I was not going to write this post. Frankly, I read, hear, and talk enough politics on a day-to-day basis that I don’t usually feel a need to express my feelings on the matter in an online forum. But that was before I realized that some people were defending Hillary Clinton’s deplorables comment.
You can google hillary clinton deplorables comment defense
Not defending in the sense of saying it was a misspeak, a mistake, a miscalculation, a shorthand phrase meant for the ears of certain knowledgeable supporters only. Those are not great defenses, but they are the ones open to most politicians who make such gaffes. They are the defenses that supporters of Romney used when he made his forty-seven percent comment, and Obama supporters when he spoke of bitter clingers to guns and religion. The moments were revelatory of the candidates, despite the attempted rollback from the blowback; but at the same time the rollback was good to see. It told voters—undecided, indifferent, or opposed—that while this candidate might not like or be like them, the candidate and his supporters at least knew they had made a tactical error in alienating people whom they ought to respect, whether or not they actually did. It was comforting to realize that even if one lost and was despised come November, one would at least be mostly, probably, left alone: because there were enough other people like you (perhaps as much as forty-seven percent!) to necessitate the ruling party’s respect.
The fact that Clinton supporters don’t feel as much of a need to work this sort of rollback of her comments is profoundly troubling to me. Let me explain, from the point of view of an English major with a decent grounding in the art of rhetoric, why precisely that is.
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of
Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables, right?
The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.”
Racist. Using the meter of myself and my friends (i.e., the Facebook circles in which I swim), I would say that we generally take “racist” to imply a belief that people of a given race or races are inferior to people of another race or races. This can get tricky when we ask what is meant by inferior (if Africans run better than Caucasians, is that inferiority? if Asians are better at Math, does that make them ubermenschen?). But common sense combined with a moderate knowledge of history tells even the densest of us that “racism” is actually in play when someone displays a belief that one group is genetically programmed in virtue of their race to be morally and/or intellectually inferior to another. And that is in fact, my friends and I all agree, a deplorable position to hold.
But there’s a problem. These days the word “racist” gets used a bit more broadly than my definition above presumes. Consider this hypothetical: Suppose that I, at the tender age of seven, dressed as Kateri Tekakwitha one Halloween. Was it racist of me as an apparently Caucasian person to dress as a Native American? What if I am in fact one-sixty-fourth Cherokee (a fact which can be dimly discerned in the features of two of my siblings)? But what if I didn’t know of this descent at the time? (Does it make a difference that polls of Native Americans suggest they don’t find the name “Redskin” offensive when applied to a sports team? But what if their “leaders” do find it offensive?)
I don’t mean to intentionally muddy the waters on this problem. Racism is a terrible thing. And that makes it all the more terrible that its meaning in casual conversation has extended to cover certain things—like the use of “Redskin” for a sports team—when those things do not in fact meet the definition of racism at all. It does a grave disservice to real victims of racism to pretend that Dan Snyder is obviously one. Practically speaking, it makes it harder to persuade some people that racism is an actual problem (“Oh, there’s no real racism around today—it’s all just silly stuff about Indian names”); psychologically and morally speaking, it puts those offended by a word some consider a compliment on the same level with those who find themselves jobless, homeless, or dead because of racial discrimination—and that is deeply problematic.
Sexist. “Sexist” can mean almost anything. I may possibly be sexist, despite being a woman, given the way I have written about feminism. Once again the definition should be clear: a sexist believes that people of one sex are inferior to people of the other sex; more specifically, the term is usually used to describe one who believes that women are inferior to men. And I would argue (from my position of strength as a woman) that if someone holds that women are morally or intellectually inferior to men, this is in fact a problem (also vice versa). But is one sexist for pointing out that women are inferior to men in regards to height and strength? For pointing out that men are better at killing things that women are? For pointing out that women are better at interpersonal communication? Likeness is not the same as equality, and observation of dissimilarity is not always a sneer to be bridled at. Or at least, it should not be.
Homophobic. Following the pattern of the definitions above, a homophobe would be one who believes that people who feel homosexual inclinations and/or live a homosexual lifestyle are inferior—morally and/or intellectually—to those who have not felt such inclinations and/or lived such a lifestyle. Following its etymology more closely, a homophobe would be one who is afraid of (or feels in some sense threatened by) people who feel homosexual inclinations and/or live a homosexual lifestyle.
But the word is certainly used more broadly than that. Take yours truly, the baking of cakes, and take my gay friend Taylor to construct some test cases. (Yes, I am thinking of a real person whom I know moderately well; no, said person’s name is not Taylor.) I decide to put my mad baking skills to use to sell the occasional coffeecake after Sunday Mass (let’s say only on the fourth Sunday of the month, because I’m lazy like that) and tell my friends that by the way, they can order a cake at other times too. Taylor calls me up and orders a birthday cake; I bake it, and maybe if the party’s big enough, I’m over at his place to eat a slice of it and help him celebrate another happy return. A month later Taylor calls me up and says he wants a cake for [insert your favorite holiday]. No problemo; I bake the cake again and once again find myself invited to Taylor’s party to help polish it off. Then Taylor calls me up and says he wants a cake to celebrate his friend’s birthday. I happen to know that the friend is a guy, and to know that he and Taylor are romantically attached. I happen to wish that they weren’t (because Catholic stuff), but I bake them the cake because hey, its purpose is to celebrate a birthday. Then Taylor calls me up and says he wants a cake to celebrate Valentine’s Day with this same friend. Now things are getting dicey: we’re not celebrating people or random joyful occasions anymore; we’re celebrating a day dedicated to romance. Still, plenty of people celebrate Valentine’s Day in Platonic ways, and perhaps that is the intention of my customer. I bake the cake. At last Taylor calls me up and says that he and his friend are getting married; and could I bake a cake for their wedding? And because weddings exist precise to celebrate the physical and romantic union of a couple—a physical and romantic union which I believe is, in the case of two men or two women, immoral, impossible, and not conducive to their happiness—I say no, I’m really sorry, but I can’t bake a cake for this particular event.
Let me make it very, very clear that all of these scenarios
ARE hypothetical. I can’t see myself ever opening a bakery,
and “Taylor” is not actually in a relationship, as far as I know.
In virtue of this last scenario, I suspect I am, by the standards of many Clinton supporters, a homophobe—despite the fact that (a) I don’t fit either of the definitions given above; (b) I still count myself Taylor’s friend; (c) I have baked many cakes for Taylor and am quite happy to bake many more, just not for this occasion … And so this label worries me. I can have all the good will in the world for Taylor and his friend, and sincerely hope that they will be happy, and continue to spend time with them. But because I can’t bring myself in conscience to be involved with a particular one of their activities—I’m a bad person?
Mutatis mutandis, the same kind of argument can be applied to the final two terms of Hillary’s now (in)famous comment.
The truly frightening thing for me is that I’m just not sure how much of the comment applies to me (though I can certainly guess). With the Romney comment, I knew that it didn’t apply; the Obama comment probably did.
Though I did not literally own a gun at the time, I DID have
a certification as a junior gun instructor, enjoyed shooting recreationally,
and had several family members who owned guns;
for my religiosity, I submit this blog as exhibit A.
With the Clinton comment, I suspect that I am convicted on all or nearly all counts: I suspect I fit what she and those in the crowd at that speech and perhaps many of her other supporters (but how many?) mean by those words. But I’m not sure, because unlike the Romney and Obama descriptions, off-the-cuff and colorful as they were—
Well, Obama’s was; Romney is not a colorful man, bless his heart.
—admitted of an obvious literal interpretation. Clinton’s rhetoric does not. I am not trying to be disingenuous. I am sure some of her supporters would happily tar me with the deplorable brush, and possibly ride me out of town on a rail as well, for the confessions made here (were it still socially acceptable to execute such violent acts of ostracism). I am sure others, reading my explanation, would agree that—funny thing!—they are pretty nearly as deplorable as I am.
In other words, we have not one but two candidates this year who aren’t particularly precise with their language. That’s no crime, to be sure. But it is deplorable, from my standpoint at any rate, that there are at least some of Clinton’s supporters who in all likelihood not only believe that I am a basket-case, but also see no need to conciliate me in the event of her possible election. They don’t need me; they don’t want me. And if they win, they won’t listen to me. In the words of Touchstone, “Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd!”
I know, I know—you were expecting another deplorable joke.
But according to my favorite concordance, Shakespeare never used
the word. Shakespeare! the man with the largest ever English
vocabulary! (It was HUGE, mon frère.) Proof positive, at least for
your humble servant, that deplorable ultimately lacks concrete meaning.