There are certain words that we just can’t say. Our culture allows certain identity groups to use hurtful words in a way to regain the power of those words. For example, racial groups can call each other words that were once used by white people as a way to belittle and humiliate those identity groups. We all know this. We all accept this. But when Papa John’s founder John Schnatter privately used the N-word in historical context to describe how others have used it in the past, those working beside him decided that he had crossed an unforgivable line, and the founder has resigned as chairman of the board for the company he started. Is he a racist? Or is this simply a way to bring down a successful man under the guise of political correctness?
According to CNBC, Schnatter used the N-word a few months ago when going through a public relations meeting after he got some heat for suggesting NFL players should respect the national anthem. “The conference call in May came to light after Forbes magazine detailed the incident in an article [. . ..] The report, which was later confirmed by Schnatter, said he was on a call with marketing agency Laundry Service when he tried to downplay comments he made about the National Football League last fall by saying, ‘Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s and never faced any public backlash at KFC.’ ”
Obviously, Schnatter never directly called someone by the word; instead, he was trying to explain that previous food chains have done real social harm, but just uttering the word caused an internal uproar. So the pizza king issued an immediate apology:
“News reports attributing the use of inappropriate and hurtful language to me during a media training session regarding race are true,” Schnatter said in a statement released by Papa John’s. “Regardless of the context, I apologize. Simply stated, racism has no place in our society.”
While it was stupid of him to say the word out loud, there are two other issues at hand that are much more troubling.
First off, the conversation being reported on was a private conversation that was later leaked. People say ignorant, stupid, biased things all the time in private, but should people be fired for saying them if their actions do not reflect their private verbiage? Private conversations cannot be the way we judge people. We must judge public actions and behaviors. Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet was a public sin, and ABC had every right to protect itself. The leaker in this story appears to have his or her own motives. My guess is that the board probably wanted the founder gone for a laundry list of reasons.
Secondly, language and context are too important to ignore. Quoting a statement with the N-word is 100 percent different from generating a new sentence with the same word. Saying the word does not make a person racist. Is Louis C.K. racist? He might be a pervert, but no one seemed upset when he said the word in his act.
Using the N-word to bring down a person is racist. If we cannot see the difference, then we are essentially in an Orwellian linguistic nightmare.
Too often we look to call people racist to simplify an issue because people are not deep. The NFL commentary is another example. While many felt his NFL comments were ignorant of the plight of African-Americans protesting violence in their communities by police officers, believing that all people should respect the anthem is not a racist belief. It can’t be racist, as that belief calls for all people to respect the anthem. Had a group of white players protested the same way in support of another political or social issue, I’m sure Schnatter would have been just as upset.
In the end, Schnatter will be fine. He’s very rich. But this type of word-usage witch hunt is not good for anyone. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this. Remember Bill Maher’s use of the N-word a few months back? In the end, we like to say we are a free country, but whenever someone is offended because of failing to understand the context, we call for heads on sticks. That’s not freedom. That’s a new type of prison.