Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Spate Speech or Honest Mistake"

From acephalous "On his show this morning, Dave Lenihan attempted to list Condleezza Rice's qualifications for NFL Commissioner:

She's been chancellor of Stanford. She's got the patent resume of somebody that has serious skill. She loves football. She's African-American, which would kind of be a big coon. A big coon. Oh my God. I am totally, totally, totally, totally, totally sorry for that.

The link to the audio on The St. Louis Post-Dispatch warns potential listeners of the clip's "offensive language." People were certainly offended by it. KTRS station manager Tim Dorsey fired Lenihan a scant twenty minutes after his self-described "slip of the tongue." According to Dorsey, Lenihan's "slip"

was a most unfortunate racial slur. There can be no excuse for what was said. Dave Lenihan has been let go. There is enough hate. We certainly are not going to fan those flames. That is not what we're about.

St. Louis' NAACP chapter president, Harold Crumpton, called Dorsey seeking an explanation. Dorsey explained that Lenihan had already been fired. Crumpton sounded pleased, noting that "coon" is a word "intended to inflame passions . . . like the 'n word.'" I emphasize the word "intended" because the intention is there only in a general sense. It fails to account for the specific context of this utterance.

His unfortunate "slip" immediately follows a conversation in which Lenihan agrees with a caller who said she'd make a "fantastic President." He accidentally calls her a "coon" while trying to refer to the "coup" her ascension to NFL Commissioner would be. I grant you that the word "coup" immediately following the phrase "she's African-American" reeks of tokenism. But to claim that he "intended to inflame passions" by praising her qualifications for both the office of President of the United States and the Commissioner of the National Football League irks me.

This kind of unintentionally offensive comment differs from those which result from unacknowledged privilege. Lenihan's language isn't "unintended" in the "I'm unaware of the structural inequalities inherent in contemporary America" so much as the "I tripped over my tongue and out came what sounded like a racial epithet" way. (Unless you believe that in praising Rice he intended to denigrate all African-Americans. One could argue that Rice fits into the old "one of the good ones" mold and that Lenihan did intend to belittle the majority of African-Americans. None of the talking heads I've watched have forwarded that argument though.) read more

Scott Eric Kauffman's slip in the title is of a different but related order than the slip in the broadcast. Both speak some larger "truth." Spate is a "flood or inundation; A sudden or violent outburst or outpouring of some quality, feeling, etc." And coon "a Negro" (slang, derogatory). SEK, "Short of granting the existence of a psychoanalytic unconscious which reveals itself through such slips, I can't see how someone would ascribe ill-intention to them. However there are times when they may be the product of conscious thought interfering with articulation." I don't really think it's intention at all here for Lehihan (given his response) but both slips are a form of flooding, a form of remembering but Lenihan acknowledges his and SEK, here, seems not to want to acknowledge his own.


At 7:23 PM, Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Unless I'm completely misreading your tone--a distinct possibility--I think you've misread mine. The title--"Spate Heech," not "Spate Speech"--refers to my propensity for swapping initial consonant sounds, which I discuss in the post. Point of fact, it's not an actual "slip," since I crafted it. Further in the post, however, I acknowledge that because I'm well aware of this fact, I'm anxious when I stumble into a phrase like "new figures" in the course of a classroom discussion of racism/racialism in the American novel. I'm not in the least uncomfortable acknowledging my anxieties; only I don't subscribe to psychoanalytic accounts of their etiology. Needless to say then, I'm a little curious to know what you mean by "flooding," as it's one thing to disagree about overt manifestations of covert racism, another to disagree about the applicability of psychoanalysis to such manifestations.

One other quick note for your readers: my "slips," such that they are, are the result of my strained relation to language and act of articulating it. I've discussed this elsewhere on my blog, and it's something my readers are familiar with, but yours might not be, so I'll mention it in passing: I was stone deaf the first three or four years of my life, and spent about 8 years in speech therapy learning how to shape my mouth, throat and tongue the way most people do naturally, so I trip over language in an idiosyncratic way. Also, for the most part my trips produce nonsense like: "I'll stop pading grapers, bean lack and slift off to deep for a couple of seconds. Or maybe I'll kalk into the witchen, pash a wear and spare into stace for a minute or two." Never in a row, mind you...and yes, apparently this paragraph is what I mean by "in passing."

At 7:40 PM, Blogger hysterical blackness said...

I don't often read your blog so thanks for the history. My comment wasn't menat to be about you (SEK) but about language, history, memory, forgetting, etc. And I was speaking only about the title (not the "new figures" example––though it is an interesting and complex one).

What's interesting to me now is my slip in terms of your slip. I thought I cut and pasted the title of your post to avoid making a mistake but somehow I introduced the very mistake (unbeknownst to me) that i was reading you as having made (Spate Speech).

Honest mistake?

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Thin Black Duke said...

Wow, I've been holding off on commenting on Scott's post because I wanted to think clearly through my relationship and ideas about language before saying anything. But this exchange adds a whole new level. I'll have to think about this more.

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

h.b., I've no doubt it was an honest mistake. As the thread on my blog has lengthened, however, I'm becoming increasingly aware that people don't actually believe in honest mistakes. N. Pepperell's brilliant reading of Lenihan's slip--that he tried to decide between "boon" and "coup" and ended up saying "coon"--adds another interesting twist to it, but one which remains in the field of "accidental" instead of "tellingly incidental." All of which brings up a larger issue, one I've been trying to sort through; namely, the insistence on the meaningfulness of everything. It may be a simple human conceit, as William James argues in Religious Thought, that we impose order on the chaotic, or attribute meaning the meaningless. I'm not saying that's what anyone's done here, but on one level the conversation seems to be about the percentage of meaningful things in the world. And the psychoanalytic idea that every word a person utters means and/or reveals something, a concept I don't necessarily buy. (Nor do psychoanalytic thinkers, really, since they use discrimination in their determination of what's deeply meaningful.)

Kevin, I look forward to reading your response, whenever it may come.


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