HARD TO KNOW sometimes how to distinguish between intentional bigotry as opposed to clueless, ignorant or pigheaded behavior. And maybe the distinctions don’t matter much.
Consider the example last week of the elected assessor of the Town of Taghkanic, Art Griffith, who told members of the Town Board in a public session, “We Jewed them down,” referring to negotiations over a bill with a contractor.
As reported in last week’s edition, a member of the board objected to the anti-Semitic slur by the assessor, and the town supervisor characterized it as a “mistake.”
But Mr. Griffith rejected that explanation, justifying the language he’d used as “a common phrase used all the time.” Perhaps it’s not surprising then that he offered no apology. It didn’t offend him, so why should it offend anyone else?
You can’t argue with Mr. Griffith on one point: the ugly phrase he used at the meeting has been widely repeated for at least the last couple of centuries and possibly much longer as a way of summoning a stereotype. Judging from the context, he used the slur in a prideful way, seeking credit for having driven an exceptionally hard bargain.
But history also shows us that stereotypes — whether the product of religious, ethnic, genetic or whatever type of bias — are fundamental tools for dehumanizing others, whoever the “others” are at the moment. Once you strip a group of people of their individuality by attributing to all of them a certain set of characteristics, then it becomes far easier to discriminate against and persecute them in all sorts of ways.
The question for Mr. Griffith is where do you draw the line? What words or perversions of language won’t you use if you can justify them as “common”? Would he or any reasonable person find it acceptable to scrawl hateful slogans on the wall of a building in Hudson used as a mosque as three young men in Hudson did last year? Perhaps in the world of those young men, who were in court this week, their hateful words are common.
Is that too extreme a case? Okay. But once you attempt to explain away the language of bigotry, how are you supposed to define the limits?
The prejudices any of us express in private are not at issue here. But when an elected official in this country uses a slur in public, the event commonly sparks widespread condemnation. The apologies that often follow remind everyone that voicing thoughtless, hurtful words does not make those words any less thoughtless, hurtful… or threatening. Just the opposite, such statements not only cause individual alarm, they corrode our democracy.
Undoubtedly, some people will dismiss this incident as an overreaction and an attempt to enforce some vague standard of political correctness — a big deal about something that nobody should get upset about. But that misses the point. This isn’t about politics or about an arbitrary list of what’s correct. It comes down to the fundamental question of moral authority.
We voters voluntarily give our public officials tremendous power over our lives and out wallets. We don’t — or shouldn’t – demand that our elected officials be saints, but we have a right to expect that they will do their best to treat their constituents fairly, regardless of their religion, race, ethnicity, skin color, genetics, whatever attributes make each of us potential targets of slurs. Chipping away at that trust by singling out one group or another undermines trust in the justice of our system. If he can denigrate one group, who’s next? Me? You?
There’s nothing the Town Board can do to sanction Mr. Griffith for his use of the slur or his inexplicable refusal to apologize for using it. The voters elected Mr. Griffith and they can express their views on his behavior when his term expires should he choose to seek reelection. But the board does have an obligation to the people of the town to condemn Mr. Griffith’s use of the slur and to admonish him for his failure to acknowledge the harm his words have done.
A resolution to that effect won’t undo the ugliness of Mr. Griffith’s statements. But it would allow the members of the board to place the town on record as opposed to the use of such stereotypes in the conduct of town business. And while they’re at it, board members might explain to Mr. Griffith that adopting resolutions aimed at improving the town is a “common” practice “used all the time.”