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Racial epithets in Metatalk
January 6, 2012 3:29 PM   Subscribe

I take issue with the use of "dirty indian givers" in this thread.

If it said dirty Jews or some other racial/ethnic slur, would it have been zapped from orbit? Or at least gotten a nudge from the mods that this is not okay here? It's not like it was at all relevant or necessary to the discussion to use those words.
posted by kamikazegopher to Etiquette/Policy at 3:29 PM (454 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Hold that hair still and I'll get the microlaser. It ought to split real fine.
posted by y2karl at 3:37 PM on January 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


Or at least gotten a nudge from the mods that this is not okay here?

I think it was a crappy thing to say. I was happy to see someone immediately come back with a raised eyebrows sort of "Really?" response to it. Original commenter didn't double down, I mostly read it as "dumb thing gets called out as dumb, everybody moves on", or I would have said something myself.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:40 PM on January 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


kamikazegopher: “If it said dirty Jews or some other racial/ethnic slur, would it have been zapped from orbit? Or at least gotten a nudge from the mods that this is not okay here? It's not like it was at all relevant or necessary to the discussion to use those words.”

I was going to say that this really should have gone in the thread it's about, since that thread is still open, and since that thread is already in Metatalk. I don't think this new thread was necessary.

But, yeah, that's a fair question. My guess is that the answer is something like "it would have been zapped from orbit if people had flagged it, pointed it out discreetly, and given mods a chance to do something about it." I'm not sure that happened in this case.
posted by koeselitz at 3:42 PM on January 6, 2012


and that's why I should preview
posted by koeselitz at 3:42 PM on January 6, 2012


kamikazegopher: I take issue with the use of "dirty indian givers" in this thread.

We know and you probably could have expanded on that comment in the thread itself. Not to mention flag the offending comment. I liked PeterMcDermott's comment, and while I didn't particularly care for the Indian giver part, I refuse to take back my favourite.
posted by gman at 3:43 PM on January 6, 2012


We don't delete much from MetaTalk - calling that sort of thing out in-thread is a totally standard and usually effective way to handle it.

"Indian giver" in this context is a slang phrase with distinctly uncool racial connotations but is also one of those things that I think people use without necessarily considering the implications ("gypped" being a similar one from my childhood.) I consider it eyeroll-inducing and definitely worth educating people about but I'm not inclined to assume it's an intentional slur.

If my read doesn't match yours, I'd love to know about it. As it stands, since there was some pushback (including yours) and it didn't go anywhere, eyerolling was as far as I took it.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 3:44 PM on January 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's not okay and people should knock that shit off. That said we almost never delete stuff from MetaTalk. That said, this is the second time in as many weeks when we've been somewhat relaxed about people making sort of shitty racially based slurs that people have been unhappy with that, so it may be that we need to be a little more visibly reactive about that sort of thing. So no, not okay. However, to me it falls into the "not okay but also not something that's going to be retroactively deleted after other people have called it out" category.

If it said dirty Jews

We do not play this particular "what if" thing here because we deal with stuff contextually as it comes up. If you're implying that because some of us are Jewish but none of us are Indian that is affecting our response, I don't think that's accurate but we'll keep an eye out in the future in any case.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:44 PM on January 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Maybe it was an instance of progressive racism.
posted by klue at 3:51 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know the official etymology disagrees with it, but I've always preferred to read the phrase as "someone who gives to an Indian and then turns around and says Yoink!" It keeps the usage the same, references a far more well known stereotype, and keeps that reference limited to a subset of a group rather than painting an entire race with the same brush.

Win, win, win.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:52 PM on January 6, 2012 [16 favorites]


That's fair.

Jessamyn, I kinda felt sick to my stomach reading your second paragraph. I was going to type "The N Word" but couldn't bring myself to do it. Didn't occur to me that some of the mods are Jewish, but I remember that now. I regret what it could have implied and apologize.
posted by kamikazegopher at 3:54 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


And for those who think I'm splitting hairs, there seems to be a blind spot toward racism against American Indians in many fora. I mean, we still have sports teams in the U.S. that are ugly caricatures of Indians.
posted by kamikazegopher at 3:57 PM on January 6, 2012 [23 favorites]


I regret what it could have implied and apologize.

Totally not calling you out at all, I can just never remember what people remember and/or know about us and so it's good to be clear about what people are asking. No huge deal and I think these sorts of conversations are good to have every once in a while, in any case.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:05 PM on January 6, 2012


Sort of an ironic call-out, considering the OP's username makes light of ritualized ethnic suicide attacks from a contentious war. My Japanese friends don't think that shit is funny, but whatevs.
posted by troll at 4:07 PM on January 6, 2012 [40 favorites]


Maybe my upbringing was a bit on the politically correct side, but I always heard that that term was not an ethnic slur, but was in fact a reference to the corrupt political practice of not upholding the treaties made with the Native American tribes - i.e. giving them Oklahoma, and then taking it away anyway.

Am I wrong? If so, interesting.
posted by zomg at 4:08 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tell Me No Lies, that's honestly what I always thought it meant. But it's not the first time of been surprised by the origin of an idiom.
posted by Packed Lunch at 4:09 PM on January 6, 2012


Maybe my upbringing was a bit on the politically correct side, but I always heard that that term was not an ethnic slur, but was in fact a reference to the corrupt political practice of not upholding the treaties made with the Native American tribes - i.e. giving them Oklahoma, and then taking it away anyway.

That's a really cool way to interpret it, but I'm pretty sure the etymology is on the racist side of things.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 4:11 PM on January 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


ironic

some might even say eponysterical
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 4:12 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sort of an ironic call-out, considering the OP's username makes light of ritualized ethnic suicide attacks from a contentious war. My Japanese friends don't think that shit is funny, but whatevs.

Japanese people get to be upset about Kamikaze jokes the way white people get to be upset about colonialism jokes.
posted by atrazine at 4:16 PM on January 6, 2012


Wikipedia explanation.
posted by y2karl at 4:21 PM on January 6, 2012


If you're very, very lucky, someone will say this around an Asian Indian, and then that person will have to say, "no, not your kind of Indian, the other kind of Indian" or "feathers not dots", and then you will behold the rare double racism, and then you can cry in wonder at the majesty of it all and put it on YouTube.

I always heard that that term was not an ethnic slur


Some people use it that way, and some people use it the uglier way. The thing is, is there any real reason to try to navigate that particular minefield or to hope that your audience knows which one you mean? Like most racially-questionable idioms, we're not going to suffer, nor will the English language be diminished, by letting these things die out and using our infinite supply of other words instead.
posted by Errant at 4:21 PM on January 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


not even kidding - i found your example of "dirty jews" as another potential racial slur extremely amusing

disclaimer - vodka
posted by elizardbits at 4:22 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you're very, very lucky, someone will say this around an Asian Indian, and then that person will have to say, "no, not your kind of Indian, the other kind of Indian" or "feathers not dots", and then you will behold the rare double racism, and then you can cry in wonder at the majesty of it all and put it on YouTube.

English person in California: "Your niece belongs to Indian Princesses? That's a little weird."
Me: "Yeah, they're changing the name to something less offensive."
English person: "It doesn't seem offensive really... it's just why Indian? Do they ride around on elephants?"
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:28 PM on January 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


(which would be awesome, btw. Maybe it's time to restart Indian Princesses with a slightly different theme)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:28 PM on January 6, 2012


And for those who think I'm splitting hairs, there seems to be a blind spot toward racism against American Indians in many fora.

Like gypped, it's an old, old expression. I don't think its use necessarily implies conscious intent to demean any ethnic group.

One rule seems to be that a racist is usually that person over there. Who needs to be educated. That one gets to make oneself morally right by making the other person morally wrong is, of course, not at all intentional.
posted by y2karl at 4:30 PM on January 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


elizardbits: not even kidding - i found your example of "dirty jews" as another potential racial slur extremely amusing

disclaimer - vodka


Vodka's no excuse for the Elizardbithan English.
posted by gman at 4:30 PM on January 6, 2012 [10 favorites]


clarification because the internets: i find it amusing as a native american jew, I mean. not as a drunk giddy racist.
posted by elizardbits at 4:31 PM on January 6, 2012 [42 favorites]


I was in Indian Princesses when I was a kid - cute father-daughter bonding and access to leather goods aside, I figured out that it was in poor taste when I was about twelve. I still wonder what happened to my awesome vest, though.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 4:33 PM on January 6, 2012


um, into? I think?
posted by neuromodulator at 4:35 PM on January 6, 2012


Was that directed at me? Indian Princesses is (was?) a father-daughter activity group (looks like it is run by the Y, although I have no actual memory of that.) Fun for a kindergartener, but god, tons of cringeworthy "noble savage"-type crap. We had "Indian names" and all that. (I was Brave Bear. My father, as I informed him in terms that left no room for discussion, was Big Bear.)
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 4:44 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Was that directed at me?

No, it was an observation in general.

Your Indian Princesses remind me of German Indians.
posted by y2karl at 4:53 PM on January 6, 2012


'Welshing on a bet' is the last one of these I remember saying, but 'Indian giver' must have been a close second-- and I happen to be of Indian and Welsh descent, embarrassingly enough.
posted by jamjam at 4:54 PM on January 6, 2012


After growing up with Bugs Bunny cartoons I used "cotton-picking" for years before I realized it was a racial slur.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:56 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


y2karl, I think you are reading intentions into my post. I didn't call anyone a racist. I would like to see the term "Indian-giver" removed from common lexicon. Ditto for "gypped".

restless_nomad, I was in Indian Princesses also. Cringeworthy, indeed. I wish I could remember what our "Indian names" were. Knowing my Dad, his was probably a dirty pun that only that grown-ups got.
posted by kamikazegopher at 4:57 PM on January 6, 2012


Heh, I was in Indian Guides briefly around the same age. My dad was looking for something like the Boy Scouts without the religious bent. The first meeting (pow-wow?) we went to, we made these yo-yo things that were basically wooden buzzsaws. It was a toothed wood plank with two holes in the middle. String loops through holes with handles on each side. To get started, you twist the wood up in the string, but after that you could keep it going by pulling the handles.

Imagine a dozen kindergarteners with spinning wooden buzzsaws menacing each other for a half an hour. My dad was on edge. When we left, he asked what next meeting's craft was.

"Spears!" the host said proudly.

I was a Cub Scout within a month.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:00 PM on January 6, 2012 [31 favorites]


I remember an NPR story from a few years ago about some contemporary Poles dressing up as WWII-era Ghetto Jews the way we USians do Indians, but I can't seem to Google it up at the moment.
posted by jamjam at 5:06 PM on January 6, 2012


Yes, sorry, I had never heard of it and thought it was a mildly humorous typo. My bad.
posted by neuromodulator at 5:08 PM on January 6, 2012


Here in the Pacific Northwest, the primary economic activity of the indigenous people was the potlatch, an intricate system of social ceremonies that (among other things) involved the ritualistic giving away of goods. Far more complex than Europeans realized, the entire cultural fabric of their highly-evolved hierarchical societies was interwoven with the giving of gifts.

The shocked and appalled European interlopers intent on maximizing labour from the native population who witnessed these events promptly put a stop to these "heathen and wasteful" ceremonies. Almost always over-looked was that high-ranking individuals who were gift recipients at a potlatch given by another tribe or rival was that they might then be expected to give even more goods away at a subsequent potlatch conducted by them in the future. In this way, some of these gifts were not really gifts in the traditional sense, in that the givers could expect to receive even greater largesse in the future.

In short, giving goods away with an expectation of receiving even more elaborate goods in the future was an integral part of the local social structure. However using an expression like "dirty Indian-giver" around First Nations peoples in these parts today would likely result in the utterer getting smacked; if not by them, then by me. I'm really surprised to see someone casually using that term here.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:09 PM on January 6, 2012 [22 favorites]


No opinion on deletion, but it is a patently racist expression, as well as deeply ironic in every sense. Granted my family is lefty, but I was advised that it was a slur in the 1960s.

Anti-Native racism remains so much less generally censured than nearly any other sort in the US.
posted by spitbull at 5:09 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


kamikazegopher: I mean, we still have sports teams in the U.S. that are ugly caricatures of Indians.

The Tribal Council's resolution reads, in part, that the "Seminole Tribe of Florida has an established relationship with Florida State University, which includes its permission to use the name, 'Seminole,' as well as various Seminole symbols and images, such as Chief Osceola, for educational purposes and the Seminole Tribe of Florida wishes to go on record that it has not opposed, and, in fact, supports the continued use of the name 'Seminole.'"*

I think metafilter handled the faint slur well enough and shouldn't further discussion diverge and devolve into a ovegeneraliztion into political correctness for it's own sake. That is all.

Disclaimer: Yes, I'm of Native American lineage with mother, aunt, uncle, and grandfather on the roll of a local tribe.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:11 PM on January 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


something like the Boy Scouts without the religious bent

In the UK this is Woodcraft Folk; in my day, at least, it was pretty much Scouting for Lefties.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:14 PM on January 6, 2012


Jamjam, was it this TAL episode?
posted by macadamiaranch at 5:17 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah, the old fruitgum company song.

It's actually a mini-hobby for me to research the origins of ethnic slurs. They're so weird and meaningless a lot of the time. Also there are a lot of them that are actual words now that people forget were once slurs.

Does that count as progress...?
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 5:26 PM on January 6, 2012


Yes, sorry, I had never heard of it and thought it was a mildly humorous typo. My bad.

No worries, as you were probably never a five-year-old girl there's no particular reason you'd have heard of it. (And while I've never been into Indian princesses specifically, Native American or otherwise, I certainly wouldn't turn one down should she come knocking.)
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 5:29 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was also probably never a five-year-old girl.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:30 PM on January 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


Probably.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:32 PM on January 6, 2012


Maybe.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:33 PM on January 6, 2012


So if I call someone a no good dirty bastard, will I get called out for being mean towards the illegitimate children and fatherless ?
posted by k5.user at 5:52 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's MetaFilter, you can get called out for any reason. Is it likely? No.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:54 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Your Indian Princesses remind me of German Indians.

One of the more awkward things that ever happened to me in a German class (and I had to convey the Holocaust as pantomime once) was having to try and explain the Indian Princesses to a thoroughly baffled teacher. Because I can't and know nothing about it beyond that it exists (albeit now renamed). Granted, that's about as much explanation as I can give of the German Indian thing: "It's a thing. Do not attempt to comprehend, just accept that it exists." (Though I think Germans inadvertently did some cultural preservation, whereas I don't think anything useful came out of the Indian Princesses.)
posted by hoyland at 5:55 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Explaining American Indians to Germans is easy. You just say "Our forefathers thought they were Bavarian."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:58 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


By the way, what is a good substitute for "gypped"?
posted by Jpfed at 6:06 PM on January 6, 2012


(hopefully something more concise than "given the short end of the stick" etc.)
posted by Jpfed at 6:06 PM on January 6, 2012


By the way, what is a good substitute for "gypped"?

Cheated. Screwed. Swindled. Hoodwinked.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:09 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cheated? Swindled?
posted by heyho at 6:09 PM on January 6, 2012


Screwed? Scammed? Swindled? Shafted? I have no idea why they all begin with S.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:10 PM on January 6, 2012


Or my personal favorite: bamboozled.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:10 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the nice spectrum of answers!
posted by Jpfed at 6:14 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of explaining American Indians, I have a funny story. I'll try to make it brief. I was visiting a friend doing a Peace Corps tour in a semi-remote part of Ecuador. One of our journeys was a trip up to a wonderful remote site in the cloudforest that he had done some website work for.

Once we get to the trailhead the guides break out the rubber boots and pass them out. I'm rocking my Teva Sandals and figure I'll go barefoot/flipflop style up the trail (not short, very uphill, very muddy, your basic jungle trail up a mountain in Ecuador I suppose). Btw, I'm no stranger to barefoot hiking, having done 12 miles with my boots on my back in YNP. The guides are taken aback and try to explain why I need the boots, mostly thorns [espina, espina!] but also because the mud is serious business and I'll lose my footwear altogether. I take it in stride and continue to politely refuse. My buddie finally says something to them in spanish that I don't quite translate and all four of them, just like in a movie, go "Ahhhhhhh! Ok, Ok" and off they go ahead (we're aware we have to go slower 'cuz the girl we were with, and myself as well, weren't used to the altitude yet).

After they're gone I ask him what he said that made them chill out and have faith. He said, "I told them 'This man has Indian blood in him' and they got the picture."

So maybe just go barefoot, I guess they'll understand?

Btw, I survived the hike up and only had to pick a few splinters/espinas out of my foot at the top, no problem. I will admit, they got some serious mud/rotting vegetation in the cloud forest.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:17 PM on January 6, 2012




y2karl, I think you are reading intentions into my post.

Yes, no, maybe, or maybe just being off topic, on a tangent.

When I was younger, especially in my college years, I more or less considered myself, by intention, at least, the most liberal human in the universe and was righteous on the matter of civil rights and often gave my elders the benefit of my inexperience. They did not take it all that well. When I got older and got corrected by college students, people younger than I, often on the most trivial matter, I found that I did not take it all that well.

So, sometimes I find my hair get up a little, especially when I am feeling tired, when such matters come up here. Without reflection, I found this trivial, not the Worst Thing In The World. My instant reaction was as posted above.

Upon reflection, your point is taken.

The expression is one I have rarely used since childhood and I have thought many times since then about the implied slur, which seemed even more ludicrous when I learned about the whole concept of potlatch. As to its use, even before this, I would like to think that, without conscious thought, I would avoid using it in front of strangers. I do think that it is, as Roland of Eld wrote, a faint slur implicit.

But it was a useful term for a very human behavior and I do wish there were a better replacement than erstazgiver. As for cottonpicking, I can't see that as racial so much as about poverty. Johnny Cash, for one, picked cotton.

Indian giver is not the equivalent of dirty jew to me but YMMV. I do respect that other people may feel more strongly about this.

And my apologies forbeing so tardy but this machine or the interets are being very cranky slow for me tonight.

As for German Indians, well, one way to see it is they thought Indians a noble race and wished to emulate this nobility. Of course, it's far more complex than that and a very interesting subject.And it, in its own way, illuminates one problem with the term racist -- the racism of ignorance is not the racism of malice. Both matter but there is the difference of intention. Yet one word serves for both states of being.
posted by y2karl at 6:17 PM on January 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Bilked! Conned! Duped! Taken! (Possibly for a ride or to the cleaners.) Hornswoggled! Suckered! Flimflammed? Sure, flimflammed! Fleeced, sandbagged, snowjobbed, inveigled, ripped, burnt, rooked, roped, buffaloed (though maybe that's getting back into the same trouble, no clue to the etymology), and so on and so forth.

When in doubt, reach for the nearest detective story.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:20 PM on January 6, 2012 [14 favorites]


It's a shitty expression. It should go away.
posted by unSane at 6:20 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


And it, in its own way, illuminates one problem with the term racist -- the racism of ignorance is not the racism of malice. Both matter but there is the difference of intention. Yet one word serves for both states of being.

Agreed and well-put.
posted by kamikazegopher at 6:23 PM on January 6, 2012


Oddly enough, on that very same hike we as a group got into a discussion about the racial implications/roots of the word 'niggardly'. Smart people gonna be smart I suppose.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:23 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


You win this round, Cortex. You have made a powerful enemy this day.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:24 PM on January 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure how offended I am. I need to know more about PeterMcDermott's ethnicity.
posted by planet at 6:39 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Niggardly has no ties to the other word, in case anyone was wondering. It did get a guy fired a few years ago when it was misunderstood!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:46 PM on January 6, 2012


It did get a guy fired a few years ago when it was misunderstood!

Man, he was really swindled.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:53 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jamjam, was it this TAL episode?
posted by macadamiaranch


That's it! Thank you, macadamiaranch.

Ira interviewed a young Jewish woman who had visited the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow.

The NYT has a nice piece on it as well, and it's clear to me that the Poles are handling the issues around the genocide they helped commit better than we do our extermination of Indians.

And speaking of Germans and Noble Savages, Martin Gardner said in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science that the Nazis (a term I've seen described as a slur) declared American Indians to be Aryans because a member of Hitler's inner circle had Indian blood.
posted by jamjam at 7:02 PM on January 6, 2012


Bastard does kind of suck. We should be really be supportive of non traditional family units, and not use the implication that you may not be of a traditional American family unit as a cudgel.

I support as many callouts as it will take to stop people from using the b word around here.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:09 PM on January 6, 2012


Bilked! Conned! Duped! Taken!

The term Indian giver applies, indirectly, to the act of giving a gift and then, later, taking it back.

I know people in real life who have done this. They gave a gift of great value, personally, ethetically and financially, to a new friend as an expression of their great affection and then, later, when that affection had faded, for whatever reason, suffered giver's remorse, regretted deeply giving such a gift and sometiems even contrived to take the present back. They became, in effect, a different person than the person they were when they made the gift.

This is a very human behavior but it is not exactly described by swindling or any term referring to any confidence game. Those are good replacements for the term gypped but not Indian giver. That is in its own category.
posted by y2karl at 7:17 PM on January 6, 2012


I dislike the history behind the term, but I really like the 1910 Fruitgum Co/Ramones song of the same name.
posted by jonmc at 7:23 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I maintain that niggardly is a word that exists at this point, in terms of actual usage, almost solely for the purpose of being a bullet point in discussions about word taboos.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:25 PM on January 6, 2012 [37 favorites]


That is in its own category.

Okay, then how about - asshat, fuckface, dickfor, jackhole, etcetera etcetera etcetera.

I get what your saying but there are simpler and better ways to describe that type of behavior.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:27 PM on January 6, 2012


I know people in real life who have done this.

Native people? Because I've haggled with folks of the Hebraic faith, but I still wouldn't say they jewed me down.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:29 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


or, cortex, as a way for people to use it in the service of 'ironic racism.'


Or as a way to call someone something that sounds like a slur (and is meant to be a slur) but with some deniability.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:31 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I get what your saying but there are simpler and better ways to describe that type of behavior.

Concentrate on the act and not the slur. Take the Indian part away and concentrate on the giver part. No expression offered so far is specifically about the act of giving a gift and taking it back. Then get back to me when you come up with an expression that expressly describes that behavior and makes instant sense to the average listener. Nothing offered so far does so in the least.

I wonder what the equivalent expressions are from other languages. I also wonder how many involve an ethnic group.
posted by y2karl at 7:36 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Native people? Oh, please. People I know personally, of course. But if you want to count coup by beating a dead horse you brought in on your own, feel free.
posted by y2karl at 7:40 PM on January 6, 2012


Personally I would simply call that being an asshole. If I wanted to be specific I would append ideas about respect, honesty, trustworthiness.

I'm failing to see how you think that saying covers things that no other idea can.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:41 PM on January 6, 2012


Because it specifically refers to giving a gift and then taking it back. Asshole does not.
posted by y2karl at 7:43 PM on January 6, 2012


No, assholes do take gifts back.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:45 PM on January 6, 2012


I am not arguing for the preservation of the term, just noting that there is no short way to say the same thing at present.
posted by y2karl at 7:45 PM on January 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


In what context would you need a shortened way to describe that action? I'm curious, because I can't comprehend someone saying something like that and expecting the other person to gather all the info they need from it. Other than the person saying it is insensitive and possibly racist.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:50 PM on January 6, 2012


The same thing as in specifically referring the act of giving and then taking or attempting to take the gift back later. Asshole does not do that. All I am saying there is no short substitute for the term at present and I wish there was.
posted by y2karl at 7:51 PM on January 6, 2012


Native people? Oh, please. People I know personally, of course. But if you want to count coup by beating a dead horse you brought in on your own, feel free.

Sorry, I misread your previous comments and thought you were making an argument that the term wasn't offensive or that people shouldn't take offense to it because it was rooted in a legit cultural practice. Thanks for being a prick in clarifying, though.

Fun fact: As kids we were lead to think 'Indian giver' had grown out of Aboriginal land claims.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:52 PM on January 6, 2012


Here's a hypothetical Seinfeld quote illustrating a perfectly good alternative:

Jerry: So you're saying he gifted, and then he degifted?
George: That's what I'm saying, he's a degifter!
Jerry: Neuman!
posted by Lorin at 7:52 PM on January 6, 2012 [26 favorites]


Whoa, according to wikipedia there is no known synonym. I figured english had a word for everything, at least a load word.

There is also a little wrinkle, it was meant to be applied to people who expected an exchange of gifts and if not presented a gift in return would ask for their gift back. Not simply someone who takes back gifts.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:52 PM on January 6, 2012


I like degifter. I'm running with that.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:53 PM on January 6, 2012


I'm curious, because I can't comprehend someone saying something like that and expecting the other person to gather all the info they need from it.

Everyone I know has known someone who has given a gift and then later tried to retrieve it. When I have heard anyone use the expression, I have always assumed that it was understood that way.
posted by y2karl at 7:53 PM on January 6, 2012


Niggardly has an even rarer noun form, too.

But Scrooge, for example, was a niggard.
posted by jamjam at 7:53 PM on January 6, 2012


Maybe my upbringing was a bit on the politically correct side, but I always heard that that term was not an ethnic slur, but was in fact a reference to the corrupt political practice of not upholding the treaties made with the Native American tribes - i.e. giving them Oklahoma, and then taking it away anyway.

I've always tried to read it that way, even though I know its etymology, because reading it the other way can be pretty damn hurtful, even when you're only a smallish part Native American. The upside of it is, as a mostly-white guy, it's given me the opportunity to experience racism firsthand without it really effecting my life in any practical way, and made me sensitive to it at a pretty young age. I had a pretty good (albeit conservative) friend make a loud, angry "lazy, stupid Indians" remark in a somewhat heated discussion about govt. social services the other day, and I damn near punched him, but he had no idea of my heritage, so I demurred. Anti-Native American bias is still everywhere, and it's just as ugly as any other kind of racism.

Mind you, I love a proper insult, but I'd love to Native Americans afforded the same sensibilities as any other historically oppressed minority when it came to insult time around here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:54 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for being a prick in clarifying, though. Now, don't get iironic on my ass!
posted by y2karl at 7:55 PM on January 6, 2012


Everyone I know has known someone who has given a gift and then later tried to retrieve it. When I have heard anyone use the expression, I have always assumed that it was understood that way.

But it still doesn't say anything, it does'nt stand alone. There is no implicit information in that saying; there still needs to be context, a why, and thus is still not much more than a slur.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:58 PM on January 6, 2012


It's amazing how many words in semi-common usage come from disparaging words for ethnicities or National groups. Scotch tape. Welsh on a bet. Indian giver. Jewed. Gypped. Paddy Wagon. Sooner or later we all step on somebody's toes with our use of language, and it's probably inadvertent. It's still something we ought to apologize for, and not make excuses for, and note it for later, so that we don't make the mistake again. Intended or not, it still hurts somebody else.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:58 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jerry: So you're saying he gifted, and then he degifted?
George: That's what I'm saying, he's a degifter!
Jerry: Neuman!


There was actually an entire episode based around the term Indian Giver. He claimed not to be aware of the word.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:59 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


To be clear, you there is no way in hell you can just say "indian giver!" and expect everyone around you to automagically understand what the hell you're talking about.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:59 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gift rescinder? Gift revoker? Gift retracter? IGNIB-er ("I'm Gonna Need It Back")?
posted by argonauta at 8:01 PM on January 6, 2012


Everyone I know has known someone who has given a gift and then later tried to retrieve it.

So ... pretty much an urban myth, then?

I honestly can't see any pressing need for such an expression, myself.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:02 PM on January 6, 2012


If I was an Indian I would give you all arrows to the kneecap.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:14 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mind you, I love a proper insult, but I'd love to Native Americans afforded the same sensibilities as any other historically oppressed minority when it came to insult time around here.

I would hope that a closer reading of what I have written here would show I agree.

'S funny-- this had reminded me of something that happened to me years ago. I was hanging out with some people with whom I worked and made some ironic reference to something and then said But, of course I'm Jewish, so go figure.

Well, my father was born in Poland and he was hell on wheels on the topic of Jews and blacks and I hated him for the things he said and believed. So, you will have to take my word for it but my little bon mot was in reference to the tiniest thing, like a movie or something and the joke intended was that, obviously, I was not Jewish.

But this one couple didn't get that and took it as true and later, while hanging out with them, I noticed over time that they were making all these little cracks about Jews. And they kept it up over a few weeks when I hung out with them. I didn't know what they were going on about at first and then I figured out they thought I was Jewish. I finally told them how creeped out I was getting about it. And they got mad at me like I was leading them on. Well, I didn't intend to do so. I was just hoping they would knock it off and never said anything.

One thing I got out of the experience was that it gave me an inkling in a few days of what it might be like to hear that stuff all one's life. That has nothing to do with the topic here -- it's just something that happened a long time ago that I hadn't thought about for awhile.
posted by y2karl at 8:15 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Would you take them back though, or can I keep them?
posted by P.o.B. at 8:16 PM on January 6, 2012


If I was an Indian, I'd shake my head a the foolish white people and go smoke something.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:16 PM on January 6, 2012


I'll close this up now.
posted by neuromodulator at 8:18 PM on January 6, 2012


the joke intended was that, obviously, I was not Jewish.

I'm completely confused as to how saying that you're Jewish when you're not is remotely funny, in any way. Is this some kind of weird, alternate, hipster thing I'm too old to get?
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:21 PM on January 6, 2012


To be clear, you there is no way in hell you can just say "indian giver!" and expect everyone around you to automagically understand what the hell you're talking about.

To be clear, you are bringing coals to Newcastle here. Or, shorter, well, duh.

I had not heard of that degifting episode before this. Now that one has promise. Bunny Ultramod, thank you for that.
posted by y2karl at 8:22 PM on January 6, 2012


I'm completely confused as to how saying that you're Jewish when you're not is remotely funny, in any way.

Oh, for Christ's sakes. It was by no means that funny but, Jesus, get off your high horse and give a person the benefit of the doubt now and then. Mote, beam and all that.
posted by y2karl at 8:25 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or, shorter, well, duh.

Well, then I don't understand what you're getting at. If context is a duh, then calling someone either an asshole or indian giver covers the same ground except the latter shows off an ignorance in the speaker.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:26 PM on January 6, 2012


I don't like the term, but I'm getting the impression that people are playing sanctimonious and intentionally missing y2karl's point. I don't know a single person who would NOT know exactly what 'Indian giver' meant. Maybe it's a 'growing up in the US during a certain period' thing, I don't know.

Just finding it curious that there isn't a real word for that isn't the same thing as campaigning to get to say it.

And I'd still like to know if there are any words for it in languages other than English.
posted by ctmf at 8:31 PM on January 6, 2012 [10 favorites]


"He gave me a ring, but then he was an asshole."

Doesn't work.
posted by ctmf at 8:32 PM on January 6, 2012


You're kidding right?
posted by P.o.B. at 8:34 PM on January 6, 2012


"He gave me a ring, but then he was an asshole and took it back" does.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:34 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I had not heard of that degifting episode before this

Hmm, here I thought I was so clever, but actually Tim Whatley is referred to as a degifter in a totally unrelated episode. The Cigar Store Indian (S5E10) does have a brief scene relevant to this, in which Jerry is dating a Native American woman and almost calls her an indian giver. There's also something in there about reservations.
posted by Lorin at 8:34 PM on January 6, 2012


Actually, but then he took it back works there. But how about: Why are you so pissed at your boyfriend? He's an asshole.

Doesn't have as much information as the alternate.
posted by ctmf at 8:35 PM on January 6, 2012


He's an asshole because he took his ring back.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:37 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was by no means that funny

Then don't say that it was. Good night; and good luck there finding that vital expression to describe the kinds of assholes you apparently surround yourself with.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:38 PM on January 6, 2012


P.o.B. understood. You just want to be obtuse so you can be more moral. Gotcha.
posted by ctmf at 8:38 PM on January 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Notice that all that has to be done is add context. Which you would have to do anyway if you threw around racist idioms.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:38 PM on January 6, 2012


There is a failure to communicate here, I believe. I was not defending the term Indian giver. I was trying to make what I thought were explanations of why asshole didn't reference the behavior described. Degifting does. BunnyUltramod managed to understand this and offer an answer without making herself right by making me wrong in the process. That wins her my admiration.
posted by y2karl at 8:39 PM on January 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


him
posted by P.o.B. at 8:40 PM on January 6, 2012


oops, i'm making you wrong again
posted by P.o.B. at 8:40 PM on January 6, 2012


I appreciate your comment. However, the source of the degifter quote was actually Lorin.

Also, I may be a boy.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:41 PM on January 6, 2012


Degifting sounds so... Seinfeld. Otherwise it's perfect.
posted by ctmf at 8:42 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just finding it curious that there isn't a real word for that isn't the same thing as campaigning to get to say it.

Thank you, ctmf. Well, this thread provides yet another example of why race is such a hard topic to discuss here.
posted by y2karl at 8:44 PM on January 6, 2012


oops, i'm making you wrong again.

No, I made a possibly sexist assumption. You were correcting me without being, to my experience, on a high horse about it.
posted by y2karl at 8:47 PM on January 6, 2012


Where was I on a high horse here?

There is a failure to communicate here,

Seriously though, I get what you're saying.

You just want to be obtuse so you can be more moral. Gotcha.

Thanks for showing how obtuse I am without making a real point.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:50 PM on January 6, 2012


I won't presume your misidentification of me was sexist. Bunny is more typically a female nickname (although I won't point to Bunny Colvin from The Wire for a counterexample).
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:51 PM on January 6, 2012


Er, will point to.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:52 PM on January 6, 2012


degifting, ungifting, take-backer (or back-taker), negative gifter, negative giving, subtractive gift (though that sounds more appropriate for a white elephant)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:56 PM on January 6, 2012


Seriously though, I get what you're saying.

So, you're just trolling then? You really feel the need to give someone a hard time for saying "hey, I wish there was a succinct, non-offensive way of expressing the same concept"?

Notice that all that has to be done is add context. Which you would have to do anyway if you threw around racist idioms.

The fact that "Indian giver" is racist has nothing to do with the fact that it's widely understood; it can be used without adding context because it's usually understood. Which was the point of y2karl's request.
posted by spaltavian at 9:01 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where was I on a high horse here?

I am no doubt projecting and making the worse assumption at your motives. It seems to you that you have the simple answer. I find your substitutes far too unspecific.
"He gave me a ring, but then he was an asshole."

Doesn't work.
posted by ctmf at 8:32 PM

You're kidding right?
posted by P.o.B. at 8:34 PM
I understood him perfectly. He got what I was trying to say. You did not. I know not why.

Also, I thought he was addressing the other P_B, so to speak, and not you on the obtuse part. But the longer this goes on, the less I trust my understanding of what anyone is saying here.
posted by y2karl at 9:02 PM on January 6, 2012


This discussion seems oddly cold and aloof somehow.
posted by koeselitz at 9:08 PM on January 6, 2012


Also, I thought he was addressing the other P_B, so to speak, and not you on the obtuse part.

Well, I missed the crucial line where P.o.B. DID say he understood you, which makes a huge difference in the attitude I was reading into his comments.

So, for that, I apologize, P.o.B.
posted by ctmf at 9:10 PM on January 6, 2012


it can be used without adding context because it's usually understood. Which was the point of y2karl's request.

Yeah and I understood that. My point was you can simply say something else with a couple of words, which was also part of y2karl's point. I have yet to think of a real use of the term without actual context, but let me know if you've got one.

But the longer this goes on, the less I trust my understanding of what anyone is saying here.

Ditto, I think The Signal is broadcasting in here.
posted by P.o.B. at 9:10 PM on January 6, 2012


Ooh ooh, this is my opportunity to make a pitch for my family's term of "backsies giver." It's easy to say, its meaning is pretty transparent, and to my ear at least it sounds natural and non-awkward. Try it today!
posted by redfoxtail at 9:15 PM on January 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sooner or later...

Wow, I CANNOT believe you would just throw around a slur about Oklahomans like that. What's next, huh? It's a slippery slope until we start using hoosier like an everyday word too.
posted by slogger at 9:16 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


My point was you can simply say something else with a couple of words, which was also part of y2karl's point.

You said something else with a couple of words but it was something else entirely, which was beside my point at a far distance, if at all.

See, degifting is far more specific from asshole. So, you were not that helpful, I am sorry to say.

Upon review:

Ooh ooh, this is my opportunity to make a pitch for my family's term of "backsies giver." It's easy to say, its meaning is pretty transparent, and to my ear at least it sounds natural and non-awkward.


Ding! ding! ding! We have a winner!
posted by y2karl at 9:25 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm going to stab you in the liver.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:33 PM on January 6, 2012


We could remythologize the concept with a different character. Gollum seems to fit the bill. In the 1937 version of the Hobbit, he promises the ring to Bilbo for winning the riddle and then spends the next three books trying to get it back. He was a Gollum gifter.

I know there is a question whether this is the true account with Biblo and that Tolkein changes the story in a later version and in TLOTR to fit the new narrative. I still think it works.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:42 PM on January 6, 2012


You said something else with a couple of words but it was something else entirely, which was beside my point at a far distance, if at all.

Well, you never gave a real example. So we're kind of intuiting a conversation from nothing here. Here's my assumption and correct me if I'm wrong:

"That guy is an indian giver." vs "That guy is an asshole."

Neither of those have context, they're just siting there in a huge vacuum but I'm assuming that you're making a really literal interpretation of conveyance? Which doesn't make sense IRL, but okay.
The former is much more loaded. It also implies a specific break of a social contract, but the latter also implies a break in social contract just not specifically. So, if we're keeping count, +1 for specificity in a vacuum, and +1 for racism. Also as much as you want to make an argument aside from the racism, it isn't mutually exclusive from the term. It's built in.
Either way, if anyone accepted either of those without any context, I would chalk that up as some fantastic mind reading.

"That guy is an indian giver because he took back the free coupon to The Sizzler."
vs
"That guy is an asshole because he took back the free coupon to The Sizzler."

The second one covers the same ground, yeah? Again, tell me where I'm going wrong here because I'm not sure what the specificity of 'indian giver' does anything other than show the ignorance of the person saying it.
posted by P.o.B. at 9:50 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, if we're keeping count, +1 for specificity in a vacuum, and +1 for racism.

Exactly. So we're looking for a word that has the +1 for specificity in a vacuum, without the racism. Asshole isn't it. That's ok, because you're right when you say a real conversation would likely make that word not strictly necessary. It's just a language curiosity, that's all, at least for me.

Just because one can construct a sentence that means the same thing without such a word doesn't mean we can't have one.
posted by ctmf at 9:59 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Very, very late to this party, but zomg : until this thread, that was how I was told the phrase came into being -- it referred to the europeans who didn't hold up their end of the bargain with the native americans.
posted by crunchland at 10:02 PM on January 6, 2012


I never said you couldn't have one, but context always counts. Besides, degifter still falls into the asshole category.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:03 PM on January 6, 2012


This is why we can't take back nice things.
posted by gman at 10:09 PM on January 6, 2012 [16 favorites]


Totally.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:12 PM on January 6, 2012

Years ago when I first set out to write a book about gift-giving and art, I thought it would be useful to figure out how that phrase came into being. The first recorded use turns out to appear in Thomas Hutchinson's 1765 history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the implication being that something odd had happened when the Puritans first met up with Native generosity. ''An Indian gift,'' one footnote reads, ''is a proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.'' Over two centuries later we still use the phrase, its sense now broadened to refer to anyone who gives a gift with the clear expectation that the recipient should not keep it.

The experiences that Hutchinson's forebears were trying to name turn out to demonstrate a simple ethic well known in all traditional gift-exchange societies: The recipient of a gift is more its custodian or steward than its owner. ''The gift must always move'' is the old wisdom, meaning that what we have received from others must eventually be passed along again, either the actual gift itself or something of similar value and meaning.

In such commerce lie the beginnings of social life. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once noticed a simple ritual performed in restaurants in the south of France. Two diners, strangers to one another, might be seated at the same table, each with a small carafe of wine. As the meal began, each man would pour his wine into the other's glass. In an economic sense, nothing happens. And yet, simple community has appeared where previously there was none...
The GIft That Keeps On Giving

So, a proverbial expression began with a misunderstanding. How appropriate this is, in context.

I have looked elsewhere for anything on such expressions in foreign languages and found one article on translation that specifically refers to the term Indian giver in an example. And wouldn't you know it, it uses an expression referencing yet another ethnic group.
posted by y2karl at 10:21 PM on January 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


Tim Whatley is referred to as a degifter

No, you folks are remembering your Seinfeld wrong; Tim Whatley was a re-gifter.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:27 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Again, tell me where I'm going wrong here because I'm not sure what the specificity of 'indian giver' does anything other than show the ignorance of the person saying it.

and

...wo centuries later we still use the phrase, its sense now broadened to refer to anyone who gives a gift with the clear expectation that the recipient should not keep it.

There are two entirely different understanding of one proverbial expression.

Well, what I was trying to say was I was interested in a fit replacement for the proverbial part.

It would be nice to talk about proverbs -- the subject is very interesting. There are those who argue that proverbs are the beginning of literature. But, Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts, I suspect that a huge portion refer to some ethnic group other than that of the originating culture. In this context, that would be difficult.

Unless, of course, we went Dutch on giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
posted by y2karl at 10:33 PM on January 6, 2012


That would be the gift that kept on giving.
posted by y2karl at 10:36 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scotch tape?! That's not a brand name?

Also, can anyone tell lazy me the origins of Indian summer?
posted by bluedaisy at 10:42 PM on January 6, 2012


No, you folks are remembering your Seinfeld wrong; Tim Whatley was a re-gifter.

Not to be that guy, but I believe the accusation was that "he regifted, he degifted,
and now he's using an upstairs invite as a springboard to a Super Bowl sex romp."

Personally I'd like to see highbrow/lowbrow added to the list, but it seems to pass without comment more often than not.
posted by Lorin at 10:48 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe it's just because I've only lived in the southeastern U.S., but I don't think anyone I know would associate "cotton-picking" with anything other than race. That's simply the first thing it brings to mind, in my experience.
posted by cp311 at 10:54 PM on January 6, 2012


Scotch tape is disparaging language? Really???
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:54 PM on January 6, 2012


Personally I'd like to see highbrow/lowbrow added to the list, but it seems to pass without comment more often than not.

Surely, you jest.
posted by y2karl at 10:55 PM on January 6, 2012


I figured english had a word for everything

Oh man, languages have a word for so few things when you get down to it. I mean, a lot of things have words; we've got lots and lots of nouns; nouns are by a silly margin the majority share of any given natural language's vocabulary. But still: really, really not very many things that there are words for. There's a reason we communicate in phrases and clauses and sentences. It would be unreasonably difficult to create and maintain a vocabulary of individual lexemes and very short fixed phrases that expresses all the ideas a culture full of people would want to convey to one another.

Some languages tend toward productive rules that create long compound words—German is the classic here, stringing units into long compound nouns, but so too the old dumb snowclone about eskimos having 100 words for snow is rooted in suffix-based word construction where a longer word describing a snow condition is basically exactly equivalent to a short English phrase using adjectives to modify the noun—but the situation remains the same whether you stick spaces between your component words or not. At a large scale, stringing together individual units of language into larger packages that are literally decodeable beats the pants off having a dedicated word for each possible thing.

The weird thing is not that there aren't more concise phrases analogous to "indian giver"; the weird thing is that there's even a concise phrase for it all, so odd and specific is the situation being described, and it sucks that the phrase we ended up with is tangled up with a serious history of genocide and racism in US history. It's a curiosity the way all questions of language and idiom tend to be curiosity, but it's not a particularly special one.

Also, can anyone tell lazy me the origins of Indian summer?

OED says its not really clear what the origins are. Cites go back to very late 18th, early 19th century, with English writers fuzzily attributing the phrase to the natives on about the strength of a handwave and a "just because".

Maybe it's just because I've only lived in the southeastern U.S., but I don't think anyone I know would associate "cotton-picking" with anything other than race. That's simply the first thing it brings to mind, in my experience.

For me, it was a total mystery growing up, just something that funny characters said on cartoons. Eventually it occurred to me that, oh, right, picking cotton was an actual thing that people did and the historical demography on that was probably pretty fucked up and oh, huh.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:57 PM on January 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


Just one of my pet peeves. A word of utterly racist origin bandied about frequently by college-y types who would never say things like gypped, or indian giver.
posted by Lorin at 10:57 PM on January 6, 2012


What word do you take offense to from college-y types?

"College-y types" is a weird thing to say.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:00 PM on January 6, 2012


Maybe it's just because I've only lived in the southeastern U.S., but I don't think anyone I know would associate "cotton-picking" with anything other than race. That's simply the first thing it brings to mind, in my experience.

As a lifelong Texan (and the grandchild of European immigrants who picked cotton) I can honestly say that never until this thread had I ever associated "cotton-picking" with race in any way at all.
posted by katemonster at 11:01 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Scotch tape. Sigh.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:03 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


For me, it was a total mystery growing up, just something that funny characters said on cartoons.

Indeed. As a Kiwi it's something amusing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck say.
posted by rodgerd at 11:03 PM on January 6, 2012


Who had the low brows ?
posted by y2karl at 11:03 PM on January 6, 2012


Second not getting cotton-picking til now. And I lived in the southeast for a long time.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:04 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Who had the low brows ?

Stupid people. It's a phrenology thing.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:05 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


YMMV, of course; I've lived mostly in MS and AL. Smaller towns in which people still have some difficulties parsing racial/historical issues of the region.
posted by cp311 at 11:06 PM on January 6, 2012


Oh man, languages have a word for so few things when you get down to it. [...] There's a reason we communicate in phrases and clauses and sentences.

Of course once you've read the story translated from Ascian in The Book Of The New Sun, you start to notice how very few phrases and clauses and sentences we use.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:08 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Holy balls: Scotty McTape.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:08 PM on January 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


"College-y types" is a weird thing to say.

I guess it was. I regret posting drunk, I'll shut up now.
posted by Lorin at 11:08 PM on January 6, 2012


There are two entirely different understanding of one proverbial expression.

I don't think my understanding is exactly a stretch to how it's generally understood in common parlance.

Zizek had a bunch to say about gift giving. Wasn't there also a thing about 'Thank you' notes?
posted by P.o.B. at 11:11 PM on January 6, 2012


Stupid people. It's a phrenology thing.

Oh, for Christ's sake, take two. I thought it maybe referred to Neanderthals. In any case, who knew ? And how many people who do are upset with it ? That is a very select group.
posted by y2karl at 11:11 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holy balls: Scotty McTape.

People don't know this? I mean, Fawlty Towers wasn't made yesterday, but there's a riff in one episode about the Scottish being excessively tight with money, as one example. Maybe this really is news to Americans? Wow.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:16 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I did not know that Scottish people were said to be "excessively tight with money". And even if I had, I would not have guessed that that stereotype had anything to do with Scotch tape. Wow.
posted by Night_owl at 11:24 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I saw it and didn't really like it even while understanding it was a thoughtless use of idiom so I made a slightly pointed comment, perhaps it was too lateral or blunt:

dirty indian givers

I took a shower before giving you a favourite
posted by infini at 10:18 AM on January 6


Is this where I point out my Indian passport?

I agree with Jessamyn's observation above that perhaps we should be a little more careful about these things - or conscious of how they may come across, particularly as many are idiomatic to one culture/dialect or another. Call it ignorantly offensive.
posted by infini at 11:25 PM on January 6, 2012


The eggshells on which we walk are getting thinner and thinner, as if they were laid by birds raised on an exclusive diet of DDt.
posted by y2karl at 11:29 PM on January 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


I did not know that Scottish people were said to be "excessively tight with money".

You'll never look at Scrooge McDuck the same way again.
posted by Lazlo at 11:34 PM on January 6, 2012 [12 favorites]


The eggshells on which we walk are getting thinner and thinner, as if they were laid by birds raised on an exclusive diet of DDt.

I agree. I think its one of the cons of increasing globalization.
posted by infini at 11:41 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I did not know that Scottish people were said to be "excessively tight with money".

You'll never look at Scrooge McDuck the same way again.


GREAT SCOT! alternately, IT'S FULL OF STARS.

This conversation is like my geeky heaven. I seriously have spent hours looking weird things like Scotch tape being a slur for Scottish people. Didn't know that one though. That's so... strange.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:43 PM on January 6, 2012


I knew about the connection with Scotch and being frugal (or "cheap" when used as a slur) and have even wondered about Scotch brand tape, but just couldn't really understand how the two would be connected in that way. I settled on the idea that they just thought plaid was really striking and liked it for their branding.

But what's amusing is that this use of "Scotch" to describe frugality should now be a term of approbation, because being profligate with money, goods and resources is no longer considered something the "better people" do.

Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle. Be more Scotch.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:00 AM on January 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


"I did not know that Scottish people were said to be 'excessively tight with money'."

This must be a generational thing. I'm surprised that people aren't aware of this stereotype. It probably was at its peak in NA around mid-20th, so fortysomethings like myself are familiar with it one generation removed when it was still somewhat common. Now, it's just vestigal, I guess. Though the "mcfrugal" thing mentioned in cortex's link is obviously contemporary.

I wasn't aware of the Scotch Tape connection, though.

Lorin, are you saying that the etymology of highbrow/lowbrow originates in supposed phrenological distinctions between races? That wouldn't surprise me, though I suspect that anyone now who thinks about it assumes that it's non-racial and refers to the notion that bigger brained people will have bigger crania and thus higher brows. Or something.

I could research this right now, but I sort of feel like you ought to elaborate it yourself, since you brought it up. Although, as you said, you're drunk. So maybe now isn't the best time.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:16 AM on January 7, 2012


I like filthy Jews. And dirty Indians. And stinky Norwegians. And obstreperous Australians. And funky Finns. And groovy Ghanians.

Fuck the French, though. Fuck them right in the eye.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:35 AM on January 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


You'll never look at Scrooge McDuck the same way again.

Oh, yeah ? How about a mashup: Groundskeeper McDuck. You'll never look at either again the same way.
posted by y2karl at 12:45 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle. Be more Scotch.

I'll drink to that! Something something single malt rocky.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:51 AM on January 7, 2012


Hey, okay – but share.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:09 AM on January 7, 2012


Just got back from seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy wherein Control berates Percy for being a cheap scot for not putting enough booze in the punch. My friend and I started laughing because we had just been discussing how we had never heard of the stereotype on our way to the film.
posted by neuromodulator at 1:09 AM on January 7, 2012


I am deeply offended whenever the word "and" comes up. I expect everyone including the mods to make note of this.
posted by Shit Parade at 1:24 AM on January 7, 2012


Perhaps there is some other word we could use instead?
posted by P.o.B. at 1:29 AM on January 7, 2012


Plus.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 1:49 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 1910 Fruitgum Company, with their smash hit, Indian Giver!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:59 AM on January 7, 2012


Huh, the Squirrel Nut Zippers have a song called Indian Giver on their Christmas record - I always thought it was a historically accurate cover or something, but I just looked it up and I guess it's their original, circa 1998. I'm conflicted: I still rather like the song (especially in the context of boring Christmas music season), but the lyrics make me cringe every time.
posted by dialetheia at 2:20 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some commenters on that Youtube are actually discussing this a bit:
That looks like David Cassidy on the keyboard, and this song would be considered racist in todays age of uptight political correctness,
federalwarhawk 1 month ago

@Federalwarhawk - If the words were "white cracker devil" instead of "indian giver", you might have a different opinion of what constitutes uptight political correctness - LOL.
PecsInDaCity 3 weeks ago
posted by taz (staff) at 2:20 AM on January 7, 2012


The eggshells on which we walk are getting thinner and thinner

I wouldn't say they're getting thinner, just that there's more to be aware of.

You want thin eggshells, I know of a couple of liberal arts colleges you can visit...
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:28 AM on January 7, 2012


Plus

We're talking about a very specific word that is in it's own category. You can't just give some namby-pamby humany-woomany word like 'plus', it just doesn't mean the same thing.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:41 AM on January 7, 2012


I'm offended by your choice of word to be offended by.
posted by h00py at 2:58 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh man, languages have a word for so few things when you get down

I figured we had something for it, we have so many loan words. My mother, who is of course much smarter than I am,taught Latin terminology due to her odd mastery of Latin and English, claims there is no real word for Indian giver. Anyway I love you mom !
posted by Ad hominem at 3:22 AM on January 7, 2012


Fuck me. You lot impose your cunting cultural imperialism on us through your books and movies, and then you go and beat us up because we've been infected by your stinking word virus.

I'm not sure how offended I am. I need to know more about PeterMcDermott's ethnicity.

One part English, one part Irish, one part Scottish, one part Welsh. None of my family are sufficiently illustrious for the records (or even oral history) to go back any further than my grandparents.

There aren't many first nations people wandering about here in Liverpool, so I hadn't quite caught up with the fact that the term Indian giver had become taboo.

That said, the 'dirty' was intended to refer to those people who give gifts and then take them back and was not intended as a racial slur in any way.

To anybody of Native American ancestry who was offended, I heartily apologize. I fully understand how hard it must be living with all those other fuckers that you have to deal with, and if I were in your shoes, I'd take every available opportunity to call them on their shit as well.

To the usual crowd of point scoring one-up merchants who would call out their granny for dropping a surreptitious fart, I offer an extended index finger and invite them to swivel on it.

Thank you for your time and attention.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:25 AM on January 7, 2012 [19 favorites]


To the usual crowd of point scoring one-up merchants who would call out their granny for dropping a surreptitious fart, I offer an extended index finger and invite them to swivel on it.

A Tintin reader! Get 'im!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:29 AM on January 7, 2012


It's so hard to be a white male these days. Woe is me.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:40 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a person who is one seven hundredth index finger, that offends me.
posted by gman at 3:41 AM on January 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


My sleazeball New Zealand coworker here just returned from the Christmas break. He "used to be" a racist but he is all good now. Well, he is once he sussed out I am not so cool with the actively being a racist thing. He is an expert on who is a Jew. Name any entertainer, politician, author... "Ah, a Jew!" he'll proudly exclaim. He pointed me to a website that he uses to help keep track.

He tells me he is able to "build rapport" with his teachers because they share similar politics - i.e., hating Israel as a substitute for openly hating Jews. I don't want to see what hanging around with him in the canteen must be like, fuck me.

We don't really get on too well, but as I am his boss he tries to keep it under wraps in my presence. But because he is of such low intelligence, and it seems that "Jew awareness" is such a big part of his intellectual life, he is always slipping up.

Anyways, so he stopped by to say hello a couple hours ago, drop off a Christmas pudding for the family. He got a tattoo, I can see the edge poking from under his t-shirt. "Let's see it."

He pulls up the sleeve. "It's a skull and crossbones, I always wanted this!" he says. It is huge, maybe 8cm diameter, it covers the whole upper sleeve. Jesus Christ, the guy is over 50, what was he thinking?

"That's SS," I say.

"No, no," he says. I open a new tab.

"Totenkopf. That's the SS symbol."

"Don't search," the fucking lying moron says. Yeah as if. And it isn't necessary anyways, I am a big WWII buff, I just want to show him clearly in his lie. Of course the first page of images are identical to his tattoo, I can see the one he almost certainly brought into the artist as the template.

Dirty fucking lying racist old moron New Zealand fuckhead. I hate this guy.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:55 AM on January 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


Like a few others in the comments, I also grew up believing "Indian-giver" referred to the Anglos who shafted the Indians. I grew up around other Native Americans who used the phrase this way (in a small, back-desert town, so it could just have been local.) I'm wondering now if it wasn't an attempt to co-op the phrase as homosexuals did with "gay". However, I've been aware for most of my adult life that others do not use the phrase in the same manner and so ejected it from my vocabulary.

Having picked cotton as a teen in the American Southwest, I was unaware of the racial connotation of "cotton-picking". Then again, I'm sure I could find several dozen doozies using Mexicans as the insulted group - I'm in Arizona.
posted by _paegan_ at 4:12 AM on January 7, 2012


jez, Meatbomb. If I knew your type would take it all personally, I'd have endeavoured to bring you flowers prior to any kiwi diatribe.
posted by Packed Lunch at 4:38 AM on January 7, 2012


It's so hard to be a white male these days. Woe is me.

I'm pretty sure the pain of dealing with self-righteous, sanctimonious arseholes isn't limited to any particular race or gender.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:50 AM on January 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


Do you think the diatribe was against kiwis?
posted by h00py at 4:54 AM on January 7, 2012


I'm not real clear on how the nationality of Meatbomb's lying racist old moron fuckhead coworker is relevant, but I suppose that in those sorts of situations, that sort of detail seems important.

"I'm pretty sure the pain of dealing with self-righteous, sanctimonious arseholes isn't limited to any particular race or gender."

No. But it's such a burden these days to be a white male, what with having people tell us what is and isn't acceptable speech and behavior and that we have to always worry about possibly offending non-whites and non-males. It's insane and totally unfair and I, as a white male, demand that someone in charge put a stop to this at once.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:06 AM on January 7, 2012


and I, as a white male, demand that someone in charge put a stop to this at once.

With affirmative action, I should be qualified.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:11 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Do you think the diatribe was against kiwis?

Sorry, I must have missed some context.
I did think it was a joke due to how over the top it was. I just couldn't understand where it was coming from?
posted by Packed Lunch at 5:19 AM on January 7, 2012


Hmm. I thought Mac meant Scottish and Mc meant Irish or Scottish. (Like, is MacGyver's name a coincidence given his propensity for making do?)

Also, regarding cotton-picking: is it perhaps the case that cotton-picker was the derogatory term but cotton-picking was the adjective used to refer to a difficult task? That's the use I recall as a kid (and how Bugs Bunny and company used it). And the the OED doesn't offer up a racial connotation.

But, yeah, folks who grew up where it was used as a slur are welcome to correct me on this. It's not a term that I use anyway and I certainly don't plan to.

Also, regarding highbrow and lowbrow: the OED doesn't provide any racial connotations for either word, and the earliest uses of lowbrows seem to refer to white people who were lower class or seemingly not interested in intellectual culture. Though was phrenology inherently racist? The Wikipedia examples seem to be within cultures and races. And the racist example is the Belgian use of phrenology to differentiate Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Is that where some racial issues come in?

These aren't terms I really use; I'm just wondering if it's possible the etymology isn't racist in origin.

(And, yeah, I'm awake way to early and dorking out in the OED.)
posted by bluedaisy at 5:33 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not sure which is dumber, defending the right to use such a stupid waste of idiom like "dirty Indian giver", or defending the right to make Dickwolf jokes on MetaFilter.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:34 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not just from New Zealand, that's for sure. Maybe it was a comment on how racist attitudes can be pervasive, regardless of the language that's used.
posted by h00py at 5:35 AM on January 7, 2012


Do you think the diatribe was against kiwis?

Yeah, Meatbomb hates small flightless birds and fuzzy green fruit
posted by infini at 5:38 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who exactly is defending it? I see people talking about it, explaining their particular useage of it and yet more people looking for alternative phrasing for the concept of it that has nothing to do with a particular race.

Context and intent are so important. Reading people's follow-ups is too.
posted by h00py at 5:44 AM on January 7, 2012


I hate the fuzz but I like the fruit.
posted by h00py at 5:46 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Small flightless birds just suck though. Fairy penguins, I tellya.
posted by h00py at 5:47 AM on January 7, 2012


land hopping parrots are the best kind of parrot!
posted by Packed Lunch at 5:50 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


and I take issue with your username and its besmirching, belittling, and disrespect for many brave Japanese soldiers. It is dismissive of the Bushido way, of the Yamato Spirit.


okay, I am not being serious, but I can picture someone feeling that your use of kamikazegopher is insulting. You don't mean it that way of course, but that doesn't mean someone won't be offended.
posted by 2manyusernames at 6:53 AM on January 7, 2012


OK New Zealand doesn't really enter into it I grant you. But I really did just need somewhere to vent. I hope some day I will meet another person from New Zealand and they won't be a shifty lying shirking racist sleazebag.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:14 AM on January 7, 2012


You've met me, meatbomb, been to a party at my apartment even (5 or more years ago, I think) and I'm a new zealander.
posted by gaspode at 7:19 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Don't mind Meatbomb, he's an Australian-friender.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:22 AM on January 7, 2012


Ah, yer a well-travelled fellow. You know those type are everywhere. Thankfully most people are so much cooler than that. Just not as memorable, sadly.
posted by h00py at 7:24 AM on January 7, 2012


Kiwis are also a very comfortable sort of sock.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:24 AM on January 7, 2012


a nudge from the mods that this is not okay here? --- You know, I can understand being offended by something someone else says. I can also understand you taking someone to task, either one-on-one or in the thread itself when that occurs. I mean, I found it enlightening to realize that I had been misinterpreting what the phrase at the core of this post actually meant, and though I cannot recall the last time I personally used the phrase, I now know that if I were to use it, I should expect to get a negative push-back for it.

What I can't understand and what I can't abide is the idea that we as a community, or the that the mods of Metafilter are in any way responsible for protecting you from it, and making sure such things never happen again. I'm very much opposed to a community-wide "no-no" list of words or topics that are not allowed. People are always going to say things that you don't like, and it's your responsibility to deal with it, not ours. If it means telling them the error of their ways, all the way up to writing that person off as a personal persona non grata, it's your issue to deal with.
posted by crunchland at 7:36 AM on January 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


To anybody of Native American ancestry who was offended, I heartily apologize. I fully understand how hard it must be living with all those other fuckers that you have to deal with, and if I were in your shoes, I'd take every available opportunity to call them on their shit as well.

To the usual crowd of point scoring one-up merchants who would call out their granny for dropping a surreptitious fart, I offer an extended index finger and invite them to swivel on it.


This is interesting. It presupposes that it is right and proper for only members of a particular ethnic group to protest against abusive terms related to them. It is not only unnecessary but actively undesirable for people outside a group to register protest at ethnic slurs directed at that group. To do so is, specifically, point-scoring and one-upmanship. In this model, there is no valid or good-faith reason to protest any racially offensive language not immediately targeted at one's own ethnicity.

Of course, this means that life is made considerably easier for somebody holding this view if communities are segregated, since they will then feel able to use any ethnic slur not directly applicable to a member of their own community, and will also never need to deal with criticism that decodes as invalid. A rigorously segregated community is one in which they have the greatest freedom of allowable speech, because it will mean that no complaint against racist language would ever need to be considered as valid.

Of course, this also means that there is no ethical obligation to protest against ethnic slurs used in a community unless one is directly targeted by them - this would be the action of a point-scoring one-up merchant. In fact, the right thing to do is not to protest against ethnic slurs used against other groups - lest one be seen as a "point-scoring one-up merchant". This has the no doubt unintentional side benefit of helping to ensure that communities remain segregated, and thus that people are able to use ethnic slurs without fear of encountering what would be experienced by them as valid protest.

It's kind of awesome that we have reached a level of security and leisure as a culture where such tremendous reserves of mental energy can be directed towards protecting oneself from being made to feel bad in any way. It's like the coddling singularity.
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:42 AM on January 7, 2012 [21 favorites]


running order squabble fest: "This is interesting. It presupposes that it is right and proper for only members of a particular ethnic group to protest against abusive terms related to them."

No, I don't think it does. I can't see that implication in what you're quoting.

It sounds a bit more like "political correctness run amock, right?"
posted by koeselitz at 7:48 AM on January 7, 2012


I'm glad I'm not the only (Anglo) Texan who wasn't aware of a racial slur in "cotton-picking". I always thought picking cotton was a nastily unpleasant job that paid badly but that there were plenty of people of all races who did it, maybe because institutional memory in my family goes back to the Depression and that was a job a lot of people could get in east Texas.
posted by immlass at 7:52 AM on January 7, 2012


The same thing as in specifically referring the act of giving and then taking or attempting to take the gift back later.

This process of trying to find an equivalent term really puzzles me. It's not as though all terms must necessarily have synonyms. This is an idiom built on a construct which is a racist construct. The way you say it without using the term is "Gave a gift and then took it back." Why it needs a noun form to characterize the individual is beyond me. It's as if we undertook a search to find a nonsexist word equivalent to "jailbait." There's not going to be any such word - the equivalent phrase is "girl under the age of consent who someone is expressing sexual interest in." Or a non-racist phrase for "wetback." The non-racist version of that is "immigrant who crossed the US-Mexico border illegally." There is no reason why we should have any expectation at all that there's some equivalent phrase out there. No equivalent phrase was ever needed; there was a way to express these ideas before the coinage, and there's a way to express them afterward. The motivation for coining these epithets in the first place is rooted in the need to otherize the person being described with some sort of clever shorthand that can serve as a shibboleth for those in the in-group. It's not rooted in the need to express an idea - that can be expressed in other ways. Use your words!

Yes, I do think it's possible for these once-offensive phrases to sometimes come unrooted from their original contexts and live on as idioms in the mouths of people who were unaware of their original contexts. But once the background becomes known - through objection by those who it originally characterized or by others who don't want to be around epithets - the considerate and well-meaning response is pretty much to drop it.

This is the pernicious thing about racial epithets - they enshrine entire stereotypes in language. They aren't just handy, short descriptive phrases, and we don't necessarily need to coin another descriptive phrase to take their place. We can just drop it and use regular English to make the same point.

Though was phrenology inherently racist?

Oh, God, yes - at least, many of its most ardent promoters used it in that way. The Mismeasure of Man is a terrific source on this despite having some other flaws here and there.

Count me as another person who just thought "cotton-pickin'" meant "irritating" because of Bugs Bunny. I had the same reaction as cortex once I put two and two together. Another similar one is "peanut gallery," which has a pretty innocuous interpretation but once carried a little connotation of unruly black people. The peanut gallery was the cheap-seats section way in the back of a vaudeville theatre where poorer people would sit, named for the peanuts sold as a snack which those people would sometimes chuck onstage. Like Bunny Ultramod, it is amazing how many words like this are part of general English now.
posted by Miko at 7:56 AM on January 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


Also, the card player in me was going to suggest renege as a handy verb for "de-gift." Though it may lack the needed sense of the gift's being a concrete item, as opposed to a commitment.
posted by Miko at 8:02 AM on January 7, 2012


Miko: Like Bunny Ultramod, it is amazing how many words like this are part of general English now.

Agreed. I can't believe someone would refer to another human being as "Bunny Ultramod".
posted by gman at 8:04 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Or it could mean that many, many people use phrases in the moment because they seem to be be appropriate and are unaware of the baggage that comes along with it. These people are not necessarily bad racist people.

It's such a tricky tightrope, this language we are given. So many layers to traverse. It would be so much more pleasant if we could assume that people aren't complete arseholes. Usually the rest of what they say reveals their thoughts. Focusing on a particular phrase and excluding the rest of their sentiments seems churlish.
posted by h00py at 8:05 AM on January 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm a little late to this part of the party, but I was in Indian Guides and loved it, even if the race stuff is fairly cringeworthy in retrospect. That said, the idea that it is less religious than Boy Scouts must be a local thing. My group did regular prayers to "the Great Spirit" that always ended "in Jesus' name."
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:06 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Phrenology and racism: 1, 2, 3

These people are not necessarily bad racist people.

Oh, totally not. But upon learning the new information, what would be the hoped-for response of a non-racist person?
posted by Miko at 8:06 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


But once the background becomes known - through objection by those who it originally characterized or by others who don't want to be around epithets - the considerate and well-meaning response is pretty much to drop it.

So does that mean the reclamation of bitch, fag, gay, nigger, by targeted groups will never have the wanted result? If let's say in 100 years everyone calls everyone else nigger without the baggage, all it would take is a few white people to say "Hey that used to be a bad word for black people" to again make it taboo?
posted by Meatbomb at 8:10 AM on January 7, 2012


Agreed. I can't believe someone would refer to another human being as "Bunny Ultramod".


It's a pretty common Norwegian name.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:11 AM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


another person who just thought "cotton-pickin'" meant "irritating" because of Bugs Bunny

Another data point: I took it as being used in the exact same sense as, but less profanely than, motherfucking, at least once I was old enough to run across motherfucking. As in "get those cotton-picking snakes off this cotton-picking plane!"
posted by immlass at 8:11 AM on January 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


> Another similar one is "peanut gallery," which has a pretty innocuous interpretation but once carried a little connotation of unruly black people. The peanut gallery was the cheap-seats section way in the back of a vaudeville theatre where poorer people would sit, named for the peanuts sold as a snack which those people would sometimes chuck onstage.

1) Do you have a cite for that connotation? (And does "poorer" = "black"?)

2) So do you advocate not using the phrase "peanut gallery," and pointing out its history to those who do in the hopes that the phrase will vanish from the language?

3) Are there actually people who object to the phrase on these (or any other) grounds? I just googled ["peanut gallery" racist] and didn't find anything. I'm all for publicizing actual racism and trying to get people to stop using racist language, but this really does seem like a reductio ad absurdum.
posted by languagehat at 8:16 AM on January 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


"Peanut gallery" sounds to me like a contemporary version of Shakespeare's groundlings. And I think, if there is any contemporary source of reference, it is to the in-studio gang of children who watched Howdy Doody, who Buffalo Bob called the Peanut Gallery, and sang the Howdy Doody theme. And even that is so outdated that I wouldn't be surprised if I am the only one here who knows it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:21 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Someone mentioned it upthread, but I wonder if there is a difference in reaction to the phrase here in Canada. I can't imagine anyone using the term without realizing it was completely racist. Our ongoing poor treatment of natives as well as high profile land claims cases clearly play into that.

Maybe it is analogous to the perception of 'gypped' in parts of Europe compared North America. In North America few people are even aware it is a racial slur, while I'm told in Europe only the most ignorant wouldn't be aware.
posted by stp123 at 8:22 AM on January 7, 2012


Well. I think Peter McDermott, whose comment was called out in this particular post, displayed it perfectly when he apologised to any Native American who may have been offended by his use of the phrase 'indian giver'. It was not intended to be racist. He had no desire to offend people in a racist way. My guess is that he will probably think about this discussion when a similar subject comes up in the future and will phrase things accordingly.

That would be the best way for things to go, I reckon.
posted by h00py at 8:22 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yet again I'm reminded of the time when the UK's Spastic's Society, taking into account that fact that 'spastic' (or more commonly 'you spaz') was used as a playground insult, changed its name to SCOPE in a (costly) effort to rebrand and remove the stigma of cerebral palsy.

Within weeks, the playground insult had changed to 'you scope!'.
posted by unSane at 8:23 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


So does that mean the reclamation of bitch, fag, gay, nigger, by targeted groups will never have the wanted result?

I can't speak to 100 years hence, as who knows. There are some terms that have lost their sting from 100 years ago, or just seem really silly and unconnected to anything specific now ("moron," "imbecile," "scalawag," "bastard," "Dutch [whatever]" ). So, possibly.

But I do think that the contemporary attempt to reclaim these terms is generally only of limited success amongst groups who already share the values of tolerance/acceptance toward those groups. No amount of reclaiming can make "queer" or "fag" or "bitch" lose its sting when uttered by people who have selected that word with ill intent. At least today, those histories or ill-intentioned use are too recent. The reclamation attempts may still be of use within those communities but I've come around to the view that they are not the central mechanism which defuses those terms for everyone and makes them historical curiosities rather than actively hurtful epithets.
posted by Miko at 8:24 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


> And even that is so outdated that I wouldn't be surprised if I am the only one here who knows it.

Hell no! "Say, kids, what time is it?" I watched it faithfully back in the day.
posted by languagehat at 8:37 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


But I ain't him and I'm just guessing. I'm constantly surprised by what is unacceptable according to particular groups.

For instance, the whole ginger thing always comes as a bit of a shock to me whenever it comes up, which wasn't for the first 35 years of my life. I had no idea I was both reviled and fetishised simply based on my hair colour.

We really shouldn't judge people based on their use of a controversial phrase, particularly when there's so much more that they have to say that we can judge them on.
posted by h00py at 8:40 AM on January 7, 2012


No, I don't think it does. I can't see that implication in what you're quoting.

That's interesting. Let's break it down.

An apology is offered to people of Native American descent. Anyone outside that set who has registered unhappiness with the use of the phrase has been specifically excluded from that apology, and been told that they are "point scoring one-up merchants". The option existed not to specify who was excluded from the apology.

If that option had been exercised, it would have been the post that h00py imagines that s/he has read - but to interpret it thus is to focus on a particular phrase (the apology to those of Native American descent, i.e with a valid reason to protest) and exclude the rest of the sentiment (that anyone excluded from the set of people with a valid reason to protest can swivel). By simple application of set theory, that makes it clear that as long as nobody of Native American descent reads the phrase, no valid objection can be raised to its use. Which is the quod that was demonstrandum. The rest is simple inference.

It's possible that there is another set of people in this equation - people who are not of Native American descent but whose objection would be seen as valid - who are not "the usual crowd of point scoring one-up merchants". However, in my experience this set remains an unreal set. Nobody ever actually belongs to it.

On "peanut gallery" - during segregation, African-Americans were often allocated the cheap seats, high in the stands. However, I don't think "peanut gallery" intrinsically means the seats for African-Americans, and certainly its best-known modern usage, from Howdy Doody, has no such connotation. I don't think anyone would object to its use, any more thn
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:40 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a pretty common Norwegian name.

No, it's not. all my Norwegian friends are called Lars Ultramod.
posted by Dumsnill at 8:41 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sure. Lars and the Real Bunny.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:42 AM on January 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


during segregation, African-Americans were often allocated the cheap seats, high in the stands.

There was a specific phrase for this, and one that's quite unspeakable now, although it's the title for a fascinating Roman a Clef about the Harlem Renaissance.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:45 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe it is analogous to the perception of 'gypped' in parts of Europe compared North America. In North America few people are even aware it is a racial slur, while I'm told in Europe only the most ignorant wouldn't be aware.

What's interesting is that this particular use of the term "gyp" has a US origin, according to the OED (though I'm not suggesting it's not linked to a European understanding of this term). But of course Europeans are much more aware of issues around the Romany people since they live there.

Also interesting (though maybe you all know this already): gypsy, according to the OED, is a short-hand for Egyptian, which is what the Romany in England in the 16th century were either regarded as or regarded themselves as.

I'm finding anything that suggests that peanut gallery is racist in origin. The first documented use in the OED is from a newspaper in California in the 19th century. Wikipedia says that use comes from the fact that the rowdy crowds in the cheap seats would buy peanuts, the cheapest snack, and heckle vaudevillians by throwing peanuts at them. It's not clear that black audience members would have been the people throwing peanuts. (But if someone else has a source for this, I'm interested!)

Segregated theaters had a different, very nasty colloquialism for the balcony seats where black people were allowed to sit.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:46 AM on January 7, 2012


Or it could mean that many, many people use phrases in the moment because they seem to be be appropriate and are unaware of the baggage that comes along with it. These people are not necessarily bad racist people.

This totally happens. I used "coon's age" one time, here I think, completely believing it just referred to the animal the raccoon, and utterly unaware of its racist origin. As soon as I learned the truth of course, I was mortified and I stopped. Hopefully, that's what we'd expect of anyone who innocently used a loaded phrase. We don't need mods to enshrine verboten idiom -- we just need people to learn and think.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:46 AM on January 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


I do not use the phrase "Indian giver" and think no one should. It does not lend itself to being washed of its associations by years of use because of the use of the actual racial designation in the phrase.

That said, the value of having an idiom to describe the behavior is that it conveys a sort of universal societal disapprobation -- the fact that we have the phrase means that everyone agrees this is bad behavior.

I gave a whole bunch of baby-related things to a former cleaning lady who was having her own baby, and as I gave them to her, I tried to explain that some of them were long-term loans and some gifts. But her English isn't all that fantastic, and she (who is a very gracious person) has not called to say she's done with any of the stuff, so I figure she is under the impression that all the things were gifts.

I would probably just let the stuff go anyway, because it seems churlish to chase after it. The presence of that phrase in my consciousness has made it impossible for me to even conceive of contacting her to see if she's done with anything, though.

I like "backsies gifter!" Reminds me of one of my favorite children's books. (RIP, Russell Hoban.)
posted by palliser at 8:49 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, coon's age does refer to raccoons, but due to the likelihood of it being interpreted as racial, it might be best to avoid.

But, then, there are a few words that have a reputation for racist origin that are pure urban legend, such as picnic.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:50 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Peanut gallery

More peanut gallery

further peanut gallery

One last peanut gallery

To be clear, I don't think this phrase is very weighted any more (thanks probably due to Howdy Doody, which pretty much generalized it to the television masses), but was just mentioning the phrase as one of the many in the language that has racial connotations that we are pretty much deaf to at this point. You could of course say that yes, cheap seats and seats for black people are overlapping and not exclusive categories, but I've read enough about it in the past to feel sure that the connotation existed, and if you do more web searching, especially adding terms like "Segregated" or "black," you can find more work on the topic.
posted by Miko at 8:57 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Miko: But I do think that the contemporary attempt to reclaim these terms is generally only of limited success amongst groups who already share the values of tolerance/acceptance toward those groups. No amount of reclaiming can make "queer" or "fag" or "bitch" lose its sting when uttered by people who have selected that word with ill intent.

This may be a feature rather than a bug, though. I mean, "queer" is a useful shorthand for "having a non-standard sexual orientation", but that isn't going to change the way homophobes use the term, and that's pretty much inevitable. Applying the meaning change is itself a kind of shibboleth - it identifies you as an ally.

Whereas something like "fag" as a term is not changing its meaning, exactly, but rather has an intra-communal usage dependent on that meaning. Its pejorative use is providing leverage to highlight the bonds formed among people by being subject to the same abuse. It doesn't alter the meaning of the term, or its pejorative sense when directed into the community from someone outside it - nor is it meant to.

I think one can see this in the (itself controversial and contested) reclamation of terminology historically used to abuse African-Americans to assert solidarity between (some, not all) African-Americans. The ultimate goal of that reclamation isn't to give people in general the freedom to use the same language without protest or fear of criticism.

That is often seen, in fact, as an extremely undesirable side effect - that people outside that group either feel entitled to deploy the historical language of racism (because they are themselves clearly not racist, so issues of racism are not relevant) or object to being constrained in their freedom to use it (because it is not fair that black Americans get to use it unless everyone else gets to as well). For which, see "coddling singularity", above.
posted by running order squabble fest at 9:31 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, the card player in me was going to suggest renege as a handy verb for "de-gift."

One of the most frustrating arguments in my entire life involved trying to convince a particularly obnoxious and self-satisfied ultra-PC person that renege has absolutely no connection to any racial slurs against anyone ever.
posted by elizardbits at 9:56 AM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Though was phrenology inherently racist?
Yeah, definitely, but using a much more expansive definition of race than the one we use today. Phrenologists would have considered "Celts" a race, for instance. (I think Celts were among those who had low brows, actually. That's how you knew the Irish were stupid.) I have a really hard time taking issue with lowbrow, though, because we're pretty entirely divorced from the original context.
posted by craichead at 10:01 AM on January 7, 2012


> just mentioning the phrase as one of the many in the language that has racial connotations that we are pretty much deaf to at this point

That we're ignorant of, maybe?

(I'm not deaf and not actually offended, and don't know if anyone really would be by this usage.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:05 AM on January 7, 2012


It wasn't racist, but it was discriminatory. Certain races may be inclined to have different sized heads, but it isn't uniform. Meanwhile, a WASP with a small head would be seen as weaker to a phrenologist just as easily as someone from Turkey or wherever.

We should use the term racist correctly if we're gonna use it though I know I'm nitpicking.

God, phrenology was fucking dumb as hell.

(below the preview my page reads: Note: Everyone needs a hug.) SO TRUE
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:06 AM on January 7, 2012


Basically, context > actual phrases especially if they're culturally divorced from the original meaning.

I'm sure we've all accidentally tread into offending territory in our lives without knowing it but hopefully whoever heard us knew we weren't trying to denigrate vast swaths of people.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:08 AM on January 7, 2012


An apology is offered to people of Native American descent. Anyone outside that set who has registered unhappiness with the use of the phrase has been specifically excluded from that apology,

So, you feel you deserve an apology? For what?

and been told that they are "point scoring one-up merchants".

That didn't happen. This is what was actually said:

To the usual crowd of point scoring one-up merchants who would call out their granny for dropping a surreptitious fart, I offer an extended index finger and invite them to swivel on it.

He did not say anyone who isn't an Amerindian who was offended is a "point scoring one-up merchants".
posted by spaltavian at 10:20 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Granted, but the implication in the statement is that constituents of that crowd are present and deserving of a personal kissoff. Probably with some overlap to the folks referenced by "You lot impose your cunting cultural imperialism on us" and so on.

PeterMcDermott is not new to discussions about language taboos here and while I don't really disagree with some of what he's saying I'm also personally pretty far beyond giving the way he approaches the subject some kind of benefit of the doubt where it's assumed that he's not intentionally being kind of a jerk about it. Failing to be specific about who he's telling off isn't some kind of diplomatic achievement.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:26 AM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


"I have only offered the garment for sale - it is you who loudly proclaim that it is your size."
posted by Meatbomb at 10:27 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


This process of trying to find an equivalent term really puzzles me.

It's fun! We perform about fifty similar brain searches every time we do a crossword puzzle.

Come to think of it there *is* a synonym for indian giver. It's _ L _ _ _ C V _ _ .
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:31 AM on January 7, 2012


As I said, Spaltavian:
It's possible that there is another set of people in this equation - people who are not of Native American descent but whose objection would be seen as valid - who are not "the usual crowd of point scoring one-up merchants". However, in my experience this set remains an unreal set. Nobody ever actually belongs to it.
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:32 AM on January 7, 2012


None of this would have happened if Columbus had a GPS
posted by infini at 10:36 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


None of this would have happened if we'd replaced language with kissing
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:38 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thank you, PeterMcDermott, for your apology/extended finger. My partner is First Nations. I have been skooled by Indians for a decade, so I admit to having more sensitivity toward those words than most. I do appreciate the conversation here and it seems that there is more understanding about the term within this community than there was before. That was my goal in posting this.

I braced myself before posting, knowing how these things usually go and they did.

Now mods, please hold coddle me. Everyone needs a hug.
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:40 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


If I was an Indian I would give you all arrows to the kneecap.

I used to post comments to Metatalk ...
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 10:51 AM on January 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I braced myself before posting, knowing how these things usually go and they did.

You certainly did yourself no favors with the passive aggressive post. Were you just trying to get your licks in before the inevitable shitstorm started?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:53 AM on January 7, 2012


Interesting that 'peanut gallery' apparently began as a slur against black people, whereas I've only seen 'goober' applied to whites.

I'd guess the kiwiness of Meatbomb's racist coworker is actually relevant becaise his anti-Semitism is likely to be a displacement of racist attitudes toward indigenous Maoris.

'Chinaman's chance' and 'Chinese fire drill' fit into all this somewhere.

The Gypsy thing has got me wondering about 'don't give a tinker's dam,' because one of the main businesses of nomadic Gypsies used to be pot-healing, AKA tinkering. (I'd be surprised if they weren't mainly using lead, too.)
posted by jamjam at 11:05 AM on January 7, 2012


Smokey the Mod says "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Shit Storms".
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:07 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


This may be a feature rather than a bug, though. I mean, "queer" is a useful shorthand for "having a non-standard sexual orientation", but that isn't going to change the way homophobes use the term, and that's pretty much inevitable. Applying the meaning change is itself a kind of shibboleth - it identifies you as an ally.

Except when it doesn't. As you mention, it isn't always accepted coming from someone outside the group who isn't thoroughly trusted. That's why I think the project of defusing the words' power by adopting them intra-communally is not particularly successful. The use of the terms may have other kinds of success, but making the words themselves inoffensive in all contexts isn't among those successes.

(I'm not deaf and not actually offended, and don't know if anyone really would be by this usage.)

Here, it's not a misapplication of the name of a physical condition. One of the definitions of "deaf" is refusal to listen, something like "Unwilling or unable to hear or pay attention to something: "she is deaf to all advice"."

We should use the term racist correctly if we're gonna use it though I know I'm nitpicking.

Well, I'm not sure what your definition is. We know there's no biological basis for race, so I'm not sure how you can use it correctly, since we can't determine what a "race" is by any objective measure. If blacks are a race, Celts are a race too. (I was actually recently talking with a doctor from Gujurat, India who said she often treats "Celtic people like you" for certain skin diseases, for instance). So I think anthropological phrenology was "racist" in that it promoted the idea that racial differences were predictive of quality or ability. Which is, to me, an excellent definition of racism.
posted by Miko at 11:07 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm hungry. Mmm. I could murder an Indian.
posted by Decani at 11:10 AM on January 7, 2012


We know there's no biological basis for race

Oof, not to open that debate as someone will argue for "affinities" and that sort of thing, but I should have said no strict dividing lines or something like that. Anyhow, point stands, if you believe in essentialized race then Celts and Angles can be races.
posted by Miko at 11:18 AM on January 7, 2012


jamjam, here is info. on tinker's dam/damn.
posted by gudrun at 11:25 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd guess the kiwiness of Meatbomb's racist coworker is actually relevant becaise his anti-Semitism is likely to be a displacement of racist attitudes toward indigenous Maoris.

Wouldn't he just be racist against actual Maori, then? (I mean, given that there are a lot more Maori in New Zealand than there are Jews). And I hardly need to say that there's plenty of anti-semitism in countries without an indigenous minority. (FWIW, I'd say that overt racism in New Zealand tends to go against Pacific Islanders, Maori, Asians in that order).

The Gypsy thing has got me wonderig about 'don't give a tinker's dam,' because one of the main businesses of nomadic Gypsies used to be pot-healing, AKA tinkering. (I'd be surprised if they weren't mainly using lead, too.)

Yeah, in Ireland and the UK 'tinker' has a similar meaning to 'gypsy', only it refers to travellers of Irish/Scots origin (although Wikipedia says it can mean 'gypsy' as in Romani, as well).
posted by Infinite Jest at 11:26 AM on January 7, 2012


The use of the terms may have other kinds of success, but making the words themselves inoffensive in all contexts isn't among those successes.

I don't think it's one of the objectives, though, and never has been. I don't think many queer people are thinking that if they can just take the word "queer" away from homophobes, homophobia will suffer a grievous setback. I don't think that intra-communal use is necessarily intended to defuse the word's power - rather it uses the word's power (as a pejorative) as a way to strengthen cohesion within the community. I think that's a double-edged sword, but I also think that's double-edgedness is pretty broadly acknowledged - there is a spectrum of opinion about the benefits and the risks of reclaiming terms.

Put another way, I think Meatbomb is mistaken about the "wanted result". I don't think the imagined endgame is intended to be that everyone calls everyone "bitch" or "fag" as one might call someone "mister" or "dude". That might happen, but it's an organic process - like the slow slide away from the formal "vous" in French. In his example, the use by black Americans intra-communally of a term historically directed at them as a pejorative isn't working towards a world where anyone can use the term without baggage. It kind of depends on the inter-communal baggage to create intra-communal solidarity.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:35 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Tell Me No Lies, I have no idea what "licks" you are talking about. I admit I was a little angry when I posted this. Also, I have already sincerely apologized for the way I framed it. I just think that the phrase used is both unacceptable and unnecessary. I also wished to express the gravity that that phrase carries, at least in my home. I guess you can read whatever you wish into it. Like Jessamyn, I think that these conversations are good to have once in a while. There are quite a few people in this thread who didn't know the origins and now they do. That's a good thing, right?

Also, I know that these posts almost inevitably turn ugly against the poster. I've been here a long time. I've sat out for most of it because I don't really feel defensive about my motives for posting. Others may disagree and I'm fine with that.
posted by kamikazegopher at 11:40 AM on January 7, 2012


None of this would have happened if Columbus had a GPS

Columbus went down to the ocean In 1492
He said 'Boys, I'm looking for India But America will do
Sailed to the west
You know the rest
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:42 AM on January 7, 2012


Holy balls: Scotty McTape.

"Hoot mon"?
posted by davidjmcgee at 11:45 AM on January 7, 2012


You know the rest

Turtles all the way down?
posted by infini at 12:09 PM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Self Home Carrying Reptiles, you insensitive mammal.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:17 PM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Excellent, gudrun! Here's the final paragraph of the page you linked:

The problem with that interpretation is that all those accounts ignore an earlier phrase - 'a tinker's curse' (or cuss), which exemplified the reputation tinkers had for habitual use of profanity. This example from John Mactaggart's The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia, 1824, predates Knight's version in the popular language:

"A tinkler's curse she did na care what she did think or say."

In the Grant County Herald, Wisconsin, 1854, we have:

"There never was a book gotten up by authority and State pay, that was worth a tinker's cuss".

So, we can forget about plumbing. The earlier phrase simply migrated the short distance from curse to damn to give us the proper spelling of the phrase - tinker's damn.


Which deepen my suspicions about a connection between 'tinker's damn' and Gypsies, because:

Gypsy curses are perhaps the best known of all curses, exactly why is not known, but it probably stems from gypsy fortune telling of many years ago...



posted by jamjam at 12:27 PM on January 7, 2012


That said, the 'dirty' was intended to refer to those people who give gifts and then take them back and was not intended as a racial slur in any way.

I must confess that I never read the thread in question or Peter McDermott's comment but, all the same, I was quite sure his use of the adjective dirty was exactly as he explains. Note that Peter McDermott is not my favorite person here. But nothing he has written here would support the idea that he was saying dirty Indian.

No, he was saying dirty Indian giver. It is a proverbial expression, based upon a cultural misunderstanding, that, for most people, means a person who gives a gift and then tries to take it back later.

The thing about proverbs is that they pack a complex thought into a phrase, and human beings, being the way they are, love to scapegoat outsiders upon whom they have projected their dirty baggage. I suspect that in any language, most proverbs describing negative traits usually involve an ethnic group other than the group using the proverb. Does this make proverbs a bad thing ? I don't think this is necessarily so.

Granted, but the implication in the statement is that constituents of that crowd are present and deserving of a personal kissoff.

I don't know about the personal kissoff part but as far as he is complaining about the holier-than-thou tendencies among people here, he has a point. They are legion. Or, should I say we are legion.

Everyone here pretty much agrees that racism is a bad thing. Nobody wants to be a racist or to support it. And, as noted before, because we have no word to separate malicious race hatred from insensitive ignorance, no one wants to be accused of racism. I would think that most people here worry about any insensitive ignorance on their part while few here actuallyhave any actual racial animosity. But, in practice, it seems people are far more eager to condemn the perceived unintended racism of other people than to work on their own ignorant presuppostions and unconscious beliefs. Which is not a good thing. Mote, beam, eye and all that.

So, Peter McDermott has a point. The guy has been really nasty to me in the past, from my point of view, and I don't care for him -- but I would never equate his use of dirty indian giver with some theoretical vicious antisemite using the phrase dirty jew. I can't see how anyone giving him the benefit of the doubt would think that.

That said, we all agree that we would apologize for saying it if we thoughtlessly blurted it out in front of a Native American. But we would hope to be granted the benefit of the doubt that we did not intend it as a slur because that was not our intention.

I don't think that we would feel an apology would be necessary for saying something like going dutch or beware of Greeks bearing gifts. As for cotton picking, I repeat -- it's racial connotation is very debatable. Johnny Cash picked cotton as a child as did Carl Perkins, and Elvis could have --I have heard as much but am not sure-- because all of them were poor whites.

Also, cotton picking was a very labor intensive job where one had to move very fast to make any money. I remember Johnny Cash demonstrating this fact by picking cotton in a field in a documentary I once saw. His hands were a blur. To me, suggesting that cotton picking is a racial slur is grasping at straws. I am not going to go around pontificating about it or peanut galleries or low brows. These phrases may have some possible baggage but, you know, hold that hair still...

And it is a fact that this post loaded the dice --- dirty indian giver is not the equivalent of dirty Jew -- from the gitgo by implying he was using a racial epithet rather than using a proverbial expression that most people understand in its expanded and changed definition without ever thinking of its historical baggage. We can point out its background, yes, and suggest people think before using such language but Peter McDermott did not use a racial epithet. And in that, I think that kamikazegopher muddied the water by implying, intentionally or inadvertently, that Peter McDermott was saying the equivalent of dirty Jew and, if apologies are owed by anyone, owes him a bit of an apology for making the false equivalence or creating any implication, however unintentional, that he used the expression in a racist manner.
posted by y2karl at 12:28 PM on January 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


Greeks bearing gifts isn't a proverb, though: it's a reference to a line in the Aeneid, spoken by the priest Laocoon of Troy about the wooden horse outside the gates. I'd say, if anything, it's a classical allusion, and is only therefore going to complicate matters - Virgil (writing the Aeneid) didn't think that Greeks were intrinsically untrustworthy, and Danaos - the word he has Laocoon use - didn't describe the Greeks of his age, let alone ours.

The example of "he gypped me on the deal" provided earlier in the thread seems to map very well to the "Indian giver" usage - it's a pejorative phrase with an ethnic component which might not be immediately apparent to the user, especially if he or she comes from a different culture.
posted by running order squabble fest at 12:59 PM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


After reading this whole thread, I've decided I'm going to give up on English entirely and return to my ancestors' Norwegian.

Unfortunately that language is unrecognizeable by people living in Norway today, so I'm also going to need a time machine.
posted by zomg at 1:00 PM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


You might understand my name better.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:22 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had never even heard the term before, and assumed that some nasty joke was being made about actual Indians. This is amusing to me, now that I understand the term, because so many people use Indian when they mean desi, and in traditional desi culture, it was very common to keep detailed records of all the gifts anyone gave you, because it was understood that gifts created an obligation to return them in equal measure. Today, in Pakistan, people still do this with weddings, where lists are made of who gave what. Sending thank you cards is virtually unheard of; the expectation is that the recipients will acknowledge the gift by gifting something similar. What I find interesting is that the obligation often is not considered to rest upon the actual recipients; if the gift giver is a friend of the bride's mother, the obligation to reciprocate is upon the bride's mother.
posted by bardophile at 1:37 PM on January 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


And if your aunt has always given you wonderful gifts when you visited her, you find yourself unthinkingly handing over a beautiful gift when her grandaughter came over to your house today, and noticed your mother beaming at you from the corner of your eye. Face has been saved and [complicated stuff] balanced.

Thanks, bardophile, that's an excellent articulation of something only vaguely realized until now.
posted by infini at 1:45 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I offer an extended index finger and invite them to swivel on it.

Surely, middle finger?
I think of "sit and spin" being exclusively about the middle finger. Is it really about index finger? Or is this something that varies by region? (genuine question)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:51 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


bardophile, do you (plural) also call it lena-dena?
posted by infini at 1:53 PM on January 7, 2012


Ah! I was once miffed when the wedding gift I gave to a Pakistani friend and his new wife went unacknowledged. You learn something new every day!
posted by ericb at 1:56 PM on January 7, 2012


Oh absolutely.My mother has a horror of people who gift too generously "arai, unn ke yahan ka lena dena humaari samajh main nahin aata aata," with an eloquent wave of the hand and shake of the head.
posted by bardophile at 1:59 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Clarification: I had originally expected that acknowledgement would be by way of a Thank You card.
posted by ericb at 1:59 PM on January 7, 2012


Greeks bearing gifts isn't a proverb, though: it's a reference to a line in the Aeneid, spoken by the priest Laocoon of Troy about the wooden horse outside the gates.

I will concede that is its origin. But surely it has become a proverb functionally since. As to what people in ancient times thought of the Greeks, the historical record would suggest that they themselves thought they were, as a people, quite capable of treachery. But that is just a quibble.

On a sidenote, I was thinking of how some nursery rhymes in English, if I recall correctly, reference historical events that touch on the struggles between Protestants and Catholics. The far past lives on asleep in things said today.
posted by y2karl at 2:04 PM on January 7, 2012


ericb: Quick! Have a wedding! Sending a thank you card would be considered hopelessly gauche, and, even in the must charitable view, be regarded as a sign of being maghribzada, or"afflicted by a need to superficially ape western practices, abandoning indigenous ones without a sufficient understanding of their meaning."
posted by bardophile at 2:04 PM on January 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


ericb: Quick! Have a wedding!

bardophile beat me to the suggestion

btw, almost exactly mom says later unke ghar main bahut lena dena rahta hai with the undertone of far too much if you ask me in there
posted by infini at 2:06 PM on January 7, 2012


My mind is boggled. Can I say that? Even if it was totally racist and meant in the worst way once upon a time and has not changed? Even if the original intent was about my mind being selfless and now there is some secret expanded definition that totally makes it cool because hey you guys I didn't know?
Being italian, I was going to say dirty italian number cruncher is confused, but opted for the much needed shorter version because surely I don't mean anyone harm and fuck all of you who don't understand me!

Now then, I heard there was swiveling to be had?
posted by P.o.B. at 2:33 PM on January 7, 2012


Well, you know how the Italians invaded Poland -- they all marched in backwards, looking over their shoulders and waving and saying Bye! Thank you so much! Had a wonderful time!
posted by y2karl at 2:39 PM on January 7, 2012


when English people complain about cultural imperialism I laugh forever
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:41 PM on January 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


Polite bunch; the Italians.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:45 PM on January 7, 2012


"Well, I'm not sure what your definition is. We know there's no biological basis for race, so I'm not sure how you can use it correctly, since we can't determine what a 'race' is by any objective measure. If blacks are a race, Celts are a race too."

I don't really agree with your reasoning here. The thing about the word race is that its meaning was greatly altered and abstracted during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as a confluence of the European trends of both colonialism and science. It almost means nothing at all what it meant before this, and so I think it's best not to think of that earlier race and present race as synonyms.

Specifically, as you say, before it meant something basically equivalent to the current term ethnicity, except with the presupposition that it is natural (I was going to say "biological", but I feel that's two scientific) in essence. While contemporary race is, of course, assumed to be biological in essence, the really important change was generalizing about certain external physical characteristics, most especially skin color, in correspondence with global geography, to the groupings where these essential biological genetic differences were thought to exist.

Okay, the problem here is that the historical ethnicity race most certainly does have a biological basis, though it's greatly complicated by other factors. After all, ethnicities most closely correspond to language groupings, and those closely correspond to interrelatedness (though to greatly varying degrees).

While it's the case that population geneticists and evolutionary biologists assert that there are no human populations which have been sufficiently isolated for sufficient time for the sort of divergence people expect—such as with different breeds of animals—to correspond to race or, in fact, any of the kinds of essential differences in terms of things like intelligence, character, temperament, physical skills—basically, behavior—it is the case that populations can be more closely related and share a number of traits.

If the historical sense of the word race had been made "scientific" and was in current use instead of the version we have, it would be harder to combat because, while still faulty in a number of respects, the basic notion of genetic relatedness would be true (though not completely true) in a way that is absolutely untrue with the version of race that we have.

Although, it's true, our contemporary version of race is extremely hard to combat, as well. The problem is that, contrary to my simplification above, the modern notion of race is somewhat fluid and exists dynamically in the space between the two version I described. That is, when people want to think of it more like ethnicity and where actual genetic relatedness can and does exist, they do; and when they want to essentialize it to skin color or eye shape, they do that, too. If you debunk the latter, people tend to move temporarily toward the former as a refutation.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:53 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, also: "so I'm not sure how you can use it correctly, since we can't determine what a 'race' is by any objective measure". I'm sympathetic to your aim, but not only is that true of most words, it's true of a great many scientific terms, as well. It's not really an effective argument against being able to use a word "correctly". Correct would be, in my opinion, the usage that best corresponds to that of the community in which one is communicating and for the particular context of the discussion.

Presumably, he might have had some prescriptive notion about a supposedly authoritative definition of race, and in that case I agree with your objection. But I read it more as plea for precision, not respect for a prescriptive authority.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:58 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Re: Thank You cards. I, obviously, was not aware of the custom of not sending them and indeed was looking at the situation from an uninformed Westerner.
posted by ericb at 3:15 PM on January 7, 2012


*from the perspective of an ...*
posted by ericb at 3:16 PM on January 7, 2012


(re: peanut gallery)
"I don't think this phrase is very weighted any more (thanks probably due to Howdy Doody, which pretty much generalized it to the television masses)"

So an allegedly offensive/insensitive phrase can't be redeemed and made acceptable through repeated non-contextual use by several hundred million people, but it can be through repeated use by a beloved childhood cultural touchstone.

Gotcha.
posted by Pinback at 3:16 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


As to what people in ancient times thought of the Greeks, the historical record would suggest that they themselves thought they were, as a people, quite capable of treachery.

Well, the line is timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. There is no mention of Greeks - Graeci - in there, exactly.

The people in Homeric epic occupying the Greek mainland are generally known as Achaeoi, Argeoi or Danaoi - Achaians, Argives or Danaans. "Ancient times" covers a multitude of sins - Virgil is writing in the first century BC, in Latin, about events from a myth cycle written down in pre-Classical Ionia in a kind of synthetic dialect of Greek, describing the acts of heroes from prehistory who were, if they can be said to be anything, probably some from of Bronze Age pre-Greek Sea People. And the translated phrase, by definition, comes into existence after English exists as a language. Specifically, I think it's from the Fairlough translation - Dryden has
Somewhat is sure design'd, by fraud or force:
Trust not their presents, nor admit the horse.
And Connington's has "I fear a Greek, even with a gift in his hand". If I'm right, then "Greeks (even) bearing gifts" is actually an early 20th-century phrase - it sounds proverbial, but I have a suspicion that it's one of those phrases that feels older than it is.

Notwithstanding, re: treachery - well, sure. We're talking about the Trojan horse here. The greatest bait and switch ever. However, "beware Greeks bearing gifts" remains unconnected with modern Greeks or Greece - which I think makes it quite different in tone and intent from "Indian giver".

On more weighty issues: lobstermitten - I think a lot depends on your metaphorical approach in re: index fingers. If you're aiming for something phallic, the middle finger is traditional, whereas if one were to be spinning a basketball, Harlem Globetrotters style, one would use the index finger.
posted by running order squabble fest at 3:20 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is not only requisite but a matter of politeness to offer the lengthiest finger for spinning.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:32 PM on January 7, 2012


And in that, I think that kamikazegopher muddied the water by implying, intentionally or inadvertently, that Peter McDermott was saying the equivalent of dirty Jew and, if apologies are owed by anyone, owes him a bit of an apology for making the false equivalence or creating any implication, however unintentional, that he used the expression in a racist manner.

I'm not so sure it's a false equivalence. Celebrities seem to get in trouble for using the term publicly every once in a while. Bruce Jenner's wife this past November. Jessica Simpson in 2009. Native American groups tend to respond pretty quickly, usually decrying the phrase as derogatory and complaining that it advances a negative false stereotype of Native Americans by race. Which is essentially what racism is. So no, calling for kamikazegopher to apologize doesn't seem appropriate here, imho.

Be that as it may, it's always worth considering intent in these cases. I highly doubt Peter McDermott intended to actually insult anyone or invoke racism with his original comment.


But yes, Peter, I'm not Native American and still reserve the right to tell people the phrase is wrong in a non-hyperbolic way. Group disapproval remains one of the best ways we have to combat casual racism.
posted by zarq at 3:39 PM on January 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


That said, we all agree that we would apologize for saying it if we thoughtlessly blurted it out in front of a Native American. But we would hope to be granted the benefit of the doubt that we did not intend it as a slur because that was not our intention.

I think the point is that with the apology would come a promise to not use it again. I can't quite tell from all your verbiage, y2karl, and freely admit my head started spinning about halfway into the thread, but do you agree that "indian giver" should not be used casually here in the future?
posted by mediareport at 4:24 PM on January 7, 2012


Nice to see you back, languagehat.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:34 PM on January 7, 2012


Peanut gallery

More peanut gallery

further peanut gallery

One last peanut gallery


I looked at the wikitionary link (which is the first two sources of the "racial" interpretation in the links above), and it makes an unsupported argument that the term comes from the connection between African slaves and peanuts ,and the only citation that mentions slaves and peanut gallery is from a book whose references are not online. Though peanuts were undoubtedly fed to slaves, and cultivated and sold by slaves and freedmen, there are references to peanuts in American theaters that associate them with riff-raffish behavior in the early 19th century:

"But the main early culinary use of peanuts in northern cities was as a snack food. Throughout the nineteenth century, peanuts were mainly sold roasted in their shells. On January 23rd, 1803, a letter written by "Jonathan Oldstyle" appeared in New York's Morning Chronicle complaining about the crackling of nuts at the Theater on Park Row, then New York City's only theater. Another correspondent, "Philo Dramaticus", lauded Oldstyle for his grievance against gentleman who were accustomed to stand "on the seats with dirty boots, and to the parings of apples and oranges, and the shells of peanuts, which they distribute plentifully around them". Jonathan Oldstyle was the pen name of Washington Irving. "

So while I don't dispute that "peanut gallery" has referred to segregated seating, I'm not sure that I buy that that was its first and defining use, and I definitely do not buy Wiktionary's argument without better support.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:46 PM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well we have learned a couple of things today:

1) Nearly everything has a racist origin (I jest, but the number of things that were pointed out in this thread that I had no idea about is amazing)

and

2) Everyone really does need a hug
posted by thewalledcity at 6:15 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Group disapproval remains one of the best ways we have to combat casual racism.

As opposed to formal racism in a swallow tail coat ?

I must repeat that the problem I have with the word racism is it is a one size fits all word. Murderers of Emmett Till ? Racist. Bull Connor setting police dogs on civil rights protestors ? Racist with a capital R. Someone using an expression that is an unintentionally offensive to the group labeled in it ? Well... I wish there were another word.

The adjective casual does not quite cut it for me. But, as always, YMMV.

Nobody wants to be a racist because no one wants to be accused of harboring malice towards members of another race, nobody wants to be The Worst Person In the Room. The word is far more loaded than the word sexist for me. To use the word sexist to describe what anyone is saying here is not accusing him of being pro-rape. Calling or insinuating someone is racist, on the other hand, is like accusing him or her of being pro-rape, or worse, pro-child rape.

Is Indian giver a racist phrase ? I would say it is not the same as someone using the phrase dirty Jew. And the use of the latter was what set my teeth on edge when I read this post. It was the wrong phrase to use as a comparison to Indian giver because dirty Jew is unquestionably a malicious phrase. If someone had used the latter, there's no question. It is beyond the pale.

Indian giver ? I wouldn't use it here. But I am not going to demand that it not be used or those who use it be banned. Someone who used the phrase dirty Jew, on the other hand, I have no problem they be shown the exit. So, to list an intentional slur along with a common phrase people use thoughtlessly muddies the water.

So no, calling for kamikazegopher to apologize doesn't seem appropriate here, imho.

I get that kamikazegopher did not call Peter McDermott a racist but all the same, if a person is going to chide anyone for such things, it should be done cleanly and adroitly. And I also get that kamikazegopher got that and regrets phrasing the complaint the way it was done.

So, no, I don't really think kamikazegopher needs to apologize. Not any more than Peter McDermott needed to apologize. Calling for people to apologize in front of a torched and pitchforked mob is one of the things I like the least about this place, anyway. And when one perceives themself to be under attack, even the mildest demurral about anything they might have written can seem like a march on Frankenstein's Castle -- when the topic is racism.

On a side note: in the interest of clarification, I really do not know what I said, way back when, that set a couple of my friends way back then to thinking I was Jewish. They started up with their comments and bon mots and it took me by surprise. I theorized that maybe I made some sort of joke and, humor being transgressive, perhaps sailed close to the wind in making such joke. And I recounted it here as if I had. But, for a fact, I was at a loss even then as to what I said that made them think that -- I simply did not remember ever saying anything to make them think that. They were the ones who told me that I had said something to the effect when I finally told them I was getting bothered by their jokes.

But, among friends, people often say things they would never say in front of strangers because their friends know them and know no malice was intended. Even so, as memory is a very tricky and self-serving thing, I was thinking maybe I did make some sort of joke and so I told it that way here. Big mistake -- the rule here is never admit to any mistake except in the most abstract and detached way.

But I revealed the anecdote because I was thinking, after my initial reaction to this post, that I would feel very uncomfortable using the phrase Indian giver
in front of a Native American. And that episode with my friends who started cracking all sorts of Jew related bon mots to me when they thought I was Jewish came to mind. Now, nothing they said to me was as pejorative as in jewed him down or anything like that. It was just that they kept bringing it up obliquely in fairly innocent remarks. And, that, it began to creep me out.

I remembered all that when I thought about saying Indian giver in front of a Native American. And I foolishly offered it up here because it came to my mind. I don't think the experience made me a better or more sensitive special snowflake. It was just something that happened to me and came to mind here.

However, I find that almost any time I reveal personal information in the form of an anecdote, I get attacked by someone who I have never met who wants to read the worst possible motive and behavior into anything I have written. It is a no win situation to reveal any personal information here.

/ sidetrack and Back On Topic: Is Indian giver a racist phrase ? It may have begun as one but I would argue that no one uses it with the intent to malign Native Americans and no one thinks that Indians of any ilk are Indian givers. But I would not use it here and my best advice to anyone else would be not to use it either.

All the same, while it is not as harmless and debatable a phrase as, say, cotton pickin' or peanut gallery, it is not Racist with a capital R for me. It is not a flat out slur. It may have begun as one but the secondary meaning is something else, So, It is not The Worst Thing In The World for. Dirty Jew, on the other hand, is. So, I guess that what I am thinking is that, when race matters come up here, we all walk on eggshells together and watch how we frame such complaints. Because the word is such a loaded word.

I think it is fine to be against racism and to constantly question one's own thoughts and belief. That is the hard work. But when one is being against the racism of those people over there, well, that is a much lighter load.

And I am sorry I have gone on so long and repeated myself. But this is a topic that puts anyone on the defensive when they are questioned about it. I would cut it down but, whew, life is too short and I have spent enough time as it is.
posted by y2karl at 6:28 PM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


As opposed to formal racism in a swallow tail coat ?

The term 'casual racism' has a particular meaning. It refers to an expression of racism that is stated unconsciously or unknowingly, because the phrase itself and/or the sentiment behind it is so common in a culture that it is treated as normal and acceptable.

The term "jewed down" is an excellent example of this in certain areas of America, where people will use the term without the slightest awareness or care that it is offensive to Jews. When someone uses the term "jewed down" it perpetuates certain negative, historically-harmful stereotypes about Jews, and portrays them as acceptable. Terms like "indian giver" and "gypped" seem equivalent to me.

I tend to think that casual racism is ultimately more harmful than outright, intentional expressions of racism. It's harder to confront because of a certain amount of cultural resistance and inertia.

But this is a topic that puts anyone on the defensive when they are questioned about it. I would cut it down but, whew, life is too short and I have spent enough time as it is.

I understand your concern regarding painting too much with the 'racism brush' so to speak. But as I said, I'm okay with calling out a phrase as problematic without attacking the person using it as a racist.
posted by zarq at 8:05 PM on January 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


So an allegedly offensive/insensitive phrase can't be redeemed and made acceptable through repeated non-contextual use by several hundred million people, but it can be through repeated use by a beloved childhood cultural touchstone.

I'm not sure I ever asserted the former. You might be mistaking my discussion of reclamation attempts as saying that racial epithets can never lose their sting. I didn't mean to imply that, and it does happen sometimes, like some of the other words mentioned. But since "Indian giver" is still recognized as insulting, and for a specific set of reasons, by people today, I don't think it's in the same category as "peanut gallery" where the connotations have now been lost almost completely.

Ivan, I'm not sure I disagree with any of what you're saying in your comments either, especially when you reach your moderate conclusion. It's what I meant when I said someone would come along and talk about affinities. At best we have geographical and language and physical affinity groups with significant overlap at the boundaries. I think that's sort of where race science stands. My talking about it was just to assert that 19th century anthropological phrenology was concerned with race, not merely discriminatory. So it wasn't incorrect to talk about it being racist, in that it aimed to develop predictive statements about ability or intellect based on a construct of race.

As far as peanut gallery, I don't really buy the African/peanut assertion either - it's much more likely and there's much more evidence that it's the peanut shells as snacks that gave the galleries their name. My point is that at one time the phrase had strong racial connotations, if not racist origins. Based on a long look through sources dating from 1870 through 1940 and then recollections by people speaking of the 1930-50 time period, that seems very well understood. It's clear that the peanut gallery/nigger heaven had always been associated with black people. There are also strong associations with immigrants and the poor, but while those emphases come and go, the very strong association of the "peanut gallery" with segregated seating for blacks seems to be the dominant one between about 1900 and 1950.

A 1930 Zora Neale Hurston play:

"Well, over in Alabama, if they tell a funny joke in the theatre, y'all ain't allowed to laugh 'til the white folks git through. Then a white man way down front turns 'round and look way up in the peanut gallery and say "All right, niggers, y'all kin laugh now."

A 1936 story from a memoir:

"...that's when the colored had to sit up in the peanut gallery, yes, right up here in Philadelphia, they had a peanut gallery, and all the colored folks had to sit up there..."

From a history of post-Civil War black women:

"Theatres designed for whites either excluded blacks altogether or offered second-class seating for first-class prices. Jim Crow theater practices forced blacks to enter through dark alleyways and back doors and settle for seating variously described as the 'buzzard roost,' 'peanut gallery,' or 'nigger heaven.'"

Another memoir:

"I always had to sit in the peanut gallery (the Negro section) at the movies."

A lot of word-origin sites put the earliest usage of "peanut gallery" at 1888. In fact it's not all that hard to locate it farther backthan that, at least to 1874, as far as I have found today with limited search tools. "Nigger Heaven" seems to go back even farther, extending probably to churches of the earlier 1800s, but appears regularly in descriptions of theatres like this one of 1870:
There are three rows of galleries; the first is called the "balcony," the second the "family circle," the third the "amphitheatre." The latter is sometimes jocosely called - from the fact that negro spectators were formerly limited to this gallery - the "nigger heaven," or, Latinised, "coelum Africanum," but in the opera house the democratic connoisseur of music is fain to resort there, despite the cheap price and the ironical name, as being the best place of all to hear the music.
One of the most interesting references is one I came across is from 1888 in a short story called "My Experience as an Adventuress." This is a probably-then-shocking tale of a woman on her own and the crazy doings she gets up to:
To my acquaintances of Murray Hill, perhaps the most shocking of my adventures, did they ever know of them, is my theatre-going. I am passionately fond of the drama, and naturally of a class of plays caviare to the average gallery god. When I am invited to the theatre, as sometimes happens, I sit at my ease, as if I never saw any other part of the house than the court end I then occupy. But when I pay my own scot, behold a change. I take just thirty-five cents from what meagre store as I chance to have, and with that go to and fro in the cars, to and from the dusky back door of the theatre in which my chosen Star is shining. Sometimes I sit among ladies of quite as much if not more refinement than I possess, even if they come openly from studios on Fourteenth Street or dressmaking shops on Ninth, while I skulk down from Murray Hill. Sometimes, again, the real genius of the place, the peanut-eating gallery god, is my next neighbor;but in such theatres and at such plays as I choose I never find the god more offensive in his own gallery than beside me in a street-car. Once upon a time I remember that I sat through Booth's Hamlet in a gallery seat - that night a fifty-cent one and therefore not the cheapest in the house. BEside me sat a young couple, evidently small shop-people, decent, orderly, clean. On the other side were a pair of lovers, perhaps a nursemaid and her grocery swain. But just behind me, at twenty-five cents a seat, loomed, like swollen suns in dusky eclipse, two sumptuous, gorgeous, pompous fellow-citizens of African descent! NEver till I saw these opulent creatures, cologned, oiled, ribboned, and starched, did I realize that I had climbed from Murray Hill to a sphere known as Nigger-Heaven!
The there's a sort of comic tale from 1894, set in a peanut gallery, that places a black character, Obadiah Shinbone Johnson, and his wife side by side with some Jewish and Irish immigrants. The Jewish man complains that the black couple has tramped on his feet as they went by. They get into an altercation about whether there should be "white trash" in the gallery and whether any colored person can be "respectable," at which point the theatergoers downstairs shout for them to be quiet. Johnson then addresses the whole crowd, saying that he knows how to behave in a theatre, since he sits up there all the time and sees how the white people below generally proceed with their conversations.

So the "peanut gallery" referred at times to specifically exclusively black segregated seating, and at times seating for blacks, the poor, and immigrants whose degree of social whiteness was questionable. The strict segregation of the "nadir" of race relations between reconstruction and the 1950s created a very strong correlation between "peanut gallery" and "section for black people," even as the marginally-white immigrant populations found greater acceptance in mainstream white society. It can't be that these associations with "peanut gallery" were not present in the minds of at least the parents of Howdy Doody children, who would have grown up in the world where this was the norm.

I brought it up as an example of a phrase whose racist connotations have become pretty obscure. After reviewing dozens of sources tonight, I have no doubt that when my grandmother heard that phrase applied facetiously on Howdy Doody, her sense of where the humor derived was much more specific than any I bring to the phrase today. She could not but have understood it as a jokey referrence to the black section of the theatre.
posted by Miko at 8:08 PM on January 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


Just want to mention that the "peanut gallery" discussion in this thread has been fascinating, and I'm grateful for the references y'all have been finding. Many thanks.
posted by zarq at 8:30 PM on January 7, 2012


Huh, I hadn't even noticed that reference in the Wiktionary link to "nigger gallery," and darn if that phrase - with its near relation "negro gallery" - doesn't appear to be the oldest yet.

1842: From a story set in a theatre: "...the portrait of John Quincy Adams, under the nigger gallery, has one eye poked in."

1847: "Dr. S: How many persons does the Lecture Room accommodate? Col R.: I should think somewhere between three and four hundred. Dr S.: Do you include the Negro Gallery?

1860: "There is another department yet above this, which is sometimes denominated the "sky parlor." It is properly the negro gallery. None but licentious negroes, and such as that associate with negroes, are found in this last and lowest precinct of the Temple of Apollo."

1861: "Oh, that I had my had my colours and palettes here to take notes of all the shades of sepia, yellow-brown, and Indian-Ink that I see in that negro gallery in the New-Orleans theatre!"

1863: "No colored man is suffered to pay for a box or pit seat in the theatre. Nolens volens he is thrust into the nigger gallery!"

1866, in a church: "The same white congregation that arose then in confusion and dismay...sit quietly once more in their seats; and the same colored congregation looks down from the negro gallery."

1891: "The status of the Negro throughout the Northern states is no whit better than in the South. He is by public ban prohibited from eating with whites at the dining tables of all first-class hotels. He has a gallery made for his especial use in theatres called sneeringly the "nigger gallery."

***

It all sort of suggests that "peanut gallery" was, if anything, a sanitizing of "nigger gallery." I think you can sketch out a trajectory like this, especially with more sources to fill it out:

1. In the early to middle 1800s, he highest-up seats in a church, hall, or theatre are known exclusively as the "negro gallery" or "nigger gallery."

2. In the late 1800s, the name "peanut gallery" begins to appear as Vaudeville theatre emerges (with snacking being permitted), and also as immigrants begin to arrive. In fact, transitioning from "negro" to "peanut" may have been meant in part to palliate the sensibilities of those immigrants who couldn't afford to sit in the orchestra seats or would not have been accepted there, but still would not have wanted to accept the label "nigger."

3. As the nadir of race relations takes hold in the very late nineteenth and first half of the 20th centuries, European immigrants assimilate into mainstream American culture, while black Americans are increasingly restricted and formally segregated in theatres as in other public instuttions. The "peanut gallery" retains its immigrant-era name but once again becomes exclusively black.
posted by Miko at 8:44 PM on January 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


also as immigrants begin to arrive

lazy formulation, should really say "begin to arrive in enormous numbers" since, apropos of the thread topic, they'd of course been arriving for centuries...
posted by Miko at 8:48 PM on January 7, 2012


In the late 1800s, the name "peanut gallery" begins to appear as Vaudeville theatre emerges (with snacking being permitted), and also as immigrants begin to arrive.

The OED backs you up on the timing, btw.

peanut gallery n. colloq. (freq. depreciative) the top gallery in a theatre or cinema, usually the location of the cheapest seats and hence regarded as the most vocal or rowdy section of the audience; also in extended use.

Subject Categories: Arts » Performing Arts » Theatre

1876 Mountain Democrat (Placerville, Calif.) 10 June 2/1 As a bid for applause from the political pit and peanut gallery it was a masterpiece.
a1877 E. H. Knight Pract. Dict. Mech. III. 2476/2 The syrinx was used by the Romans as a noisy improvement on hissing.‥ The occupants of our peanut galleries, however, use it indiscriminately for praise or blame.
1945 New Yorker 5 May 15/1 We were sitting in the peanut gallery of the Opera House.
1988 R. Caron Jojo i. 7 Chip‥had plenty of encouragement from his private ‘peanut gallery’ of retired oldsters who sat day after day on a flat bench in front of the garage.
2003 Sacramento Bee (Nexis) 25 Dec. h1 Along comes another blast from the peanut gallery about the men being interview subjects.

posted by zarq at 9:15 PM on January 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think of "sit and spin" being exclusively about the middle finger. Is it really about index finger? Or is this something that varies by region? (genuine question)

That whole thing has always baffled me. So... my finger would go... in their butthole I guess? And then they would rotate themselves? What, like putting their hands down on the ground and spinning themselves like a breakdancer? And this would injure or insult them in some way? Also a genuine question.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:55 PM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


I always thought Rawls did the whole finger thing much better.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:59 PM on January 7, 2012


That whole thing has always baffled me. So... my finger would go... in their butthole I guess? And then they would rotate themselves? What, like putting their hands down on the ground and spinning themselves like a breakdancer? And this would injure or insult them in some way? Also a genuine question.

I'm sorry, but that's, like, eight separate AskMe posts.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:28 PM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


It is not a flat out slur.

Neither is "That guy jewed me out of five dollars!", according to your logic.

That's the more accurate comparison, rather than the more simple "dirty jew." (I'll always remember the first time I heard "jew him out of" after I moved to the American South. For the person who said it, I'm sure it was a perfectly ordinary phrase.)

So, y2karl, am I correct in assuming you wouldn't support folks asking for an apology from someone who wrote "he jewed me out of five dollars" here at MeFi?
posted by mediareport at 10:30 PM on January 7, 2012


ericb: That's exactly how I took it, i.e. simply a difference of perception based on cultural background. Of course you would have expected a thank you note. I remember my utter shock when my college roommate, who was American, sat and wrote a thank you note to a cousin who had put us up for the night. It seemed so rude, a denial of being a family member, even.
posted by bardophile at 10:48 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


So... my finger would go...

For some reason I couldn't help but hear this as a Vulcan inquiry.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:09 PM on January 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


For some reason I couldn't help but hear this as a Vulcan inquiry.

Of all the buttholes I've put my middle finger in... his was the most...

...

human.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:50 PM on January 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


Like gypped, it's an old, old expression.

So's 'nigger'. What's your point? It's a fucking bullshit racist term. It's the same as calling somebody who's careful with their money 'a Jew', and defending it is like saying 'well, they did invent usury, you know' - that is, more fucking racist bullshit. If fucking bullshit racism isn't allowed on the site, it should've been deleted.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:57 PM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Late to the party, but I'd just like to register my vote: that was a shitty thing to say. And I think if it were a different racial slur, one that hit closer home to the mods, it would have been deleted. I searched for counter examples on Metatalk and couldn't find any. Perhaps that means that nobody has never written a slur on Metatalk - which would be pretty amazing. Or, other slurs have been deleted and this one didn't warrant deletion - which says something sad about the moderation principles.
posted by SakuraK at 11:59 PM on January 7, 2012


Neither is "That guy jewed me out of five dollars!", according to your logic.

You know Alvy Ampersand already tried to slime me above by putting words in my mouth in the same sort of Munchausen's jew baiting by proxy. Now, you repeat the same act by dragging in the same dead horse to beat. That's the same sort of crap Krrlson used to pull. My logic ? That's your projection, pal.

But, vat you are really saying is....

Yes, I am objectively pro-Saddam, pro-rape, especially of children and think people should be forced to watch kittens being stomped to death.

You know, if kamikazegopher had written jewed me out in stead of dirty jew I wouldn't have had a problem with this post. Not that kamikazegopher did this by intention, mind you. It was just a poor choice of words. But, no, Peter McDermott's unintentional ignorance of the phrase's baggage was conflated with an example of actual hate speech. That rubbed me the wrong way.

The problem is I then made a comment above wishing there were some acceptable substitute besides ersatz-giver which was on the Wikipedia page. All of a sudden everyone is making out like I am trying to preserve the word on some sort of petty racist reservation. But you know what ? Acceptable substitute does not mean I want to save the phrase.

Instead I get someone telling me over and over that asshole is the perfect replacement. Plus a paragraph of qualifications.Simple as that, case closed and if I say no, that's not exactly what I was asking for, it's insinuated that I think it's OK to say Indian Giver. Sorry, no, I don't think so. Especially not when other people got what I was saying and came up with some snappier than erzatzgiver. But I went on and on trying to qualify what I was trying to say and if you go and cherry pick what I have said here, you can build yourself quite the case.

You are the one that's insisting I think the word is permissible. Not me. That's your movie, not mine. And you get to be the hero in it. Another white man accusing another white man for aiding and abetting racism on MetaFilter, making himself right by making the other guy wrong. You have to be on the ball and vigilant for the least clues of thoughtcrime, I tell ya. That's important cultural work. You know, I did the same in my time here. I got on jfuller's case over something he said and made a big deal out of it and twisted it and put words in his mouth. Now it comes around to bite me in the ass. Well, that's karma.

This is why I hate racism discussions here, because everyone rushes to be on the side of the angels by wringing their hands and, then, if people don't ring the right bells in the right order, peole rush into put words in other people's mouths. Playing gotcha. Because racism is evil, man, and it has to be fought by any means necessary.

All I was trying to say was if a person is going to be on the side of the angels, then be on the side of the angels. And that starts at home. Mote, beam, eye. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don't put words in their mouth.
posted by y2karl at 12:02 AM on January 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


SakuraK. One of my largest likes about MetaFilter, is that people tend to comment with good intentions.

I doubt many people have gone out of their way to post obnoxious comments here, though when it does happen it sticks out pretty obviously.
posted by Packed Lunch at 12:17 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


y2karl: “You know, if kamikazegopher had written jewed me out in stead of dirty jew I wouldn't have had a problem with this post. Not that kamikazegopher did this by intention, mind you. It was just a poor choice of words. But, no, Peter McDermott's unintentional ignorance of the phrase's baggage was conflated with an example of actual hate speech. That rubbed me the wrong way.”

Man, I have to say – I read this comment a few times, and I agree with a lot of it. And I see your frustration. I know you're not trying to defend little innocuous racist terms or or anything like that. And good lord, I sure do recognize that we can be a hell of a wrecking crew sometimes, piling on fast and thick whenever we smell a hint of racism.

You say that it rubbed you the wrong way that Peter McDermott's unintentional ignorance was conflated with actual hatred. And I can get that. Peter McDermott is a solid contributor here and somebody I feel like I really enjoy reading. And I flat out do not believe that he is a racist; far from it. And I know, from past experience, that if he used that term, it is not because he's casually disrespectful, or because he just doesn't care about fighting racism, or anything like that. It was out of ignorance.

The only thing I have to add is this: I think maybe we need to get past feeling like we have to defend each others' feelings on this. Maybe Peter McDermott was really hurt by this callout; I'm not sure, but I don't get the feeling he was. I don't think he disagrees with the crux of it.

At this point, I guess what I mean is that I think those of us who happen to have been born with a certain amount of privilege have this troublesome duty to perform: we have to let go of a certain amount of pride and learn to listen when people say "hey, man – that thing you just said is racist." That is not an easy thing, and I don't say it should be forced on anybody. But it's a duty that comes with the privilege.

Why am I saying all this? Because, no matter how many times I read kamikazegopher's post above, I don't see precisely what I think you see in it. I can see how you read that there; we both have some familiarity with Peter McDermott, I guess, at least from posting history, so we sense this added shade of "this person is a racist!"

But – that implication is not there. The post above says absolutely nothing about Peter McDermott. That's the point. It is not about him personally. It is not about whether he's a racist. It is not about whether his comment flowed from a place of bigotry or of simple ignorance of the origins of the phrase. It isn't about intention at all. "Indian giver" is a racist slang term because of its history and because of the impact it has on society. We really, really have to learn to depersonalize this and just learn that lesson and move on, leaving behind this pointless endgame involved when we try to affirm or deny guilty intentions.
posted by koeselitz at 12:23 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


– and, yeah, the upshot is that putting words in the mouths of other people is a pointless distraction here, so I really agree with you there. "Oh, what you really mean is..." The point is it doesn't matter in the slightest what anybody really means when they use the n-word, or the term "Indian giver," or whatever. What matters is: it's racist. So they should stop.
posted by koeselitz at 12:29 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of hyperbole, I never said asshole was a "perfect" replacement. I think both of us were speaking towards each other's objections and not in a productive way, but let's not go down that side alley again.

Rather, I think what people are getting at is the idea you keep keep circling of how 'Indian giver' is racist, but not racist-racist or not Racist! Translating closely to "meh, it's not that bad". I don't think you're actually saying that at all, but it sure does seem to skim along that line.
Anywho, I don't think you can fault people for looking at that sideways and doing a headscratch.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:35 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


"But – that implication is not there. The post above says absolutely nothing about Peter McDermott. That's the point. It is not about him personally. It is not about whether he's a racist. It is not about whether his comment flowed from a place of bigotry or of simple ignorance of the origins of the phrase. It isn't about intention at all. 'Indian giver' is a racist slang term because of its history and because of the impact it has on society. We really, really have to learn to depersonalize this and just learn that lesson and move on, leaving behind this pointless endgame involved when we try to affirm or deny guilty intentions."

This is a general problem with discussing racism these days. The stigmatization of racism is so great now, that most everyone is (rightly) extremely touchy and defensive about it attaching to them in any way.

This has happened because, really, the fight against racism has been mainstream for such a short time, that it is still very closely identified with explicit, hateful, bigoted speech and actions. And we've called those people racists, the things they do and say racism. We condemn those people, rightly. So when we talk about any other form of racism it brings to mind this condemnation and stigma.

This is what y2karl was saying, but I think he's misguided in how he's looking at it. In my opinion, he's got it upside-down. The problem isn't that we call milder forms of racism "racism", it's that we don't understand that all racism is a problem but only the extreme forms are deserving of this personal condemnation and stigma.

It would be wrong in several different respects to call milder forms of racism something other than racism because all this "mild" stuff is the endemic stuff, the stuff that is embedded in language and media imagery and storytelling and all the things which lie behind or underneath the explicit, vicious stuff. The explicit, vicious stuff is ugly and horrifying and must be opposed—but it's only a small part of the fight. In a way, it's more the symptom than the disease. The stuff we're talking about here is closer to the disease and that's why it would be a fundamental mistake to call it something other than racism and, not incidentally, give it a pass.

But if we're going to understand this and do this, then we have to understand that racism is everywhere, in everything, including ourselves. As long as this is true, it makes no sense to single out any individual person and condemn them for this sort of stuff. It does make sense to point it out. Which is what happened here. There was no condemnation. So how to avoid anyone feeling like they're being stigmatized when something like this is pointed out? I'm not sure.

Honestly, I think we're in a period of transition where things are difficult and confusing and there's no easy or simple answers for how to make them not be difficult and confusing. Well, maybe the simple answer, though not easy, is that we need to root out these bigotries so we can get beyond this stage. One thing that's not going to work is to say that, well, there's very few explicit, intentional racists these days, so all the work is done and things are fine. Because, you know, they aren't.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:57 AM on January 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


By the way Jay Smooth, who is a MeFite, did an excellent job covering this
posted by P.o.B. at 1:21 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


You are the one that's insisting I think the word is permissible.

Now you're the guy putting words into someone's mouth. I said, "I can't quite tell..." and "Am I correct in assuming...?" That's about as far from "insisting" as you can get, and there's no "sliming" being attempted at all. The rest of that thoughtcrime paragraph, while funny, isn't worth responding to except to note your use of the "projection" accusation earlier.

For what it's worth, P.o.B. got my confusion:

Rather, I think what people are getting at is the idea you keep keep circling of how 'Indian giver' is racist, but not racist-racist or not Racist! Translating closely to "meh, it's not that bad". I don't think you're actually saying that at all, but it sure does seem to skim along that line. Anywho, I don't think you can fault people for looking at that sideways and doing a headscratch.
posted by mediareport at 5:02 AM on January 8, 2012


This is a general problem with discussing racism these days. The stigmatization of racism is so great now, that most everyone is (rightly) extremely touchy and defensive about it attaching to them in any way.

I kind of disagree. I mean, logically this should be what's happening. But actually people in these situations often sort of pull it close, in order to expel it as hard as possible. Thus:

"You know, you just used a racist term."
"Are you saying I am a racist? I am not!"

The stigma of racism can be used to raise the stakes to the point where the other party folds. Which is back to the Jay Smooth point, really. Instinctively, we often move from words (which are external to us) to characteristics (which are not), which leads intentionally or unintentionally to game of calumny chicken. Which we just got writ pretty large with:

Yes, I am objectively pro-Saddam, pro-rape, especially of children and think people should be forced to watch kittens being stomped to death.

Honestly, y2karl, if your path of argumentation has led you towards introducing the idea of the sexual assault of children for rhetorical impact, I'd respectfully suggest reconsidering that path. It's unlikely to be going anywhere good.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:05 AM on January 8, 2012


You know those bad, naughty people who might say "oh, it's such a shame we can't use 'Indian giver' more" and really mean "those uppity Indians, they should shut up, we're being silenced by the left-wing establishment."? Those disingenuous and racist and people you're whaling on in this thread?

I'm pretty sure y2karl isn't one of them. Stop attacking him. He also thinks we should not use "Indian giver" any more. He just made an aside about an English phrase. That's all.

The Party applauds the comrades' enthusiasm in challenging y2karl's ideological purity, and I'm sure he will watch his words and thoughts lest they have potential for rightist interpretation in future. But you can let him out of the re-education session. We will award Stars Of Anti-Racist Vigilance when the Party secretary comes for their next inspection tour.
posted by alasdair at 5:15 AM on January 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


You know, y2karl's furious response to my question obscures a couple of points I think are worth clarifying. He's really good at this kind of arguing so it's been tough to pin down where the discomfort comes from, but even after we accept his statement that he wouldn't have had this discussion if kamikazegopher had used "Jewed him down" instead of "dirty Jew," the problems with his defense still stand. As I said, "Jewed him down" occupies, to me, much the same place in some Southern cultures as does "Indian giver" in his defense of the term here:

Is Indian giver a racist phrase ? It may have begun as one but I would argue that no one uses it with the intent to malign Native Americans and no one thinks that Indians of any ilk are Indian givers....So, to list an intentional slur along with a common phrase people use thoughtlessly muddies the water.

There's a lot to unpack there, of course. "No one thinks that Indians of any ilk are Indian givers" is quite an assumption, particularly when applied to a casually racist (but not Racist!) phrase, but let's leave that aside and focus. "Common phrase people use thoughtlessly" seems to me to directly apply to the use of "Jewed him down" in some areas of the American South. So how does y2karl distinguish between the two usages? It's a fair question, and one that was raised explicity by zarq earlier, in a comment y2karl didn't reply to:

The term "jewed down" is an excellent example of this in certain areas of America, where people will use the term without the slightest awareness or care that it is offensive to Jews. When someone uses the term "jewed down" it perpetuates certain negative, historically-harmful stereotypes about Jews, and portrays them as acceptable. Terms like "indian giver" and "gypped" seem equivalent to me.

Had y2karl replied to that in anything approaching a thoughtful way, my confusion would have been alleviated. Instead, he ignored it, and when I raised the point again as gently as I could, reared up and attacked furiously. Unfortunately for him, easy accusations of "Munchausen's jew baiting by proxy" (I don't even know what that means, but bow to his superior wit anyway) still don't address what is, to me, a very simple and obvious fact: the same argument he's using about "Indian giver" can just as easily be applied to "Jewed him down" in certain parts of the United States.

I remain curious about how he's distinguishing between the two in his own mind.
posted by mediareport at 5:53 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wow. Leave y2karl alone. Seriously. I think it's perfectly reasonable that he would differentiate between a comment that is clearly intentionally racist (dirty Jew) and one that could be used without knowing its racist origin (Indian giver or jewed). Can you guys really not see the difference?

And he'e not defending the phrase indian giver, for god's sake. He's defending the intentions of someone who uses the phrase. Again, can you not see the difference?
posted by Ducks or monkeys at 6:25 AM on January 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


> Honestly, y2karl, if your path of argumentation has led you towards introducing the idea of the sexual assault of children for rhetorical impact, I'd respectfully suggest reconsidering that path. It's unlikely to be going anywhere good.

Well, he was calling out the inane equivocation going on here. His exasperation is understandable. Granted, exasperation rarely makes for effective debate, but calling it out like you did is also missing the point.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:30 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ducks, my impression is he's making a distinction between "Indian giver" and "Jewed him down" - both "unintentional" usages. I'm interested in learning how he's making that distinction.

Honest, I get the difference between intentionally racist and unintentionally racist usages.

That said, I apologize to y2karl for the "he didn't respond" stuff. I just now realized how little time passed between zarq's comment and my own. I do hope y2karl can clarify what he sees as the difference between "Jewed him down" as used casually and "Indian giver" as used casually.
posted by mediareport at 6:32 AM on January 8, 2012


I agree, mediareport. And I also don't think y2karl is racist. I'm interested in continuing to discuss whether and why certain phrases are loaded, but not attacking an individual for his imagined beliefs. But I do want to address this same point in the abstract if at all possible. Preserving a distinction where "Indian giver" is a "phrase people use thoughtlessly" whereas "jewed him down" is "actual hate speech" doesn't make much sense. Their usage patterns and the degree to which their users are aware of their history map pretty well onto one another. So rather than "conflating" them, people are recognizing the ways in which they are analogues. If there is a problem with considering them analogues, what is that problem? What is the critical difference that makes one of these phrases more acceptable than the other?

One interesting aspect of the unintentionally-racist-phrase is the degree to which we've become aware of particular charged phrases through the efforts of the groups targeted, and their allies. For instance, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements clearly surfaced a whole set of racially charged epithets for black people. There were a lot of words in common parlance in the 60s and 70s which a well-meaning person would never say today. I can recall, for instance, an adult commenting on my braids in the early 70s with a comment something like "such adorable little pickaninny braids!" Unbelievable. But the existence of a large, visible, vocal movement of black activists and their allies called out a whole raft of phrases and words that were clearly nothing other than epithets. The words became, for a time, more charged for non-black people because they were then seen as forbidden and not for use by allies. A lot of them now sound just archaic, others unfamiliar and horrifying, others familiar still because they are so widespread and/or have been part of reclamation projects.

The queer movement has done some similar things, but more recently. THere has been a generalized effect of identifying and condemining racist descriptors for other groups, too.

Where Native people are concerned, it often seems to me that lots of contemporary mainstream Americans just don't believe there is a problem of racism. Despite being sympathetic my whole life, I had very little idea how much active racism Native people endure, even today, on a daily basis, until I came to my present job in which I work regularly with performers, fellows, interns, museum curators, and cultural experts from Native backgrounds. Their stories are astounding. A few worked as guides in the National Museum of the American Indian and talked about how often they get asked to do a "war whoop" and how often kids show up in plastic headresses carrying tom-toms and how often they get told by members of the public that they clearly aren't a "real" Indian. Native people today deal with an enormous range of "casual" racism, from being highly romanticize to shallowly mocked to forced into an obsession with blood quantum to presumed threatening, alcoholic, or illiterate. Serious and egregious abuses by governments, such as the boarding-school era, are only a single generation back, and direct community massacres only as old as a great-grandparent. The calendar enshrines a couple of holidays whose subtext is the supplanting of Natives by occupiers. Natives are frequently targets of racially motivated hate crimes. In fact, despite their smaller numbers, Native Americans have one of the highest per-capita rates within a population for victimization in hate crimes. Stereotypes abound, and people will openly speak these to the faces of Native people: Natives are more spiritual, closer to the earth, rich from casino money, poor and living on a reservation, unable to help themselves, aggressive and dangerous.

So there's a real lot of stuff for Native people to be upset about. But for some complex of reasons, this awareness has been slower to break through to the mainstream. I will admit there were moments when something like the tom-tom thing was shared with a group, and upon the part of the white people in the group, including me, there was a little bit of a mild shrug/"that's it?" response. I guess because we know where the tom-tom kid is coming from. There was a sense in which many white people don't see anti-Native racism as "that bad." And Natives are told this all the time, and also told that the atrocities and illegalities of the past are "water under the bridge" that we should get over and move on from because we're in the present day, ignoring the fact that it has set up permanent structures of inequality and disadvantage in access to education, economic growth, land use, water rights, and so on. Over a gradual process of sitting in on these conversations I grew to realize that the position Native people are in with respect to the dominant culture is a pretty lousy one. THankfully there are a lot of amazing people out there changing perceptions and talking about the endemic racism that underlies much of the relationship of non-Native people to Native people. "Indian giver" is definitely a part of that complex. But it took me until I was over age 40 - despite a lifetime of being interested in stuff like this - to really "get it," to really understand that anti-Native racism really is that bad, indeed, repulsive, considered in the light of history and intensive pattern over centuries, well past the end of slavery and Jim Crow, that disenfranchised and boxed in the people who were the original inhabitants of this land.

So I think "Indian giver" suffers from this general insensibility in the dominant culture to issues of concerrn to Native people. I hope we're living in a time of increasing visibility for those issues, and it's a project I'd rather be a part of than brush off. But I think it's worth considering that if we don't think "Indian giver" is as terrible as whatever else, it may be beacuse we know a lot more about the history and perspective of the whatever other groups than we do about those of Native people.
posted by Miko at 7:02 AM on January 8, 2012 [19 favorites]


A so-called "Indian Giver" is a "Boomerang Giver" in my book.

Also: peanut gallery is racist? I've learnt something new today.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:17 AM on January 8, 2012


Greeks bearing gifts isn't a proverb, though: it's a reference to a line in the Aeneid

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

Really, how often do I get to throw that into a conversation?
posted by gimonca at 7:31 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Only at Metafilter
posted by infini at 7:34 AM on January 8, 2012


Oh, dig. Google NGram illustrations for "nigger/negro gallery" morphing into "peanut gallery". Interestingly, the terms "peanut gallery" and "nigger heaven" are more matched.
posted by Miko at 7:46 AM on January 8, 2012


Gimonca - I know the feeling.

Burhanistan: Granted, exasperation rarely makes for effective debate, but calling it out like you did is also missing the point.

It's possible that there is a point that I am missing. However, the point that I am making is probably not the one you think I'm missing. Here it is, on instant replay:

Raising the emotional level of language involved in a discussion is always a risk. Bringing in child rape - to equate [whatever the person you are arguing against is saying] with [a bad-faith accusation of being in favor of child rape] - is awful, awful rhetorical technique. It indicates that you are either arguing in very bad faith, or you have totally lost control of your words.

The Saddam stuff, the rape stuff, the Munchausen's Jew baiting by proxy - these are nonsensical, incoherent globs of emotive matter. My suggestion is simply that Y2karl might be better served if, as he is insistent (rightly) that others do, he responded to what is actually being said rather than making things up and then being furious about them. That is my point, and I'm pretty sure I hit it.

So much for that. Now, the anecdotal derail about accidentally convincing some associates of his that he was Jewish aside, y2karl actually has four points:

1) The comparison of "dirty Indian giver" to "dirty Jew" is not a valid comparison, because "Indian giver" is not a demonstrably racist pejorative. "GYpped me" or "Jewed me down" would be a valid comparison, because it is a phrase one could be acculturated to use without identifying it with a particular ethnic or cultural group.

2) The adjective "dirty" should be taken as a moderator to the phrase "Indian giver" rather than the identifier "Indian", and therefore see (a) regarding its level of offensiveness.

3) The phrase "Indian giver" has a utility in describing a particular behavior - only giving a gift with the expectation of getting it or something of equal or greater value back - which does not currently have another descriptive term. It is unfortunate that there is no non-questionable alternative.

4) When people call out something which y2karl does not see as sufficiently racist to justify a calling-out, they are probably doing so to feel better about themself and/or to look good in front of other people.

(1) and (2) have already been dealt with. (3) is not really interesting as more than a curiosity of usage - we've had a couple of possible alternatives proposed already, and y2karl has plumped for "backsies giver".

(4) is the interesting one from the point of view of the discussion, because it's basically doing the same thing that PeterMcDermott did with:
To anybody of Native American ancestry who was offended, I heartily apologize. [...]
To the usual crowd of point scoring one-up merchants who would call out their granny for dropping a surreptitious fart, I offer an extended index finger and invite them to swivel on it.
That is, it's postulating a right way and a wrong way to register protest. For PeterMcDermott, valid callouts about a phrase disparaging to Native Americans come from Native Americans. If you are not in that group, then your call-out is liable to be dismissed as point-scoring one-up merchantry. Likewise, when y2karl says:
One rule seems to be that a racist is usually that person over there. Who needs to be educated. That one gets to make oneself morally right by making the other person morally wrong is, of course, not at all intentional.
He is essentially pre-insulating against criticism - he is saying that anyone who takes a harder line on this than he does is intrinsically suspect, because they are doing it not for a good, honest reason involving actually opposing racism, but to feel good about their own moral rectitude. See also:
This is why I hate racism discussions here, because everyone rushes to be on the side of the angels by wringing their hands and, then, if people don't ring the right bells in the right order, people rush into put words in other people's mouths. Playing gotcha. Because racism is evil, man, and it has to be fought by any means necessary.
Note the "wringing hands" there before the campanology/ventriloquism metaphor, and the mocking "man" at the end. Again, taking a firmer line on this than y2karl is not just the sign of a disagreement - it's a warning sign that the person disagreeing with y2karl is not actually opposing racism, but "playing gotcha" - they are point-scoring, you might say. Or one-upping.

This seems to be counter-experiential - liberals are noted for acknowledging and indeed going on at length about the problems of their own acculturated racism, for starters. And, specifically in this case, nobody is getting hundreds of favorites for stating what they believe (or what they are pretending to believe in order to look good).

More broadly, and from a rhetorical perspective, this seems like a pretty messed up line to take, because you are telling people that you are going to assume from the start that they are making the arguments they are making out of a bad-faith desire at best tangentially related to actually not liking racism.

It's essentially saying "if you disagree with me, I am going to assume that you are doing so for reprehensible reasons, and will feel able to treat you and the discussion we are having badly". Which pretty much brings us back to the child rape metaphors. Which I think was the quod which was demonstrandum.
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:13 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


People! y2karl acknowledged the similarity between "Indian giver" and "jewed down" (when he said he wouldn't have had a problem with this post if it had said "jewed down") but was preserving the distinction between "Indian giver" and "dirty jew." Seems like several people here are anxious to have a fight with him by replacing what he's saying with convenient things to jump on.
posted by palliser at 8:14 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


W/R/T the question of motivation for calling out epithets being discussed by y2karl and running order squabble fest, among others, I think one of the responsibilities of riding herd on one's own racism is to work within environments of which you are a part to achieve a state in which expressions of racism are unacceptable. Tolerating racism is tacitly participating, so to end one's own tolerance is an important first step. This isn't a process of "those guys over there ar racist," but "in this place right here I would like to not silently tolerate this bit of racist rhetoric." In a basically well-meaning crowd, it's not about policing others so much as it is about about contributing to a set of norms for a space in which you actively participate that discourage tolerance for racism.

I don't doubt there are always some people who are at some level playing a form of Gotcha!, but I think the majority of people on MeFi are simply interested in creating as much of a haven from racial prejudice as we reasonably can.
posted by Miko at 8:36 AM on January 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


Perhaps that means that nobody has never written a slur on Metatalk - which would be pretty amazing.

Not never but at least enormously rare. It is for me, like Packed Lunch said up thread, one of the things I like about this place. People inclined to spout off slurs don't tend to show up much or hang around long.

That having been said, I am sure we have deleted a whackadoo driveby nuclear slur bomb every once in a great while but I'm also sure there've been a couple serious "why the hell would you say that" situations in metatalk where we left something standing and people talked it out at length instead. The latter tends more to be the way things go here, and for stuff that's more at the level of casual -isms than nuclear grade stuff that's overwhelmingly the default approach. See for example extensive previous discussions about casual sexism and misogyny-tinged internet discourse.

If you go searching the metatalk archives for slurs, what you're going to find almost all of the time is people discussing slurs rather than people trotting them out with the intention to slur.

All that said, I'll readily acknowledge that maybe "indian giver" is specifically a blind spot for me based on having sort of been through a learning-it-was-gauche-when-I-was-young process ("cut that shit out, kids, it's racist bullshit") that didn't involve any long serious interactions about pervasive contemporary casual anti-Native American racism. It's certainly a thing I know exists but not something that I run into on a regular basis in my daily life. I can totally buy that the term is rawer for folks with a direct stake in it than it is for me, even if we're agreed from the get-go that it's a dumb thing to say in any case, and as far as that goes I regret not specifically saying something in the thread where it came up instead of just silently rolling my eyes.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:41 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


A lot of racist/discriminatory terms, like racist/discriminatory jokes, serve to reinforce negative stereotypes, as well as to indicate to listeners the level of (race, age, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc.) -ism the speaker espouses. It's a seekrit tribal code for who we hate. People naturally create tribal groups, and desire strong boundaries, and they label others pretty fast. So, it may not be a perfect callout, but it's a good thread, with interesting, informative discussion. So, thanks, Metatalk.

I ask.me'd about the use of New Yorker as a euphemism for Jew a while back, and would be interested in feedback.

Also, at some point I learned that denigrate is kind of casually racist. And that led me to Negritude, which is pretty interesting.

and, Yay, a languagehat visit!
posted by theora55 at 9:32 AM on January 8, 2012


Thanks you, Miko. You expressed my thoughts better than I could.
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:32 AM on January 8, 2012


Wow, denigrate? That's one I'd never have thought of. Reminds me of the roots of "sinister" and "dextrous." Thanks theora55.
posted by Miko at 10:58 AM on January 8, 2012


Thank you, kamikazegopher, for the post, which made me think harder than I had about this term.

As usual, in reading a MetaTalk fallout thread, I learned a lot. Peanut gallery, Indian giver, gypped and for that matter Scotch Tape (trademarked name or not) are not in my potential usage any more. Thanks especially to Miko and zarq for all the information, which was new to me.

Life is short and I find it moves along more smoothly when other people aren't being hurt by an ignorant choice of words.
posted by bearwife at 11:00 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The comparison of "dirty Indian giver" to "dirty Jew" is not a valid comparison, because "Indian giver" is not a demonstrably racist pejorative.

What? No. The etymology clearly indicates that it was a term used by white people to mock perceived Indian behavior. This is exactly the same problem as in "jewing" or "gypping" someone.

On the other hand, denigrate is no more racist than saying "a dark day for Wall Street." That the West generally associates darkness with bad and whiteness with good is connected with racism, but it's not the same thing as racism.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:07 AM on January 8, 2012


Sticherbeast, did you happen to look at all at the context of what you're quoting? That was running order squabble fest's interpretation of what y2karl said – an interpretation which y2karl has explicitly rejected.

No one in this thread has said that "Indian giver" is not a demonstrably racist pejorative.
posted by koeselitz at 11:15 AM on January 8, 2012


You're absolutely right. Sorry, y2karl.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:18 AM on January 8, 2012


Not never but at least enormously rare. It is for me, like Packed Lunch said up thread, one of the things I like about this place. People inclined to spout off slurs don't tend to show up much or hang around long.

That having been said, I am sure we have deleted a whackadoo driveby nuclear slur bomb every once in a great while ...


Yeah, every once in a great while ...

Metafilter search: redneck, inbred redneck, stupid redneck, retarded redneck, redneck trash, hick trash, , inbred trash, stupid hick.

Of course, these terms aren't racial slurs. But they are slurs. They refer to the theory, which a lot of MeFites seem to subscribe to, that the lower classes and rural people are genetically inferior due to inbreeding.

A lot the examples search pulls up aren't actual uses of these terms as slurs but mentions of them. But the use of such terms as slurs is not at all rare here. And it's not infrequent for them to be used in personal attacks on other MeFites, though their use in blanket expressions of condemnation and hatred for regional and occupational groups is more common.

And yeah, my parents were farmers and I worked as a carpenter until recently, and I do find these slurs and attacks every bit as offensive as they're intended to be.

I realize from previous experience that complaining this sort of thing here is completely useless. And I realize that people who use these slurs and direct them at people whose class backgrounds are different from theirs believe their hatred is completely justified.
posted by nangar at 11:33 AM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


That was running order squabble fest's interpretation of what y2karl said – an interpretation which y2karl has explicitly rejected.

I may have missed something, but to quote y2karl:
Is Indian giver a racist phrase ? It may have begun as one but I would argue that no one uses it with the intent to malign Native Americans and no one thinks that Indians of any ilk are Indian givers. But I would not use it here and my best advice to anyone else would be not to use it either.
In this model, we've got two sets of terminologies - terminologies which are clearly racist and have racist intent - in this case, Dirty Jew - and terminologies which could credibly be used without any sense that they had the potential to cause offence - such as "Indian giver" and "gypped" - which are not demonstrably racist pejoratives, although they are possibly pejorative and have some connection with race. Why, just here, we have Y2karl saying:
Like gypped, [Indian giver]'s an old, old expression. I don't think its use necessarily implies conscious intent to demean any ethnic group.


And, indeed, I believe it was y2karl who said:
And it is a fact that this post loaded the dice --- dirty indian giver is not the equivalent of dirty Jew -- from the gitgo by implying he was using a racial epithet rather than using a proverbial expression that most people understand in its expanded and changed definition without ever thinking of its historical baggage.
So... could you point me to the place where he explicitly rejected the thesis "The comparison of "dirty Indian giver" to "dirty Jew" is not a valid comparison, because "Indian giver" is not a demonstrably racist pejorative"? As opposed to, e.g., explicitly stating it in his own words?
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:36 AM on January 8, 2012


y2karl is obviously talking about the conscious dimension here. "Indian giver" is a racist phrase, but most people use it without consciously meaning anything about Native Americans. On the other hand, if you're calling someone a "dirty Jew", then you're consciously singling out Jewishness as something contemptible in and of itself.

I think this is an awfully fine hair to split, but there is a difference.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:43 AM on January 8, 2012


that the lower classes and rural people are genetically inferior due to inbreeding.

Could be fallout from the eugenics movement in the early days of the previous century.
posted by infini at 11:47 AM on January 8, 2012


You probably need to tease out what you are saying and what y2karl is saying, sticherbeast. Again, to quote y2karl:
No, he was saying dirty Indian giver. It is a proverbial expression, based upon a cultural misunderstanding, that, for most people, means a person who gives a gift and then tries to take it back later.

The thing about proverbs is that they pack a complex thought into a phrase, and human beings, being the way they are, love to scapegoat outsiders upon whom they have projected their dirty baggage. I suspect that in any language, most proverbs describing negative traits usually involve an ethnic group other than the group using the proverb. Does this make proverbs a bad thing ? I don't think this is necessarily so.
He sees "dirty Indian giver" as manifestly a lower order of problematic speech than "dirty Jew". Given the response to uses of the term in the media cited by zarq - a mild dressing down, essentially - that seems like a reasonable belief. To be specific, "dirty Jew" is in the category of things you should not say at all If someone does say it (it is implied), it would be OK not to extend the benefit of the doubt. "Indian giver" is in the set of things you should not say in front of a Native American. However, if one did, it would be OK - and right - for the benefit of the doubt to be extended. Because it is not demonstrably being used as a racist pejorative. QED.
That said, we all agree that we would apologize for saying it if we thoughtlessly blurted it out in front of a Native American. But we would hope to be granted the benefit of the doubt that we did not intend it as a slur because that was not our intention.

I don't think that we would feel an apology would be necessary for saying something like going dutch or beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
For Y2karl, "Indian giver" sits on a layer of racial offence lower than directly anti-Semitic abuse, and above an invitation to go Dutch. Which seems like a perfectly reasonable place to put it. Specifically, in his model, it's at a level of quote-unquote racism (and this is where you and he appear to differ) where he believes calling it racist is counter-productive, because it leads people to indulge in bad behaviors, and that there should be another term.
Everyone here pretty much agrees that racism is a bad thing. Nobody wants to be a racist or to support it. And, as noted before, because we have no word to separate malicious race hatred from insensitive ignorance, no one wants to be accused of racism. I would think that most people here worry about any insensitive ignorance on their part while few here actuallyhave any actual racial animosity. But, in practice, it seems people are far more eager to condemn the perceived unintended racism of other people than to work on their own ignorant presuppostions and unconscious beliefs. Which is not a good thing. Mote, beam, eye and all that.
Which brings us neatly back to (4), which is the interesting part.
posted by running order squabble fest at 12:09 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I believe I also said in my last comment, among the blather,

it's insinuated that I think it's OK to say Indian Giver. Sorry, no, I don't think so.

For the obvious reason. But I blathered on before, so a person can pick and choose what they want and demand an explicit mea culpa for what I have tacitly said over and over.

And, no, I did not think anyone was calling Peter McDermott a racist. I guess was trying to say I could understand his reaction to the pairing of dirty indian giver with dirty jew because it made what he wrote look much worse in his eyes. So he got his back up. And he blurted something out which also could be additionally parsed to the microscopic level with alphabetized, numbered and with added Latin, in a masterful demonstration of shooting sliced, diced and numbered sushi in a barrel.

As for people making themselves right by making other people wrong, it's something we all do all the time in my experience, in real life and here on MetaFilter, on Metatalk and here in this thread. It is the default position for humanity, me included. Your mileage may vary but that is my experience.

I am no rhetorician and write more from emotion than logic. I apologize for my previous outburst.

That said, I have to go. My internet connection is so bad that this thread will not load at home, so I have come down and pay here at FedEx for the privilege of responding. And I write so slow and so poorly that it would cost too much to put this in more coherent form. My apologies for that as well.
posted by y2karl at 12:20 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Could be fallout from the eugenics movement in the early days of the previous century.

Definitely fallout from the eugenics movement. The eugenicists theories were a lot more elaborate and involved the alleged superiority of the "nordics" (descendants of English, Dutch, German settlers) to various other European "races", as well as the idea that the western parts of the US were settled by unfit or "degenerate" elements of the population that couldn't compete economically in the East. Inbreeding is what's survived in the popular imagination, even after their racial theories were discredited.

If you actually try to argue with people about the inbreeding thing (I've done this), a lot of them will insist that it's based on scientific evidence, though they usually can't remember exactly where they saw it. And it is sort of, if you want to call the eugenicists' work scientific.
posted by nangar at 12:23 PM on January 8, 2012


Of course, these terms aren't racial slurs. But they are slurs. They refer to the theory, which a lot of MeFites seem to subscribe to, that the lower classes and rural people are genetically inferior due to inbreeding.

For what it's worth, I don't consider "stupid redneck" type stuff to be okay and unproblematic, and I'd be a lot happier if the people inclined to trot that shit out would not do so because it is a lazy group-bias name-calling thing that does nothing to make this place better.

At the same time, my comment you quoted was talking specifically about nuclear grade stuff—the words folks often won't even use when discussing them, the really raw top-of-the-heap racial slurs—in contrast to stuff that's still problematic but not quite as explosive. The rare nukes are likely to get nuked quickly; everything else has a better chance of sticking around to be discussed and rebuked explicitly in the thread where it arises or in Metatalk.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:35 PM on January 8, 2012


The father of eugenics, Francis Galton, used to take many photographs of, say, murderers, and study them for common characteristics. He also merged them together to try to create a composite physiognomy representative of murderousness, drunkenness, Jewishness and so on. He also believed that the Chinese should be resettled to Africa to outperform and ultimately replace the inferior African race.

He did manage accidentally to discover a bunch of things in the doomed pursuit of a lunatic science of eugenics that was never viable, on the plus side. But, yeah, not a man to be listened to.
posted by running order squabble fest at 12:42 PM on January 8, 2012


"...demonstration of shooting sliced, diced and numbered sushi in a barrel."

I used to to think shooting fish in a barrel didn't sound all that easy, and that it was kind of odd then that it ended up such a universal metaphor for dead cinches, but it recently occurred to me to wonder whether the shockwave from a single shot, confined in a barrel, might not have just killed all the fish therein even without hitting any, and that set my mind at ease.
posted by jamjam at 12:50 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Plus, even if you miss the first time, as long as you aim low the fish aren't going to be swimming for very long.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:10 PM on January 8, 2012


PAGING MYTHBUSTERS. MYTHBUSTERS TO THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE.
posted by unSane at 1:10 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ha, they already did it.
posted by unSane at 1:12 PM on January 8, 2012


So, one other question (just as this thread is about to die, sorry) - isn't 'dirty Indian' a racial slur people use? It seems like one reason the phrase 'dirty Indian giver' rolls of the tongue (as it were) is because 'dirty Indian' is a not uncommon slur.
posted by hydrobatidae at 1:39 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


You probably need to tease out what you are saying and what y2karl is saying, sticherbeast.

Likewise. y2karl was referring to "Indian giver" as a term unto itself, unrelated to ideas of actual Indians. While "Indian giver" is a racist phrase, most people using the term "Indian giver" are completely unaware of the archaic stereotype at play there. While it is still a racist phrase, those who use it are almost never consciously trying to cast aspersions on the gift-giving traditions of Native Americans. Ironically enough, I've known multiple people who thought that "Indian giver" actually referred to how whites had treated Indians!

Could be fallout from the eugenics movement in the early days of the previous century.

Dislike for rednecks/hillbillies/et al. predates not only eugenics, but also gene theory.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:09 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, hydrobatidae, that is true in my experience. Which is perhaps why I reacted so viscerally and framed this callout so poorly.
posted by kamikazegopher at 2:29 PM on January 8, 2012


isn't 'dirty Indian' a racial slur people use?

Not in my experience. It rolled off the tongue for reasons of euphony, I would think. Obviously Peter McD didn't mean dirty Indian and obviously everyone here knew that and obviously kamikazegopher did not make such an aspersion.

Well, things have sped up here at home. So, the elaborate in brief...

I can understand why mediareport was questioning whether I thought the term Indian giver was demonstrably racist. Well, yes, it is. I think so and have thought so for a long time.

I don't know if I think there are levels to racial pejoratives.I am unbothered at using the term Scotch tape and going dutch seems rather innocuous to me. Maybe that is my own inablility to get that concerned about the ancient terms referring to white Europeans. As for peanut gallery, I am torn. When something has been so forgotten by so many, it doesn't seem worth worrying about as much as an expression commonly known. As for Indian giver, no, I don't think there is a sliding scale on that nor a statute of limitations.

I wish I could take back my first comment and most of yesterday's -- I was thinking out loud on a sensitive topic and I wasn't making sense. Hence, I hoist on my own retard, so to speak. I set myself up for it but, all the same, I wonder if I perhaps struck a nerve somewhere on the making oneself right by making the other person wrong part, because, in a sense, the mercilessness of my comeuppance was such a master class in how to do exactly that. It was like having my face not only rubbed in my own poop but ground into it for far too long.

I want to say none of that is at all what I meant to say. But those were my words from here thrown back in my face. Not all. Only the most damning. But my words, all the same. It was very humiliating experience to read that. Once upon a time, when I was younger, I would dream of being able to do such a devastating takedown. But everytime I have even come close to doing that to someone in real life, in person, I have felt shame. But it's easier to dish it out to words on a screen as I all too well know.
posted by y2karl at 2:58 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


OH MY GOD Y2KARL

On preview:

OH IT'S NOT THAT BIG A DEAL Y2KARL
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:06 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


On additional preview: huh? Was something removed?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:06 PM on January 8, 2012


aspersion! Oh, man, I really am hoping people will be taking today's mess in good faith.
posted by y2karl at 3:08 PM on January 8, 2012


I fixed y2karl's typo, but not quickly enough apparently.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:17 PM on January 8, 2012


y2karl - from an obituary of Joseph Bruchac - "Joseph received his B.A. in English then went on to receive an M.A. in literature and creative writing from Syracuse University. He later earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Union Institute & University in Ohio. He has written some 50 books. This is a long step for the little boy raised by a grandfather who jumped out the window and quit school in the fourth grade because the other children called him a dirty Indian."

emphasis mine

This is a somewhat random example (I picked it because it was a pleasant context) but it is used.
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:30 PM on January 8, 2012


y2karl, I skipped the end of your second last comment and now I feel bad for piling on. Sorry about that.
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:33 PM on January 8, 2012


Hodor?
posted by fleacircus at 4:05 PM on January 8, 2012


Sorry about that.

Not to worry. My experience is limited to the people I know here in Seattle, who are mostly sensitive liberal types living in what is, demographically speaking, one of the whitest cities in the USA. I would point out, though, that Joseph Bruchac was in the 4th grade around or during World War II. Not that it makes any difference, I am sure there are plenty of more recent examples.
posted by y2karl at 4:31 PM on January 8, 2012


I set myself up for it but, all the same, I wonder if I perhaps struck a nerve somewhere on the making oneself right by making the other person wrong part, because, in a sense, the mercilessness of my comeuppance was such a master class in how to do exactly that. It was like having my face not only rubbed in my own poop but ground into it for far too long.

Dude, that sounds like it sucks. There was no intention, for my part, to rub anything into anything - just to keep straight what you were saying across several different comments.

It feels like a useful takeout from this thread is this: if you believe you can divine the motivations of people on the Internet, it's not a coincidence when people who don't speak as you do appear to have less admirable motivations. But it's also not necessarily an accurate divination. Letting go of that confidence is scary but, I think, a really useful thing to do - and Miko's suggestion of another way of looking at these discussions seems to me to be a correspondingly useful one:
I don't doubt there are always some people who are at some level playing a form of Gotcha!, but I think the majority of people on MeFi are simply interested in creating as much of a haven from racial prejudice as we reasonably can.
Maybe we're not quite there yet, conceptually, but it's better, I think, to assume that people are calling things out because they believe they are worth calling out, or talking about.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:39 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


On a sidenote, I grew in 50's and 60's. If you heard what was acceptable to say then about races other than white among adults my parents age, the phrase Greatest Generation would not be the first thing that came to mind.
posted by y2karl at 4:42 PM on January 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


That was addressed to hydrobatidae, for the record.
posted by y2karl at 4:46 PM on January 8, 2012


I dunno if I qualify as someone who piled on to y2karl, but I just thought he was acting like a dismissive jerk - if a person disagrees with a MeTa, there are more constructive ways than to drop a 'poo-poo' right off the hop. I really dislike the 'making oneself right by putting another in the wrong' thing, though; I'm no rhetoriotician, but it feels like an ad hominem to me, maybe even ad hominem2. MeTa's not very high on my list of Places to Go For Moral & Personal Validation.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:08 PM on January 8, 2012


if you believe you can divine the motivations of people on the Internet, it's not a coincidence when people who don't speak as you do appear to have less admirable motivations.

People are human beings with human weaknesses, climbing over each other like drowning well diggers in a cave in all too often. I was not condemning anyone in saying that was a default position in my experience.

It is very hard to divine what people are saying online, let alone their motivations. The people I know here got what I was saying just fine, even if I contradicted myself in a mishmash farrago. Your advice applies to yourself as much as me.
posted by y2karl at 5:10 PM on January 8, 2012


I suppose I should say the people I trust here rather than know.
posted by y2karl at 5:17 PM on January 8, 2012


People are human beings with human weaknesses, climbing over each other like drowning well diggers in a cave in all too often.

Ah, well. It's possible that my experience of humanity has been more generally favorable than yours, or that I am more naif. However, I really think it would be useful to consider that people might not generally be like that, and that even if and when they are, their human weakness may not manifest in the same way every time on the Internet.

I believe that it's worth considering the possibility that all sorts of people have considered and sincerely held views, and that the reason they are expressing them is about wanting to talk rather than about putting you down. Access to these people and their views feels to me like a feature, not a bug.
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:05 PM on January 8, 2012


One last thing. I no doubt have spoken of this before but back in 1967 I went to a lecture by Joseph Campbell. He spoke, among other things, of the differences between spiritual quests in the East and West, noting that Eastern religions tended to be structured in master-disciple relationships while Western religions tended to individuals trying to forge forward on their own.

He gave the example of the Arthurian cycle, of the Knights of the Round Table, when Camelot had fallen into civil war and ruin and how the remaining knights were sitting around the table in despair when, suddenly, the Holy Grail appeared in a vision. He said that the knights girded for a long journey and that, then, every knight went into the forest to seek the Grail one by one, with each knight starting out in the part of the forest that was darkest to him.

I truly believe in political correctness in theory -- however, my experiences in the 60s, 70s and 80s soured me on it in practice. Man, if you lived here (Capitol Hill, Seattle) during the era (80s) of the co-op ice cream shop The Cause Celebre, you would know what I mean. People who worked there just lived to correct you on the tiniest thing regarding such matters when you walked through the very slow line to make an order-- how to pronouce Nicaragua and you can't call people from Iran Persians 'cause it's not PC. It like some Dinesh D'Souza dystopian nightmare on steroids.

They had great ice cream but, man, the way they berated their customers, for their perceived politcal failings, for not reading the index card with the instructions on how to order ice cream written in faded ballpoint ink, what have you. They called it Consciousness Raising.

And then, at the end of the line, they had a cup entitled Tipping is Not A City In China.

And when one went to parties back then, during the Reagan era, it was like little Cause Celebres at each one. It was Criticism-Self-Criticism sessions up the yin yang. No one wanted to be in the wrong, and well, people being people, it was -- busted! -- way more on the former than the latter...

So, that's part of my baggage.

No one wants to be in the wrong on the things that matter most.

As to how we go about it, well, your mileage may vary. I am deep in the woods, myself.
posted by y2karl at 6:17 PM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


I have to add that was not written in response to anything and I am not following the commentary anymore. I am a brain in a vat in a vacuum at present. Just so you know.
posted by y2karl at 6:23 PM on January 8, 2012


Thanks for the spark of inspiration, y2karl. I hadn't written a song in about a week (which is a long time for me), but that phrase, that set it off...

I am a brain in a vat in a vacuum
ah honey, just so you know
I am a leaf in the wind over Pittsburgh
and baby, I love you so
I took a dollar from the hand of a dead man
his eyes were looking up to the sun
I tore a page from the Book of Revelations
and my troubles have just begun

it's been so long since I saw the Grand Canyon
can't remember if it's big or not
there's been a hundred billion stories told
while I been standing in this vacant lot
I used to dream of endless highways
now I just let the soup get cold in my bowl
I traded my future and my ten gallon hat
for a half-burned lump of coal

turn around for a second, then look again
I think you're gonna find me changed
I'll still be wearing these same old shoes
but my thoughts, they will have rearranged
but what will it mean at the end of the day
hey, what does it mean right now
you could all sail across the universe
if I could only show you how
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:57 PM on January 8, 2012 [20 favorites]


Flapjax, I am SO putting pump organ on that.
posted by unSane at 7:06 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


unSane, check your Memail!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:10 PM on January 8, 2012


We are so on it
posted by unSane at 7:24 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, one more thing. Upon reflection, it is not enough for me to merely say I regret making that first comment. I was in a jolly mood, feeling full of myself and made a careless remark without reading it closely. She deserved better than that from me. I hate it when people belittle what I write and here I went and did as much to kamikazegopher's post. I can make no excuse for my thoughtlessness in this regard. She has my apology.
posted by y2karl at 1:24 AM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


There was no intention, for my part, to rub anything into anything - just to keep straight what you were saying across several different comments.

Same here, y2karl.
posted by mediareport at 5:46 AM on January 9, 2012


if pedro overthinks a plate of beans in the woods, is he hoist on his own retard?
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 6:12 AM on January 9, 2012


Yes, let us now mock the developmentally disabled. This would be a brave and principled act.
posted by Wolof at 6:24 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am still in awe about this ice cream store. This was a real place? I ask because it sounds like the stuff of satire. It sounds like a pretend business you might see on Frasier or Portlandia.
posted by Miko at 6:29 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I stayed with this thread and its infinite beans... the music at the end made it worthwhile. How many threads can claim to be inspiration for new songs?
posted by infini at 7:00 AM on January 9, 2012


Those lyrics are awesome, even for the always awesome flapjax. They are especially awesome.
posted by Miko at 9:05 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, let us now mock the developmentally disabled.

Hence, I hoist on my own retard
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:09 AM on January 9, 2012


Apology accepted and appreciated (and alliterated), y2karl. And wow, we even have music now!
posted by kamikazegopher at 9:30 AM on January 9, 2012


You guys are aware that 'retard' has more than one definition, right? I don't think the word play would've worked as well if he had said "hoisted upon my own retarded thoughts", which isn't necessarily offensive.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:16 PM on January 9, 2012


Lots of things aren't "necessarily" offensive, P.o.B. That doesn't mean we should always say them. "Taff" is an unknown word in the US, but is a racial slur in the UK. Does that mean it's fine to use since it isn't "necessarily" offensive?
posted by koeselitz at 1:43 PM on January 9, 2012


I was possessed by the imp of the perverse, just to see who would say what.

I also considered imbecilic, feeble minded and stupid as an Akkadian.

Otherwise, I was sincere. My apologies for the phrase and the subterfuge.

Now you can all go and peck the next chicken in this henhouse to death. I'm looking at you, bitterpunk!

Nah, just kiddin'.... We know you were being ironic.

No animal was harmed in this comment.

Man, Italians really are polite.

posted by y2karl at 2:18 PM on January 9, 2012


Does that mean it's fine to use since it isn't "necessarily" offensive?

No, what I'm saying is the verb form of 'retard' is perfectly non-offensive and you would be reading it wrongly if you thought otherwise. BUT, I don't have a dog in this fight and y2karl can speak for himself as he has clearly shown.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:18 PM on January 9, 2012


Man, having Miko call those lyrics "awesome" is a hella gratifying, I'm telling you what!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:25 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


P.o.B. - I wasn't really arguing the larger point, I guess. What I meant, though, is that "offensiveness" isn't an intrinsic quality of a word or even one meaning of a word. Offensiveness is not in the intention of the person using a word. It's in the ear of the person hearing it. And lots of people seem to find the word "retarded" offensive on principle. The fact that people may mean different things by it doesn't change that.
posted by koeselitz at 3:38 PM on January 9, 2012


Then it's a matter of education and not political correctness. If someone is offended at "the flow of lava was retarded by those rock formations" then they should think twice about their response to it. That doesn't carry the same tone as "there was a lot of wind today and my bike ride was retarded", but that doesn't "necessarily" implicate that the speaker meant they were biking like a mentally deficient person. Although the mistead there is understandable, but I'm not for throwing the babby out with the bathwater based upon ignorance. If you want to put a ban on a word for a possible misread then I'm against it. I don't really have anything else to say about that.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:21 PM on January 9, 2012


I'm amazed nobody has yet pointed out that one is hoist with, rather than on, one's own petard. Looks like it's just me in pedant's corner...

(While I'm in pedant's corner - koeselitz, I'm not sure I'd call "taff" a racial slur, exactly - it's an informal and somewhat impolite regional designator, like "Jock" or "Rosbif". I certainly wouldn't recommend calling someone a taff at chucking-out time in Tiger Bay, mind you.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:33 PM on January 9, 2012


I think we all got it, running order squabble fest. It just wasn't funny.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:20 PM on January 9, 2012


I think you misunderstand me, Corpse in the library... I didn't mean the petard/retard switcheroo.

I just meant that the original phrase was being misquoted - petards are explosive mines used in sieges, not structures, so you get hoist with or by them when they explode before you have a chance to get clear, not hoist on them as one might be a gibbet. And then with rather than by, because that's the original usage in Hamlet1.

Thus, pedant's corner.

1 In fact, the folio says "petar" rather than "petard", maybe because it's representing the French pronunciation phonetically, possibly as a fart joke. Meta-pedantry!
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:42 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


All my life I've envisioned the petard as some sort of gibbet or crane. Thanks for educating me, metafilter!
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:21 AM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


And now you know it's French for "joint" also. Is this place educational or what?
posted by Wolof at 3:29 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, then, running order squabble fest, in the aforemendtioned switcheroo, was the retar a petar, for metaphorical real ?

Oh, man, I was a total idiot to make a crack like that, wasn't I ? When will I ever learn ?

Say, did not idiot originally describe a person we might now call a very low functioning developmentally disabled person ? And wasn't idiot the lowest level, accompanied by imbecile and moron, as middle and high, respectively, in, like, the three levels of feeblemindedness ? And weren't these were scientific terms, once, which became more or less pejorative in casual usage ? And didn't the three levels of feeblemindedness get systematized and euphemized into one phrase at one point in mental retardation ? Which, when it became shortened to a slang noun for stupidity in retard and became considered a pejorative, didn not mental retardation get euphemized into developmentally disablement ?

So, I was an idiot is, like, totally OK and that was retarded of me is, like, totally not, right ? Why is that ? Is consensus, fundamentally, totally arbitrary ? Or not ? If not, what is the logic behind I was a total idiot being perfectly acceptable usage ? After all, it refers to the same sort person as a retard, doesn't it ? What, logically speaking, makes one OK and the other not ? Inquiring mind wants to know.
posted by y2karl at 4:57 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


"feathers not dots"

I live in the UK, where 'Asians' are people from the Indian subcontinent (there are more of them than people from the far east, I suppose that's why) and so this phrase always struck me as racist in this context. I suppose because most know over here that not all Indians wear a red dot.
posted by mippy at 5:32 AM on January 10, 2012


I mean, read in the context of where I am. Gah. Posting and soup do not go.
posted by mippy at 5:33 AM on January 10, 2012


Inquiring mind wants to know.

So you're out of that vat in a vacuum now? ;-)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:53 AM on January 10, 2012


So, I was an idiot is, like, totally OK and that was retarded of me is, like, totally not, right ? Why is that ? Is consensus, fundamentally, totally arbitrary ? Or not ? If not, what is the logic behind I was a total idiot being perfectly acceptable usage ? After all, it refers to the same sort person as a retard, doesn't it ? What, logically speaking, makes one OK and the other not ? Inquiring mind wants to know.

"Idiot" is no longer a professional term for cognitively disabled people, but "mentally retarded" still is in some quarters, making it hit closer to home for people who either have cognitive disabilities or who care for those who do. Also, calling someone a "retard" as a noun was never a professional term - it was only ever an insulting back-formation from "mentally retarded", AFAIK.

The differences are indeed a bit arbitrary, just as "copulate" and "fuck" are arbitrarily distinct when you really think about it, but that's life.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:12 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Petard is also used in French to describe a "very beautiful/well put together woman".
posted by phoque at 6:20 AM on January 10, 2012


Petard is also used in French to describe a "very beautiful/well put together woman".

"Man, that Eva Green is a real fart grenade."
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:30 AM on January 10, 2012


"very beautiful/well put together woman".

Oh yeah, she's the bomb. La bombe sexuelle. Elle est canon.
posted by Wolof at 6:32 AM on January 10, 2012


"In France, she would be known as 'la petarde', and pressed against the walls of citadels..."

Say, did not idiot originally describe a person we might now call a very low functioning developmentally disabled person ? And wasn't idiot the lowest level, accompanied by imbecile and moron, as middle and high, respectively, in, like, the three levels of feeblemindedness ? And weren't these were scientific terms, once, which became more or less pejorative in casual usage ?

Back in pedant's corner, but no, I think that's a folk etymology ... idiot and imbecile were in the language for a long time before they were used as medical terms - although the use of "imbecile " as a noun is relatively recent (as you can see from the ending, it's a Latinate loan word, and an adjective-turned-noun, like "missile"). Both came through Latin into Old French, then (I'm guessing, but reasonably confidently) Norman French and Middle French.

So, those are pejorative terms which were briefly repurposed into clinical usage, but rapidly fell out of clinical use. Moron, as far as I know, was a new coining, but its use as a clinical term was pretty brief, and I'd imagine it got caught in the gravity well of idiot and imbecile.

Your basic point stands, though - usages change, and terms which were acceptable as descriptives in the past may now no longer be so. But this is often because the tide has gone out around them. It's not like there was a meeting some time in the 60s that pulled together a list of terms for African-Americans (for example) that were going to be identified as disrespectful from then on - there was a long process of pulling down power structures of which those terms were outcroppings. IMHO, obviously.

Which I think is where we came in, right? Using a term with racially offensive connotations doesn't make someone a bad person, necessarily, or even a racist person - they might not be up on current usage. It's easier to extend the benefit of the doubt with more obscure usages, or more culturally isolated ones (a Briton not knowing the background of "Indian giver"). What matters in these cases is not, perhaps, what they've said, but how they respond to being called on it.
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:16 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


A leotard is named after a guy named Léotard.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:17 AM on January 10, 2012


People tend to raise the "retard" example when pointing out that words do sometimes lose their specificity as an insult over time, and people forget what the initial referent is. We kind of went over that in this thread already. I don't think it's 'arbitrary' any more than any bit of language is - one of the key differences between an innocuous phrase and one that may carry some baggage is that people object to the latter. IF no one, absolutely no one, objected to "indian giver" because it truly was gibberish that had relationship to any actual history of or ideas about Indians, it wouldn't be a problematic phrase. But that's not how it is, because people cognizant of that history, who have been hurt by that history or who observe how it has caused hurt, object. I'd say the same is true for moron vs. retard. There are few people alive who will object to "moron" because its association with an intelligence-evaluation context has all but disappeared, and few if any people can remember being directly labelled or hurt by it. But that isn't the case for "retard."

I grew up in an era in which kids who actually did have mental retardation, now usually called developmental disability, were called "retarded," and this existed concurrently as a playground insult. I can remember the referent and I can remember how it was applied as an insult. So I find it disrespectful to use as an insult.

Even given that, I can recognize how a kid today might not understand that "retard" ever had anything to do with the developmentally disabled kids in his or her classroom. But it's still very recent, and I don't look on the word any more kindly because people who remember its history, who were hurt by this history, really haven't disappeared yet. Since I can't forget the nastiness with which this insult was lobbed, and the real people it was connected to, I can never hear "retard" without an internal flinch.

I was going to say that we'd discussed "retard" on MetaTalk previously, but really it was ages and ages ago.
posted by Miko at 7:25 AM on January 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


...running order said it a lot better.
posted by Miko at 7:27 AM on January 10, 2012


I grew up in an era in which kids who actually did have mental retardation, now usually called developmental disability, were called "retarded," and this existed concurrently as a playground insult.

FWIW, I know several special needs professionals - one of 'em being my live-in SO - and they all use the phrase "mental retardation" as a neutral descriptor. According to Wikipedia, I see that mental retardation is considered a subset of developmental disability in the US - apparently, they are not synonymous terms, nor is developmental disability the PC version of mental retardation.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:37 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


We've definitely discussed it at times in the interim, but I think it's generally been as a side conversation prompted by someone going on a lazy "what a fucktard" type tear on the site and getting called out for it.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:37 AM on January 10, 2012


Here's Wikipedia, for what it's worth:
Clinically, however, mental retardation is a subtype of intellectual disability, which is a broader concept and includes intellectual deficits that are too mild to properly qualify as mental retardation, too specific (as in specific learning disability), or acquired later in life, through acquired brain injuries or neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. Intellectual disabilities may appear at any age. Developmental disability is any disability that is due to problems with growth and development. This term encompasses many congenital medical conditions that have no mental or intellectual components, although it, too, is sometimes used as a euphemism for MR.[3] Because of its specificity and lack of confusion with other conditions, mental retardation is still the term most widely used and recommended for use in professional medical settings, such as formal scientific research and health insurance paperwork.
posted by Miko at 7:53 AM on January 10, 2012


Here's a MeTa re: a MeFite's behavior, which includes a conversation about usage of 'retard', and an FPP on the subject.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:28 AM on January 10, 2012


Miko: People tend to raise the "retard" example when pointing out that words do sometimes lose their specificity as an insult over time, and people forget what the initial referent is.

On a tangential sidebar, one interesting thing to ask is who is making the case for the term having become totally unmoored from its referent. "Gay" is an interesting example of this - people who want to be able to use it as a term meaning "shitty" tend to be quite insistent that it has nothing to do with sexual orientation when used in that pejorative sense, and that there is a solid wall between "gay" meaning "attracted to the same gender" and "gay" meaning "shitty". To which Sir Ian McKellen responded:
I'm not useless," McKellen asserts in my old school hall, "but when you use that word as an insulting adjective, that's what you're saying about me. So please, watch your language. Because if you don't, you mightn't watch your actions…"
I think everyone has to make their own decisions - hopefully informed ones - about the messages they are sending when they use "gay" or "retarded" as pejoratives. But to argue that "retarded" no longer has any link to cognitive impairment seems to be something of a reach, in terms both of diagnostic terminology and of common usage - certainly as recently as Tropic Thunder (2008), a key and much-repeated joke relied on the understanding that "go full retard" meant "behave like someone with severe cognitive impairment".
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:34 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


What matters in these cases is not, perhaps, what they've said, but how they respond to being called on it.

So, then, being called out for innocently using a term by which x amount of well meaning people find themselve offended because, according to that some but not all here said term is to be considered a racial pejorative and racial pejorative only, with no nuanctial definition other than that allowed, then the call out amounts to a callout of uttering a racist pejorative and racist pejorative only because some well meaning us said so. So, reality is a function of agreement.

And with by far the largert group here -- at least 99% of us, I would say -- are agreed that racism is a bad and hateful thing, if not The Worst Thing In The Word, m'kay, then when a spmewhat smaller group of people of we here think the aforesaid racist pejorative part of the given phrase erases any and all secondary meaning whatsoever then the larger group who think, quite strongly that racism is worst thing in the world, m'kay, then I should hope that when that someone from another country who is innocent of these nuanced debates because he is of a certain age, perhaps, and uses the term that the smaller group considers verboten, feels that it is being implied that he or she is being an uncaring objectively pro-racist aider and abettor, if not a racist outright, probably one of the worse social categories to which one can belong, then that the larger group should expect him or her, to calmly take it like a man -- oh, sorry, to take it like a gentleperson-- and graciously apologize for his or her error with no allowance for the fact that when one, however mistakenly, thinks one is being accused of being one of the worst people in the world, one is likely to react poorly and express oneself with strong emotion. Hmm.

My feeling is that when a situation exists where a person reacts with strong emotion when they think, however mistakenly, they are being accused of being the worst person in the world, we might be inclined to cut him or her some slack and give him the benefit, however cranky and cantankerous he or she may have been in other unrelated circumstances. But obviously the mileage varies on this one.

And, by the way, shouldn't that be one of the key differences between an innocuous phrase and one that may carry some baggage is that some, but not all, people object to the latter ? Because if that is so, then this becomes a case of Because Some But Not All of Us Said So, Case Closed, does it not ?

And then the Smaller Group rules over All. Well, it's obvious that arbitrary has nothing to do with the situation.

Shouldn't individuals here be protected from abuse by the many ? I seem to recall that here was a Bill of Something or Other attached to the Constitution that defined all sorts of circumstances in which the few were protected from the many in matters like, oh, religious belief or and practice, for example. The founders, I believe, did not want democracy to become mob rule, with the Many Over the One.

Maybe if we had a similar one explicitly established here, it might be of use. I would propose that the first rule be Give the Other Person The Benefit of the Doubt, with the stipulation that, no matter how he or she may have misbehaved in entirely unrelated past circumstances, that if he or she reacts in heat and high dudgeon to what seems like a baseless and highly pejorative accusation against his or her good will and intentions, said Benefit still be extended.

I would prefer that Group disapproval be something other than Mob disapproval, and that nuanced argument be ferociously defended against perceived personal attack myself. But the evidence here seems that we do not do nuanced argument well when we talk about highly emotionally charged topics. The accused should take it politely and for, the many, well, Katy Bar the Door, it's tag team mixed martial arts with no rules. Which is OK, right ?
posted by y2karl at 11:18 AM on January 10, 2012


Well, I picked one sentence that running order squabble fest wrote and argued against that. But that's OK right, I mean, I can ignore his actual point and cherry pick the weakest statement he said and ignore his actual point when the topic is about The Worst Thing In The World a Person can say or do ? Because that's how we roll -- no rules, cherry picking is allowed and if someone manages to make contradictory statements, we can ignore their argument and pick the weakest statements they have written to refute and not grant them the benefit of the doubt in service of what seems to resemble a morality play more than a not entirely gracious exchange of views. Contradiction Bad, Cherry Picking Good.
posted by y2karl at 11:30 AM on January 10, 2012


Well, I think this can be closed up.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:32 AM on January 10, 2012


I wonder if bustard tastes like chicken.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:33 AM on January 10, 2012


Yes, good guys win, case closed.

Help me in my weakness, I heard the Drifter say...
posted by y2karl at 11:37 AM on January 10, 2012


> Yes, good guys win, case closed.

I don't think anyone won here. For what it's worth I think for some of these questions of offensive language it really comes down to arbitrary grey areas. But, once the switch is thrown and something has been deemed offensive then it's really difficult for anyone to argue against it without seeming insensitive or whatever. People here like anywhere else are full of all kinds of weird and unexamined biases and convictions, and there's really not much that arguing will ever do to fix that. I don't really see the point in digging in when life is so short.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:45 AM on January 10, 2012


So, then, being called out for innocently using a term by which x amount of well meaning people find themselve offended because, according to that some but not all here said term is to be considered a racial pejorative and racial pejorative only, with no nuanctial definition other than that allowed, then the call out amounts to a callout of uttering a racist pejorative and racist pejorative only because some well meaning us said so. So, reality is a function of agreement.

OK, I think that I get what you're asking, there, approximately. And, yes, obviously there is a degree of consensus to determining what is or is not offensive language. That's pretty much self-evident. Language is a consensual agreement on what is denoted and connoted by certain sounds and shapes on paper. We're not talking about reality here, but language and social interaction - these are constructs, and do require agreement.

So, not "well-meaning us", but well-meaning lots of people - hundreds of millions of people, in fact, over many years, who have come to conclusions through negotiation about how terms function, and decided that some terms are more or less suitable for particular forms of discourse. I don't think "a racial/racist pejorative only" is meaningful as a term - words are polyvalent. It's possible to use a word with both a descriptive function and a pejorative sense without knowing the pejorative sense. As has been demonstrated.

And with by far the largert group here -- at least 99% of us, I would say -- are agreed that racism is a bad and hateful thing[...] -- oh, sorry, to take it like a gentleperson-- and graciously apologize for his or her error with no allowance for the fact that when one, however mistakenly, thinks one is being accused of being one of the worst people in the world, one is likely to react poorly and express oneself with strong emotion. Hmm.


Again, this is a pretty tricky sentence to parse, but I think what you're doing there is seeking to legitimize a particular kind of behavior. This, specifically, is the particular kind of behavior you are seeking to legitimize:
A: I take issue with the use of this phrase.
B: So, you are calling me a racist? Flame on!
We've already covered this, I think. A does not equal B. B is trying to raise the emotional temperature, and to avoid actually addressing A's concern. This is covered by the link to Jay Smooth, above. Marge Piercey is also often credited with a statement that goes something like this:
If someone says to you that you said or did something racist, don't leap to the conclusion that they're saying you are outcaste and unclean; think of it instead of them telling you that you have a booger at the end of your nose. Wipe it off, and thank them for letting you know.
This is also, I think, relevant to your interests here.

(Although, back on rhetoric, if you dot statements with "m'kay" - a phrase associated with the inept and hypocritical liberal straw man character Mr Garrison on "South Park" - and parody-PC lolwords like "gentleperson", it makes it very hard to parse whether you are sincere about wanting to talk about things, or are just aiming to call people assholes in what you believe is a clever and unobtrusive way. I am giving you the Benefit of the Doubt, here, but not everyone will.)

The initial callout at no point said that anyone was a racist, or the worst person in the world - to say that it did is to use the same overheating technique that had you throwing the concept of child rape in people's faces earlier. It's an attempt to raise the stakes to the point where it's actively unpleasant even to deal with the question, so the question is not raised again.

I'm don't think anyone at any point called PeterMcDermott a racist. The issue with the phrase "Indian giver" was raised, it was discussed, PeterMcDermott said that he had not been aware of the pejorative sense when he used it. That's all fine.

The tricky part is his follow-up, and its implication that only Native Americans - only people who are directly targeted by the pejorative sense - get to protest the use of the term, and that protest from any other quarter is liable to be dismissed as point-scoring and one-upmanship.

Because it means that anyone who wants to register a protest that codes as valid is going to have to identify themselves as a part of the targeted group, presumably provide some convincing proof of that membership, and not only cannot but also should not expect any support from people outside that group. Which is a problem, partly because it's setting a context where members of a minority are to be treated as formally distinct, and also because people might not want to have to prove their bone fides for any number of reasons. And, on a level of principle, because people in minorities should not be obliged to dedicate themselves to explaining how people in majorities should behave decently as a toll to be paid in exchange for being treated decently.

The fact that "Indian giver" has a pejorative sense is out there to be found. There's no shame in not having come across it - that's just unfortunate. But insisting that a Native American has to come forth, identify themselves and explain - with respect for the dignity of the person they are addressing and taking pains not to do or say anything that might justify an "Oh, so you're calling me a racist" flameout, i.e. almost anything - exactly why it is offensive every single time is pretty much a recipe for a community that people from ethnic and cultural minorities are not going to want to spend time in. Which would be a shame.
posted by running order squabble fest at 12:14 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think that a person can both get the benefit of the doubt - as definitely happened here - and yet can still learn that if a number of people in the community find a term distasteful and ask that it not be used around here, can be considerate enough to understand and perhaps comply, or at least to go forward understanding the term is not seen as neutral and using it more choosily, perhaps. This doesn't have to be necessarily construed as a prescriptive and legalistic mob rule thing. If you don't mean harm, and you say this thing, and people object "hey, that's a yucky phrase, I understand you didn't mean to create this particular unpleasant effect, can we please not say it here," then what is the range of legitimate, kind and well-meaning responses to that? There are a bunch.

But the benefit of the doubt also has to go both ways. If you speak a phrase and doubt or just don't know the phrase can be or has been hurtful, but someone in front of you is willing to stand up and say that because of this, that and the other, to them it is, there are plenty of places that would laugh them down and tell them to go screw with their PC bullshit. We (hopefully) aren't that kind of place either. We give people the benefit of the doubt even when we're like "gypped, really? Show me how?!"

And if that were truly just a single person who felt that way about some random phrase, it would be an instance of idiosyncrasy ("don't say cleaning lady!") that we could take that on its own merits and perhaps with a grain of salt or a recognition that that person has a special-case thing going on. Whatever. But in an instance where there are a number of people who experience a phrase as loaded with ill intent and the effect of keeping negative stereotypes alive, even if those never occurred to you the speaker, maybe they can get the benefit of the doubt too.
posted by Miko at 12:24 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


The initial callout at no point said that anyone was a racist, or the worst person in the world...

That goes without saying. All I intended to say was that it is a highly emotionally charged subject and it is all too easy for someone to miss there's a booger on the end one's nose part.

These matters may be agreed upon by a number larger in the outside world than here but here is what I am talking about because there is a subtext here in MetaTalk that allows far more misbehavior on the part on individuals towards which a collectively blind eye is turned.

Like calling someone' friends in the past assholes just because you feel like it, allowing someone within the thread to use the phrase dirty Indian ironically without mention. among others. And, no, I don't want to open any more cans of worms, actually, there always are a number of midget elephants in the room. I sympathize with Peter McDermott's reaction because I, too, can flame out in exasperation.

As for m'kay, I write more from emotion than logic and can barely frame a sentence when my Irish is up, no slur intended. I had only a couple f years of college, am other wise self educated and not skilled in logic or rhetoric. And I write in the moment. I suppose I am still smarting from that elaborate parsing of my many stupid, no slur intended, remarks as well. And from the nobody's fault fact that I can not win many arguments with better trained people who can talk circles around me. It's very intimidating.

And I have been attacked so many times here with so many insults going unremarked, that I can more easily identify with someone who thought he was under attack going ballistic. The post could have been framed better, I suppose, but this is an emotionally laden subject on all sides. So, yes, as for giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, totally I agree.
posted by y2karl at 12:52 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


And I really truly wish I could make more sense more easily.
posted by y2karl at 12:56 PM on January 10, 2012


Not to mention way way more succinctly.
posted by y2karl at 1:00 PM on January 10, 2012


"feathers not dots"

I live in the UK, where 'Asians' are people from the Indian subcontinent (there are more of them than people from the far east, I suppose that's why) and so this phrase always struck me as racist in this context.


Oh, it's racist over here, too, but people still think it's funny and say it a lot.

Obviously Peter McD didn't mean dirty Indian and obviously everyone here knew that

I know this is a couple days old, but: why did I know this? Is there a reason that I should presume that when someone uses a stupid phrase like "indian giver", they obviously don't mean it that way and are simply lacking in knowledge? I mean, Peter McD has said he didn't know, so ok and fair enough, but you guys seem to think that obviously no one is really racist anymore so obviously no one could really mean the intense pejorative version of the term.

But, y'know, people are really openly and proudly racist all the time. Why do you think that people should get the benefit of the doubt when they say clearly racist shit? If they didn't know, they can say so, and ok, it's knowledge time and everyone gets their consciousness raised and kumbaya we're a big happy human family. But how am I supposed to know what you really mean? All I know is what you say, and when you're saying shit that unapologetic racists say, is there a reason I'm supposed to be able to tell the difference?

I really can't understand why people on this site think that other people go digging hopefully for racism or take pride in finding it. Do you think it makes people feel good or something? When a dude is calling me a paki or my friend a shylock, do you think that what goes through my head is smug superiority and vindication? Do you think I should be thinking, "hey, he probably doesn't really know what he's saying, I should explain it to him"? Do you think that when I say something sexist, it is the other person's duty to gently probe for my level of understanding and to not say "hey, that was really fucking sexist, you jerk"?

This shit happens all the time, everywhere, in ways intended to hurt large and small. It is only ignorance that suggests otherwise. You don't deserve the benefit of the doubt, you earn it. If you haven't earned it yet, understand why. It's not because you're the Worst Person or whatever the fuck. It's because you haven't done enough yet to convince someone you're not a garden-variety asshole. There are way, way more assholes out there than you think, so it's safer to assume you're maybe one of them until proven otherwise. You can think that's unfair if you like. I think people being racist is unfair, but that's not stopping anytime soon, so here we are. If you want to assign blame for this sorry state of affairs, I suggest starting with racism, not the people calling racism out.
posted by Errant at 1:39 PM on January 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


I really can't understand why people on this site think that other people go digging hopefully for racism or take pride in finding it. Do you think it makes people feel good or something?

I won't speak for anyone else but for my own part probably because I am an apologetic racist, who is the son of a very unapologetic and now deceased racist and anti-semite crazy man, who is looking at the world through the wrong end of his own telescope. I know I am not my father but I also know that is not a Get Out of Jail Free Card and that I have stuff on which to work.

You know, from hearing you recount your experiences in person, I really was hoping you were going to say something about that here. I am very glad you finally did.
posted by y2karl at 2:31 PM on January 10, 2012


I know I am not my father but I also know that is not a Get Out of Jail Free Card and that I have stuff on which to work.

Substitute "mother" for "father" and I could have written this, so I hear you, man. I'm certainly not out of the racist woods by any stretch of the imagination. I just think it's weird that people seem to think that some folks are sitting around waiting gleefully for someone to say something innocuous that they can jump on, to, I don't know, prove their hipster antiracist cred or something. If I never felt the need to type or say the word "racism" again, I would be so, so happy. Confronting people who will be defensive at best and hostile, possibly violent, at worst is very rarely a fun and joyous experience. I don't really want to talk about this garbage anymore, it's really fucking exhausting. But it keeps happening, so we should probably talk about it I guess.

Look, if you (the general you) didn't know that "indian giver" is a pretty loaded and frequently offensive/pejorative phrase, that's ok, hopefully you do now. I didn't know it for an embarrassingly long time, because I'm kind of a moron. But the people who find it harmful (not just offensive, harmful) would really rather it not be harmful. That is the overwhelmingly preferable option. No one wants to be bothered by this stuff, because feeling it is really unpleasant and gross. But they are actually bothered by it. They're not just making something up to claim some kind of fashionable minority status or attain the moral high ground. No one wants to feel marginalized. I do not want any of my racist experiences, blackly amusing though they are to recount over drinks. It turns out to not be up to me, though, so that sucks.

So sometimes when people feel marginalized and shitty, they turn that into anger instead, because at least it seems like you can do something with anger. The other stuff just makes you feel helpless and small and want to crawl under your bed and not come out. Anger isn't ultimately the healthiest response, but it seems like the best of some poor options a lot of the time. The lack of better options isn't the fault of the person who feels like shit. It's racism's fault, sexism's fault, homophobia's fault. Those things are the problem. People feeling like shit and being mad about it is the result of the problem, not the problem itself.

So let's please consider that before we roll our eyes and talk about playing the race card or political correctness gone mad or whatever else we do to further marginalize people who already feel pretty fucked-up and weird. People are just trying to feel as not bad as they can, in a world that is trying to make them feel awful. We could all do a better job of making it a little easier for them.
posted by Errant at 3:58 PM on January 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Errant: “Confronting people who will be defensive at best and hostile, possibly violent, at worst is very rarely a fun and joyous experience.”

I think this is absolutely true in face-to-face communication, and I can say to my own embarrassment that, while I can remember scores of times that I've seen blatant and obnoxious racism, I can't remember ever calling it out directly and telling someone they were being racist in the moment. That is absolutely not easy, and all my commendation goes to people who do it.

However – I'm fairly convinced that this is one point on which communication on the internet is strikingly different from communication face to face. I know that I have told people that things they've said are racist online, here on metafilter and elsewhere. Why? Because, well, it's so much easier. Online people aren't people you have to look at and see the tortured defensiveness on their faces when you tell them they just unknowingly or knowingly used a racial slur. You don't have to deal with all the discomfort of having them be upset or hurt in front of you; they're hundreds of miles away. And even if you're likely to see them in person in the future (which is not the case the vast majority of times) you at least know that you don't have to face them right now about this uncomfortable subject.

And maybe it's just because of my own cast of mind – I guess it seems like there are lots of people like me – but confrontation in general has its giddy pleasure when it takes place on the internet. Maybe that's because I'm relatively afraid of confrontation in real life; I'm not sure. All I know is that this is a thing I've had to face and try to think about and hopefully learn to overcome.

I'm not saying this happened in this thread. But – well, I do know what people are talking about when they imply that there are people waiting in the wings to call out racism. It's not so much about the racism; it's just that the internet is a field on which a very particular type of easy-entered confrontation can take place. It's tough to stand next to a friend or even a stranger and say: "you know, that phrase is racist – I'm not sure you knew that, but it is – and I find it offensive." It's really, really tough. It is, on the other hand, not tough to be the fifteenth person in a Metafilter thread to say "yeah, UserX, you're a racist asshole – fuck off!"
posted by koeselitz at 4:19 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


"So let's please consider that before we roll our eyes and talk about playing the race card or political correctness gone mad or whatever else we do to further marginalize people who already feel pretty fucked-up and weird. People are just trying to feel as not bad as they can, in a world that is trying to make them feel awful. We could all do a better job of making it a little easier for them."

Amen.

One thing you've not pointed out is that this feeling of being put-upon, of having one's ability to converse freely without worrying about giving offense, is the very situation that the non-privileged have been existing within all along. I'm not saying that turnabout is fair play or that the ideal situation is where everyone worries all the time about saying the wrong thing, but that the only people who are feeling put upon by PC-ism are people who have been so insulated from having any of their prerogatives limited in any way such that this relatively minor infringement feels like an enormous injustice.

I understand why they feel that way—I'm a white, straight male, after all—but it's nothing compared to the regular code-switching that racial minorities and women and gays navigate every day. I imagine someone contesting this and asserting that those situations aren't ones in which there is a constant fear of giving offense. But that's not true! It's not always the same kind of offense as we're discussing here, but offense of different kinds can still be taken. I see it all the time. There's all sorts of things that women aren't allowed to talk about around men without men complaining. The same is true of gays, and racial minorities. Usually, as I said, it's not "offense" like we've been discussing; but the deeper issue is the same...that people are worrying about saying the wrong thing in the context of a community of people that outnumber them or have more power than them and are easily capable of bullying them into submission. This is exactly what the people who complain about PC-ism run amok are worrying about, and it's the daily fact of life for everybody else.

And so when you add in the stuff that you said—that the people who are taking offense at racist comments and the like are actually having to deal with lots of crap and the offense really and truly usually isn't feigned—and the stuff that Miko and you and others have said about how these complaints about pc-ism act as a means of silencing people who have long been silenced and that's the whole damn problem in the first place (not to mention that this is the actual intention of at least some of those who are complaining about pc-ism), well...to me it looks like these complaints are trivial and even harmful compared to long-standing and much more severe injuries that the so-called "political correctness" is intended to correct. I find that I have enormous difficulty being sympathetic in any way to this sort of push-back. In fact, it makes me quite angry. And, I think, rightly so.

"And maybe it's just because of my own cast of mind – I guess it seems like there are lots of people like me – but confrontation in general has its giddy pleasure when it takes place on the internet. Maybe that's because I'm relatively afraid of confrontation in real life; I'm not sure. All I know is that this is a thing I've had to face and try to think about and hopefully learn to overcome."

This is interesting because it's something I don't understand at all. For me, confrontation either in person or on the Internet is very unpleasant. I do it anyway sometimes, usually because I feel like I have to. And I may get very occasional and brief pleasures from it, but that is always outweighed, both at the time and even more so later, by a sense of unease and a kind of shame and general disappointment. Even when I'm totally righteous—I have spoken out in person against explicit racism and other bigotry, having had the misfortune, for example, of living in Amarillo. But it's not fun to me at all.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:31 PM on January 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


But – well, I do know what people are talking about when they imply that there are people waiting in the wings to call out racism....

I'm sure you're right that some of these people exist, but it's not fair to extrapolate what you know of them to everyone who objects to racism. That sort of projects a mentality onto others that they've done nothing to warrant - and I know (because I've met or corresponded with them) that at least some of the people in this thread speaking earnestly about the topic are also people who have had this kind of discussion in real life, though no one wants to have that kind of discussion not those who've shied away from them and only look to get jollies from them on the internet. I can agree with you that some people are motivated that way, but not in assuming that is the motivation of everyone, or even the majority, of people who speak up.
posted by Miko at 4:37 PM on January 10, 2012


Assuming that everyone doing a racism callout is doing so for bad reasons is almost exactly the same error as assuming that everyone who uses is a racist phrase means it as conscious hate speech. Can't we all just have the working assumption that everyone here is basically sensible?
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:40 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, you're right, Miko - what I described is certainly not characteristic of all racism callouts. It's not even characteristic of the way people have acted here, and I don't mean to say it is, for the record.And I agree that that seems to be the solution, Sticherbeast.
posted by koeselitz at 5:00 PM on January 10, 2012


Assuming that everyone doing a racism callout is doing so for bad reasons is almost exactly the same error as assuming that everyone who uses is a racist phrase means it as conscious hate speech.

I think one thing it's worth adding to that very sensible point is that that only one of those things seems to have happened. That is, we've seen people suggest that the majority of callouts are made for bad reasons, but we haven't seen anyone assuming that everyone who uses a racist phrase means it as conscious hate speech - or at least, we haven't seen anyone expressing that assumption as a belief.

What we have had is people saying that racist phrases used without conscious intent to harm are still potentially harmful, so once called out (and once the callout has been confirmed as well-founded), the ideal response is to moderate one's behavior in future - that the callout should lead to a change in language choice. But I think that's a different thing.

I think that one of these things is potentially problematic, insofar as it means that some users will consistently deny the validity of callouts, and the other is less so, because it doesn't appear to be happening.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:24 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just think it's weird that people seem to think that some folks are sitting around waiting gleefully for someone to say something innocuous that they can jump on, to, I don't know, prove their hipster antiracist cred or something.

I have to admit I often operate from the position but it's from real life experiences, most of which people weren't trying to do that. A few, perhaps. And some of it comes from just feeling in the wrong already all the time. I am so terrified of saying something hurtful that I feel paralyzed sometimes, it's like I am worrying about having some sort of Tourette's syndrome. It's like I feel when I am around glass art and worry that I am going to stumble just at the wrong time because I am such a klutz.

But things change. My father was born on Christmas day and this last one would have his hundredth birthday. But, oh, I could tell you stories but I am very reluctant to talk about family matters online for all the obvious reasons, and when I have, it has been very indirect. (There was something about some judge and his daughter awhile back -- one could scroll down there.) I think I am not my father, and, it wasn't until I was grown and talked to a cousin who knew his parents. Oh, God, what he must have had to deal with when he was a child. There the demon was his mother, who was piece of work squared and cubed in comparison.

I watched an episode of the Big Bang Theory the other night, a re-run from another season, and if someone made the jokes made about dot Indians there here, well, I wonder how they would fare here. It is so hard to divine what people are saying online. People can say all sorts of stupid things and I know I have done so here. I see the sort of right wing seething about PC and grind my teeth and then I feel so awful thinking I may say something stupid about something. Well, I have presented plenty of evidence here, there and everywhere on every topic in the world besides this one. I went for a walk today and felt so bad I wanted to just come here, pull the plug and go hide in my room. I get that everyone is sincere here and never doubted it. But, internally, I am seething in contradictions. I hate being called out, I hate calling people out. It's due to my age in part, the fact that I don't feel that righteous. I feel like a fraud calling anyone out on anything.

Which was what I was talking about when I was blathering on about making oneself right by making another wrong. It wasn't about PC and rade matters,it was about life. We present a face to the world, a pretense that we are far more competent than we feel inside, often feel horribly wrong, and the only way we can get a leg up sometimes is point out another's errors while we continue on with the fan dance of our pretense.

I get that everyone is sincere here and never doubted it. But, internally, I am seething in contradictions. It's due to my age in part, due to what enormous changes I have seen happen in my life time and, then, due to the fact that I don't feel righteous at all. I hate being called out, I hate calling people out. I will if I think I can make a difference, get a point across, be heard rather than just speak, then yes, maybe. Yet it is because we can feel other people's pain that we can be angels and monsters, great cruelty and great kindness flowing from the same empathy. I think sometimes it all begins in shared pain. But I just hate hurting people's feelings any which way. I don't feel qualified to tell anyone else what to do. I went for a walk today and felt so bad I wanted to just come back here, pull the plug and go hide in another room.
posted by y2karl at 9:22 PM on January 10, 2012


I am so terrified of saying something hurtful that I feel paralyzed sometimes, it's like I am worrying about having some sort of Tourette's syndrome.

I'm sorry it all feels so difficult and I hope it helps you take heart and relax to know that people really are pretty understanding and forgiving if you happen to cause hurt without intending it, and let them know it wasn't intended.
posted by Miko at 6:32 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Please let it go. You've done the ritual obeisances, you've burned the incense, you're forgiven. Now forgive yourself.
posted by Wolof at 6:58 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Really, what would be good is if we could all assume that people are not arseholes. I really don't know if arseholes are a minority or a majority. Sometimes all you can see are arseholes. On the other hand, people can be really wonderful.

Offensive language should be brought to people's attention. Bring it up, thrash it out. People who give a shit are unlikely to continue saying something that offends people when offence is not intended.

It's a simple fact of life, however, that the more something is shown to be offensive the more likely it is that arseholes will be shouting it loudly and proudly, just to prove that they don't give a shit. In some circles this is impressive, apparently.

I think we're lucky, in this particular space, that those people are pretty much universally reviled. It's a pretty rarified space.

In real life shit gets said all the time, through ignorance and intent. We all have to choose our battles when it comes up in our lives. There will be times when our voices are completely ineffective and other times when shit just has to be said. We choose to speak and we choose to listen.

Sometimes it takes some time and perspective to hear.
posted by h00py at 7:36 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Really, what would be good is if we could all assume that people are not arseholes. I really don't know if arseholes are a minority or a majority. Sometimes all you can see are arseholes. On the other hand, people can be really wonderful. "

I think people are mostly wonderful and good. I first began thinking about this when I first started working in customer service (waiting tables at age 19), but I think that people largely divide by temperament into two groups: those whose attention is captured by the assholes, and those whose attention is captured by the good people. I found that working in customer service in different capacities never bothered me—and I never participated in that common ritual of customer-bashing with my coworkers—because I expected a few customers to be jerks but everyone else was fine and there was always some really nice people, and they usually made my day. Other people, though, would consistently have their day ruined by the one or two assholes.

But that's about dealing with people in person, individually, when it's easier to see the best in people. (I suspect.) In groups and at more distance, I think that it's easier for everyone to see mostly the assholes and then generalize from them.

I don't know. It's either encouraging or sad, but my experience has been that even most of the explicitly and strongly racist people often deal with individual members of the people they are racist about in ways that are completely at odds with their beliefs. Usually, they treat them like, well, another human being. Sure, they usually think those individual people are the exceptions, they "good one", but still. I talk a lot about the evils of tribalistic, out-group-dehumanizing all the time, but it's also the case that there's a balancing tendency in people to just instinctively deal with other individuals in generous ways. Not everyone. But I think most people. I always think about every accident scene I've ever witnessed—how so many people stop their cars and offer help. I know that doesn't always happen, but it's happened at every one I've witnessed. My dad rescued a family from a small plane that crashed onto the Interstate next to us one time. Dozens of cars stopped; it was he and another man that were the first to stop and run to the plane and help the couple and their two children out. Then they and about six other people managed to turn the wreckage so that a wing wasn't across a lane of the road—it was night, and several vehicles had already almost run into it. I watched a van go out of control and roll, and four of us stopped and helped. People just do this stuff. It's instinctive. There's goodness in people. A lot of it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:14 PM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


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