We live in such strange times. Logic and consistency seem to be missing from the public arena, especially in the interpretation and usage of words. Words mean only what a politician or activist wants them to mean, and the same word can be either good or bad depending on the purpose for which it was chosen and towards whom it is directed.
For example, let’s take a brief look at two very similar terms: "boy" and "good old boy" — doesn’t sound like there is a lot of difference between them, does it? In fact, the terms are not just similar, they are identical except for the modifier, "good old." Both terms serve the same function — they are words used to belittle certain individuals. When directed at grown men they imply that such men should not be given the same level of respect as others.
But only one of them is considered improper. The other is an acceptable way to describe individuals currently out of favor with the establishment. Their conflicting interpretations illustrate what can be called "language relativism."
The derogatory phrase "good old boy" is used as an ad hominem tactic to demean men who do not kowtow to todayu2018s "progressive" agendas. It is often directed at members of Southern heritage groups who oppose the elimination of their traditions and symbols. In these cases, media’s use of the term "good old boy" implies that those who are demanding the elimination of the symbols are forward-thinking, discerning individuals, while those who want to maintain them are all lumped together as backwater country-bumpkins who want to "turn back the clock." The campaign to eradicate Southern symbols has been very successful and much of its success is due to the effective discrediting of the defenders of the traditions with such demeaning labels as "good old boy."
In other cases, "good old boy" as a term of disparagement has been less effective. It was employed by media to discredit the Augusta National Golf Club for refusing to alter its men-only status and allow women to join. Members of the U.S. Congress have even been sullied with the "good old boys" tag when they have refused to capitulate to legislative demands from organizations such as the National Organization of Women and the NAACP.
Although being called a "good old boy" might defame someone’s character, I am not aware of any legal actions that have been pursued as a result of such an accusation. Normally such speech is protected by the First Amendment.
However, the word "boy" without the modifier "good old" brings forth an entirely different response, as well as an entirely different legal treatment. This form of the word was the subject of a recent Supreme Court decision. Two black employees of Tyson Foods, Inc. in Gadsden, Alabama, sued the company for workplace discrimination because a white supervisor allegedly referred to them as "boy." They accused the supervisor of having racist opinions that resulted in their being passed over for promotions to high-level positions. This particular supervisor was known to be "curt and abusive" to all employees and two white managers had resigned as a result of his actions.
A jury agreed with the two black employees and awarded each $ 1.75 million. But the U.S. District Court in Birmingham overturned the jury’s award, concluding that the supervisor’s use of the word "boy," although insulting and disrespectful, was, in and of itself, "insufficient evidence of racial discrimination." The case next went to the Court of Appeals for the11th Circuit in Atlanta which agreed with the decision of the District Court. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned both lower courts and reinstated the jury’s award.
The Supreme Court ruled that the word "boy" can indeed be deemed a form of discrimination against blacks; serious enough to warrant monetary damages. In this case, the Supreme Court followed the recent trend of removing First Amendment protections from certain kinds of speech that advocates "ideas that most people would find distasteful."
Did the Founding Fathers intend that the protections of the First Amendment be set aside in order to censor "distasteful" comments? Probably not. But in today’s politically correct environment the end justifies the means, and expediency takes precedence over the rule of law. Consequently, although "boy" and "good old boy" are both insulting epithets, they are evaluated differently — the establishment supports what it currently favors and suppresses what it currently disfavors. As a result, one of the terms is considered "protected speech" under the First Amendment while the other is denied such protection. And the manipulative use of language rationalizes the dissimilar treatment of the two terms as well as the dissimilar treatment of individuals under the law.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.