Charlottesville "Unite the Right" Rally
Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate, and Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flags. Credit: Anthony Crider/Flickr

John Oliver’s most recent Last Week Tonight is worth watching, including footage of a 2018 news conference with Kenosha Sheriff David Beth.

Reacting to five Black teenagers who had been caught shoplifting, Beth pontificates that we need to lock this generation up and throw away the key before they start reproducing. Oliver is right to compare that to 1940s Germany.

But at the end of that clip, Beth suggests that he’s “not saying anything different than most people in society are thinking, but they’re afraid to say it.” That is what conservatives are talking about when they refer to “political correctness” or “cancel culture.” I am reminded of what the blogger Nezua wrote at The Unapologetic Mexican in response to a comment from Glenn Greenwald about “speech rules.”

In this analysis (or this part of his post at least) the problem is the various unwritten speech rules. But guess what? There really aren’t any. There are just poor attitudes we keep about people who look different. Or who we’ve been taught to think of differently. And there is a “White” attitude of deciding for everyone else how they should live, be, self-identify, and do many other things. There are old slurs and old tropes that hurt people. These are the things that are flushed out when people speak: attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, manners of speaking that hint at lurking attitudes.

People avoid talking about race because they are scared of exposing their thoughts and views on race…They are not afraid of “unwritten speech rules.” They are afraid that what they really think and feel will cause them to be ridiculed or ostracized in public, or that they may see a part of themselves they have to feel bad about. So they keep the potential to themselves.

But if we keep the focus on Speech Rules, we miss the opportunity to change ourselves.

Donald Trump has lead by example in chucking “speech rules.” Christopher Orr talked about that as the reason the president is so beloved by his most ardent supporters. Here is what Orr suggests is happening when they complain about the way Trump speaks and tweets:

It is almost always interpreted–and is clearly meant to be interpreted–as “I’d never speak/tweet that way because THOSE ARE BAD THINGS TO SAY, AND I DISAPPROVE OF THEM.”

But what if the unspoken 2nd half is often or even usually something closer to “I’d never speak/tweet that way, BUT BOY WOULD I LOVE TO IF I COULD GET AWAY WITH IT.”

As Orr suggests, David Frum made a similar point in writing about Trump’s speech at the Republican Convention.

Mid-speech, Trump expatiated on the greatness of the American past. “Our American ancestors sailed across the perilous ocean to build a new life on a new continent,” he began. Almost any other candidate, even any other Republican, would feel some need to acknowledge the experience of Native Americans and enslaved Africans, to place a question mark over the concept of wild frontier and open range—the literal phrases in his text. But Trump knows that millions of his fellow Americans are sick and tired of having to pretend to care about Black and Indigenous people. He wants them to know that he doesn’t care either. That’s what they love about him.

That is exactly what Biden was talking about when he said that, “If I’ve learned anything during the time of Donald Trump being president it’s this—hate never goes away, it just hides. And when leaders give it oxygen, as Trump has done, it comes roaring back.”

If it is true that hate never goes away, it raises the question of whether it is better to air it out in the open or send it back into hiding. Here’s what Ibram Kendi wrote about that:

[Trump] held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality. Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump…

Trump’s racism—and that of his allies and enablers—has been too blatant for Americans to ignore or deny. And just as the 1850s paved the way for the revolution against slavery, Trump’s presidency has paved the way for a revolution against racism.

Personally, I’m not as optimistic as Kendi when it comes to the possibility of a “revolution against racism.” I suspect that once Trump is finally out of office, we’ll revel in the return of normalcy.

The good thing about hate going back into hiding is that it happens because, as a culture, we agree that racism is wrong.  People hide it because they recognize that racism is taboo. The bad part is that, as Nezua wrote, focusing on speech rules stops us from changing. Eventually, someone like Donald Trump comes along to exploit the hate.

I am reminded of how former Attorney General Eric Holder was pilloried on the right for suggesting that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to talking about race. He was basically suggesting that we do away with political correctness.

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race…We know, by “American instinct” and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character.

The whole point of Holder’s speech was to suggest that “if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”

Trump has no interest in a frank conversation about racial matters. But to simply allow the hatred that has been exposed to slide back into hiding would be a grave mistake.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.