Thursday, July 1, 2010

Just what makes one a racist?

What a surprise! Mel Gibson has committed yet another PR gaffe - this time he is quoted as having said to his girlfriend,

"You're an embarrassment to me. You look like a f---ing pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of n-------, it will be your fault."

Of course, everyone knows that "f---ing" means "fucking" and "n-------" stands for the infamous "N-word", nigger. But you can't use such words in the media because they offend many people.

It's my firm belief that no one can be offended by words without having chosen to be offended. When we were children, we were taught that "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me." Apparently, many people have forgotten that wise old saying. They choose to become incensed by the utterance (or printing) of mere words. Such words have the power to offend only if that power is granted to them by the listener/reader.

I'm by no means inclined to defend Mel Gibson, the man - whom I don't know personally, of course. He's demonstrated several times that he can't seem to keep his mouth in check and probably is indeed a racist and apparently may be a misogynist.

However, this occasion reminds me of something that's bothered me for a long time. If someone uses the word "nigger", does that mean they're racist? Then apparently a lot of black folks are racists - Chris Rock comes to mind, but many black people use the word "nigger" amongst themselves all the time. How can its capacity to offend be dependent on who utters it? Isn't that a racist perspective? Pardon the pun, but isn't that a case of the pot calling the kettle ... black?

In my thankfully brief time in the military, I made friends with a fellow with whom I was stationed at Fort Gordon, GA. He happened to be a black man, and we established our friendship quickly - you have to do that in the military or you won't have many friends. We had many open, uninhibited conversations in our short time together and I found him to be witty, thoughtful, and articulate. At the time, I had grown up in a mostly lily-white world so this experience was quite an eye-opener: black men are not necessarily angry, thoughtless, and illiterate! Racism was exposed to be a flawed way of knowing real people. Since then, I've discovered the intellectual bankruptcy of racism over and over again.

Anyway, to make a long story shorter, our relationship evolved such that he could call me "honkey" and I could call him "nigger" without creating any ill-will or animosity. We understood that such pejorative names don't cause any real hurt (unless people choose to be hurt by them!) and don't necessarily provide a clear and direct association with racism. We used these words on each other mostly for the fun of seeing how other people reacted - we knew the person using the words and knew there was no racism behind the words. We chose not to be offended. I miss my friend and regret that we didn't stay in touch.

Given the apparent obsession with "politically correct" terminology in the USA, any use of the dreaded "N-word" is construed by nearly everyone as meaning the user is a racist. That word is historically associated with very real racism, of course, and, frankly, I now have no such close friends among black Americans with whom I would dare to use it. You have to be really good friends with someone to use such deliberately provocative words freely.

Mel Gibson may well be a racist - if so, I pity him more than being angered by his ignorance in choosing to believe that skin color tells him anything about the person - but I don't believe that his use of the word establishes that on its own. There has to be a pattern of actions tied to the use of the word to conclude that someone uttering it is a racist.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What is it about sports? Part 2

In an earlier blog, I talked about the "life lessons" associated with sports. To illustrate that, I want to use the amazing story of the National Championship wrestling match between Dan Gable (wrestling for Iowa State) and Larry Owings (wrestling for the University of Washington). Some information about it can be found here.

Achieving a national championship in any competition (athletic or otherwise) is a truly outstanding achievement. National championships aren't the result of an accident - they come from many, many hours of unseen hard work and the development of the mental toughness to work through pain and the boredom of practice, the discipline to do what it takes, and so on. Participation in sports is mostly for young persons, and most young people simply don't have the commitment and mental toughness to perform at the national championship level. But there are a few elite athletes who form a pool of those at or near the very pinnacle of their sport.

Dan Gable came into the NCAA final match in 1970 as an undefeated senior in college at 181-0. He already had won two NCAA championships - in his sophomore and junior years (he didn't wrestle on the varsity as a freshman) and was considered unbeatable going into the tournament. He wrestled in the 142 pound class. Potential opponents of comparable weight either went up or down a weight to avoid him in the tournament, he was such a heavy favorite.

But Larry Owings cut weight specifically to wrestle Gable and beat him! Clearly, Larry Owings was a reasonably good collegiate wrestler, but his record gave little hint of what he was about to accomplish in this legendary match. Rather than trying to avoid the "unbeatable" Dan Gable, Larry Owings had confidence that he could beat him and set out specifically to do so. It turned out in such a way that the two met in the 1969-70 NCAA finals. Gable was the heavy favorite, of course. This was to be the last match of Dan Gable's storied collegiate wrestling career, so he could be expected to give it his best effort. As it turned out, however, Larry Owings did beat Gable in that match to become that year's national champion, in what has to be the biggest upset in collegiate wrestling history.

So it demonstrates that if you set your mind on an achievement and work to accomplish your goal, seemingly impossible objectives can, in fact, be achieved. Larry Owings had achieved what virtually no one else expected he could do.

But the story doesn't end there. Essentially, that match was the final achievement of Larry Owings as a wrestler. But Dan Gable went on to win a World freestyle wrestling championship in 1971 and became an Olympic freestyle wrestling champion in 1972. It should be noted that the history of American wrestlers in the World and Olympic freestyle wrestling tournaments has never been one of dominance - generally, the best freestyle wrestlers in the world are not Americans.

Rather than continuing to dwell on a very bitter defeat at the end of his collegiate competition, Dan Gable re-dedicated himself to his sport, achieving at the highest possible level (the world) before retiring from participation as a wrestler. Then, he went on to coach the Iowa wrestling team to several national championships and national dominance. Thus, he didn't allow what had to be a devastating setback prevent him from going on to even greater accomplishments. He didn't give up on his dreams beyond college, just because he was upset in that famous match.

If you can't find useful life lessons in this (abbreviated) story, then I give up!