Speech is Protected, Reactions to Speech are Not

Recently it was announced that the Food Network was cutting ties with personality Paula Deen in response to a deposition she gave where she admitted to using a certain word in the past.

The word in question was uttered several decades ago, yet the fallout was swift in the part of the Food Network despite Deen stating that she no longer uses the word and has not since it was deemed offensive.

Lost in the debate is the fact that the word is still widely used without any penalties on one side of the tracks yet it is considered career suicide to use it on the other.

Vocabulary needs to be either for all or for none. There cannot be words that only certain members of society can freely use and others cannot.

Dictionaries like this one do not include sections limiting words to people who look a certain way and neither should society. Photo R. Anderson

Dictionaries like this one do not include sections limiting words to people who look a certain way and neither should society.
Photo R. Anderson

In terms of this particular word I personally think that it should not be used at all due to the offensive nature of it. To say that a word is only offensive when uttered by people who look a certain way does not work.

As a journalist I am a huge fan of the First Amendment and related freedom of speech clause contained therein. Without that freedom the job of the press would be greatly impacted. But of course that freedom does not encompass all language and does not mean a freedom from reaction to the words spoken. We have the freedom to say things but others have the freedom to react either favorably or negatively to what is said with that freedom.

Following the announcement of Deen losing her Food Network position, countless fans have rallied to her side and protested the decision.  This is in stark contrast to the reaction that the Dixie Chicks received when they criticized the president a few years back.

While not an apples to apples comparison one could argue that many of the fans of Paula Deen could in theory also be fans of the Dixie Chicks prior to their ill received comments.

So why the difference in reaction to the two statements?

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the Dixie Chicks were given the response they were based on a respect for the president and the believe that no one should criticize the man or the office.

In Deen’s case one could say that many of the people now supporting her use the word in question as well so it must be just Southerners sticking up for Southerners.  That would be a very dangerous assumption to make however.

Like Paula Deen the Dixie Chicks faced fallout for something they said. Photo R. Anderson

Like Paula Deen the Dixie Chicks faced fallout for something they said.
Photo R. Anderson

While it is true that the word that Deen used is still uttered by people of all races in southern towns, it is foolish to think that the reason for her support is because people who use that word are sticking up for their own kind.

By Deen’s own admission she says has not used the word for years and knows it is offensive. That to me does not sound like someone who has it as part of their daily vocabulary.

When I would travel to southern Georgia to visit my grandmother I would hear the word quite frequently so I know it is part of the culture of the south.

Some using it know that it is offensive yet continue to say it nonetheless. Others have used the word their whole lives and probably have no idea that it is determined to be offensive.

The bigger issue is what words that are used today will be deemed offensive in 40 years and will people still be held accountable for saying them.  For example let us for the sake of argument pick the word “flounder.”

Flounder is a very safe word today. It is a yummy fish. Who doesn’t love the tasty fish either fried or blackened?

But let’s say that someone years from now determines that flounder is offensive to the fish. So a new word is developed since flounder is deemed to be offensive and not to be used. Instead flounder is now called royal sea fish.

But let us also say in our absurd illustration here that fish mongers and others who work in the seafood industry are still allowed to say flounder while the rest of us are told to only call it royal sea fish.

Does that mean that 40 years from now if someone reads this column and sees that I like to eat flounder instead of royal sea fish that I will be run out of town?

Granted this is a very extreme illustration but the point is the speech trends in a culture shift and what is okay to say at one time can become offensive or vice versa.

For examples of this one need only watch television to hear words that would not have been on the air a few years back suddenly become commonplace on both network and cable television.  Words that years ago would have drawn huge fines from the Federal Communications Commission are now heard nightly without fear of fines.

So, should one really be held accountable for words spoken decades ago or should we instead look at what they have done since then and consider the actions of the whole person instead of who they once were?

In the same way I have always felt that criminals who complete their prison terms should automatically have all of their rights restored upon their release. If a term of prison is X amount of years and they serve that, then they have paid their debt to society as determined by the jury of their peers and related judge.

To continue to force them to register as felons only limits their ability to find adequate honest work and makes it more tempting for them to revert to a life of crime again.

Just like many other embattled public figures before her I have no doubt that Paula Deen will land on her feet and that people will still flock to her restaurant, buy her cookbooks, and use her cooking gear and related other merchandise. But the case does evoke disturbing divides regarding vocabulary that need to be addressed if we as a society are ever to truly move forward.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a craving for something made with two sticks of butter.

Copyright 2013 R. Anderson