Friday, February 02, 2007

Coonass. Nick Saban, the new Alabama head football coach [and former head football coach at Miami (the Dolphins), LSU, and Michigan State] said, in a taped conversation relating a story told to him by a friend on the LSU Board of Trustees: "He was walking down the street yesterday before the Sugar Bowl. He calls me. There was a guy working in the ditch, one of those coonass guys that talk funny. I can't talk like them, but he can. Most people in Louisiana can." Nick said coonass, said it on tape, someone put that tape on the Internet, and all day yesterday the saints of sports talk radio and television lined up to take shots at him.
I have two problems with the uproar. One relates to the way in which Americans treat certain words. My other concern was prompted by the comments of a particular shock jock. First, I want to establish the facts. Nick said coonass. He shouldn't have used the word coonass. There is some debate over the offensiveness of coonass. Coonass is a word which refers to Cajuns. It may have origins in French (dirty prostitute) or in the reference to black people as 'coons.' Some Cajuns regard it as degrading, others have no problem wearing it on t-shirts or putting bumper stickers on their car which declare that they are a "registered coonass." The former Governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, referred to himself as a coonass. For more on coonass, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coonass.
So, on to my first point. Coonass is a word. This has a few important implications. First, words do not have static meanings. The word 'gay' is a great example. The sentence "I am gay," has a very different meaning now then it would have a hundred years ago. These meanings don't just vary over time, but from place to place and speaker to speaker. If I, as a white man, call a black man a nigger, that has a much different meaning then when a black man calls another black man a nigger. For some black people, nigger is an awful word with a very clear meaning and history regardless of who uses it. Many, myself included, believe that casual use of such words may well serve a cathartic purpose and be an assertion of power, but in the end serves to diminish the negative connotations and the important historical lessons that the term can be used to convey. This leads into my second point, which is that language is a complex issue. It is never, regardless of how quickly people are fired over words these days, an easy matter to discern a man or woman's character from the use of a word or a sentence or even a whole paragraph. Thirds, the English language in its entirety is available for all of us to use, interpret, and bend to our own purposes. This is why Ebonics is such a ridiculous concept. People who assert that ghetto slang is a legitimate dialect simply cede the English language to others. Words shouldn't allow for ownership, without exception. Fourth comes a point that really should not need to even be made. There is no simple answer to what was meant by a sentence, a word, or a facial expression. Only in context should any sort of judgement be made. It is one thing to say that Nick Saban's comment, in light of the way in which he took the Alabama job or the way in which he left any of his other jobs or the way he has been seen to act towards Cajuns in the past, points to a man with a real problem. It is another to say that anyone who says coonass is a bigot, even though it is clear that is not the case, at least in everyone's eyes. This brings me to my last point. Every human being has, on many many occasions, made a statement that they wish, in hindsight, they could take back. I certainly have. Sometimes I know, almost before my mouth has closed and without the need for any independent confirmation, that I have put my foot in my mouth. Other times I have determined that I shouldn't have said a particular word, phrase, or statement based purely on the reaction it receives. I don't always think I was wrong, and sometimes I avoid the statement in the future and even apologize simply in order to placate someone. Before my life is over I hope to have done quite a lot of talking. To pick out anyone word or statement in isolation and use it to define me as a person would be an injustice greater than the one perpetrated when a white person refers to a black person as a nigger. It is our obsession with the absence of such missteps that has given us our current President. Great men make as many if not more mistakes than the rest of us. Lesser men avoid the appearance of impropriety and focus on that appearance in others.
It was listening to sports talk show host Colin Cowherd cut off caller after caller who dared to say anything other than that coonass is an awful thing to say that originally caused me to want to write about this topic. He, typical of one sort of sports talk show host, lives in a black and white world. I am sure that this makes for great ratings and radio, but it also perpetuates a potentially very dangerous form of ignorance. Colin was making a potentially very complex and nuanced matter into a simple one, and distorting it in the process. This isn't the first time he, or others like him, have done this. In fact, it is a problem that is rampant in this country. We want to see the world as black and white, good and evil. Unfortunately, the world doesn't work that way. It is the same problem scholars who worship quantitative methods have when they try to study and understand humans. On the one hand the reaction is juvenile. I am right, I have a talk show, you disagree with me, so you must be a moron. This is why he 'borrowed' a fake wonderlic test from the M Zone (http://michiganzone.blogspot.com/ ), without giving any credit, and when this borrowing was pointed out by the people at M Zone called them whiners and said they would get no satisfaction from him. He eventually apologized, but it seems a safe assumption that this was one of those occasions where we admit the errors of our ways because we are trying to please someone and not because we believe we have done anything wrong. Now, I often agree with Colin, but that doesn't make his approach right. The key isn't in the end product. The key is the process. Colin's process allows for pettiness. Out of a sports talk show host these acts seldom rise above juvenile, petty, or annoying. It isn't hard to see, however, where this logic can be much more dangerous when employed in other walks of life. When our government labels all Muslims as terrorists, or even all Muslims who oppose Israeli actions in Palestine as terrorists, they are employing this same approach.
Nick Saban may be an ass. This may be evidenced by his use of the word "coonass." It is hardly an obvious or settled fact, however. People of intelligence could easily disagree, but not in any public way, as a person of intelligence is keenly aware of the witch hunt they may be subjected to if they don't. What I decry here is the dearth of real dialogue, and the driving underground of principled inquiry and measured and deliberate living. Telling me I am wrong and or that you are right does not make it so. You still have to prove it.

1 comment:

Megs said...

Well said, SDA! Well said!