Whence it comes

January 10, 2013

I wrote last night about Nick Kristof’s argument that Chuck Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” cannot imply antisemitism because Jewish groups or newspapers sometimes use the term.  I wrote that such a term sounds different depending on whether it is said by a member of the group or by a person outside of it.

I thought I’d mention here what I think is going on that distinguishes the two dynamics:  love.

Like my college roommate who would hear no criticism of her father and his second marriage but herself once questioned whether the relationship had begun before her parents’ marriage ended; she said, “Yes, I know I said it was all on the up and up, but do you really believe that?” with the air of somebody who obviously didn’t.  But she could say that because she still clearly loved her dad.

I think it’s similarly true of a group’s own use of a term that might have some pejorative overtones.  If a member of the group uses it, dubious as that may be, there is still usually a connection that includes love (along with a mix of other emotions) between the member and the group, and that connection attenuates the threat of complete betrayal.  It limits the bounds of the negative point and overtones of the episode, at least in most cases, I think.  About a member outside the group we have no such sense of how far the criticism may extend.

An analogous example somewhere between candor about relatives and group terms are ethnic jokes.

In the best of all possible worlds, we don’t gossip about relatives or tell ethnic jokes, or use pejorative terms, about people in our own groups or people in other groups.  Admittedly, all of us don’t live in that world or live in it all the time.  I think there is a pretty bright line, though, between using a term about somebody else’s group and using one about one’s own.  I think the speaker’s meaning comes out different in the respective instances and the listener’s understanding of what is meant is apt to be, at least subtly, different.

That, I think, is the basis for my criticism of Nick Kristof’s argument defending Chuck Hagel’s use of the term he used.  To me his use of it asks for explanation of what lies behind it.  I wouldn’t assume I can predict exactly what does lie behind it, but to me it needs at least an explanatory context that the other examples Kristof cites do not.  In other words, I’m left with a question of “What did he mean by that?” that has import in a way that is not relevant to the term’s use in the other examples.

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One Response to “Whence it comes”

  1. Judah Himmelstein Says:

    There is NO God BUT The God of Israel. He gathers in His people and LAUGHS at the nations of the world.


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