The privilege of words

So a law professor with a household income above $250,000 blogged about how his family is  “just getting by despite seeming to be rich.”

Among other things, he writes that after taxes, private school fees, school loans, investments, lawn care services, house cleaners, child care and other expenses, they have “less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income.” Also he bemoans the fact they aren’t able to “evade” their taxes.

Google cache has the full post. You can comment on this bit of privilege here.

Other than the obvious privilege, he demonstrates a lack of understanding about the tax proposal.  But hey, why let facts get in the way?

Anyway, he gets roundly excoriated by the blogosphere and deletes the post.  And announces he is no longer blogging.

The electronic lynch mob that has attacked and harassed me — you should see the emails sent to me personally! — has made my family feel threatened and insecure  …  To those with pitchforks trying to attack me instead of my message, I feel sorry for you. You have caused untold damage to me personally. I may be wrong, even stupid, but I don’t think I deserved that.

Got that? The lynch mob with their pitchforks.

Okay, from reading this guy’s posts, I’m pretty sure he’s not particularly precise with either words or figures. (My guess is that anybody who pays $100,000 in state and federal taxes is making substantially more than $250,000. But whatever.)

But lynch mob? LYNCH MOB?

This isn’t an uncommon use of this term, unfortunately. Another similarly used term is “rape.” You know, when white businessmen talk about not getting a good deal and how they were “raped” in their transaction.

For the record, this guy did not get lynched. He got called on his privilege. He got called on his factual errors. And maybe some people did not mince words. But he was not lynched. If you read the various discussions around the web, you’ll find that quite a few people support him.

I have a huge problem with his language. Because lynching in our country was used to terrorize specific groups of people. It has a long history tied to systemic and societally sanctioned racism.

Henderson did not get lynched.

Ironically, white people have long accused people of color of making mountains out of molehills. Of exaggerating the harm that racism causes. Of seeing racism and persecution where none exists. And yet many whites misappropriate the language used to talk about racism and oppression. You know, reverse racism. Backlash. The white guy just can’t cut a break because of the “preferential gateway” given to minn-orr-it-teees.  How white people are the only people without rights nowadays.

And the lynching.

We’ve had this discussion multiple times before, but this type of rhetoric pops up only too often.  Because the attack on privilege is so shocking that it is seen as a threat to civil rights and even to white people’s lives.  When privileged people no longer have 100 percent of the pie but have to give a slice to others, they are losing everything.  When their words are challenged, it is Free Speech! that is in jeopardy.  When people of color insist on demanding total equality, it is seen as a loss of the way of life.  When the President is a black man, we need to take back our country.

So here’s a thought.  If we’re going to talk honestly about race and racism, let’s think critically about the words that are coming out of our mouths.  Using “lynching” to describe hurtful words on the internet is invoking a powerful image for something that is petty and trite.  It serves to lessen the public idea of what lynching really is.

And that is history we should never forget.

See also Adrienne K.’s discussion about use of the term “Trail of Tears.”

Note that this post is for commenting on use of the words “lynch mob” and similar phrases. If you wish to comment on Henderson’s privilege, go here.

13 thoughts on “The privilege of words

  1. This is a great post. Thanks for this. I have this same reaction when people use inappropriate language that has a history. When Sarah Palin used “shackled” to describe her and Dr. Laura’s situation with people who don’t like the hatred they spew, I could barely stomach it.

  2. I think this is brilliant:
    “Because the attack on privilege is so shocking that it is seen as a threat to civil rights and even to white people’s lives. When privileged people no longer have 100 percent of the pie but have to give a slice to others, they are losing everything. When their words are challenged, it is Free Speech! that is in jeopardy. When people of color insist on demanding total equality, it is seen as a loss of the way of life. When the President is a black man, we need to take back our country.”

  3. It reminds me, actually, of something I was just talking with someone about yesterday- I’m sick of hearing the words “Orwellian” and “Draconian” used to sensationalize EVERYTHING the Government does. Now, I don’t particularly trust the US government, but c’mon people!

    I’m also tired of people comparing politicians and political groups to Hitler and the Nazis. Barack Obama, Glenn Beck, The ACLU, or the NOF- I don’t care, it’s not as bad as the systematic murder of 6 million people. So to all those people: Shut up and get some perspective!

    Okay, I’m done with my soapbox. Would anyone else like a turn with it?

  4. Were any believable real-world violent threats made towards him? It doesn’t seem all that likely, although not completely impossible since some people on the internet are crazy.

    It’s obviously highly irresponsible for him to suggest he’s in physical danger if no such credible threat exists. Because that REALLY DOES HAPPEN. Ask people who’ve been identified in criminal investigations involving children, or that lady who put a cat in a trash bin. Angry internet folks DO show up at people’s homes and harass them, throw things at them, break their windows, and in rare circumstances set their homes on fire and try to kill them. And it’s pretty diminishing to the threats actually faced by people RIGHT NOW to claim that a few angry emails is the same thing.

    (Now, if people actually ARE showing up at his house, it’s a different story…)

  5. It is too bad people as a whole do not understand how our history is embedded in the words we use. I cringe every time I hear people talk about the rule of thumb, which originates in British law that a man could not beat his wife with a stick that was no bigger around the circle he could make with his thumb and forefinger; smaller than that was a-okay to beat her with, just not bigger). I personally think he used his privilege to make a deliberate choice to describe his experience with those terms because Mr Obama is a black man.

    Because of my skin colour, my education, my sexual preference, I know enjoy many privileges. I am constantly looking at language and mining it for sexism. As a writer committed to social justice I know it is my responsibility to think about the words I use and how I contribute (or not) to stereotypes, regardless of intention. It’s not a bad thing to think before we speak; to pause before we click send; to listen instead of jumping in and justifying our privileged point of view.

    Thank you for the space to share my point of view. I recommend your site to people who want to listen and learn (as I have).

  6. Damn, I had a whole scathing reply written out for this jerk and it turns out you can’t comment on it. *sigh*

    Thank you for linking to this post, though. I can’t believe there are still people that think like that…

  7. Pinkpoppies do you have a cite for that being the origin of the phrase? From most sources I can find the phrase “rule of thumb” first apepars in in the 1600s (at least citeable to 1692 in Sir William Hope’s book on fencing “The Compleat Fencing-Master”) in a very similar context to the modern usage – a rough guideline. The judge who is supposed to have issued this ruling (Sir Francis Buller) in 1782 would seem to post date this even if it is true (which as far as I know has never been shown to actually have been ruled beyond the right of a man at the time to reasonably chastise his wife – if I recall correctly at this time he was responsible for her criminal or anti-social acts under English law).

  8. Thank you for this post. I find language abuse aggravating. It trivializes the meaning of the terms and cheapens the experiences of people who actually were lynched.
    Similarly I hate wrong usage of terms like “Holocaust” (like: animal holocaust), “Genocide”, “rape”, “slavery” (like: tax slavery), “Nazi” (my “favorite”: grammar nazi) , “Hitler”, “pedophile”, “oppression” and so on.

    There are times when usage of strong words is needed. But only if it’s in the right context and meaning, and doesn’t try to benefit their own selfish and egocentric goals by belittling someone else.

  9. Hi 2ndnin: I first encountered that reference for the term way back in the early 80s when the battered women’s shelter movement was gaining momentum. I see now that there are several conflicting reviews of Christina Hoff Sommers book in which the rule of thumb is decried as a feminist lie. I did find this link which is very interesting: http://tafkac.org/language/etymology/rule_of_thumb.html. Whether one used a stick that had a predetermined width for this purpose seems to be clearly questionable; what isn’t debatable is that men do beat their partners, and of late, seem to be killing them as well.

    I appreciate you raising the point because I learned more new things today. PP

  10. I agree about his use of inappropriate language but his point about the upper middle being forced to pay more taxes? Hell yeah, he is right about that.

    It is time for us to rebuild the middle class, not make those us that succeed carry the weight for everyone else.

    Am I privileged? Sure. And I earned every penny of it the hard way.

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