightenment liberal and Continue reading
Offense of the Month, December 2018
How do you get to be an offender of the month? If you’re in the right place at the right time — or maybe make that the wrong place at the wrong time — it’s pretty easy. You can do it in just three simple steps: (1) Take insensitive photos making light of and even mocking a disaster that killed scores of people. (2) Affix stupid captions that traffic in others’ grief. (3) Post your artwork to Facebook. Then just sit back and wait for it all to be discovered.
That’s how it was for Rob Freestone, December’s offender of the month.
Until about two weeks ago, Freestone was a crane operator employed by Bigge Crane and Rigging, a company hired to begin recovery efforts in Paradise, California, the worst hit of the many towns in Butte County, where the horrific Camp Fire killed at least eighty-five people and destroyed more than fourteen thousand homes in the space of seventeen days in November. The company’s job was to check and trim trees that posed an acute danger to returnees, rescue workers, and others.
Nosing about the ravaged properties, Freestone took a number of photos — a charred cat, a wrecked structure, a mailbox tricked out as a fire truck. Appended to each was Freestone’s idea of a funny caption — e.g., on the wrecked structure, showing two people appearing to be in the ruins of a vehicle beneath the legend: “They’re off on a fun filled vacation to unknown destinations in their new RV.”
The uproar wasn’t instantaneous. It took victims and others a month or so to discover and focus on the photos. But when they were posted to the Town of Paradise website in mid-December, the aggrieved lit up a public information recovery clearinghouse website with denunciations. Condemning Freestone’s “unacceptable and reprehensible behavior,” the Paradise town manager made it clear that Freestone and two co-workers “will no longer be working in our Town.” Bigge Crane didn’t hesitate. It fired the three within hours, proclaiming it had “identified the three participants in this abhorrent event and their employment has been terminated.” Continue reading
Offense of the Month, October 2018
Trump and his coven aside (it would be hard, nay, probably impossible, for anyone else to compete), the October 2018 offense-of-the-month designee, hands down, is Megyn Kelly, partly for her actual offensiveness—that is, her racial insensitivity—but mostly for her obtusely loopy dopey stupidity or, as the British might better put it, for being several sandwiches short of a picnic. Not sure I can be any plainer.
Everyone who has looked at a paper, or been online, or watched the news, now knows (but may well forget a month or so from now), that on Tuesday, October 23, Kelly let loose on her NBC show, “Megyn Kelly Today,” about blackface Halloween costumes. She was commenting on a report she may have misread about the “costume police” at the University of Kent in Great Britain. Kelly seemed to think that certain costumes were about to be banned. News accounts are sketchy, and it may be that the student union there was considering a recommendation that students avoid wearing, rather than on outright ban on, “fancy dress” that caricatures cowboys, Nazis, and Harvey Weinstein, among others.
Kelly wondered “what is racist?” Speaking of children today and her own childhood, Kelly, 47, said: “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was OK just as long as you were dressing as a character.” Continue reading
Offense of the Month, September 2018
In this time of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, there are many candidates in the contest for offender of the month. For example, Rep. Ralph Norman (R.-SC), who distinguished himself opening an election-related debate at a Kiwanis Club in Rock Hill, South Carolina with this doozy: “Did y’all hear this latest late-breaking news on the Kavanaugh hearings? . . . Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out saying she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.” And there’s Sarah Jeong, the young tech writer who joined the editorial board of The New York Times despite a plethora of sketchy anti-white tweets, but that controversy exploded in August, and besides, I’ll soon post a longer piece on the problem tweets like hers pose (for her and for the rest of us).
So I’m anointing Ed Meek, a less well-known offender, who likely blundered into his moment of infamy, despite a background that should have kept this honor at bay. Continue reading
Offense of the Month July 2018
Probably not the most offensive display this month, probably not even by a longshot, but it’s the quirkiest that has come to my attention. To be sure, it’s the dog days, so I’ve been slacking off. But now right to it.
The honors (that is, as offender of the month) go to a herpetologist (your basic reptile and amphibian specialist), name of Richard C. Vogt. If you webble him Continue reading
Offense of the Month, May 2018
Kelly Sadler and the White House communications team take dual honors. I declare two winners of the coveted title this month because the offense was compounded by an unwillingness to disavow it. Continue reading
Offense of the Month: July 2016
I never supposed a top Republican could outdo Candidate-Presumptive Donald Trump in offending American citizens with political rhetoric, but I’m willing to name Newt Gingrich as just that man, and declare him to have delivered the Offense of the Month in calling for a national test of “every person” in America “who is of a Muslim background,” to be deported if “they believe in Sharia.”
On the face of it, this repulsive call, issued on Fox News on Bastille Day, is unconscionable and unconstitutional in equal measures, and across the board. It’s unconscionable in inciting hatred of innocent people — and on the basis of fuzzy religious criteria. It’s unconstitutional, by violating five major provisions: Continue reading