Whether or not the spring and summer of 2020 will be seen in hindsight as a Great Tipping Point, it is already clear that we are witnessing a remarkable popular revulsion against a major strand of offensiveness in American life. All around us are the signs that public patience with the display of phony heroes and false icons has worn out. We are surely not done with the impact of offensive speech and behavior in the public sphere, but we are living through the consequences of rising disgust at our tradition of amiably countenancing monuments to a past age’s sins. Continue reading
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.”
At least four times a week for the past several months I’ve had phone calls from Robogal.
“Hello, it’s Linda,” she begins, in her unvarying, always perfectly inflected voice. Not tremulous or saccharine; not overbold or tentative; not gruff or timid; not hesitant or strident; not cheerless or giddy; not glum or lighthearted; not solemn or mirthful, but easy, tranquil, matter of fact. Just Linda, calling to help out.
Linda is obviously much too busy to call me personally, so she has thoughtfully recorded her perfectly inflected voice to let me experience the thrill of its perfection every time she calls. Continue reading
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
Let’s get serious. For four years I’ve been commenting on a range of behaviors, most of them verbal outbursts, that everyone seems to agree were offensive. These have included insults, put-downs, verbal wounds, snubs, slights, and other sorts of humiliations; disdainful, derisive, scornful, and contemptuous slurs; disparaging, discrediting, disrespectful, belittling, and derogatory snubs; jibes, affronts, barbs, contumely, rudeness, and outright insolent indignities.
But why? What makes them offensive? 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
Several hours ago as I write, the Supreme Court knocked out the Scandalous Clause in the Lanham Act, the federal trademark statute, as predicted here last January, though by a smaller margin than I expected, and with a loophole that could but is unlikely to be exploited, at least not soon. The vote in the case, Iancu v. Brunetti, was 6–3. Continue reading
Offenses of the First Quarter, January-February-March, 2019
Voltaire, that incorrigible philosophe, the celebrated Enlightenment liberal and Continue reading
It seems I overstepped nineteen months ago in claiming that in a unanimous ruling involving disparaging trademarks, “the Supreme Court, presumably once and for all, has green lighted offensive speech.”
In Matal v. Tam, you may recall, the Court struck down a law that banned registration of trademarks that disparage people, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols. 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