Hank Johnson, hyper "tolerance", and the death of discourse

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) got himself in a lot of hot water by offering this criticism of Michigan’s new right-to-work law: “I was thinking to myself earlier today, what happens when you put in a cage fight a giant with a midget.  Well, the midget will not win the fight. I’m going to tell you that. Why? He just doesn’t carry enough weight to do so. But if you put 30 midgets in with that giant, then the midgets have a chance.”

Since this is the same guy who once worried that the island of Guam might capsize if too many people lived on the same side, your first reaction might be, “Why do people keep voting this boob back into the House of Representatives?  Have the people of his district no self-respect?”

Then you might wonder what the hell he’s talking about, since unions are unquestionably the giant in this equation: they are the largest and most powerful special interests in the United States.  The Wall Street Journal took stock last July and found that Big Labor spent over a billion dollars on direct political action from 2005 through 2011, based on data from the Federal Election Commission… plus another $3.3 billion in more diverse political activities, as reported to the Labor Department.  It seems unlikely that Johnson meant to portray the freedom-seeking non-unionized workers of Michigan as the little guys who banded together to bring down union giants, and if he meant it the other way around, he’s gone past foolishness into dementia.

But no, that’s not what got Johnson in trouble.  He realized (or was told) he had made a horrible error by using the word “midget.”  As reported by Politico, he raced back to the House floor less than 24 hours later to deliver a bizarrely tormented apology:

???I had never heard of the m word ??? it’s a word also that describes a group of people and it, at one time, has been commonly used as a descriptive term,??? Johnson said Thursday afternoon. ???But to my discovery, just within the last 12 hours or so, I have found that the use of the ???midget??? ??? oh, excuse me, the use of the m word ??? is no longer socially acceptable.???

He likened his use of the ???m word??? to the once-common use of the ???n word,??? which Johnson noted used to be ???socially acceptable??? but is no longer.

Johnson then explained that the ???m word??? referred to a medical condition called dwarfism, though he expressed his preference for the term ???abnormally small people??? rather than dwarfism.

???So I wanted to say to all of those who may have been offended by my use of the term, the m word, I want you to know that it was not ??? it was out of ignorance and not spite or hatred that I used that term,??? Johnson said. ???Please know that I will never use that term again. I???ll never use that term again.???

While it’s more than a little weird for Johnson to claim he never heard of the word “midget” before he used it yesterday, I’d have to join him in admitting that I didn’t realize it was considered an insult comparable to the “N-word” among the ASP (Abnormally Small People) community.  Who, I suspect, would rather be referred to as “dwarves” than “ASPs” or “Abnormally Small People” by Rep. Johnson.  Dwarves are awesome.  They’re going to dominate the box office this weekend.  They’re basically the new Jedi Knights.

But in any event, Johnson was not referring to abnormally small people when he used the word “midget.”  He was speaking metaphorically.  His reference to “giants” was also metaphorical.  They’ll be on movie screens this weekend too.  They look like this:


Nobody in Michigan, on either side of the right-to-work debate, looks like that.

With all due apologies to the ASP community, I am not prepared to erase the word “midget” from the English language.  That’s taking the concept of politically correct hyper-tolerance to such absurd extremes that it makes discourse, and perhaps even rational thought, impossible.  We can’t communicate with each other effectively if we must spend every public hour tip-toeing through verbal minefields, fearful of stumbling across a commonplace word that someone, somewhere, has decided is a deadly insult, even when employed without the faintest hint of malice.  Did anyone, including his most strident critics or appalled constituents, really think Rep. Hank Johnson harbored some simmering animosity toward people of modest stature?

But even worse is that the verbal minefield changes, based on who is doing the speaking.  It’s another aspect of political totalitarianism: some words are forbidden to some people.  Case in point: the actual N-word.

There’s another movie coming soon called “Django Unchained,” from Quentin Tarantino, which evidently contains hundreds of uses of the N-word.  This is nothing new for Tarantino, who has peppered every script including black characters with a torrent of N-bombs, dropped by both black and white characters.  He frequently says the word himself when he appears in his movies as an actor; see “Pulp Fiction” for a memorable example.  Tarantino apparently has some sort of special dispensation to use this word with a frequency normally acceptable only for black people.  It is not clear who granted him this license, although if there was a ceremony of some sort, it’s highly likely that Samuel Jackson officiated.

Is the N-word bad or not?  That all depends on who uses it.  From one set of lips, it is a career-incinerating obscenity, a curse as unspeakable as Harry Potter’s Avada Kedavra.  But from others, it can be tossed around casually, or even woven into musical lyrics.  That’s not helping us move into our promised post-racial future.  Neither is making fantasy movies thinly veiled as “historical epics” whose star, Jamie Foxx, has been prancing around saying things like, “I kill all the white people in the movie.  How great is that?”

If America wants to get serious about harmony and tolerance, we need to start acting, and speaking, seriously.