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Essay: The Non- “Lynching” of Paula Deen

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Paula Deen, formerly of Food Network

Paula Deen, formerly of Food Network

The Food Network is minus a star this week, after its much-publicized decision Friday to fire well-known host Paula Deen. The move came after Deen, whose restaurant is being sued by a former employee for racial discrimination, admitted in a deposition last month that she has used racial slurs, and had proposed a “plantation-style” wedding for her brother.

Deen’s fans, it’s fair to say, haven’t reacted to her firing well. Several websites have collected some of the more unfortunate tweets- historically dubious references to Deen having been “lynched” are frequent, as well as the defense that, you know, “who hasn’t used racial slurs”? Many have pointed out that Deen appears to be a registered Democrat, as though that has any bearing on anything whatsoever. Most of all, I hear over and over again that it was because of  “political correctness” and “censorship” that Deen no longer has her job.

Now I’m not here to opine about the quality of a Deen as an entertainer or TV host, and I have no interest in discussing her weight, her health status, or the merits of her cooking. And I also do not wish to cast judgment on the American South, its people, or its food traditions.

I’d instead like to address what Deen’s firing says about free speech and “political correctness.”  Namely, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what the words “censorship” and “political correctness” mean, and they don’t appear to mean the same thing they used to mean.

“Censorship” is when a person’s speech or expression is suppressed by force. If you performed a standup routine and as a result the police came and arrested you, that’s censorship. If you performed a standup routine and someone wrote a blog post claiming it was sexist, that is NOT censorship.

“Political correctness run amok” has always been generally understood as a misunderstanding or extremely minor incident that’s blown way out of proportion in which someone suffers punishment they don’t deserve, along the lines of the infamous “Water Buffalo” incident at the University of Pennsylvania in the early ’90s. There’s a fine line between that sort of thing and actual racial slurs, racial taunts and discrimination which can- and should- have consequences.

A big reason everyone turned against political correctness in the first place is because of its bastardization of language. But now the term “political correctness” has itself been bastardized- as far as I can tell, its current definition is “any pushback whatsoever against racism and bigotry.”

When Strom Thurmond died 10 years ago, I distinctly remember Joe Scarborough- then working as a Bill O’Reilly-aping primetime host on MSNBC- saying on the air that Thurmond “often held views that weren’t politically correct” As though opposition to a man who was the 20th century’s leading proponent of racial segregation, and one of great villains of American history, was nothing but a bunch of liberal whining.

More recently, we had the saga of Chink’s Steaks here in Philadelphia, a story that more than one out-of-towner I’ve told about it didn’t believe was true. The cheesesteak shop was founded in 1949, by a gentleman who was not of Asian descent, but was nicknamed “Chink” due to his “almond-shaped eyes.” The store kept the Chink’s Steaks name for the ensuing 60-plus years until, earlier this year, a new owner took over and decided to change the name to Joe’s Steaks & Soda Shop.

A whole lot of Philadelphians blamed the dreaded PC. “I mean, he’s ignoring the 10,000 signatures on the petition to keep the name?,” one angry resident told the Philadelphia Inquirer in April. “Now, he’s giving in to political correctness!”  In actuality the owner, who has aspirations of expanding to other parts of the city, decided it was both the right thing and good business sense to no longer use a full-on racial slur as the name of his business.

That’s the case with Deen as well. Her bosses made the decision to no longer be in business with her, which is their right. If I were to, say, give a radio interview during which I showed up drunk, propositioned the female host, and dropped several racial slurs- if I did a Charlie Sheen impression, in other words- there’s a pretty good chance I’d be suspended or fired from my job as soon as my bosses heard about it. If that happened, I wouldn’t be a First Amendment martyr- I’d be an idiot who ruined my own career.

This is what the “PC Police” decriers don’t get. The PC Police isn’t actually the police. In more authoritarian countries today- and at various times in America’s past- governments really have cracked down on “subversive” artists. Consider Lenny Bruce, or Pussy Riot, or Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart.” But feminist bloggers slamming Daniel Tosh for making rape jokes, or pundits complaining about Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar routine? That’s not censorship, that’s criticism.

Because the “PC Police” doesn’t have the ability to subpoena, arrest, or prosecute, they must make do with less lethal tactics such as strongly worded criticism, as well as boycotts and petition drives. Those things certainly have their place, although it’s important to know that in Deen’s case, that’s not what happened.

I saw no organized campaign anywhere to get Deen fired from the TV network. A petition, begun last year, to get Deen dropped as a spokesperson by a drug company drew a whopping 48 signatures, and did not succeed.

The chain of events was: 1. Deen made racist comments, 2. Deen was sued by the ex-employee. 3. Deen gave a deposition in which she admitted to her use of racial slurs and 4. Once the contents of the deposition were made public, Deen was fired by Food Network. The government wasn’t involved in the decision. Neither was Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or any organized pressure group of any kind.

If anything, it seemed to me there was a lot more online and grassroots agitation in support of Paula Deen rather than against her.

Once again, the First Amendment does not guarantee one the right to host a Food Network show. And there’s nothing unconstitutional or censorious about a company choosing to no longer be in business with someone who has embarrassed them. That’s what happened last week, when a radio station in Atlanta fired three hosts who decided to broadcast a “comedy” segment which mocked a former NFL player, Steve Gleason, who has late-stage ALS. 

Freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from the consequences of that speech. When one is accused in a legal proceeding of racially harassing an employee, that’s not a First Amendment issue.  Whether Paula Deen remains employed by the Food Network is an issue that’s between Paula Deen and the Food Network.

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  • http://sanfernandocurt.com/ SanFernandoCurt

    If you showed up drunk, dropping n-bombs and channeling Charlie Sheen you’d get fired without much controversy. If you recalled a time when you didn’t think such behavior was that bad – and was fired for that admission even though you now see them as bad – you’d have your own legions of defenders.

    Could it possibly be that Deen is a product of the region where she was born, in particular, and a flawed human, in general? One aspect of this I think is certain – Deen had no idea that since “anti-racism” long ago ceased being personal conviction or legitimate political crusade and has mutated to civic cult, racism itself has become an almost supernaturally horrific crime punishable by demonization and social exile.

    …And it’s utterly unsurprising that anyone employed by American media wouldn’t see anything wrong with what’s clearly political correctness run amok.

  • Brian Allen

    If it were just the racial slur, it would be easy to just say “Paula Deen used a horribly offensive word and shouldn’t have.” That doesn’t necessarily make her a racist. The plantation-themed wedding screams “I actively think black people are inferior and would like them to wear costumes reminding them of such.”

  • Scary

    It’s scary how this author, along with many who stupidly nod their heads in agreement believe this BS. Screaming “freedom of speech” they are ready to punish anyone who does not say, write, or believe as they do. It’s no longer just a disagreement of choosing to believe differently, many liberals are ready and feel justified to punish those who do not believe as they do. It’s perfectly acceptable for someone to choose to have a sex change but it’s attrocious to admit in a court of law that a long time ago a woman used the N word. In other words, they want us to forgive real criminals by trying to erase their records so employers don’t have access to them but they feel it’s attrocious that a hard working woman who has not broken the law gets fired from her job. Brilliant!

  • Eric Deamer

    Okay I’ll give the Deen defenders brigade here the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re simply ignorant of the details of the story and not intentionally spreading misinformation. To recap: what happened is not that she let one errant “n word” slip in her 60 plus year lifetime which included growing up “in a different time” etc. What’s happening is that she is being sued by a former employee of a business she and her brother run who is accusing her and her brother of using such language habitually and doing many other things which led to the creation of an atmosphere of habitual racial and sexual harassment. That’s why she (Deen) was giving this deposition. Part of the purpose of the deposition was to determine if she uses language like the “n word.” She basically admitted that she does, not merely after the incident in 1986 in which she says she was held up at gunpoint by a black man which the media is reporting, but when asked if she had used the word since then she said “of course.” In addition as Brian points out above, she admitted to organizing a party in which she made black servants pretend to be slaves. That’s what happened. She didn’t merely admit to using one “politically incorrect” word “long ago, but pretty much admitted to being the kind of person who habitually uses language like that (“of course”). And by the way that “long ago” was only 1986, which was already long after the period of history in which that kind of language was still considered widely acceptable. Yes “even in the South.” Shriek about “free speech” and “political correctness run amok” all you want but at least get the facts of the case correct.

    But on those other points. Again, as Steve says above, this has nothing to do with free speech. Paula Deen wasn’t fired from her job or censored by some governmental entity. There’s no constitutional free speech right to be on the Food Network. Believe me guys, Paula’s doing fine. Her restaurant in Savannah is still doing great business. And she wasn’t even “fired from her job.” She doesn’t even have a current show on Food Netowrk as far as I know. They merely decided not to give her a new contract after her current one expires. I’m sure she’ll get another job in the media soon, probably Fox News.

  • Jerry

    This is just too weird. I grew up in the central midwest in the 50″s. Never knew about racism till I joined the military and got stationed down south. Ran around with black guys, they were ok till people like jessie Jackson told them they should hate white people. So they did, me too! never knew what hit me. Now the line is deeper but quieter. Deeper cuz people like Al Sharpton make their living making it deeper and the political correct are afraid to call it what it is. A manufactured feeling that survives because there is good marketing to make it happen. Intelligent people aren’t racist. Ignorant people are racist and they buy into racism it because they’re ignorant. They haven’t been taught anything different but to hate and resent. And guess who’s the best at selling that? The people who make their dime selling racism.
    Paula Deen said ngr, big deal, they use it I’ve used it, everyone over forty has used it. In fun, in identification because like it or not there are ngr’s out there. They’re easy to spot too. I’ve been called whitey, cracker & splib. I think splib was a military thing. Was I offended? Why? I’m white, I’m a cracker & a splib. Man get over yourself. You ain’t that muckin fuch.

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  • DB

    Stephen, please educate me as to what source you gained your definition of censorship from. I just checked a quite a few definitions (because despite prevailing trends words do have actual meanings) because Daniel Webster was an aglo man of means, (or has it changed to pigmentally challenged?) and therefore everything he and his descendants say is tainted, and none so narrowly defined it as violation of a legal statute resulting in criminal punishment. In fact the penal code, arrest scenario was either not mentioned or vaguely alluded to. Y’all can search reference sources but they will support what Im saying. As non biased as I can summarize it, its the suppression or deletion of whatever (books, films, language, flags, signage, clothing) based on morality or public welfare. PC lynchings aint lynchings, they damn well are censorship. Now that thats been illuminated, and theres too many unreal events where people actually have been arrested, albeit for a few hours or days, based on facts that boggle even the craziest minds. And thats America where, at least for now, noone really has to fear long term incarceration merely for speech. Ask Mr Mandela how badly that sucks. Free speech as defined in that pesky first amendment we have, and yep I fact checked this as well, has no good taste, zeitgeist du jour or other exceptions other than riotous conduct or the crowded theater “fire” scenario. And losing one’s job, becoming a pariah….those arent severe punitive sentences? No matter how good the original intent of all this PC language crap was, something I dont take as a given, it was instantly stolen and used as a weapon by politicians (and in an effort at truth and not malingering in the debate club, lets try accepting some simple common sense which we all know but fear saying for the repercussions, a weapon used almost exclusively (Juan Williams) by the left (where was no means no with Clinton?), and not to cure the pretense of whatever but simply to win office, but hey if the right had a pinch of morality to stand behind theyd try the same crap too) schadenfreuders and profiteers looking to file another absurd civil suit. Does anyone truly believe PC code has made for more or less divisiveness in America? If you honestly answered yes PC code’s made the world better, then youre either so blindly parrotting party rhetoric your words have no weight, or youre too stupid to use cutlery unsupervised. Hey if I thought for a second for all of its warped misuses PC stautes might save a single Matt Shepard or a Trayvon Martin itd be different. But the sick f***s involved there have always existed, theyre here now, they will be tomorrow and all the linguistic games on earth wont change that. I dont attest I have a clue where the line of speech conduct so egregious, not to some pious poser’s sensibilities, but to the point of being criminal, or even worthy of the next indignant zealot starting an upright moral citizens brigade, lies. But wherever that is we crossed it long ago.