There’s a tendency in conservative circles to argue that racism basically ended in 1964 and that any ongoing racial tensions or racial disparities must therefore be the result of some failure on the part of black people to act right. Bill Kristol, Mika Brzezinski, and Joe Scarborough decided to use their time on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” yesterday to cast around some reason to blame black people for the choice of a bunch of white OU frat boys to yell blatantly racist things. The problem, they decided, could not be that some white people continue to be racist. No, the problem is rap music and its dirty words.
“It’s full of n-words, it’s full of f-words. It’s wrong,” griped Brzezinski, speaking of rapper Waka Flocka Flame’s lyrics.
“Popular culture becomes a cesspool, a lot corporations profit off of it, and then people are surprised that some drunk 19-year-old kids repeat what they’ve been hearing,” Kristol agreed.
“The kids that are buying hip-hop or gangster rap, it’s a white audience, and they hear this over and over again. So do they hear this at home? Well, chances are good, no, they heard a lot of this from guys like this who are now acting shocked,” Scarborough added.
While it’s always entertaining watching middle-aged white people pretend a musical genre that was literally invented four decades ago just became popular yesterday, all credulity has been stretched past the breaking point.. Reminder: The OU students were saying they would not ever permit black people to join their fraternity. I usually hate to make sweeping generalizations, but in this case, it’s justified: There has never been a single popular hip-hop song ever that has endorsed white people discriminating against black people. It is literally impossible that these kids picked that idea up from hip-hop.
Of course, we all know that these three zeroed in on this not because of the actual meaning of the chant that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers were singing. Instead, this was a gross attempt to make this an issue of Kids These Days and their potty mouths, as if racial discrimination is only a big deal if one fails to be genteel about it.
But sadly, it’s not that surprising. We all hear a lot about the problem of “political correctness,” but if you really want to see people treating naughty words like they’re a greater moral transgression than doing material harm, you should look to the right. Take, for instance, Erick Erickson at RedState, who, in a recent blog post, defended Republicans for trying to undermine Obama’s attempts at diplomacy with Iran. Citing his desire to “avoid our profanity rules here at RedState,” Erickson gleefully told Democrats, “tough shiitake.” Apparently, it’s one thing to applaud attempts to derail a peace process and possibly provoke unnecessary violence and death, but saying the word “shit”? Now that’s evil.
Or witness this recent lengthy piece at the National Review by Mary Eberstadt, where she literally uses the word “potty-mouthed” in an attempt to discredit modern feminists. Her thesis is that modern feminists are morally bankrupt because they don’t meet her exacting standards of ladylike behavior, which amount to abstaining from profanity, covering up your body, and upholding the illusion that good girls don’t like sex. Serious moral concerns over actual violence against women, denial of bodily autonomy, poverty, and discrimination—the sort of things feminists care about—are ignored. Morality is pulling down your hemline and saying “fudge” instead of “fuck.” It’s a narrow and pinched view of the world that puts rules about propriety ahead of empathy and care as the basis of a moral framework.
More than that, this propriety-based view of morality is often used as cover for actual moral transgression. We see this in the Morning Joe crew basically writing off literal centuries of white racism by turning it into a controversy over a naughty word. Or, with Eberstadt, blowing off serious moral concerns over violence and discrimination in favor of tut-tutting over how crass girls are these days. This hidebound, propriety-driven morality makes it all too easy to be indifferent or even supportive of genuinely cruel behavior, all while telling yourself you’re the good guy because you don’t say bad words.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.