John McCain and “gooks”

3 Sep

I’ve read this article a few times, during the coverage of John McCain this past week. “When McCain’s anti-Asian slur stalled his ‘Straight Talk Express,’ he doubled down. Then, he apologized” speaks to two of many questions about identity language that come up in conversations that I facilitate:

  • Why is it OK for some people to use identity slurs and not others?
  • Is it really OK?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “gook,” its etymology as a derogatory term for Asians is murky, but one theory is that it derives from the Korean word for Korea, which is “Hanguk.” (Incidentally, “guk” means people–hardly an insult in and of itself. But its abbreviation, transliteration and usage have imbued “gook” with its disparaging connotation.)

McCain used this word openly. His unapologetic defense of using “gook” in 2000 even involved repeating the term):

“I was referring to my prison guards, and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends. I hated the gooks, and I will hate them as long as I live.”

At this point, identity politics might dictate that no one has the right to tell a POW how to refer to the people who didn’t just detain him, but tortured and permanently disabled him.

I believe that the rules of what you get to say about a group do indeed depend in part on your relationship to that group. So when non-black people complain that black people “get” to say the n-word, but they themselves don’t, I agree with them that the rules are different. But the question of whether those rules are unfair requires us to consider that black people have to live with the impact of the n-word, while non-black people who may want to say it get to do so without living its impact.

In McCain’s case, the rule had a twist: do you get to use a slur for a group that has treated you badly and even inhumanely? That’s the question that also underlies the controversy about Sarah Jeong’s anti-white people tweets: does experiencing racism give you permission to say derogatory, dehumanizing things about white people? Please know that I am not comparing Jeong’s experiences with McCain’s. I wouldn’t even know where to begin or what the point would be. I’m just connecting the dots of a theme across their very different stories about discerning when it’s OK to speak inhumanely about another group of people. What’s the answer?

I appreciate the response from the San Jose Mercury News, in response to McCain’s defense of his language:

“No one expects the former POW to speak kindly of his torturers. But their sin was being sadistic thugs, not being Asian.”

It’s notable that McCain did apologize for repeating the slur and promised not to continue doing so. The question remains: was that the right thing to do?

I believe there is no easy, clear, universal answer. However, I would invite that it’s worth considering the question the Mercury News implied, which is basically: Is an identity slur the most accurate way to get at what you’re trying to say about the group, or may it confuse the real issue of what they did with who they are?

Because in the end, if McCain was standing up against the use of torture, and if Jeong was speaking out against racism, it ultimately wasn’t just “offensive” or “insensitive” to choose the words they did. It was potentially ineffective to their causes.

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