So What Can We Expect of Paula Deen?

This doesn’t quite count as evangelical political thought, but it’s an interesting set of questions.  Rod Dreher has offered a charitable defense (of sorts) of Paula Deen, the cooking TV personality who recently lost her job and reputation (such as it was) over her admission, in court depositions, that she had used racist language, most pointedly, the “N-Word” (as we now say).

Two problems strike me with regard to Rod’s defense.  First, note that the admission was in the context of a lawsuit alleging that Deen mistreated her employees and subjected them to all sorts of abuse, including racially tinged abuse.  Rod, of course, submits that if she did indeed do these things, she’s in the wrong.  But note that if she did do those things, then her language isn’t quite so innocent or dainty.  It isn’t just a quaint custom or a linguistic after-effect; it is, quite possibly, part and parcel of a nasty racist mindset.  Now, it’s possible that the lawsuit is without merit and it’s possible that her infelicities are just that and go no further.  But given that Food Network (her employer that fired her) is entirely in the business of promoting food personalities, it seems entirely reasonable to me that, given the facts before them, she’d be gone.  They’re in a business and having someone on your payroll who seems a throwback to a much worse era would likely cost them money.

Rod’s broader point, though, is that we shouldn’t really be too surprised at Deen’s language and not even really all that upset.  I think that is really quite miscast.  Though I live outside Chicago (sigh), I am, culturally speaking, a southerner.  Born in southern Alabama, went to high school in the Florida Panhandle (alternatively known as the “Redneck Riviera” or “Lower Alabama”) I’ve got plenty of Southern street-cred, as it were.  My father grew up in Opp, Alabama and moved to Montgomery in 1954 and I’ve never – never – heard him utter a word that could be construed to be racist or derogatory of racial or ethnic minorities.  And he’s not alone.  There are legions of whites in the South who grew up in racially discriminatory times who know (and act) better.  The point here isn’t that Paula Deen is some sort of moral monster.  She’s not.  She’s just an ordinary human being who hasn’t learned the obvious lessons that millions of her fellow southerners have.  That suggests that it’s right and proper to call her out.

The trickiest part is the repentance bit.  She said that she’s sorry and maybe she is.  And Rod is right that we’re generally reluctant to extend forgiveness (though in fairness, so many of our public apologies are hardly even that).  But isn’t it the case that public moral learning happens precisely through these kinds of episodes?  Don’t we want people to recognize that if they want to be considered leading members of our society (and I guess a FoodNetwork personality counts as that, alas) that they can’t talk or even really think in this way?  Isn’t that what it means to be a “community,” where social norms get revisited and reinforced through this kind of public opinion?

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