Politics & Policy

In Defense of Paula Deen

Who decides which words, said in private decades ago, are worth firing someone over?

If the bleak reckoning of Reputation.com’s Howard Bragman is to be believed, Paula Deen “will survive” her recent ordeal, “but she will never be whole again.”

This is because, in the choice words of Bill Maher, “she f****d up.” Court documents revealed last week show Deen being asked under oath whether she had used the N-word before. “Yes, of course,” she replied, although “it’s been a very long time.” For this admission, the Food Network fired her.

Immediately prior to her dismissal, Deen made what was tantamount to a hostage video, in which, per the Huffington Post, she was shown close to tears and “begging forgiveness from fans and critics troubled by her admission to having used racial slurs in the past.” Thus it was confirmed that, at some point in her life, Paula Deen has said some bad words out loud.

One might ask, “So what?” Many people have said bad things before. Is the admission of having once said an offensive word really sufficient justification for punishment in the here and now? Being humans and not computers, we will not last long as a society if we throw aside judgment, context, and mercy, merely to scan sentences for bad data and then gang up to punish the accused. If we are to purge everybody who steps slightly out of line, who among us will survive?

There are certainly Good words and Bad words, but linguistic intent matters, as Matthias’s executioner learns in Life of Brian.

Matthias: Look, I don’t think it should be a sin, just for saying “Jehovah.” (Everyone gasps.)

Jewish Official: You’re only making it worse for yourself!

Matthias: Making it worse? How can it be worse? Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!

Jewish official: I’m warning you! If you say “Jehovah” one more time (gets hit with rock) RIGHT! Who did that? Come on, who did it?

Stoners: He! He did! He!

Jewish official: Was it you?

Stoner: Yes.

Jewish official: Right…

Stoner: Well you did say “Jehovah.” (Crowd throws rocks at the stoner.)

Timing matters, too. As Fox reported, Deen’s termination will likely have at least one severe consequence:

“Her staff is probably out, most production employment contracts are written to say that if production ceases, their jobs come to an end unless you get a guaranteed ‘pay or play’ deal,” television executive Lonnie Burstein, Executive Vice-President Programming at Debmar Mercury said. “But it’s no different to any other show getting canceled. It’s the nature of the business.”

That’s not really true, is it? For a start, Deen was — is still, maybe — extremely popular. This was not a commercial failure, Deen’s fan base did not disappear, and she did not die. More important: Deen didn’t say anything offensive on air — or, for that matter, even recently. As it stands, the accusations that landed her in court are unproven. If Deen’s employer judged that something she said on her show was damaging to the company, that would be one thing, although I’m still in favor of considerable latitude here — making jokes or rap records is not the same thing as hurling insults, and the public and private domains are separate. But dragging up things that she may or may not have said at some point in her pre-television past and canceling her show based on blunt pressure from certain quarters? Yes, that is pretty much “different to any other show getting canceled.”

One imagines that there’s another reason that the likes of Bill Maher took exception to the firing. According to the New York Times, in the course of denying that she had “told racial jokes,” Deen,

stated that “most jokes” are about Jews, gay people, black people and “rednecks.” “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person,” she said.

Indeed, she cannot. Nor can I, and nor can you. Therein lies the problem with elevating “offense” above all considerations. Because “offense” is in the eye of the beholder, it is, like unprovable accusations of witchcraft, ripe to be weaponized. “People shouldn’t have to lose their shows and go away when they do something bad,” Maher complained on Friday. “It’s just a word. It’s a wrong word. She was wrong to use it. But do we always have to make people go away?” One sincerely hopes not. Coming from a family that is a mix of white, black, and Asian, I would be unable honestly to promise a court of law that I had not said offensive words in the past — albeit I used them exclusively in jest or in parody — and nor would anyone else in my family. Should National Review fire me for this confession?

Maher was heavily criticized in 2011 when he referred to Sarah Palin as a “c**t.” He has also referred to special-needs children as “retards,” and he routinely mocks Christianity and other beliefs that are dear to large swathes of the population. As recently as this week, he dismissed half the country as “rednecks.” Again: So what? That’s his prerogative. If you don’t like it, then don’t watch his show. If his audience doesn’t like it, they’ll stop watching, too — and the show will go away of its own accord. On Friday, Maher’s guest, Bob Herbert, who is black, said, “[N****r] is the line . . . Nobody should be using that word.” Sure, nobody should be using that word. But why is that word the line? Why not “retard” or “queer”? Who decides?

Freedom of speech is not a license to say anything anywhere without consequence but a check against government. As Paula Deen has no right to work at the Food Network, her rights have not been violated. But to be healthy, a country needs more than merely a prohibition against government overreach; it also needs a strong culture of free expression. Our tendency to disqualify people categorically on the basis of a single indiscretion is ugly and destructive. Perhaps Columbia University’s John McWhorter is correct to argue that because “Deen was already a twenty-something when the old racist order broke down,” she will prove unable to “utterly expunge” the South’s old assumptions and should thus be forgiven and given her job back. Perhaps he is wrong and Deen has honestly changed and moved beyond whatever mistakes she made in the past. Either way, this is irrelevant to the matter at hand. Are we really to extirpate everybody possessed of a checkered past — however small — and then push them into the naughty corner for perpetuity? What is the statute of limitations on the use of anachronistic language?

And what explains our inconsistent application of this principle? I have little time for those who can’t see the difference between Kanye West’s using the N-word and a racist’s hurling it at an African American in anger. But how about those who have made genuinely disparaging comments and survived? Jesse Jackson remains at large despite his use of the word “hymie” to describe Jews and his description of New York as “Hymietown”; Robert Byrd managed to say “n****r” on national television in 2004 while serving as a United States senator; Al Sharpton referred to “Socrates and them Greek homos” to dismiss the ancients; Joe Biden believes that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent”; and Marion Barry recently contended that “we got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops.” What about them?

Tu quoque arguments are as fallacious in these instances as they ever were. That these people said these things does not excuse Paula Deen. But there is a definite double standard here, and one that is particularly peculiar given that Deen was an entertainer with a show on the Food Network while the speakers listed above work in government or in politics.

If the accusations that pushed Paula Deen into court in the first place are true, she deserves to be fired and excluded from polite society. Among other things, Deen is accused of paying blacks less than whites; her brother is accused of telling one worker “you don’t have any civil rights here”; and another family member, it is claimed, repeatedly called an employee “my little monkey.” But these are allegations and nothing more — accusations from a woman who not only cannot seem to keep her testimony straight but who started out by sending an “inflammatory letter seeking over a million dollars” and promising “Deen ‘a chance to salvage a brand that can continue to have value.’” Deen strenuously denies the claims. It should go without saying that until such time as she is convicted, she is innocent. In the meantime, is it wise for us to pull her and her brand down because of something she may or may not have said privately in the 1980s?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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