November 09, 2006

Ill-judged word choice lost Congress for GOP?

When Senator George Allen (R, Virginia) announced today that he had given up his attempt at re-election to the US Senate and conceded to his Democratic opponent, it became clear that the Democratic party will control the Senate as well as the House in the next Congress. The margin by which Allen lost was only about 7,000 votes (roughly half a percent of the voters). For many voters, the decision was influenced by Allen's foot-in-mouth problem, and particularly the incident in which he twice referred to S. R. Sidarth, a brown-skinned Democrat campaign tracker whose parents came from India, by the derisive nickname Macaca (previous Language Log epithet-watch coverage here and here and here). The word was almost certainly intended as a racial epithet. It is familiar among French colonists in Africa in that capacity (Wikipedia has the basic facts about the word here), and Allen's mother is a French-speaking Tunisian Jew who would have been quite likely to use the word that way in referring to North African Arabs. (Allen seemed to think Sidarth was an immigrant. He is not; he is Virginia-born and raised.) The subsequent brouhaha ultimately necessitated a public apology from Allen. All in all, it seems unlikely that the number of voters swayed by the Macacagate affair was less than the 7,000 margin. And if that is right, then the control of the US Senate and thus the entire legislator may have been turned over to a different party because of one thoughtless nickname choice by a tired and irritated candidate. (That's not an exculpation, by the way. Tired and irritable he was, but reprehensible nonetheless.) It was surely one of the biggest consequences of an on-the-fly nickname choice in all of history. Watch your mouth, politicians. It's a linguistic jungle out there.

You know, putting this incident alongside various others (like the birthday babbling that cost Trent Lott his job), it sometimes seems to me that politicians get insufficient training in choice of words and idioms. It is as if they have not yet grasped the nature of the huge change has taken place with respect to racism in the United States over the past forty years. Those who want to get their language use in line with current standards should understand it very clearly. It is not that racism has gone away (good heavens, surely nobody thinks that will ever happen). And it's not that racist talk has been made illegal, or ever could be: the First Amendment is simply not going to allow that. You can speak your opinions in this country, and express anything you want about the racial inferiority or utter subhuman vileness of any racial group you may want to take out after. No, it's not illegal to say racist things, it's not even a misdemeanour; it is something much worse, for racists, that has happened. Racism has become not just unfashionable (itself almost a kiss of death for those in public life) but unacceptably disgusting to most thinking people. And that's much more serious.

If you're a political candidate, then for you to say something on camera that suggests racist attitudes or beliefs is comparable to, oh, something like putting your hand down the back of your pants to scratch your asshole and then sniffing your finger. Nothing illegal there. But your campaign will take a downswing from the moment that video clip hits YouTube.

This is not about the mythical political-correctness "word police" of which the right-wingers disingenuously complain. This is about thinking people simply seeing what you do and turning away in disgust. It if were just illegal to say "nigger" or "spic", a politician could perhaps survive it (politicians do survive drunk driving arrests, and surely drunk driving is enormously more serious and dangerous than having negative opinions about some racial group). But it's worse than illegal. It picks you out as someone to stay away from. It identifies you as disgusting and fit only to be shunned. A person who would never be invited to dinner. And you won't survive that in modern American politics.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 9, 2006 09:05 PM