The Baltimore Post-Examiner recently removed the word “teabagger” from a Tim Forkes’ Left Coast blog about the Tea Party in response to concerns that the word is an offensive slur. One particular line of complaint, I am told, compared the word “teabagger” to racial slurs, which the “little bit of everything” website ordinarily avoids posting.
Normally I’d have little to say about this site’s editorial decisions – and it’s a credit to the editors that they’re willing to listen to even the most ridiculous complaints. But in this instance, they made the wrong decision.
Even worse: they made that wrong decision for a terrible reason. And it’s one that’s worth addressing, because it appeals to a recurring, extremely idiotic narrative on the Republican right.
When you’re part of the most powerful, privileged and prosperous demographic in the history of the world, you don’t get to play the victim or compare yourself to the oppressed. It’s stupid, it’s embarrassing, and it’s dangerous.
When words have power
Remember those nightmarish decades when a white family couldn’t move out of the ghetto into a nice suburban neighborhood without finding “CRACKERS GET OUT” spray-painted on their garage door? When getting called “breeder” at the bar often meant that a bunch of gay men were about to beat you up for being a heterosexual? When Joe McCarthy held Senate hearings to find out if “teabaggers” were secretly infiltrating the US government?
No? Probably because none of that ever happened.
America’s white heterosexual Christian males have never had to worry very much about the language people use because they have always had all of the political and economic power. Why think twice about all the mean things your slaves have to say about you? It’s your plantation. Who cares if a handful of freshmen in the local chapter of college communists thinks you’re a bourgeois pig? They’ll never win an election.
If you’re an oppressed minority of any sort, slurs aren’t just hurtful – they’re dangerous. When you don’t have any power, the only thing you have left to rely on is society’s basic respect for you as a human being. Historically, slurs have been a way to destroy even that.
But teabaggers are one of the most powerful voting blocs in the United States. Presently 47 Congressmen and six Senators explicitly claim membership in the Tea Party, and other Republican legislators have only broken with them once. Over forty percent of Republican voters describe themselves as members, and an overwhelming majority are sympathetic to their goals. The Tea Party commands near-constant media coverage even from opposition outlets – and on the FOX News Channel and AM radio, that coverage is slavishly sympathetic. They control an entire apparatus of think tanks and lobbying organizations in Washington DC, most operating on multi-million dollar budgets, and frequently funded by several of the wealthiest donors in the country.
Idiots who complain about the problems with “political correctness” invariably think they’re fighting over-sensitive liberals on behalf of blunt speaking and bold truth-telling. Ironically, they tend to be the same crybabies who flail in outrage as soon as someone treats their dumb ideas with anything less than obeisiant respect. But we don’t avoid using slurs against minorities not out of some kind of genteel politeness. It’s a way of taking responsibility for the dangerous way those words have been used in the past.
You don’t have to teabag
More to the point, when teabaggers say, “How dare you insult me,” what they actually mean is “How dare you insult what I believe?”
In other words, these complaints about hurt feelings are exactly what we’re supposed to hate about “political correctness” – they’re a way of enforcing agreement, stifling dissent, and pretending that we shouldn’t have judgments and opinions about anything.
When I say that the Tea Party’s support for anarcho-capitalism is insane, their understanding of history is stupid and their attitude towards the rest of the country is sociopathic, that is nothing like criticizing someone because of the color of his skin or her sexual orientation. That’s just a concise evaluation of contentious positions and ideas that teabaggers are completely able and welcome to abandon.
Calling someone a teabagger is just rhetorical shorthand for saying, “Your politics are so intellectually and morally indefensible that they warrant comparison to a taboo sex act.”
The comparison isn’t just intellectually defensible – politically, it’s extremely important. Shaming is one of the most powerful sociological forces in human history; it allows all of us to influence the bounds of acceptable behavior without having to enforce it with weapons or the power of the government. And for the most part, it’s self-regulating: shaming only works when it appeals to everyone’s collective conscious.
Teabaggers may find the sexual connotation annoying, but really bothers them is the implication: that it’s shameful to be associated with the Tea Party, and to support the politics that the Tea Party supports.
Also, remember when they were calling themselves teabaggers? That was pretty funny.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.