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Hate by insinuation

By Lawrence Henry
web posted August 6, 2001

"Hate" is big stuff these days. There's "hate crime legislation," of course, and "hate speech." Bumper stickers proclaim that we should "Stop the Hate," or that "Hate Is Not a Family Value." Like so many fuzzy ideas in vogue -- second-hand smoke, global warming, a patients's bill of rights, "working families," the whole litany of sound-bite politics -- "hate" never really gets defined. You're just supposed to affirm, in kind of a warm-hearted way, that you're against it, and that some other people -- those who argue against affirmative action, Antonin Scalia, the National Rifle Association, etc., etc. -- are somehow "for" it.

One supposes. One is never really told.

But there is a kind of hate speech abroad in the land, and we've all heard it. If we're conservatives, we slough it off -- it would be, almost inevitably, fantastically rude to confront it for what it is. If you're a liberal, you probably pick up on it and jump right in. And do it some more.

It revolves around jokes, wisecracks, asides, and put-downs. It works like this:

In ordinary conversation, somebody brings up something mildly disparaging of some conservative figure or idea. Most recently, for me, this involved one of my coffee hour chums tossing out a kind of joking wisecrack about William Bennett's being overweight. In another setting, a band rehearsal, the director started telling some anecdote that referred to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's appearance.

I have even heard preachers and priests use such anecdotes in sermons. One guest pastor told one in my own church, inviting the congregation to join him in a laugh about how the prejudiced Republicans didn't want a Catholic priest as House chaplain. This was a lie, albeit a lie told in the pages of the New York Times. Among the original candidates for chaplain (this according to Kate O'Beirne of National Review) was a parish priest, the favored candidate of the Republican leadership. In preliminary jockeying, this priest was elbowed out of the running by a Democratic activist, a professor-priest from Georgetown University.

Republican House Majority Leader Denny Hastert, in exasperation, and certainly not wanting a Democratic activist as House chaplain, went outside the originally selected group and picked a parish priest from Chicago for the job. There was no prejudice involved. But the insinuating anecdote was typical.

These would-be conversation starters are always extended with an invitation: Join me in putting down those people and those ideas. Prove that you belong to the same group of right-minded people that I belong to. These sallies are, in other words, bait.

This is the way, of course, that children treat one another, indoctrinating their fellows into certain points of view: liking or hating certain foods, watching or not watching certain television shows, wearing or not wearing some kinds of clothing. The insinuating wisecrack is peer pressure's premier weapon.

Nowadays, it pervades the broadcast industry. Even commercial voiceover announcers often speak in a contemptuous nasal, adolescent tone -- unthinkable just a few decades ago, when an announcer was supposed to embody trustworthy authority. On National Public Radio, that style of discourse has become so common we might as well give it a label: The NPR Sneer. David Letterman has built his entire career on nothing more.

If you're a freelance writer, I guarantee an editor has asked you for "something with an edge," or has said something like, "Give me some more of that snotty stuff." And I guarantee that you have spoken to an editor who speaks in a sneer all the time. Nationally, the sneer has become a practiced specialty of certain political types: Harold Ickes, Sid Blumenthal, James Carville, and Bob Schrum come to mind. So it's not surprising that people's everyday jokes reflect the culture being promulgated from the highest offices and most influential voices in the land.

But here's the question: What would those inviting, insinuating jokes about conservatives be called if their subject were, say, Jews or black people or Mexicans? Or women?

"Hey, when it comes to being tight with a buck…"

"What do you expect? All those people would rather lay around in bed with somebody else's wife."

"So then this dumb broad…"

Hate speech, right? If not, why not? ESR

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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