Jeremy Lin and Forbidden Words   1 comment

Note: I am writing a series of 1500-word memos on Jeremy Lin because no human willingly reads 25,500 words at a time. Here’s Part II of 17.

Fortune: The Knicks need Lin to scratch ink onto a new contract with some perks. Throw in a free cook — eating is important. Who knows if this would even get someone fired?

Language is emotional. Words aren’t merely signs that indicate some sterile and indifferent knowledge, but vessels into which we pour meaning through our personal experiences and our shared ones. Depending on who you are and how you and other people see you, the very shape of certain words may swell with pride or writhe as though punctured with venom. Not all words have the same emotional value to all individuals, but it’s easy to see why some people want to banish certain words whose shape has become gnarled and corrosive.

Political Correctness protects certain people from traditional oppressors using words so toxic and corrupted by history that their shapes are ghoulish and emotional content seismically injurious. Otherwise innocent words tacked together to convey hurtful stereotypes are also forbidden by PC. Or really any notion that any traits or behavior of some individuals can be predicted by their appearance, depending on the perpetrator. PC prevents some people from making certain people groups feel inferior and oppressed via certain key words and sentiments.

Asians and Asian Americans are not people groups protected by PC. This is no disadvantage. Everyone benefits from free speech and discriminatory action is a much larger concern than hurtful words. PC protection is most always coupled with Affirmative Action, inviting eternal victimhood and the questioning of merit. Being pelted with stereotypes allows one to smash them and show grace to offenders. Not bearing the armor of PC provides the opportunity to show everyone that everything accomplished is genuine and truly earned.

Armor did I say? Let’s get to that. Across three platforms, ESPN recorded three separate uses of the phrase “chink in the armor” in relation to Jeremy Lin following a Knicks loss to New Orleans. “Chink” is the offending word here. An ESPN Mobile website editor was fired (wisdom level: questionable), an ESPNEWS anchor was suspended for 30 days (wisdom level: probably foolilsh), and non-employee who said it on the radio isn’t under ESPN’s jurisdiction (wisdom level: N/A). One firing, one month-long suspension as far as ESPN employees go. For a phrase that’s been uttered on their network hundreds of times before.

Personally, I trust in the sincerity of the fired employee’s apology and if you watch the video of the suspended anchor, there’s no cocked eyebrow or vocal inflection indicating any lucidity as to possible implications. If arthritic cliches were a punishable offense when speaking about sports, there would be no sports journalism. Heck, there’d be no players. Both guys are responsible for what they said, but are they responsible for how other people interpret their words? What responsibility do public figures have to know when an oft-milked phrase turns rancid? I’m accepting both apologies and claims of no snarky intent.

As journalists, ESPN employees have a responsibility to be prepared to do their job. This means knowing what they’re covering. As I discussed in my last memo, the sports media didn’t see Jeremy Lin coming and had to scramble to catch up to Linsanity’s breathtaking takeover of anchorless social media. Apparently, the memo examining what types of language might be misinterpreted as offensive wasn’t released. In the aftermath, the Asian American Journalists Association had to do it for them, and this creates more problems I’ll discuss next time. Even with plausible deniability of intent, the damage is done in terms of perception.

And inaccurate perception rather than intentional harm is the problem here. Asians seeing a hurtful word and taking offense, non-Asians being offended on behalf of Asians or even thinking they’re in on the joke. ESPN punished the two employees, it seems, because there was an internet mob out for blood and someone had to get fired. The official rationale looks something like harm done to the company’s image due to the outrage community’s interpretation of a phrase, or as casualties of an unprofessional unpreparedness, which the whole industry was guilty of. For comparison’s sake, these same ESPN employees uttering or using the  N-Word in an ESPN headline would do irreparable harm, and could not be an honest mistake, making it incomparable. Totally different situation.

And Jason Whitlock and Floyd Mayweather’s racially-centered tweets are a totally different situation. Remember that in Political Correctness, the perpetrator of the offending language is important. ESPN punished two white guys. Their identity is fixed as so when it comes to such punishments. Whitlock is a black man, and though his offensive tweet need not be interpreted through that lens, his punishment (i.e. lack thereof) might. Mayweather tweets as a black man ostensibly defending the diminished accomplishments of other black men; if he is punished, it will be at the hands of Manny Pacquiao. This is Whitlock’s tweet:

Whitlock_originalNone of these words by themselves is offensive, while the Lin context-activated “chink” in the armor was the sole reason that phrase was offensive. But even if Whitlock’s self-proclaimed, “immature, sophomoric, comedic nature,” and not spiteful prejudice, was the source of this tweet, it’s target was unmistakably Lin’s race. While “chink” definitively has other non-racial meanings, Whitlock acknowledges he was addressing a derisive stereotype about Asian people. And he went unpunished. His employer, Fox Sports, may have different standards than ESPN, but in terms of targeting race for ridicule, I can’t see how Whitlock’s offense is not worse.

It’s important that Whitlock’s incident occurred before any of the ESPN “chink in the armor” incidents. It set an industry precedent of non-punishment, which ESPN broke with in  punishing two employees for what seem like lesser offenses. It’s difficult to determine why. ESPN’s bigger profile, status of employees within respective companies, and the viral spread of news that ESPN said “chink” versus having to explain what Whitlock said with no keyword/lightning rod, should all be considered. It may well be the case that Whitlock’s job was saved because his deliberate slight was worded to indirectly invoked a racial stereotype, while the ESPN employees were punished because they directly said something rather innocent from which one word was scalpeled out and set ablaze.  Language is emotional, often packed more tightly into single words.
It’s tempting to see this and call it a double standard — it’s not. There’s one standard for Black/White relations and a lawless frontier as applies to Non-Asians talking about Asians. The internet, a lawless frontier itself when it comes to discussing race, magnifies this situation. Some elements are screaming for Political Correctness when it doesn’t seem apparent where Asians fit into that paradigm. The language police of sports writing were taken unaware by Linsanity and set no protocol even after the Whitlock tweet, waiting until “chink in the armor” to ad hoc some vigilante justice. Unfortunately, the type of personality who thrives in this chaotic environment is the type of person that Floyd Mayweather is.

Mayweather doesn’t answer to a corporate employer, has taken advantage of the lack of PC protection for Asians before, and seems to crave the attention. So he sounds off:

The obvious rebuttal goes: Lin’s race is important to his story to the extent that it adds to the unlikeliness of his rise. To the extent that he faced discrimination in reaching his dream, as opposed to all the black players on Sports Center every night. And it may not be worth it to waste that much breath on Mayweather. His statement is inane and seems rooted in some warped perception about what traits great stories select for. The problem is the media environment and how it handles Asians — Mayweather could smell the chaos and knew he could get what he wanted out of it.

Words that can be offensive in some contexts may not be meant offensively, but the emotional power of a single word can ignite strong backlash. If you intentionally use a stereotype so the meaning is clear, but the wording is implicit, you can get away with a lot. Certain personalities that can detect lack of structure and thrive on attention can be winners in this environment. Political Correctness can be a poison when it explodes controversies before innocent intent can be revealed — respect, not sensitivity, is probably a better standard. Being conscious of Lin’s race without over doing it has proven hard for the media. The outrage community could stand to be as forgiving as he has.

Lin represents pride and hope for a lot of communities and his race is a part of that. When faced with such pressure and race-consciousness, Lin responds with nothing but grace. When asked about the “chink in the armor” incidents, he replied, “You have to learn to forgive, and I don’t even think that was intentional.” Rising above it all. And finishing with contact. His achievement and behavior deflate the power of the epithets and stereotypes being flung at him. With his faith and strong moral character, he sets a fine example on how to deal with it. He isn’t focused on forbidding words that were okay to say before. Instead, he’s inspiring us all to say things we’ve never said before.

Next Time: When injured communities fight back: The AAJA Jeremy Lin media coverage guidelines and owning the narrative. Just who is telling you what you cannot say?


Posted February 24, 2012 by Wada in Jeremy Lin

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One response to “Jeremy Lin and Forbidden Words

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  1. You make good points, you could have probably split this post into two or three different ones and expanded on your ideas more. There definitely was overreaction to the headline, and after reading that article I do feel bad for the editor. But I still can’t get over the idea that it’s just an honest mistake either because the use of the word “chink” almost had to have been used knowing the connection to Chinese. So the personal hatred of the person is unwarranted and like you’ve said before, fueled by the anonymity of the internet, but I think the punishment is fine because people need to be held accountable for their actions. Again, I think the main problem with just rising above it and not speaking out against these incidents is that it will just continue to perpetuate the idea that anyone can say anything they want against Asians in general, and perpetuate the idea that Asian Americans are not really American.

    As for Whitlock, he definitely should have been fired and I fully agree that his tweet was a worse offense. Foxsports seems to value controversy as long as it brings in ratings and more readers, no matter what happened.

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