You didn't think our political culture could go any lower? In a reminder that we have made no forward progress since 1999, when David Howard of Washington, DC was forced to resign his city government job because he used the word "niggardly," Massachusetts' Governor Mitt Romney has apologized for referring to the disastrous Big Dig project as a "tar baby."
I tend to be overly sensitive to hurtful language. I dislike "humor" that gets its laughs from insult or mockery, and I hate it when people hurt each other and call it jest. Words spoken in anger, whether directed at me or at others, sting like a whiplash. The Bible says it well: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Ephesians 4:29)
But today's hypersensitivity to "incorrect" speech, where people choose to be insulted where no offense could possibly have been meant or implied, is frightening. Surely most of it is based on ignorance. Not everyone's vocabulary includes the meaning and origins of the word "niggardly," and we can no longer assume that Americans know the Br'er Rabbit stories, once part of our common culture. With their origins in Africa, developed by southern African-Americans, popularized by Joel Chandler Harris (Uncle Remus stories) and Walt Disney (Song of the South), these stories should not have been lost. But Disney will not even release Song of the South on DVD for fear of controversy. Perhaps if they had, more people would have appreciated Romney's reference, which says so much more than calling the Big Dig a "sticky situation."
From someone who has heard the expression "tar baby" used as a racial slur, or who has been so hurt by the word "nigger" that "niggardly" brings pain merely by the association of sounds, an initial reaction of anger is understandable. But the apology went the wrong way. Once the context and meaning are understood, the one who misinterpreted should apologize to the one his anger wronged.Literacy should never have to apologize to ignorance. Explain, yes. And educate. But not apologize.