Op-Ed: Worse than Bigotry: An incident in Wilmington

Cancel culture on the beach

Bigotry is bad. But the steps that must be taken to completely eliminate it are much, much worse.

Here is an example.  The conversation of three cops in Wilmington NC talking to one other in their separate cars was inadvertently recorded by the police system.  Their comments were picked up via a monthly video audit.  The comments were unpleasantly racist. The mildest involved one officer referring to a black woman and later a black magistrates as “negroes”. The officers also speculated about a possible coming civil war and “slaughtering them”.  Another officer apparently felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map.” A second officer told this one that he was “crazy: the recording ceased at that point.

The officers conduct was deplorable; no doubt about that. On their other hand, their conversation was intended to be private. The word “negro” was once the acceptable term for African-Americans. It was used by MLK and is still used by black charitable organizations like the United Negro College Fund.

The point is that racial language is so touchy that what is acceptable changes frequently.  You can see the same phenomenon in relation to mental handicap.  Once mentally handicapped people were just called “idiots”.  After the term idiot became unacceptable it was supplanted by “moron” (yes, the Greek-derived “moron” was for a while a gentler and more acceptable term than Middle English “idiot”). Moron in turn has been succeeded by a long list of euphemisms, the current favorite being “special needs.”  If a person or a condition is regarded as socially undesirable, the words used for it tend to change: as one word becomes stigmatized, another will take its place. This is just the nature of language,

Even if they were confused about the acceptable term for people of color, there is no doubt that the rest of the cops’ conversation was blatantly racist. The three officers denied that they are racists.  Their conduct was not public; in effect it was a “thought crime”. There is as yet no evidence that they acted publicly in the way their words implied (an inquiry is ongoing).

Nevertheless, before the results of an inquiry are in, all three cops have been fired.

Many people will regard this as a just punishment. They should reflect on what it means for society as a whole. Racism may be a sin. But the idea of “sin” is a Christian one and it comes along with the idea of redemption — and forgiveness.  The treatment of the officers is not only un-Christian, it is also chilling.

Hasty, arbitrary and severe treatment like this suppresses not just free speech but free thought. Perhaps that’s the idea, although I doubt the officers’ superiors thought much about that. Protecting their fragile fundaments was probably the main thing on their minds. But a more measured punishment would have let the officers and the public know that the Wilmington police department understands justice as well decency: decency of behavior and justice of punishment. As it is, they serve neither society nor themselves by caving to the mob.

John Staddon

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