In Defense of Paula Deen

Charles C. W. Cooke, National Review, June 25, 2013

If the bleak reckoning of Reputation.com’s Howard Bragman is to be believed, Paula Deen “will survive” her recent ordeal, “but she will never be whole again.”

This is because, in the choice words of Bill Maher, “she f****d up.” Court documents revealed last week show Deen being asked under oath whether she had used the N-word before. “Yes, of course,” she replied, although “it’s been a very long time.” For this admission, the Food Network fired her.

Immediately prior to her dismissal, Deen made what was tantamount to a hostage video, in which, per the Huffington Post, she was shown close to tears and “begging forgiveness from fans and critics troubled by her admission to having used racial slurs in the past.” Thus it was confirmed that, at some point in her life, Paula Deen has said some bad words out loud.

One might ask, “So what?” Many people have said bad things before. Is the admission of having once said an offensive word really sufficient justification for punishment in the here and now? Being humans are not computers, we will not last long as a society if we throw aside judgment, context, and mercy, merely to scan sentences for bad data and then gang up to punish the accused. If we are to purge everybody who steps slightly out of line, who among us will survive?

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One imagines that there’s another reason that the likes of Bill Maher took exception to the firing. According to the New York Times, in the course of denying that she had “told racial jokes,” Deen,

stated that “most jokes” are about Jews, gay people, black people and “rednecks.” “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person,” she said.

Indeed, she cannot. Nor can I, and nor can you. Therein lies the problem with elevating “offense” above all considerations. Because “offense” is in the eye of the beholder, it is, like unprovable accusations of witchcraft, ripe to be weaponized. “People shouldn’t have to lose their shows and go away when they do something bad,” Maher complained on Friday. “It’s just a word. It’s a wrong word. She was wrong to use it. But do we always have to make people go away?” One sincerely hopes not. Coming from a family that is a mix of white, black, and Asian, I would be unable honestly to promise a court of law that I had not said offensive words in the past—albeit I used them exclusively in jest or in parody—and nor would anyone else in my family. Should National Review fire me for this confession?

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Freedom of speech is not a license to say anything anywhere without consequence but a check against government. As Paula Deen has no right to work at the Food Network, her rights have not been violated. But to be healthy, a country needs more than merely a prohibition against government overreach; it also needs a strong culture of free expression. Our tendency to disqualify people categorically on the basis of a single indiscretion is ugly and destructive. {snip}

And what explains our inconsistent application of this principle? I have little time for those who can’t see the difference between Kanye West’s using the N-word and a racist’s hurling it at an African American in anger. But how about those who have made genuinely disparaging comments and survived? Jesse Jackson remains at large despite his use of the word “hymie” to describe Jews and his description of New York as “Hymietown”; Robert Byrd managed to say “n****r” on national television in 2004 while serving as a United States senator; Al Sharpton referred to “Socrates and them Greek homos” to dismiss the ancients; Joe Biden believes that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent”; and Marion Barry recently contended that “we got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops.” What about them?

Tu quoque arguments are as fallacious in these instances as they ever were. That these people said these things does not excuse Paula Deen. But there is a definite double standard here, and one that is particularly peculiar given that Deen was an entertainer with a show on the Food Network while the speakers listed above work in government or in politics.

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Paula Deen

Paula Deen

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