I got into an interesting discussion about this event, in which a prominent SC Republican joked in a Facebook comment that Mrs. Obama's ancestors were gorillas. The left was, of course, up in arms.
At first, I got caught up in the literal meaning of what was being said, and noted that Bush had been called a chimp and a cracker, and I wondered aloud why there appeared to be a double standard. It also occurred to me that if one takes biology textbooks seriously, it's not far from the truth about her and the rest of us.
All in all, it seemed a very strange thing to get upset about.
But then I thought about it a little harder.
And it seemed to me to be similar to the issue of curse words, which didn't really make sense to me until tonight. The words "Fuck" and "Shit" are widely considered obscene. But why? Each of them has non-offensive equivalents ("Intercourse" and "feces," to name only two) -- so it is not the subject matter itself. And I can't imagine there's anything particularly offensive about the mere ordering of the letters. So why are they offensive?
And then it occurred to me, it's because of the groups that commonly use those terms. They are seen as "prison language," or the language of coarse, vulgar people. It's not the meaning or word itself -- the use of the word is a social signal that one belongs to a particular class. And it is membership in that class that drives the offense.
Perhaps the same thing applies to the comment about being descended of gorillas. From an objective standpoint, there doesn't appear to me much basis for offense. After all, per the theory of evolution, it's true! And also, it's common to call people apes, but seems to only be offensive when applied to blacks -- a rather strange double standard.
But let's look at it from my new vantage point. When a white, southern male says that a black female is descended of gorillas, he is associating himself with a particular group -- specifically, ignorant, old-timey racists. He's doing the same thing as the KKK. It doesn't matter that it's ostensibly true per the theory of evolution -- it's offensive because he's connecting himself with racists.
For comparison, it would be like a gynecologist telling a patient, "Alright, let's see that pussy." The meaning itself is identical to "Alright, I am going to examine your vagina." But it's offensive, because it associates him with those who treat the female anatomy disrespectfully.
But when a black man calls a white man a cracker, what group is he associating himself with? Nobody except a trendy, bold, sarcastic black man -- a group which doesn't have negative associations -- and even has positive ones.
Or when a white man calls a white man an ape, what group is he associating himself with? Every 10 year old who's ever wanted to give somebody shit on the playground. No horrible group there either.
From this vantage point, all these strange offenses common in our culture (and other cultures) come into focus -- it's not about the word -- it's about the speaker.
But what's funny is, the emphasis is on the statement, not the person. We consider the PHRASE offensive, when in fact it is the PERSON we are judging.