A Defense Against Your Offense

The Confederacy, nigger, gays, and the struggle to understand perspective.

Because I couldn't think of anything else to use as the picture and Rembrandt is Rembrandt.

Because I couldn’t think of anything else to use as the picture and Rembrandt is Rembrandt.

Do not ever tell an arachnophobe that they should not be afraid because they aren’t in any real danger from spiders. Because the truth is most of us do not care about the danger presented by arachnids. The awful injury or possible death that can be caused by some species of spider does not bother me, and it is not the source of fear for most people that hold a fear of spiders. True; the fear of bodily harm would be a rational reason to be afraid of spiders, and true; generally speaking people are not at risk of being bitten by poisonous spiders. But that knowledge is not going to allay my fears. I am terrified of arachnids. I am paralyzed by this terror, and I have had nervous breakdowns as a result of this phobia. The presence of spiders will affect life choices I make in relation to where I live. If I ever find a tarantula in my house, I will probably move out or into a rehab clinic. And nothing you can tell me about this admittedly irrational fear will ever change my mind.

The lessons of arachnophobia apply in significant ways to matters of perspective and prescribed meaning. While it is commonly thought that the meaning of a word or symbol has some sort of finite meaning – one true meaning on which we should all agree – beauty is in the eyes of the beholder in almost every imaginable instance. What I mean is this: the symbolic collection of s-p-i-d-e-r has an agreed meaning in the English language, but what “spider” means is dependent on how the idea is received by individuals. No matter the “true” or “official” meaning of something, any meaning can be applied to almost anything based on individual perspective. As I will elaborate on later, this does not mean that truth does not exist, and that there is no such thing as incorrect perspective, but this concept should affect the way in which we judge the reaction of others to different words, symbols, concepts, ideas, and the like.

While I believe that reality and truth exist, and might be grasped and understood, multiple realities may exist in our sphere of being as persons with different perspectives experience and react to the same thing, making each perspective valuable and real if not true or validated by the majority.

It is by deconstructing our perceived notions of ultimate truth and meaning that we can understand, and perhaps empathize – or at least sympathize – with the fears, struggles, concerns, etc., of others. We can understand why the Confederate flag should be taken down, why “nigger” is hurtful, and why gay sex offends Christians. We can begin to see one reason for our society’s lack of compassion, sympathy, and love.

A moment of vivid clarity that contributed to my knowledge of this concept came by way of one of my professors at St. Norbert, who goes by the affectionately simple name of Reg. He is of Korean descent. Upon my request, he shared with me a talk that he gave at an event the year before about being a man of Asian descent in an overwhelmingly white place in the world. Reg has lived as an Asian man among Mexican-Americans in L.A., blacks in Oakland, Long Beach, and three boroughs of New York, and whites in South Boston, Oxford (England), and Green Bay.

Of all the young men he has lived around, Reg is most afraid of young white men.

Being a young, white Scandinavian-American man myself, I found this strange. Surely the cholo boys roaming the streets of East Los Angeles and the black hoodlums occupying Brooklyn are more frightening than other men like me. Sure, there are young white men who are belligerent, drunken, foolish, haughty, and all other manner of unlikable traits, but I don’t think a grown man, regardless of skin color, has reason to be afraid of young and stupid white guys in Wisconsin.

But I do not have the right to tell Reg who he should be afraid of. I cannot tell him that I am less frightening than Trayvon Martin. For him, young white men are the scariest. And that means it is true.

I have never lived as a minority, let alone a minimal minority like most Americans of Asian descent. It is ridiculous that I should feel that I have the right to delineate what is scary and what is not. I do not know what it is like to live in the Great White north (as Reg calls it) as a non-white person. I do not have the capacity to take on that perspective. All I can do is listen to someone who does have that perspective, and that person has told me with honesty what Wisconsin looks like to that particular Korean man. And, of course, my white Scandinavian-American perspective has limited access to stories about the kind of scorn and ridicule Reg faces on account of his physical appearance. A yellow man being asked if he “Spreeks Engrish” is hardly newsorthy, but that makes it no less hurtful.

The kicker here is this: Reg can be wrong and still be right. Perhaps, in truth, he is in no real danger from young white men. Perhaps a racist joke is the worst he will ever bear. True, Vincent Chin and Cha Vang were murdered by young white males, but most American men of Asian descent will make it through life unscathed. I could, with reasonable certainty, tell Reg that he is not in danger from young white men, and I might be correct (although, again, my white Scandinavian-American perspective hinders me here). But that doesn’t change the fact that Reg still feels this fear. The conditions are such that, although he will probably never be physically hurt by a young white man, Reg has a very real fear that deserves sympathy, an attentive ear, and an open heart. My skepticism is dashed by his genuine account.

Consider, then, the Confederate flag, a point of controversy since a white supremacist murdered nine black Americans in Charleston. There has been a movement to eradicate that symbol from American culture, but calls to take the flag down, pull Confederate merchandise, and hide existing icons have been met with some resistance. Some of the resistance comes from fully fledged racist [insert bad words that I am stopping myself from using] who hate black people and want to flaunt their white supremacy. But this idea has also been resisted by people that we might call good honest folk who ask “What’s the big deal?” Many Americans have been quick to defend the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional pride, the rights of states, courage and valor demonstrated by rebel soldiers, a general nod to independence and freedom, and the like. Apologists have done an astounding amount of historical revision in order to explain that the Confederacy wasn’t really about protecting the institution of slavery and that the flag was never really used as the symbol of the Confederate States of America. “What’s the big deal?” they ask, “It’s just a flag. There’s nothing racist about it.”

The flag is offensive because of how it is used and perceived in the modern context. No matter what you say that specific design was used for, the flag has come to be the symbol of the Confederacy, and there is no way to get past the fact that slavery was an integral part of Southern life. Slavery is part of Southern heritage, and the CSA was formed to protect that part of their life. But even if you reject those notions and choose to take a different angle on that history, the fact remains that, in today’s society, the flag is used and is seen as something sordid. Yes, plenty of Southerners use it rather harmlessly, but the flag is also used intentionally as a symbol of white supremacy (see Roof, Dylan). Not only is it commonly deployed in such fashion, but those whom the flag is intended to hurt, black Americans, often see the flag as being a symbol of racist hatred. To them, the flag is offensive because of what they perceive it to mean.

Is there an objective meaning for the symbol of the Confederate flag? Maybe not.

But there are an awful lot of people who see the flag as a statement of white supremacy and a devaluation of black life. And that means that the flag is, indeed, a statement of white supremacy and a devaluation of black life. I don’t know if the guy driving his truck with the big Confederate flag flying behind it was aiming to offend black people as he drove past my place of work, but I do know that my black coworker would have every right to be hurt by seeing that symbol so proudly displayed.

Similarly, the word nigger (and not the word nigga, for that is a different word and a different topic) is the most sordid word in the English language, even if cunt remains the one true taboo word we have (and that is also a different topic) because of the way in which it is still used and still received. Some people do not understand why the word nigger is offensive, simultaneously citing the harmless etymology of “negro” and the tame way in which grandma and grandpa referred to black people as “niggers” in the way a white person today might refer to Mexicans as “beaners.” But, like the Confederate flag, nigger comes out of a history that is harsh beyond words and continues to exist in a fashion that is used and perceived as a way to call black people as being less than white people.

While it is, very often, used intentionally by white people to hurt black people, nigger is most offensive because it is received by black people as an offensive word, based primarily in a history that hearkens back to a past that is abhorrent. Does the word have an objective meaning? Is it inherently a “bad” word? Maybe not. But it is, in fact, a word that is received as meaning something quite awful, and is, therefore, a bad word that should never be used. HOWEVER, and I’ll take this moment to get on a soap box, please stop saying “the n-word”. That is one of my least favorite words. If you’re going to talk about the word, just say the word. And, for my part, this applies to “f-bombs” and the like. Please, please, just say the word if you’re talking about the word and not deploying it as an active part of speech. Damn.

Before I move to my last example, let me outline two rules that I think are necessary for understanding concepts of perspective.

  1. What’s true for you might not be true. By this I mean that, while each and every individual has the power to construct individual meaning, and while each individual perspective is important, an individual cannot always apply their personal reaction to the larger lens of social perspective. So maybe nigger is not an offensive word for you because you do not use it to offend black people. That doesn’t really matter, because the word is still being received in a certain way, and you have no right to tell receivers that they must accept the word as you meant to send it. There is, in a sense, a process of confirmation and corroboration in this. The confederate flag is offensive because a lot of black people think it is offensive, not just a few dozen.
  2. There is truth. I will never go so far as to deconstruct meaning to the point of denying truth. As Lecrae taught me, “If what’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me, what if my truth says yours is a lie? Is it still true?” There are truths in this world. I think we should earnestly and diligently seek truth with open minds, and expand our ideas of what truth can mean, but ultimately I do believe some things are true and some things are not true. There are truths, but sometimes they take a little more work to find.

I think homosexual acts are wrong. In fact, they (the acts, not the people) offend me. If what I just said makes you angry, go read my post on gay marriage when you’re done reading this.

I don’t hate gay people, and I don’t regard them as being “bad” or any worse than anyone, including me. But because of my Christian beliefs, I think all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, should reserve sex for monogamous, heterosexual marriages. I believe it offends God for people to carry on flaunting their homosexuality, and therefore it offends me (and, again, the legislation is a different issue. I don’t oppose the legislation, that’s y’all’s business). But, again, this is an allusion to another discussion (which is why you should go read the article I linked you too if this has got you mad at me).

I am allowed to have the perspective that homosexual acts are sinful. But so often my perspective on homosexuality, even though it does not prescribe any hatred or mistreatment of gays, is so quickly called hateful and bigoted by so many. In other words, Christians are not allowed to have their religious belief.

This is a failure to understand the nature of perspectives. If you could know what it is like to be a Christian, to have an idea of God that surpasses all worth and understanding, and to have studied the Bible and come to understand the key ideas in the Christian vision of love, sexuality, and marriage, then you could understand why I think gay sex is sinful. But those who are quick to call me bigoted, even though, again, I do not call for any mistreatment of homosexuals and since I am totally willing to let democracy define this legal matter, these people who call me bigoted don’t stop to consider that maybe I have a perspective that is worthwhile, even if they disagree. It is stunning to see the way in which perspective is shut down by rainbow zealots the moment a Christian speaks up. Unbelievably hateful things are said by people supporting a campaign trumpeting #lovewins.

After all, I’m doing the same for gay individuals. Even though I can’t imagine what it is like to come to the realization that I’m homosexual in a heterosexual society, I can try to imagine what it is like and I can seek to understand how terribly tough that might be. I get it: being gay is tough. Coming out is scary. Heterosexual society unwittingly offends and hurts homosexuals. And I am sorry for this. And this effort to understand the perspective has helped me to overcome homophobia. I can see why a gay person might think I hate them, and I understand my belief about their lifestyle might trouble them, but it is my hope that they would get to know my perspective in the way I have come to know theirs. No hate. All love.

These questions of perspective and offense have, asininely but not surprisingly, become political. According to conservatives, liberals get too offended by everything. Liberals are too focused on being politically correct and not hurting anyone’s feelings. Meanwhile, liberals see conservatives as being intentionally mean in their offenses. Conservatives are close-minded bigots who just want everyone to be just like them and don’t care about people who are different.

I’m a moderate politically in part because I find radicals on both sides to be equally repulsive.

This heartless conservative vs. whiny liberal picture is an illustration of how miserably we fail to understand perspective and the ways in which meaning can be deconstructed and reassembled by individuals. It is evidence of a sadly lacking effort to understand one another. It is a reason for our nation’s overwhelming lack of peace, love, and harmony.

I think the Confederate flag is an abomination, and I can give you good reasons why. I think nigger is the worst word in the English language, and I can obliterate your argument. I think gay sex is offensive, and I have reasoning that surpasses academia.

But this post is not about trying to get you to think that way too, as you have your own perspective that might not be so easily swayed. I am not writing to change your mind so much as to change the way you think, or maybe even the way you think about thinking. The meaning of anything is fair game for debate, and we should pay special attention when a perspective is adopted by a large group of people, even if we might disagree with them. And, while individual truths may be not true, sympathizing with the emotions caused by an individual’s view can help us to seek love before we write someone off.

Because I am fully aware that I should not be afraid of spiders. But I am.

The fact that my phobia is unreasonable doesn’t mean it would be okay for someone to put a spider on me, even if they did it in an effort to have a good-natured practical joke among friends. It’s not about how they send it so much as it is how I receive it.

If that well-meaning joke playing on a silly fear brought me to tears, would you dare to call me whiny, sensitive, or dare to justify the the intentions and actions of the offender?

Or would you maybe look at your own perspective and consider how you might react if it was your phobia?

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter


6 thoughts on “A Defense Against Your Offense

  1. No, I understand what you learned from the Reg anecdote and why you included it. I’m saying there’s a discrepancy between what you learned in that situation and how you applied it in the nigger situation.

    I understand race isn’t by necessity a political issue, but it has been made one by politicians. So it is a political issue, and to fool myself into thinking that my opinions and thoughts on race haven’t been influenced by the political machine is naive.

    Ok, what’s your argument that nigger is the worst word in the English language while acknowledging “No matter the ‘true’ or ‘official’ meaning of something, any meaning can be applied to almost anything based on individual perspective?” I understand you said these two things for two separate reasons, but I think they contradict one another.

    • “Any meaning can be applied to almost anything based on individual perspective”
      So, n-i-g-g-e-r does not “mean” anything. If a group of friends wants to use it to mean “buddy”, or if you want to use it as a racially neutral term for a cool person, or a lazy person, or whatever, it can mean that for the individual, and perhaps for a small groups of individuals. HOWEVER, the meaning that has been prescribed over the word’s history, and the one that it still holds to this day, is one that is extremely demeaning, derogatory, and disparaging towards someone based on their skin color. We have no other word that has held such a meaning for so long. Yes, someone could deploy it harmlessly in a very particular setting, but anytime this word enters the public sphere, it will be received in it’s incendiary form. It’s “our” worst word because “we” made it that way. To use the word is to continue to give life to a word that is integrally a part of a racist history and a persistent notion that black lives have been/are inferior. No other word has ever been given that kind of power.
      These are not contradictory statements.

      • You make the distinction between public sphere and private spheres, where in private spheres there is more liberty to manipulate the meanings of words and how we interpret them. In the public sphere this liberty disappears, which I disagree with in theory since I believe we should strive for contextual understanding regardless of setting, and subscribing to that ideology seems like I’m giving up on understanding the speaker in a sense. But I certainly agree in a practical sense that the liberty diminishes, and it’s exceptional when a definition is added in a public sphere (I’m thinking of how even the word nigga came to be a possible term of endearment in the 70’s and 80’s). But there’s a point to be made too that public transitions on meaning have to start in private spheres.

        I still say your original statements are contradictory because your original claim, “…and I can obliterate your argument,” posits an absolute, while your response allows for an exception in private spheres.
        Or do you think that using derogative terms even in private spheres where the meaning has transitioned still provokes derogative meaning? Is nigga as endearment still laced with racial contempt beyond the historical sense? Or rather, is the historical sense of racial contempt diminished to a margin? If not, is this a price worth paying if it means taking power out of the word in the long run? Does the opposite simultaneously occur where endearment takes power out of racial contempt so when it is used in an offensive way the offense is diminished? I think I still struggle with these questions. But I do wish people realized more often how much control they have over the power of words. But I also suppose that’s easy to say when I more often than not intellectualize my emotional responses.

      • “…and I can obliterate your argument.”
        You’re getting too distracted by me flexin.
        It’s an expression of how strongly I believe what I believe, and it underscores the fact that, even though I feel that way, I didn’t write the post to convince anyone of that, but rather to make claims about how they should think (not what they should think).

  2. We delegate meaning to all things in our reality; there is no inherent meaning (let’s suspend topics of divination for sake of staying on subject) in symbols, language, objects, etc. etc. Our emotional reactions are confined by our own experiences and genetics. Because of this our emotional reactions, or feelings, can never be wrong, at most irrational, and are always subjectively true, but not objectively. People can’t help how they feel. I get all that.

    What I don’t get is why you flip-flop on who you place the burden of interpretation on. In the example with Reg, who is in the role of speaker, the message is “Of all the young men I have lived around, I am most afraid of young white men.” You, in the role of the audience, found it strange (you could have even found it offensive), but you yearned to understand the context of his life experiences to understand his statement. You placed the burden of interpretation on the audience to interpret the context of the message.

    Now in the example of using the word nigger you switch the burden of interpretation on the speaker to interpret the context and collective experiences of the audience. You even go so far as to say even if you are using it in an non-offensive way, that “That doesn’t really matter, because the word is still being received in a certain way and you have no right to tell receivers that they must accept the word as you meant to send it.” Sure, I certainly agree they can’t tell receivers that they absolutely must accept the word as you meant it, but you make no mention that they deserve any attempt at understanding or sympathy. Why does Reg’s context deserve sympathy while the non-offensive-nigger-sayer’s context deserve none? Or do you think they do, and you just didn’t include it in your article because you’re afraid of stepping on toes? “There is, in a sense, a process of confirmation and corroboration in this.” Expand on that.

    If these points are valid, it’s a shame because race is such a politicized issue right now, and you’ve erred by a liberal perspective, so your political rant could make you look hypocritical.

    But forget the politics. What I think you’re unknowingly trying to say here is to be aware of who is in the position of power. If you are in the position of power, whether you’re white, LGBQT-friendly (in certain environments), or the one with the spider, be considerate. The burden of interpretation falls on you. This is because when it comes to a conflict involving these burdens of interpretation, they arise because we either failed to correctly censor/package our message, or we failed to control how we react to the message. It is an issue of control. And it’s easier to be in control of yourself when you’re in a position of power.
    Am I hitting the nail on the head there or am I the head the on there nail hitting?

    That second point though, the one that starts of “There is truth,” I have no idea what you’re trying to say there. Are you trying to say there are objective truths? Did you just stash that in there in case we start talking about God? Or are you just emphasizing “subjective truths are still truths?”

    “No matter the ‘true’ or ‘official’ meaning of something, any meaning can be applied to almost anything based on individual perspective.”
    “I think nigger is the worst word in the English language, and I can obliterate your argument.”
    What kind of pseudo-subjective-awareness are you trying to sell here?

    Also, on a drastically less important note it would be really satisfying if your wallpaper looped perfectly. If you cropped and adjusted for optimal viewing pleasure it would bring me joy.

    Thanks for the read, and props for putting your thoughts out there in the first place. I recognize your acts of vulnerability.

    • Okay, to reply with brevity:
      I don’t think you understand what I learned from Reg’s story. It wasn’t about me being offended by his fear of whiteness (and I’m not btw). It was about me coming to an understanding about how totally foreign and legitimate a perspective can be for someone that lives near me, speaks English, etc. Maybe I didn’t make how I was using that anecdote clear enough.

      Confirmation and corroboration: where there’s some there’s fire. A lot of people wanted the flag down. It doesn’t go because a few dozen people take issue with it.

      Race is falsely politicized. It isn’t a political issue. Politicians make it one. It’s a human issue. So I stand by what you see as a “liberal” bias if that means I’m being true to what I believe to be right, the politics be damned.

      Yes, the power has much to do with it. “Cracker” isn’t poisonous because blacks have not subjugated whites for 400 years. So if I understand, yes you’re hitting the nail.

      Yes there are objective truths. As simple as 2+2=4 and as complex as God exists or God does not exist. Saying “there is no objective truth” is a logical fallacy, because you’re saying that that statement is true. If there’s no truth, how can you say that? Of course much of our truth is subjective, but without any doubt there is objective truth.

      Those two quotes are accomplishing two different things, and are the two-fold purpose of the post. If you read carefully you’ll notice that I’m not saying that my views on these topics are law, but part of the reason for writing this was to give me an opportunity to weigh in on these topics. Of course I think I’m right, but that is secondary to my discourse on perspective.

      I will look into the wallpaper.

      Thanks for reading.

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