Patterico's Pontifications

3/15/2009

Giving and Taking Offense: A Boy and His Dog

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 12:37 pm

I think we’ve hit on some examples that will help us explore the issue of responsibility for the meaning of words, misinterpretation, and giving offense. Thanks to Craig R. Harmon and Jeff Goldstein in comments for the precursors to these examples.

1) A boy has a dog named Rover. At night, he typically calls the dog into the house from the field by either calling out: “Come here, boy!” or “Come here, Rover!” The dog responds to either; either is equally effective.

The boy learns at school that there is a racial history associated with the word “boy” such that black men are offended to be called “boy.” That night, he starts to call out: “Come here, boy!” when he sees Rover out in the field. But then, the boy sees a black man near Rover. The boy thinks to himself: if I yell out “Come here, boy!” that black man will be offended. But then the boy thinks: I don’t care. That’s his problem. And he yells, “Come here, boy!”

The dog and the black man come over. The black man is angry. The boy explains that he was just calling his dog. And the black man calms down and says he didn’t realize that; he hadn’t even seen the dog out there when he heard “Come here, boy!”

a) Has the boy done anything wrong? Should he have done anything differently?

b) Was the black man wrong (unreasonable) to be offended at the beginning?

2) Same facts as #1, but before the boy calls out to the dog, the boy’s dad advises him: “Say ‘Come here, Rover!’” The dad does not want the boy to offend the black man.

Has the dad done anything wrong? Should he have done anything differently?

3) Same facts as #1, only the boy had been preparing to call out “Come here, Rover!” and changed it to “Come here, boy!” when he saw the black man. The boy changed his phrasing, not to offend the black man per se, but to make a point about language. His thinking was: I was about to say “Come here, Rover!” but instead I will say: “Come here, boy!” By saying it this way, I am making the point that I will not have my choices limited by the reactions of others.

Has the boy done anything wrong? Should he have done anything differently?

4) Same facts as #3, only the boy isn’t making a point about language when he changes the call from “Come here, Rover!” to “Come here, boy!” He’s trying to make his friends laugh. He’s not trying to offend the black man, remember; it’s of no importance to him whether the black man is offended. He just wants to amuse his friends.

Has the boy done anything wrong? Should he have done anything differently?

5) Same facts as #4, only the black man sees the dog. He hears “Come here, boy!” and knows the child might be calling his dog. But he also hears the boy’s friends laugh.

Would the black man be wrong (unreasonable) to be offended?

6) Same facts as #1, except that this is a more real world example: we don’t know the boy’s intent. All we know is that there is a black man in the field with the dog, and the boy calls out “Come here, boy!” and the black man gets offended. Oh — and add one more fact: before the boy yells out that phrase, he turns to some friends and says: “Watch this!”

Then the black man gets offended, and the boy — wide-eyed and innocent — says he was just calling in his dog. His friends suppress giggles.

a) Has the boy done anything wrong? Should he have done anything differently?

b) Is the black man wrong (unreasonable) to be offended?

Give your answers in the comments, along with your reasoning.

148 Comments

  1. As a dog lover, all I care is that it’s all good with Rover.

    Comment by PC14 (82e46c) — 3/15/2009 @ 12:44 pm

  2. I’d be concerned that “rover” may have some racist connotations. Better to just let the dog come home when it feels like it.

    Comment by Old Coot (a71844) — 3/15/2009 @ 12:51 pm

  3. The black man should have ignored that kid, no matter what the scenario. Sorry for not answering your questions.

    Comment by Wulf (09d362) — 3/15/2009 @ 12:54 pm

  4. I think the intonation is an important but of at least the first 3 scenarios.

    Comment by WFG (b89ac4) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:01 pm

  5. I don’t think you call a black man “boy” the same way you call a dog “boy.” For example, you wouldn’t clap and whistle for the black man to come running to your porch.

    They’re easily discernable.

    The “Come here boy” for the black man has a much more ominous tone.

    When calling the dog, it’s almost like a small child or a baby.

    Comment by Hawkins (d2ec51) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:02 pm

  6. When I was a child growing up in rural Mississippi we had text books in first grade that instead of saying “Run Rover run” “Watch Rover catch the ball” it had “Run boy run” Watch the boy catch the ball etc” but the illustration portrayed the boy as an African American. Should anyone be offended with this?

    Comment by Bob (3e1f65) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:03 pm

  7. I meant part, not but, in my previous comment.

    Comment by WFG (b89ac4) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:03 pm

  8. Hawkins and I were thinking of basically the same thing. Anyway, H/T to Andy Levy for RT’ng this on Twitter.

    Comment by WFG (b89ac4) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:05 pm

  9. Will nobody answer the questions — even with the caveat that intonation matters? Try answering using each hypo: i.e.

    * if the tone sounds like a dog is being called

    * if the tone sounds like a black man is being called

    There are still interesting issues to be teased out of the answers, and I’d like to see people give the answers.

    Comment by Patterico (cc3b34) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:05 pm

  10. Assuming that in each case, the boy has already learned the negative connotations of “boy,” he probably shouldn’t say it just out of respect, knowing that it could be interpreted that way by the black man. Its not as if that’s the only way he can call his dog. If he wants to say it, and doesn’t care about the connotations, that’s fine too, but for me, respect for other individuals is the only thing that keeps our society together. Is there anything wrong with the black man getting offended? No, he can get offended at whatever he likes. Its a free country.

    Comment by jimmy the notable (5cc552) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:08 pm

  11. Sorry for not responding to each instance. Even if nothing the kid says is explicitly intended to offend, that doesn’t mean what he says isn’t capable of offending. Should he get in trouble for saying something which never had the intention of specifically offending? No. But he should feel embarassed if he was having a laugh at the black man’s expense.

    Comment by jimmy the notable (5cc552) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:11 pm

  12. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything and just held out a BBQ’d rib.

    Comment by plep (f0a9e6) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:13 pm

  13. The black man needs to “get over it” and move on. People call their dogs (and cats) “boy”. I suppose if my dog was named Blackie, Shaquille, Ebony or anything similiar, then I just shouldn’t call it at all??? This is the 21st Century.

    Comment by LSULarry (1f94e0) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:16 pm

  14. This hits upon what is functionally a ‘pet peeve’ of mine …

    There is a very good reason why, in the English language, the expression is “to TAKE offence” … offence doesn’t have to be taken, even when it is obvious that offence is being offered … the proverb (aphorism?) “Sticks and stones may break my bones, yet words will never hurt me!” teaches that important world-lesson …

    This is also a significant cultural difference (Warning! Warning! Sweeping generalisation follows !) between the US and the UK … in Scotland, if one does not know a person, or if one knows a person but does not respect that person, then anything that person says tends to be deemed to be irrelevant, unimportant, not worthy of attention … this is also considered as being covered by “Consider the source” … in the US, it seems that for the majority of the population, *everything is personal …

    So far, the best example I have found to convey the concept that one actually doesn’t *have* to take offence is as follows … it is also, however, dependent upon the listener/reader understanding what a spiny sea urchin looks like, and how painful its spines can be if handled less than carefully …

    When someone gently tosses a tennis ball towards you, you are likely to try to catch it – that’s how we learned to react in primaryelementary school … if, however, what the person tosses towards you is a very spiny sea urchin, then the instinct to catch it bare-handed is *not* a good instinct …

    When someone tosses a spiny sea urchin at you, you have the choice of trying to catch it or simply keeping your hands and self out of the way and allowing it to fall to the ground harmlessly (to you, that is – the sea urchin may or may not be damaged) …

    Now, if you choose to try to catch said spiny sea urchin, you can do it carefully, so that you don’t stick yourself with any of its spines – and that is and chould be *your* choice …

    If, however, you choose to try to catch the spiny sea urchin, and you impale yourself, it is *your own* responsibility for trying to catch it …

    Yes, I understand that we are subject to reacting, sometimes without any thought … ideally, though, we learn, with the least painful experiences we can, that we do not have to react unthinkingly to everything Life and people throw at us …

    Comment by Alasdair (6b086e) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:17 pm

  15. I would rename the dog and call it “Damn it”, I once had a girl next door who lived a dog life so I called her rover.

    Comment by douglas cox (d20c0c) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:23 pm

  16. #1. The boy has done something wrong because in your example he consciously knows that the black man may be offended. You should never intentionally offend. Since his actions were deliberate due to the thoughts you have provide, he should have called the dog by name. The black man should not be offended, and is wrong to be offended, because he does not know at what or why the boy uses the word. He can simply choose to ignore what he may perceive as the stupidity of others.

    #2. The Dad is not wrong. He is teaching his child to be considerate of others. If the Dad believes the word is offensive, it is no different than teaching his child that the “n” word is offensive. He should not have changed his reasoning or his intent.

    #3. The boy is wrong again, even more so, because he is choosing to do something he knows is offensive. There is no reason to intentionally offend others. You may do it in normal conversations, or by expressing opinions in a forum, but, to do it just to do it is wrong. He should have simply called “Rover.”

    #4. Now, the boy increases his intent by trying to include others in his offense. He is even more wrong than before, and his actions an even more deliberate attempt to offend, and to include others in his offense. Again, he should have simply called “Rover.”

    #5. That the black man chooses to be offended by actions of which he has no concrete knowledge is his problem. He does not know why the boy used the word “boy” nor does he know why the other children are laughing. His “offense” is self-inflicted. (A real problem in this world, since this exact example happened to me recently in a school teacher meeting where I used the word “noose” to describe tying pinyatas in a tree so school children could knock them out. A teacher wrote a formal complaint which said, and I quote: “I don’t know what he said, but it was offensive and unprofessional.”)

    #6. This becomes the real world situation where only the speaker knows why he said something, and what his intent was. If he boy knew that he was saying the word to be offensive, he is wrong. If he was trying to call his dog, he was not. The black man has no right to be offended because he has NO WAY OF KNOWING the intent of the speaker, and therefore has no right to IMPART HIS FEELINGS ABOUT THE WORD ONTO THE SPEAKER. This is the opposite of freedom of expression, where the listener is able to silence the speaker because the listener becomes the dominantforce in the conversation. Neither side should be dominant; both should be willing to listen.

    Comment by reff (ee9f7a) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:23 pm

  17. Patterico, I think that we all understand the examples of racism in your above noted circumstances. The acknowledgment of the black man and his possible misinterpretation of the word “boy” is key. However, you referred to the dog caller as “boy” throughout every circumstance. Is your example “boy” a black kid or a white kid? That is kinda important to your scenarios. Are you a racist?

    I read both your blog and Jeff’s and find much to enjoy in both. The thing that keeps cropping up with me is that the limited government ideology can embrace both sides of this whole kerfuffle. The back-biting and other such nonsense serves no purpose.

    Comment by Two Dogs (f545fe) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:23 pm

  18. …before the boy yells out that phrase, he turns to some friends and says: “Watch this!”

    Then the black man gets offended, and the boy — wide-eyed and innocent — says he was just calling in his dog. His friends suppress giggles.

    If the kid knows his words might be perceived as a double entendre, and his buddies know that too — particularly if their response is to snicker or laugh — then he and his friends are being jerks.

    Of course, if the black man in the field is similar to Jeremiah Wright, Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, his automatic response — even if the kid yells out “come here, Spot!” or “hi, how are you doing!?” — will be to get insulted, no matter what, and think “Goddamn America!”

    Comment by Mark (411533) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:37 pm

  19. Patterico:

    I suspect the reason most aren’t answering your hypos (yet) is that they seem unduly contrived… like little booby traps designed somehow to blame Rush Limbaugh (whose name you don’t mention but who looms, obviously and ominously, over the entire exercise) for the coordinated Democratic campaign to make voters think that Republicans want America to fail, to punish it for voting for Barack H. Obama.

    In particular, I was — no, not offended but bemused — by example 6, which you tout as “a more real world example”: You begin by saying, “we don’t know the boy’s intent”… then you write, “add one more fact: before the boy yells out that phrase, he turns to some friends and says: ‘Watch this!’”

    At the end, you write:

    Then the black man gets offended, and the boy — wide-eyed and innocent — says he was just calling in his dog. His friends suppress giggles.

    Evidently you think we do know the boy’s intent; the phrase “wide-eyed and innocent” nearly always means disingenuously so. And he told his friends to “watch this,” then they giggled when the black man is offended. You are quite clear here, Pat, that offense is very intended.

    And this is the most “real world” example you offer?

    How would you react to this formulation, the most obvious one you skipped?

    ……………………..

    7) Same facts as #6, except that this is an even more real world example: we don’t know the boy’s intent. All we know is that there is a black man in the field with the dog, and the boy calls out “Come here, boy!” and the black man gets offended.

    The boy says he was just calling in his dog.

    a) Has the boy done anything wrong? Should he have done anything differently?

    b) Is the black man wrong (unreasonable) to be offended?

    ……………………..

    Note that in this case, we really, actually, for real don’t know the boy’s intent (or our own intent for continually calling him “boy” when he might be offended). Not knowing his intent, and the black man not knowing the boy’s intent, and there being a perfectly reasonable innocent interpretation available, then yes indeed, I would consider the black man to be hypersensitive, using his weakness as a weapon to get his way.

    And also a bully, trying to intimidate a young boy.

    Dafydd

    Comment by Dafydd the Philosoph (db2ea4) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:39 pm

  20. I think the black man needs to grow a set…. get some thick skin and stop worrying about what little boys think. The man should worry about what his own family believe in him. All the anger would do is let the little boy know that you treat blacks different than whites and that Idead is not what Dr King had in mind. White Guilt and Black bias get neither group farther in this world. BTW get a leash for your dog

    Comment by Sandi Binder (01bbfe) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:40 pm

  21. My only point is that a black man is inevitably going to hear the word boy differently than a white man. That’s all. Blacks were called boy, no matter of what age they had obtained because they could not be allowed to think of themselves as adults.

    To answer the question, doesn’t one have to ask, how old is the boy who is calling the dog? That would figure in. If he’s 17, the answer is likely to be different in these scenarios than if he’s 7.

    Anyway, 1. A. No, I don’t think the boy has done anything wrong. He was, after all, calling his dog, not out to insult the man. B. No, I don’t think the man has been unreasonable in his interpretation. He didn’t see the dog.

    2. No, the dad has done nothing wrong. The dad’s job is to advise his son on things like the social contract, including social etiquette and potential pitfalls.

    3. Yes, the boy’s been deliberately provocative, merely to make a semantic point without caring whom he offended. He should get over himself and grow up.

    4. See #3.

    5. Being offended would probably be unreasonable. Seeing the dog, the most reasonable interpretation in the situation is that the boy was calling the dog. The man would have no way of knowing why the other kids were laughing.

    6. See #3.

    Comment by Craig R. Harmon (c7a176) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:49 pm

  22. Just don’t use the word “niggardly” or read the book “Notre Dame vs. the KKK”.

    Comment by dfbaskwill (2c7f7f) — 3/15/2009 @ 1:58 pm

  23. All of this linguistic crap with Goldstein and Patterico is by far the lamest thing ever to appear on Patterico.com.

    Comment by Brian (a7a560) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:05 pm

  24. Daffydd,

    You seem to confuse the man being offended with the man intimidating the boy to get his way. Being offended says nothing about the man’s behavior toward the boy. It is an internal experience, not necessarily tied to any manner of external behavior. Indeed Patterico has told us nothing about what the man said to the boy, merely that he was angry and offended. We don’t know that he was intimidating or tried to get anything in the way of his own way from the boy, other than an explanation for what he, the man, erroneously perceived to have been a racially charged comment directed at him.

    Just because the comment wasn’t directed at him, doesn’t make it unreasonable for the man to take the comment to have been directed at him, especially if he didn’t realize there was a dog there in the field to be called by the boy and one can be angry without being intimidating or bullying.

    Comment by Craig R. Harmon (c7a176) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:09 pm

  25. Get over it

    Comment by Neo (cba5df) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:10 pm

  26. How old is Rover? Considering that a dog-year is seven human years, he might be offended at being called “boy”.

    Comment by nk (0a1ba0) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:15 pm

  27. The fact that any of this is relevant gives some idea how ridiculous PC is. I believe people who take words and give them their own meaning and then use it on other folks are the ones that ought to go to jail. This whole code word thing stinks it assigns offense where none was intended. Besides my dog is a female. Here girl, come girl, go girl, she is a black lab and likes you no matter what you call her. World just needs more black labs.

    Comment by St Clair (996c34) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:18 pm

  28. Dafydd: your #7: the boy is not wrong, and the man has no right to be offended.

    Exception: if the boy has been taught that the word is offensive, and he chooses to use it, then he is wrong; the man still has no right to be offended, because he does not have knowledge of an offense.

    Comment by reff (ee9f7a) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:21 pm

  29. fine

    1a) no, he’s done nothing wrong, there was no malicious intent

    b) depends on the history of the man as to whether it was “unreasonable” but all things being equal, yes.

    2) No it wasn’t wrong for the dad to be cautious

    3) The kid’s being an idiot and would never do it to make a point, he’d do it to get an effect. It would have to do with intonation

    4) This would be ridiculous unless the kid hangs out with out and out racists and says “I’m going to make fun of the black man while calling my dog”

    5) Again, the black man has no context as to why the friends are laughing unless THEY’RE indicating something, so he’d probably ignore it.

    6) IF we don’t know intent, we can’t judge right or wrong. Plus, right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder. Plus we don’t know why the other kids would find it so damn funny (unless they were wearing hoods). On it’s face both reactions of the black man and the friends don’t pass the “Reasonable man” test.

    7. No one *Should* be offended on its face, but we don’t know the history of the man.

    Comment by Hawkins (d2ec51) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:27 pm

  30. It’s hard for me to separate meaning from manners in discussing this topic. Should the boy be able to use these words? Sure. Is it polite to do so? Not always.

    In addition, the answers may vary depending on where this occurs. The term “boy” is a bigger issue in places with a history of racial discrimination against blacks. In other places, the loaded words typically involve other ethnic or religious backgrounds.

    Having said that, I generally concur with Craig R. Harmon’s responses except I would like to know the kids’ ages — especially to answer #6. Such behavior by teens is questionable but young kids giggle and say “Watch this” about benign, silly things. They mean no offense and none should be taken.

    Comment by Anon (eb4fed) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:28 pm

  31. 1a) Yes, he chose to hurt another person when a harmless alternative was available and known to him. This is anti social and provocative.
    1b) No, but he should not continue to be offended after learning about dog.

    2) No, he did the right thing and his son should learn.

    3) Yes, he chose to hurt another person.

    4) Yes, he chose to hurt another person to amuse or ingratiate himself to his friends.

    5) No, but it’s pointless to say so, although I would hope someone would let me know if a son of mine did such. He does have the right to hold the boy in contempt.

    6a) YES! The boy chose to hurt someone for no reason and then lied about it. Unsocial, dishonorable, dishonest, cowardly (guess which party he’s headed for).
    6b)No, but again it’s pointless to confront the boy. Again, I would hope to be informed if I was the father.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:32 pm

  32. Maybe this is what Patterico is thinking of and maybe it’s not, but speech is communication. Do you want to connect with an audience, or do you just like the sound of your own voice?

    Comment by nk (0a1ba0) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:35 pm

  33. 1)
    a) No. The boy (were you racist in calling him that?) was calling his dog by a name familiar to the dog. At worst, he was NOT letting political correctness get in the way of his usual businness.

    b) No, it’s not unreasonable for an adult black male to object to be being called “boy” even by an adult white male, let alone by someone who really was just a boy.

    2. No. The only thing the dad might have done differently is to explain to junior why he was specifically telling him to call the dog Rover rather than “boy” in this instance.

    3) Yes, the boy was being a dick. Knowing that the black guy was in the area either shouldn’t have influenced his behavior at all, or if anything, it should have made him more circumspect rather than less so.

    4) Yes. In this case the boy was being an even bigger dick. At least #3 had him making a legitimate semantic point, albeit in a ham-handed way. This time he’s just plain being a dick for being a dick’s sake.

    5) Yes. If the black guy doesn’t know the boy or his friends, he shouldn’t have any clue what they are laughing about. He certainly shouldn’t assume there was anything racist there. For all he knows, maybe the “dog” is actually a bitch, and the fact that the boy just called her “boy” was the reason they were laughing.

    [In that vein, consider an alternative thread where the fact patterns are largely the same, except that the boy yells "come here, bitch" to his bitch while Gloria Allred is within earshot.]

    5) Yes,

    6.
    a) Maybe. Since we don’t know the boy’s intentions we can’t tell.
    b) No. Again, the black guy didn’t see the dog, so he wasn’t unreasonable in initially assuming that “come here boy” was directed at him. But once he found out the kid was calling a dog, he should let it go. He doesn’t know why the others are giggling. Maybe they’re suppressing giggles because the boy was intentionally provocative and is now playing dumb. Maybe it’s because he just mixed up the gender of the dog/bitch. Maybe they’re giggling because they only now recognized what the ambiguity was. Or maybe they’re giggling because his fly is down. He doesn’t know.

    Comment by Xrlq (62cad4) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:36 pm

  34. I’m offended at using a race sensitive analogy for Rush hoping Obama fails.

    Supposedly it is the newly unemployed who would be offended by Patterico informing them that Rush want’s them to be unemployed when he never said that.

    Like the kid yells “Come here big fella” and Sluggo calls to the black man just out of the kid’s earshot “Hey you, did you hear that kid call you ‘Boy’“?

    Sluggo’s excuse is that “big fella” and “boy” are equivalent terms in the Sluggo lexicon.

    Comment by boris (ecab60) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:38 pm

  35. 1) The boy was ignorant, lacking in courtesy and possibly wrong. (An adult doing this would definitely have been wrong.) If either call works perfectly well (note, significantly, that either call uses the same number of words and is as concise and easy to say – pertinent to the Patterico/Goldstein original discussion – to avoid very easily avoidable offense he should have said “Rover.”

    The black man can’t help feeling offended – he didn’t see the dog – but should either have ignored the call or been calm from the moment he approached the boy. Otherwise he’s somewhat of a bully.

    2) The dad not only didn’t do anything wrong; he’s doing right, teaching his son the courtesy of avoiding easily avoidable misunderstanding and offense.

    3) The boy is technically correct but morally wrong. Deliberately offending (he’d been planning to call “Rover”) to “make a point about language” is rawtha akin to deliberately using the word “niggardly” when the word “stingy” would work just as well in front of a multiethnic group which you know for certain doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

    4) Of course he’s wrong. Deliberately offending someone unnecessarily, to make his friends laugh.

    5) If the man knows the boy might be calling his dog, he might “feel” offended at the possibility he’s being made fun of, but to pursue that feeling would be immature and probably wrong. He doesn’t know the boy’s intent and absent any other info, he has no evidence of racism.

    6) As others have pointed out, he turns to his friends and says “watch this,” yet we don’t know the boy’s intent? Of course we know his “wide eyed and innocent” intent – to stir up trouble. Whether the man is right to be offended depends on whether he sees the dog and whether he heard the “watch this” and/or the giggles.

    I will add, in example 6 as in example 4, “making his friends laugh” is a very believable motive for a boy but “offending a man for no other reason” really isn’t, for an otherwise non-racist boy. So drawing a clear distinction between the two IMO doesn’t really work in this instance.

    Answers above were very interesting and expect discussion below will be too. Interesting post – will look forward to the follow up as this relates to the Limbaugh discussion.

    Comment by no one you know (1ebbb1) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:41 pm

  36. 1. I hope Obama fails

    2. I hope Obama fails

    3. I hope Obama fails

    4. I hope Obama fails

    5. I hope Obama fails

    6. I hope Obama fails

    Any more questions?

    Comment by Stephen Macklin (f552f7) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:44 pm

  37. What is right and wrong is different than what you can or can’t prove.

    Someone who hurts or risks hurting someone else to prove “You’re not the boss of me” or show their lack of being influenced by the possibility of offending someone is being an ass. To do so and claim ignorance or innocence is cowardly and dishonest.

    To select offensive language just to show you can is in your face and anti-social. You may not be able to avoid passing gas in public but that does not make it OK to fart in someone’s face on purpose. There is a legitimate purpose and need for civilized behavior when we must be together.

    To claim I can’t prove that you meant to offend me is to be craven.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 2:59 pm

  38. I hope Obama’s policies don’t work (I hesitate to say fail), because if they succeed, the hard left will be intolerable, plus the policies will continue.

    Not to mention what it will do to Mt. Rushmore

    Comment by Hawkins (d2ec51) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:02 pm

  39. “Not to mention what it will do to Mt. Rushmore”

    That made me throw up a little in my mouth.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:10 pm

  40. Obama is failing, and that’s good for the country.

    Comment by Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:12 pm

  41. Comment by Machinist — 3/15/2009 @ 2:32 pm

    +1

    Comment by Stashiu3 (460dc1) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:14 pm

  42. Thank you, Sir. Good to see you.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:15 pm

  43. Comment by Machinist — 3/15/2009 @ 3:10 pm

    Ok Mac, now you’re starting to creep me out. Every time I start to comment, a last check before posting it finds you’ve already said what I just wrote. ;)

    Comment by Stashiu3 (460dc1) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:17 pm

  44. G*d–this is getting tedious…

    I have a big problem with thought crimes anyways.

    As Alasdair said–sticks and stones…

    Patterico, I really like reading your blog. But, why not put this in context with the law and how we can be thrown in jail for thought crimes. But, apparently, minorities/immigrants/etc. cannot.

    Frmr Pres. Bush get raked over the coals by the ACLU for the dragging death of a black man because he vetoed hate crime (thought crime) legislation… Two where executed and a third got life in prison. What would a “hate crime/thought crime” add to the above sentences? Executing the third player in the crime?

    And, if I am playing lawyer–your what if leaves out the description of the “boy”… What if this is a black man you are calling “boy”. Are you “Giving Offense” to the “boy” who may be a 20 year old light skin Indian American lad?

    There is no indication of age/race/heritage of the “boy” or the father (until example #5). It may very well be an immigrant family and the “boy” learned about racial issues and terms in college or night school to learn English.

    You don’t mention “child” until the 5th hypothetical.

    And, we now know from the US Congress/President(SCHP program) that Children are eligible for free health care up to 30 years of age…

    Kind of changes the whole thought process…

    Comment by BfC (7f7501) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:19 pm

  45. Harper posting on the Kindle thread made my day! :D

    Comment by Stashiu3 (460dc1) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:20 pm

  46. For all you squishy-soft conservatives like Patterico, afraid to say they hope Obama fails, here’s a little spine-stiffener from the Libertarians. ;-)

    Democrats don’t tell union bosses who bankroll their campaigns to buzz off. They rarely question their president. Congress doesn’t even bother reading the trillion-dollar bills they send to Obama to sign.

    Republicans, conversely, are fighting over their future—a future that grass-roots figures, such as Limbaugh, certainly will be a part of. In the meantime, Democrats are hoping Republicans fail to come to a consensus and regroup, even though two vibrant parties are always healthier for the nation than one.

    And many of us are hoping that all those in power fail, because those in power have a grating habit of being annoyingly self-righteous, hopelessly corrupt, resolutely incompetent and completely apathetic about the freedoms that they have sworn to protect.

    Embrace the failure. It’s patriotic.

    Comment by Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (0ea407) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:23 pm

  47. The black man and the white kid are both in a position to exploit the situation. As far as damage to society the black man taking offense would be worse. Self censoring is a related damage to society. It creats an environment where speaking plainly is chilled by parsing everything for unintentional coded offences.

    But the worst effect is the sense that responsible members of society have the right and duty to judge and scold anybody who appears to engage in thought crime. It is preferable that an infinite number of thought crimes go unpunished than one innocent word draw social reproach.

    Comment by boris (ecab60) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:24 pm

  48. LSULarry wrote:

    The black man needs to “get over it” and move on. People call their dogs (and cats) “boy”. I suppose if my dog was named Blackie, Shaquille, Ebony or anything similiar, then I just shouldn’t call it at all??? This is the 21st Century.

    When I was growing up in a small town in Kentucky, in the sixties, one boy I knew had a black dog he named the inappropriate slang derivation of Negro. Wonder what happened when he called his dog?

    Comment by The Southern Dana (556f76) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:34 pm

  49. I can’t speak to thought crimes here. I only answered the questions asked and they dealt with social responsibility and civilized behavior. In no sense was the boy expected to censor himself or his expression. He was expected to conduct himself in a civilized and responsible manner. I’m sorry if I’ve missed some more obscure narrative here.

    You don’t hurt another for no reason just to show you can. If you do you are being an ass.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:35 pm

  50. Changing your language because of how someone nearby may react is not bad. I used different language in the field than in the hospital, which was in turn different than at home. If you modify your terms out of politeness or to target your audience (medical or legal jargon/terminology for example), that makes sense. If you modify it because you’re being intentionally intimidated by someone else, that’s a different story.

    But then the boy thinks: I don’t care. That’s his problem.

    That’s the key IMO. He made a conscious choice to be impolite (at best). He was wrong.

    Comment by Stashiu3 (460dc1) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:35 pm

  51. If the dog was black can he be angry?

    Comment by highpockets (f274af) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:36 pm

  52. And this will tell you just how politically correct Army basic training is; one of my readers was offended.

    Comment by The proud father Dana (556f76) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:38 pm

  53. Guy Gibson’s dog had that name and if you watch the movie “Damn Busters” it is a shock to hear it. The fact that such openly racist language used to be acceptable does not make it right today.

    If I am discussing fiscal policy and say I will be niggardly and an ignorant man takes offense, that is his problem. If I am giving a speech to the NAACP and I say there are white ______, then I am an ass and a Democrat Senator.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:40 pm

  54. Everyone is assuming the “boy” is white… Nowhere does Patterico state any description of the “boy” other than one time as a “child”.

    This could be a “black boy” calling “boy”… And we know that minorities can never be charged with hate crimes because they are minorities. ONly the white majority can be assumed to be racist regardless of intent/thought.

    Comment by BfC (7f7501) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:43 pm

  55. Stashiu3, the little bent wand has been getting around. She even commented at Ace.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:43 pm

  56. Hate crimes deal with feelings and should be outside the purview of the state.

    These questions had to do with actions and motivations. Both are legitimate things to hold someone accountable for. The boys feelings or beliefs about black people were never addressed and do not matter.

    Why I am an ass is less important then that I am acting like an ass.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:47 pm

  57. Nor does his race.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:49 pm

  58. The boy could have been black and he wanted to insult the man because he was old and the boy felt old black men had knuckled under to the man. Regardless, his behavior was purposely offensive and therefore improper.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:52 pm

  59. Let’s assume the little boy calling for his dog is white. Had he been making eye contact at the black man when calling out, then yes, it could be interpreted as racist. That would leave the black man to make the judgement (right or wrong). I for one think that the whole “boy” calling is dated.

    Comment by Mike (077e47) — 3/15/2009 @ 3:58 pm

  60. The boy knew the word was offensive and he knew the man was there. The question of rather he looked at him or not is only relevant to the man proving the boy meant to offend. The boy was wrong either way.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:04 pm

  61. My guilt is not determined by whether I’m caught or not. That is strictly a legal concept. I am guilty if I knowingly do wrong.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:06 pm

  62. If I am discussing fiscal policy and say I will be niggardly and an ignorant man takes offense, that is his problem. If I am giving a speech to the NAACP and I say there are white ______, then I am an ass and a Democrat Senator.

    Comment by Machinist — 3/15/2009 @ 3:40 pm

    LOL at the last part (Byrd, call your office!) But I think your first example very similar to Patterico’s example. The boy would be right calling the dog by “boy.” But if the boy knew the man couldn’t see his dog (i.e. the man was an ignorant man like the one in your example) he’d be more wrong to not call “Rover” instead.

    Not sure why it’d be different if you knew for sure the particular people you were with didn’t know what “niggardly” meant and would likely misinterpret it. I’d want, to be polite even though I could technically say it and be “right,” to substitute the word “stingy” instead.

    Comment by no one you know (1ebbb1) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:18 pm

  63. The boy would be right calling the dog by “boy.” = if he knew the man knew it was his dog he was calling.

    Comment by no one you know (1ebbb1) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:21 pm

  64. My maternal grandmother had a cat when growing up and it was named the offensive derivative of the N word as well. She would regularly call Here N, N, N, here kitty. At the time none in earshot were offended and there were a few black people who farmed. Of course they didn’t care because they believed her and her family to be nothing but reservation Indians Even farther down the pecking order, so to speak…

    Given that, I think that the hypothetical would also depend on time period and/or location. Some places and periods of time were/are more sensitive, obviously.

    However,

    #1 – The boy was rude. He chose to use the offensive statement having been told that it was offensive. The man assumed the worst about the boy (without knowing that the boy had chosen the least tactful option). That’s a continual problem with racial conflict: assuming the worst about the other.

    #2 – The dad did what a dad is supposed to do: train his child.

    #3 – Ridiculous. . No boy I’ve ever encountered would remotely think about phrasing let alone make a point about language.

    #4 – Willfully choosing to offend is never right.

    #5 – It would be wrong to willfully choose to be offended.

    #6 – I think whenever a boy wants to impress his friends and make them laugh, they generally choose to do stupid stuff. Insensitive, rude, and/or just plain dumb so I’d say that the kid is guilty of being the above. The black man is the adult and can choose to react accordingly. Or not.

    Comment by Dana (137151) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:23 pm

  65. Interesting…and thus one of the reasons you have a large readership.

    1a) no, he’s done nothing wrong, there was no malicious intent and even if there was, deliberate offense is protected political speech.

    b) No, the man has as much rights to be offended if he so wishes, and he can express his anger at that offense, but he can’t touch the boy nor can he come on the boy’s father’s property.

    2) Dad is a milquetoast, geeze people, when are we gonna stop getting our collective panties in a knot because someone “might” get offended? What are we, Officials in Luton, England?

    3) The kid would not be wrong, but I doubt seriously if a “kid” would have the intellect to distinguish.

    4) Amusing our friends deliberately at the expense of another… ill mannered kid and friends, but again he is not responsible for the feelings of the black man.

    5) Knowing no more than he does, yes he is MISTAKEN, but not necessarily “wrong.”

    6) Same answer as number 4, only this time the boy should get a swift swat on the seat of his being by his dad.

    7. I would suggest that the blackman get a life, he should know that language is changing and likely the “child” doesn’t know the history of the word “boy” as applied to the American Black. Hmmm, should I have said “African-American,” “Afro-American,” “Negro,” “person of color,” or “Black?” See, treading lightly. Wonder why no one ever worrys about calling me “old man?” :)

    Comment by GM Roper who wants DRJ back (d53336) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:35 pm

  66. Just realized that Patterico didn’t actually say that the boy was referring to the man when he said “watch this” – he could have been referring to the dog, as in “watch how fast my dog will come!” Maybe he wasn’t even paying attention to the man and “wide eyed and innocent isn’t as sarcastic as it sounds. The giggles were because the man got all upset for nothing.

    If true, we’re just assuming, based on the “racial history” of your examples, that he had ill intent with his call.

    Overanalyzing? Or trick question? Hmmm…

    Comment by no one you know (1ebbb1) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:40 pm

  67. I think it was reasonable for a University Regent to expect collage administrators to know the word. I’m a half wit and scraped my belly getting out of high school and I knew that word and where it came from.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:45 pm

  68. I didn’t know there was a “right” not to be offended. The boy didn’t initiate the use of force or fraud to achieve his goal, so no, nothing he did in any of the posed scenarios was wrong, as I define “wrong”.

    Inadvertently hurtful? Possibly, and if the dad thought the boy intentionally tried to offend the man walking by, then that’s what teaching is about, sometimes accompanied by a smack upside the head. And when I was young, my friends’ fathers would give me hell if I did something stupid and my parents wholeheartedly approved.

    Now if the dog’s name was “Stains” and the boy yelled out for him to come…

    Comment by Horatio (55069c) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:46 pm

  69. If he continued to use it after learning how ignorant his audience was then that would be another matter.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:46 pm

  70. I don’t suppose this discussion is what AG Holder had in mind. Or is it?

    Comment by sdferr (8643ba) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:50 pm

  71. There was no question here of legal issue. I think children should be taught it is wrong to knowingly hurt another if there is no reason to do so. I do not even hurt animals for no reason. To say it is not wrong because it is not illegal is perhaps why it is so hard to have a reasonable debate on issues now. Too many people see no reason to be civil.

    If the boy is going to be deliberately provocative he should at least have the stones to admit he is doing so instead of pleading ignorance. Cowardice is itself wrong.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:52 pm

  72. Being civil in interactions yields better results for reasonable people on both sides of the issue. It is not a touchy-feely issue.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 4:55 pm

  73. How others define right and wrong is less important in this example than how the boy defined it himself. He knew that using the word “boy” towards the man would be wrong. He also knew that the man might interpret it that way. Again, from the post:

    But then the boy thinks: I don’t care. That’s his problem.

    The boy intentionally disregarded the man’s sensibilities. It’s no different than standing outside a schoolyard loudly dropping f-bombs and saying it’s the parent’s problem if they object. It might be open to argument that the boy was wrong or not if his own values weren’t stipulated in the original premise. They were… he knew it was wrong and he didn’t care.

    Comment by Stashiu3 (460dc1) — 3/15/2009 @ 5:03 pm

  74. I agree, Sir. You have hit the most important part of the issue.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 5:11 pm

  75. In all the examples, the kid is a kid. Even in an instance where it’s absolutely certain that the kid was trying to lob a racial slur–like kids can get all powerful-feeling by lobbing zillions of other slurs in other instances (and he’s just been taught in school that this slur is a hot one)–don’t actual adults spend zero time estimating the offense intended by kids? They’re kids! What’s “intent” to a kid? That’s a hovering, controlling father that kid has, there–who missed a chance to teach anything by not telling the kid why his innocuous customary expression might be misread, here; though, if he had explained that, he would have ensured that the kid would use this one again.

    Comment by m (1d07bd) — 3/15/2009 @ 5:15 pm

  76. I did not grow up thinking I did not have to worry if I hurt someone. That type of conduct was not considered “being a kid”, it was considered being a delinquent and rewarded accordingly. My father would not have had to explain the correction because I would have understood why he said it or accepted that there was a reason I would understand later.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 5:20 pm

  77. m…75…

    Yes, he is a kid…let’s hope someone is teaching him to respect the feelings of others…otherwise, he grows up like a Democratic…

    I teach in an elementary school, and it is not being taught outside the classroom….which is the problem….

    Comment by reff (ee9f7a) — 3/15/2009 @ 5:30 pm

  78. #76 Machinist
    I was reared not to hurt people, too–and primarily by the example of my parents. Not by their scouring the plain to spot all potential offenses I might cause and not by their filling our conversation with “Don’t do this” and “You should say this.” They were parents, not police; not a lot of “Why did you say that?” and “You’re wrong!” Lots more “Let’s do this.”

    Comment by m (1d07bd) — 3/15/2009 @ 5:41 pm

  79. #78 m,

    Are you assuming I was raised as you describe? Is that the only way I could have been taught to be responsible for what I said and did?

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 5:44 pm

  80. I got bored with the intricacies of the question so I will answer in general terms. I have lived in black areas and am familiar with what kind of language and behavior should be avoided when one is around blacks. Young black males are particularly sensitive to behavior they believe “disses” them. When your car is alongside one driven by a young black male, particularly one with passengers and they are listening to loud “music,” do not roll up your car window- you have dissed them and they may just get even. As a teenager I once had a job in a liquor store in a black area. Many black customers talked to the owner to fire me and hire a black. He did and a month later he was at the door of my home begging me to come back. He couldn’t find a black kid who worked as hard as I did. When I was at that job many black male adults tried to bait me, a teenager, into fights. I was too smart to do that. One Saturday night three adult blacks entered the store and held up the three of us who were working. One man hit me on the head and his gun fired. By the way, I am not white- that made no difference. My conclusion- when blacks are in the majority, be very careful if you are not black. Blacks are just as intolerant and paranoid as racist whites. I am sorry to say this- but it is wiser to simply stay away, far away from blacks. It is so easy to “make a mistake.”

    Comment by mhr (f4841b) — 3/15/2009 @ 5:50 pm

  81. #79 Machinist
    No, I’m not assuming how you were raised. The questions asked about the kid in the post are about his intent and about whether or not he was wrong. I’m saying that in the instances described, in which a kid is calling out for his dog in customary terms, the question “Has the boy done anything wrong?” and the varying depictions on which we might estimate his intent are wrongly importing adult standards into the significance of the kid’s choice of words.
    I don’t think that evaluating a kid’s every statement in order to judge his intent and his wrong-or-rightness–in adult terms–would yield great results. Didn’t you say AWFUL things to get a rise out of a parent–because you were a kid? Well, I did. But my intent was very often “to get a rise out of an adult” and never once “to unequivocally engage in a just-learned-at-school racist dialogue with a hapless bystander.”
    I think that, essentially, I’m just elaborating #3 Wulf: “The black man should have ignored that kid, no matter what the scenario.”–though Wulf is not to be held accountable for my elaboration.
    Maybe a non-kid protagonist here would get us a cleaner shot at the topic. We might otherwise spin off into child-rearing advice.

    Comment by m (1d07bd) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:19 pm

  82. A few things:

    While I am white, I am routinely called “boy” and it angers me just as much as a black man has the right to be. Why? My first name is John. As in, “John Boy,” from The Waltons. I despise that term because I am a man and I would never use that terminology to ANY man, white or black. As a result, I never respond to ANYONE when I am called that, even to turn around, unless it is obvious they are talking to me, and then my response is, “Boy? I am a MAN and don’t you forget it.”

    Also, if someone whistles at me, I am offended. You reserve whistles for dogs and animals and I am neither.

    I do not think it is reasonable to call an adult male human a boy under any circumstance. It is an affront to his manhood. Under any reasonable circumstances there is no problem calling a dog “boy.” The problem is intent in your scenario. If it’s obvious the intent was directed at the dog, then there is no foul. The response of the audience is not the intent of the person.

    But I do think that ANY man who is whistled at or called “boy” has a right to be offended. It’s not fighting words, just a reason to call the person to the carpet.

    Comment by otcconan (bd1fbf) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:22 pm

  83. Patterico gave us much more information about the boy’s intent than we would have had from watching the events. I think it was just a question of whether those actions for those reasons were right or wrong. Nobody was asked to determine if the boy should be punished or subjected to judgment.

    Comment by Machinist (c5fc28) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:27 pm

  84. Blacks are just as intolerant and paranoid as racist whites.

    And yet the black community in America is predominantly and mindlessly pro-liberal, pro-Democrat-Party. I know one opinion poll taken about 2 or 3 years ago indicated something as ridiculously one-sided as 95-plus percent of black respondents disapproved of George Bush.

    I truly believe the foolish political/cultural mindset that prevails in black America exacerbates various social and economic dysfunctions or problems in a rather significant portion of society, and definitely makes it much harder to turn things around.

    Comment by Mark (411533) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:34 pm

  85. Bfc #54, I brought that up on Comment #17 and you are the very first person to comment on that since. You have won an island and Hooters girls to live with you there along with a private jet and Ski-Doos.

    Comment by Two Dogs (f545fe) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:36 pm

  86. #77 reff
    I appreciate your profession and your quandary. My point is not that kids don’t need parenting. Among my points are that expecting from kids a standard of speech that we expect from ourselves–that some expect from Rush Limbaugh–is not the essence of parenting, and risks misreading what kids are saying when they speak.
    Example–and you have amassed hundreds of these: I played with a lovely 5-year-old child today who said, “My mom is pretty even though she’s old.” I did not feel an imperative to educate her on ageism.

    Comment by m (1d07bd) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:44 pm

  87. m,

    We don’t have to estimate his intent. He intended to risk causing offense because he didn’t care. That is specified in the scenario. He made the conscious choice to use one phrase over another “equally effective” phrase, knowing that the one he chose might cause offense. Whatever the man’s response, or even if he heard the boy call out, doesn’t matter… the boy made a conscious decision that he didn’t care if it offended the man or not.

    Whether the man should or shouldn’t be offended doesn’t make the boy right in what he did. It’s the not caring about whether a complete innocent might be offended when he knew he had an equally valid phrase available to him that makes him wrong. If that boy went to school and dropped a bunch of f-bombs on the schoolyard because he didn’t care if parents, teachers, or classmates might be offended (since he can use that language freely in the treefort with his friends), how is that different?

    Comment by Stashiu3 (460dc1) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:46 pm

  88. My grandfather was a great fan of the Wizard of Id comic in the papers when I was growing up. He bought me several of the Johnny Hart cartoon compilation books and I learned to love the strip, too. Several years after Grandpa died, I got a little Australian Shepherd puppy. I named it Spook, after the character in the comic strip and in memory of my grandfather, who always got a kick out of that character.

    Needless to say, I had several run ins with black people over that name, and just like in Patterico’s example, I had one encounter where I yelled at the dog, “Come here, Spook!” while a black repairman was working on something nearby. The guy was taken aback for a second, but then it dawned on him that I might have been calling the dog. “What’s that dog’s name?” he asked. I told him it was Spook, at which point he just shook his head disgustedly and went back to work, obviously thinking I was some sort of racist moron who named his little black and tan dog after a favorite demeaning epithet of black people. That, of course, wasn’t the case, but I felt like if he was going to jump to that conclusion (reasonable as it may have been) he was welcome to his opinion, so I just let him go on thinking what he wanted to think.

    Bottom line: I give the guy credit for not immediately assuming I was talking to him, but then take it right back for assuming that my dog’s name had a racist origin or intent.

    Comment by danebramage (756d38) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:48 pm

  89. #83 Machinist
    We’re asked to determine whether those actions for those reasons were right or wrong.
    We’re asked to make that determination, though, explicitly in order to “explore the issue of responsibility for the meaning of words, misinterpretation, and giving offense.” I would hold a kid differently responsible for the meaning of his words than I would hold, e.g., Rush Limbaugh. If I were the black man, I would ignore the kid. If I were the kid’s father, this scenario would not have figured large among teachable moments.

    Comment by m (1d07bd) — 3/15/2009 @ 6:58 pm

  90. Conceding to having lost the energy to look through all the comments.

    I’m sure they were brilliant.

    In general, I think the boy is an ass if he was trying to offend the black man, and that the black man’s initial response is understandable if there is at least apparent intent to cause him harm, but that he should try to calm down in light of the alternative of the existence of a dog, and in consideration of the fact that a boy made the call to the dog. Absent his awareness of a dog, the man should still be cautious in his response, due to the fact of him confronting a boy and not a man, thus making his reasonable expectation different: another adult should know better, a boy is inherently immature and will act that way whether or not he knows better, and might not appreciate the consequences and affect of his words.

    Comment by WFG (b89ac4) — 3/15/2009 @ 7:15 pm

  91. #87 Stashiu3
    I absolutely agree with your explication of the ground rules. But in this series of questions, we’re talking about a kid. I think that the goal of the exercise is thwarted by featuring a kid. If we are looking for a comparandum for evaluating adult speech (in terms of the issue of responsibility for the meaning of words, misinterpretation, and giving offense), I just don’t think we’re going to get there by talking about a boy and his dog.

    If that boy went to school and dropped a bunch of f-bombs on the schoolyard because he didn’t care if parents, teachers, or classmates might be offended (since he can use that language freely in the treefort with his friends), how is that different?
    I accept that that is an apt comparison to the scenario spelled out in the questions. But still not, I think, a comparandum for evaluating adult speech: Did I have an unusual childhood in firing off every no-no word until it was put on the List of Words That Will Result in Punishment? (Which spurred me to ever more creative speech–which immediately went on the list.) But which–relative to the topic at hand in the post–as an adult, I don’t do.

    Comment by m (1d07bd) — 3/15/2009 @ 7:24 pm

  92. Patterico

    You’re a county employee, just like I am (though, different counties). I’m kind of surprised that you don’t seem as cognizant of the kind of mischief – indeed, malicious mischief – that takes place all the time in our places of work due to the enforced “idea” that all must genuflect to the “offended” person. As I said on JeffG’s post on this topic

    For the Left, if an utterance can be interpreted negatively it must be interpreted negatively.

    This is the dogma, reinforced by the courts, that have employers cowed. From sexual harassment sensitivity training to all manner of seminars and “educators” brought into the workplace in an effort to keep lawsuits at bay, the clearest message being sent is that people of bad faith can control the workplace to their liking by merely sneaking around the office and “overhearing” things they can then claim as “offensive” and “creating a hostile workplace.”

    One can protest to HR that the “overheard” word or phrase was taken out of context, but the bottom line is, if the word/phrase CAN be “offensive” in ANY singular context, then it MUST BE considered “offensive” regardless of context and thus be avoided completely and the utterer shamed, counseled or even reprimanded.

    Comment by Darleen (4e02c9) — 3/15/2009 @ 7:49 pm

  93. Personally, I think a general discussion of the pitfalls of semantics or linguistics per se, based on the examples provided in Pat’s blog entry, is rather precious or quaint when there are far more serious matters deserving public scrutiny and facing this country…

    CNN, November 2004:

    [Bill] Cosby’s ire is focused at the African-American community: its rates of juvenile delinquency, its parenting, the coarse language of its youth. You can do better, he exhorts his audiences. Don’t let yourself be victims, and especially don’t let the poorest in the community let themselves be victims.

    “This is about little children … and people not giving them better choices,” he told Paula Zahn in an interview for CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now.” “Talking. Talking. Parenting. Correctly parenting. That’s what it’s about. And you can’t blame other things. You got to — you got to straighten up your house. Straighten up your apartment. Straighten up your child.”

    Some of his critics have attacked him for airing what they see as the black community’s dirty laundry in public. Others said that Cosby should also be condemning establishment institutions that, in their view, helped create the situation.

    Let ‘em rant, Cosby says.

    “Let them stay mad as long as they don’t have good sense,” he told Zahn. “I don’t care what right-wing white people are thinking….How long you gonna whisper about a smallpox epidemic in your apartment building when bodies are coming out under the sheets?”

    Cosby first caused controversy after making a speech at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation. “People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we’ve got these knuckleheads walking around…. The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting,” he said, addressing an audience of Washington VIPs.

    “When I say, ‘I don’t care what white people think,’ I mean that. I mean, I’m addressing my people, period,” he told CNN. “I’m telling you. I want all this loud profanity in the street stopped….I want you to stop doing things that are detrimental to your getting at least an education with a high school credential. I’m talking to the people who are dropping out.”



    Kevin Cato, Intertext, Syracuse University:

    For instance, a show on Black Entertainment Television, a cable network aimed at a black audience, described the word nigger as a “term of endearment.” “In the African American community, the word nigga (not nigger) brings out feelings of pride” (Davis 1). Here the word evokes a sense of community and oneness among black people. Many teens I interviewed felt that the word had no power when used amongst friends, but when used among white people the word took on a completely different meaning. In fact, comedian Alex Thomas on BET stated, “I still better not hear no white boy say that to me. . . . I hear a white boy say that to me, it means ‘White boy, you gonna get your ass beat.’”

    This ideology is in a sense self-defeating. If only black people are using the word nigger and are doing so in order to accomplish a transference of power, the attempt is a futile one because the sting of the word has not yet been disabled. White people, for instance, still cannot say the word nigger without evoking some sort of hostile reaction.

    If blacks have successfully revolutionized or reclaimed the word, than everyone—black and white—would be free to use the word without questions of race, class, or context. And while this may indeed be the ultimate goal of redefining nigger, it is clearly not the case at present.

    Comment by Mark (411533) — 3/15/2009 @ 7:53 pm

  94. I need to know what race the boy is before I can answer these questions. Which should tell you all you need to know about the ground we’re treading here.

    Comment by Pablo (99243e) — 3/15/2009 @ 8:12 pm

  95. Imagine that the boy is the black guy’s own son, calling for his dog. Is there a possibility that he would find “Come here, boy” offensive?

    Comment by Pablo (99243e) — 3/15/2009 @ 8:15 pm

  96. After I’ve had some coffee in the morning, and noting that we’re always assuming that the boy sees the man.

    Comment by htom (412a17) — 3/15/2009 @ 8:49 pm

  97. And what is the Latin word for Black?
    What is the color of the sediment filled Niger river?
    Why was it applied to Africans from that area, who have skins that are actually brown?
    What do you call a person from Niger or Nigeria?
    Do you call them the same thing if they are white?

    Momma told me a scab wouldn’t get better if you kept pickin’ at it.

    Comment by Don Meaker (9ceac6) — 3/15/2009 @ 8:51 pm

  98. I’ve read all the preceding comments, and to some extent I’m echoing earlier commenters.
    I am going to assume for the sake of argument that the boy (i.e., the master of the dog Rover), and his friends are not black.
    I think we are here discussing the character of the people involved. So, even though in real life there might not be evidence of the intent of the people involved, we have to assume that we actually know of the intent attributed to the characters by Patterico in scenarios 1-5.
    Sometimes I will answer the second part first.

    (1) While I agree that the people should not PRESUME that anyone else is being biased or being insensitive, I understand the black man’s concern and I do not believe he acted unreasonably. If he were going to instruct the boy that referring to an adult as “boy” is disrespectful, that would have been fine by me. As for the boy, he was purposely being insensitive and disrepectful. He had a perfectly reasonable alternative available to him (“Come here, Rover”).

    If, despite the recent history lesson the boy just didn’t think of the matter, then I think he would be fine. So, modifying the hypothetical to assume lack of intent of the boy to be insenstive, if he made a polite, respectful explanation that he was calling his dog, everyone should have smiled and said, “Nice to meet you.”

    (2) Here the boy is being disrespectful to the black man, AND, WORSE, to his own father. There is no getting around it, the boy of hypothetical (2) is, at best, a brat.

    (3) Once again the boy is being disrespectful. Hey, what ever happened to “RESPECT YOUR ELDERS”??

    (4) See my response to (3).

    (5) While the boy is being a jerk, the black man has no reason to know or presume that that is the case. If he is going to presume anythibg he should presume that the boys friends are laughing about something else. He should ignore the matter. Stated another way, the black man would be responding unreasonably by getting angry. (Neat situation, the adult is acting unreasonably based on what he knows, but reasonably based on what the boy knows.)

    (6) This one is different because we do not know the intent of the boy, or of his friends. I think we also have to assume that the boy was not being intentionally insensitive, and that the “Watch this,” may have been a reference to how Rover typically reacts to being called. Based on what we know, the black man should not have been offended. Of course, the boys friends might very well have been surpressing giggles because the whole situation seemed absurd.

    Comment by Ira (28a423) — 3/15/2009 @ 8:53 pm

  99. You can’t ever know a person’s intentions, but you can only infer them by analyzing the information Pat left out. But before I get to that, I feel obligated to note that Jeff’s shadow-boxing post-structuralist ghosts: he claims to be talking about intention, but he’s actually talking about framing. He wants to establish supremacy of authorial intent because it would allow him to set the terms of the debate after the fact. A statement a person made on Wednesday will always mean what its author intended it to. But that’s clearly an inadequate means of understanding anything, much less something as complicated as political rhetoric. To take an obvious example:

    Politician: The sky is not falling!

    (the sky falls and crushes him)

    What the politician meant — his intent — is important to understanding the rhetorical situation, but it’s not the only factor in determining what that statement means. His wrongness — and the way the Hand of God smote him — factor into any meaningful analysis of his statement. Here’s the important part: Jeff wants you to focus on his reconstruction of what the politician intended to say because that makes him the only person who does the interpretation. This way when he interprets the politician’s statement, its wrongness becomes immaterial.

    Pat’s concern, as evidenced by the examples above, is not on the lone rhetor speaking to and being heard by no one, but on how a speaker’s statements enter into a conversational dynamic that no individual can control. Jeff can stomp his feet, but intention never defines meaning. The most obvious reason, as mentioned above, is that we don’t always mean what we think we mean. You could complicate the notion of intention via the psychoanalytic angle, but you don’t need to.

    For example, say I ask my wife “Didn’t you say you were going to do the dishes?” What do I mean there? Am I requesting her to do what she indicated she would? Am I hungry and the lack of clean silverware annoys me? Am I joking because I actually said I was going to do the dishes and annoyed with myself because I didn’t? Or am I irrationally annoyed with her because normally I’m the one who says he’ll do the dishes then doesn’t, but this time she did it, so now I realize how annoying it must be when I do it? Without a deep familiarity with the context in which my statement was made, there’s absolutely no way you can infer my intent. I could, after all, be an octogenarian who believes dish-washing is woman’s work or just your run-of-the-mill misogynist. I could have a terrible cold or casts on my two broken arms.

    Or, but for a lone fork, the sink could be empty.

    Point being, I think Pat’s abstracted the critical information out of his example, and that in doing so, nicely demonstrates the limitations of Jeff’s argument. Because, in every example, he’s positioned you as a third party to the statement’s utterance. He’s withheld all those elements we need to ground our inference of intent, i.e. the very things Jeff’s arguments always take for granted. For one, the boy’s race; for another, where this exchange occurs. Did it happen (or not happen) in the Midwest or the Deep South? Is the kid’s last name “Wallace” and is his father the governor? All of this matters . . . unless you’re invested in limiting the terms of the conversation to a particular interpretation of what the kid meant, that is.

    Comment by SEK (072055) — 3/15/2009 @ 8:57 pm

  100. “After I’ve had some coffee in the morning, and noting that we’re always assuming that the boy sees the man.”

    htom,

    My post says:

    “But then, the boy sees a black man near Rover. “

    Comment by Patterico (cc3b34) — 3/15/2009 @ 8:58 pm

  101. Exactly, SEK!

    Comment by Ira (28a423) — 3/15/2009 @ 9:07 pm

  102. Well, it’s not often that I have a hand in sparking such a long and verdant discussion. And on two separate posts, too! Great back and forth!

    Comment by Craig R. Harmon (d9243d) — 3/15/2009 @ 9:14 pm

  103. [...] Patterico: 1) A boy has a dog named Rover. At night, he typically calls the dog into the house from the field [...]

    Pingback by Patterico vs. Goldstein, One More Time. | Little Miss Attila (62389c) — 3/15/2009 @ 9:18 pm

  104. My comment would’ve been much better had it not been victimized by all sorts of remnants from discarded drafts. Ignore the “but” or the “only” in the first sentence, depending on how you interpret what you think I meant to write.

    Comment by SEK (072055) — 3/15/2009 @ 9:20 pm

  105. Don Meaker #97 – are you trying to confuse us folks ? (grin)

    If the person was born and raised in Nigeria, then that person is most likely a Nigerian … the person’s melanin levels are not material unless under considerations which are racist … “racist” in this context meaning someone who judges by surface-level visual cues …

    I’m still doing my best to raise my kids that there is only one human race on this planet – for all that we are subdivided into all sorts of interesting and curious ethnic and other sub-groups …

    A person born and raised in Nigeria, whether black, brown, yellow, a delicate shell-like pink with little brown dots, a flaming angry red, or any other combination of visuals is still a Nigerian in most situations … chances of the person actually being white (while still alive) are real slim …

    Personally, most of my life I have either been that delicate shell-like pink with little brown dots (aka freckles) or the flaming angry red (due to injudicious attention to insolation (I sunburn remarkably easily)) … the closest I get to looking tanned is when/where my freckles merged …

    Comment by Alasdair (6b086e) — 3/15/2009 @ 9:34 pm

  106. SEK,

    Thank you for an interesting and helpful comment.

    Comment by Anon (eb4fed) — 3/15/2009 @ 9:37 pm

  107. Case 0a. The child wants to call the dog, opens his mouth, thinks about the classroom discussion, looks around and then calls the dog, “Here, boy!” without having seen the black man (who, however, has seen the dog), and then sees the man later.
    Case 0b. Like 0a, but the child never sees the black man at all.
    Case 0c. Like 0a, but the man does not see the dog, only the child.

    Comment by htom (412a17) — 3/15/2009 @ 9:58 pm

  108. a) Has the boy done anything wrong? Should he have done anything differently?

    b) Was the black man wrong (unreasonable) to be offended at the beginning?

    a] no, no. The boy’s thinking is correct.

    b] yes. The black man is acting foolishly.

    The idea that we can’t use the term “boy” whenever around blacks is manifestly absurd, or else it ends up producing the kind of problem Jeff G. is highlighting = thought control. Where does it end – because it never will end.

    The argument that simply by virtue of being black, blacks are so stupid as to think the term “boy” must necessarily refer to them is really a quite blatantly racist argument. Why indeed does anyone make this argument, except out of a mistaken reverence for it which only refers back to the original problem = thought control?

    Even the hypothetical black man realized that he was mistaken. What’s the matter with learning something new about language?

    Comment by J."Trashman" Peden (e53032) — 3/15/2009 @ 10:28 pm

  109. but intention never defines meaning

    oh good lord, what idiocy.

    Comment by Darleen (4e02c9) — 3/15/2009 @ 10:59 pm

  110. SEK

    Let me be more clear …

    two co-workers, one black, one Hispanic. The Hispanic worker takes a personal call from home, talking with her niece in Spanish and using a nickname for her niece “little black bug” … the black co-worker (doesn’t speak Spanish but hears “negro” takes offense).

    Now, tell me that the intent of the Hispanic worker merely using a nickname doesn’t inform the meaning.

    Comment by Darleen (4e02c9) — 3/15/2009 @ 11:13 pm

  111. Darleen,

    Do you have an answer to the questions in the post? If you don’t like answering the questions with a boy as the speaker, then make an adult be the speaker.

    I really want to know how you answer them. And how Jeff would.

    Comment by Patterico (cc3b34) — 3/15/2009 @ 11:25 pm

  112. In the questions relating to offense taken; if “unreasonable” is “wrong,” then yes. Emotional response is not reasonable.

    Comment by RTO Trainer (b0723e) — 3/15/2009 @ 11:31 pm

  113. “One can protest to HR that the “overheard” word or phrase was taken out of context, but the bottom line is, if the word/phrase CAN be “offensive” in ANY singular context, then it MUST BE considered “offensive” regardless of context and thus be avoided completely and the utterer shamed, counseled or even reprimanded.”

    Darleen – Why would you cave in to this? It hardly seems very OUTLAW at all if the intent was not offensive.

    Why did you assume Patterico is not cohnizant of such things?

    Comment by daleyrocks (5d22c0) — 3/15/2009 @ 11:35 pm

  114. It’s lost on both SEK and Patterico that it is not the author’s intent that is being appealed to as some final arbiter.

    As has been pointed out many times, sometimes the author cannot supply that information anyway. Also possible that the author is not honest.

    But when an interpretation is made, that does not take the author’s intention, or at the least a best guess at the author’s intention, error in interpretation has been committed. Even here, some errors are more harmful than others–it’s possible for such an interpretation to be completely correct, though that fact is not knowable.

    Some information that can be used to make a correctly performed interpretation would be other statements and writings of the author, if any. Anecdotal evidence of the author by those who knew/were familiar. Persoanl knowledge or past experience with the author.

    None of this should be new to Patterico in any way.

    Comment by RTO Trainer (b0723e) — 3/15/2009 @ 11:44 pm

  115. One can protest to HR that the alleged offensive statement was never made. Two different words at play here. The hispanic employee should say, and be perfectly honest doing so, “I never said that.”

    Comment by RTO Trainer (b0723e) — 3/15/2009 @ 11:46 pm

  116. A more interesting question to me, related to hypo #1, is hypo #1′s situation where “here, boy!” is exactly as good and proper and useful as “here,Rover!” With that premise, people are split about whether the boy is a jerk for not caring if someone could potentially be offended or not. But real life is almost never like this. How many people, when discussing events or having conversation, think “wait, I’m probably not supposed to say that anymore…oh, a perfectly equivalent term or phrase immediately occurs to me, I’ll use that.” Isn’t what normally happens is that people either just say it anyway, or don’t say anything at all?

    For example, is it still fair to criticize the kid, if his dog’s name was Spook, and his thought process went like “hey, Sp…wait, there’s a black guy, after what I just learned, he may think I’m calling him a name, I better just call my dog “boy”…oh, wait, that’s a potentially offensive term too….oh, well, I don’t care. That’s his problem” and then says “Here, boy!”

    In that case, what is he supposed to say? “Here, my dog! Here, dog that I own and feed! Here, Canine!” (Sounds like a Brian Regan routine) Well, my guess is that most real-life situations mirror this; there isn’t a readily available, perfectly effective substitute. In that context, whose point of view is more relevant to determine meaning?

    Comment by Linus (df9090) — 3/15/2009 @ 11:50 pm

  117. Is the dog telling the boy to do things? Because we do not need another David Berkowitz.

    Comment by Joe (17aeff) — 3/16/2009 @ 12:09 am

  118. since we are now officially a “post-racial” society, none of this matters any more, and i can’t see how this conversation helps my children.

    or are we a nation of cowards? i can’t keep all the claims straight anymore.

    /white smoke

    (hey there RTO! %-)

    Comment by redc1c4 (9c4f4a) — 3/16/2009 @ 1:49 am

  119. “Here, my dog! Here, dog that I own and feed! Here, Canine!” (Sounds like a Brian Regan routine)

    Comment by Linus — 3/15/2009 @ 11:50 pm

    As soon as I read sentence # 2 I thought: sounds like Brian Regan! LOL Bravo!

    Comment by no one you know (1ebbb1) — 3/16/2009 @ 3:28 am

  120. Where I come from we used “rover” as a substitute for the N word…hard to know what to do…don’t have pets?

    Comment by winston (e11672) — 3/16/2009 @ 4:30 am

  121. 1a) No – kid was calling his dog
    1b) yes – he is the adult. He could have asked the boy if he was trying to get his attention. Would have gotten his answer – shouldn’t have assumed an insult was the intent.
    2) The Dad did nothing wrong. He could explain it in terms of “some” people get unreasonably offended when no offense was meant. That said, part of being civil is recognizing that and simply avoiding a misunderstanding
    3) The boy chose to invite a potential conflict. He is a child and the man is an adult. Respect and courtesy toward all adults should be what he is taught.
    4) I don’t think this is much different than #3.
    5) Yes, he is the adult. Assuming innocent intentions first is the proper adult response.
    6a)Yes, he has been disrespectful toward an adult in trying to prompt a reaction and to impress his friends in this manner
    6b)In this case he probably has some cause to be offended, particularly if he heard the “watch this” comment.

    Except for #6 the black man should have let it go. In the case of number six he had the right to address the boy and let him know that he should refer to him as Mister. If it were me I would have asked for his parent’s phone number and discussed his behavior with them. (I know I’m old school but there used to be a time when adults acted like adults in matters involving the behavior of someone else’s kids)
    As far as being offended goes, the lesson my kids have heard over and over is that they should let no one define them with words or insults. If they allow themselves to be offended they have opened themselves to having their personality be defined by the boorish actions of others.

    Comment by voiceofreason2 (590c85) — 3/16/2009 @ 4:59 am

  122. If the meaning of words inhered within each person according to their real [or alleged] experiences, then language itself would not be possible, since everyone is unique in the sense that no two persons’ experiences are identical. No one would be able to determine what anyone else was saying if the meaning or words is determined “subjectively”, which would also mean that no one could even understand this claim. Even the term “subjective” would lose its meaning because the possibility of their being an “objective” would not exist as a necessary contrast.

    On the other hand, deciding what an author’s words mean by some kind of vote, even involving “reasonable” people – whatever the vote determines that word to mean – involves a manifestly untenable mechanism – which is exactly what progressive propagandists like, because they don’t really want to understand what is being said. They want to vilify people and control their thought, to the point where words don’t actually have any meaning.

    Finally, words do not “carry meaning around on their backs”. In themselves, all they are are appearances, sounds, sensations, hand movements, etc..

    So what’s left: the author’s intent!

    Why read or listen to anything to begin with if not to try to get the author’s point? Why instead try to intentionally misunderstand what is being said, or let other people dictate to you what the author’s meaning [= intent] is?

    Regardless of any physical or other “identity group” designation, each person must be presumed to be able to make, or at least try to make, this determination as to the meaning of another’s statements, until proven otherwise. Why do Progressives presume the opposite, when this essentially makes individual communication/understanding theoretically impossible, except perhaps on an exclusively emotion-based theory of word meanings?

    Asked and answered.

    Comment by J."Trashman" Peden (c1dada) — 3/16/2009 @ 5:11 am

  123. Haven’t read any of the above comments – just a short, quick remark of my own.

    I’m sick of Race discussions – sick of this black man is victim bullshit – sick of tiptoeing non-black folks using “the ‘N’ word” phrase when simply stating ‘Nigger’ would do.

    your hypotheticals are irrelevant – to borrow phrase from the young neophyte in the Matrix – “there is no Spoon”.

    Here’s my own rorschach in reverse for you to answer (which, truth-be-told, I don’t think you will post this after I broke the ‘N-word’ rule, above):

    If I write nigger and am not using it in a pejorative, ‘kill-whitey!’ tone, will you consider posting this reponse? Will people still get offended? Does it still offend your constitutional right not to be offended?

    next-to-final thought: racism is a human thing, hombre… no group or skin-color has exclusive rights to it either as a proponent or victim.

    And finally… do you honestly think I give a damn what you think?

    Comment by JacksonianCoastie (acfa37) — 3/16/2009 @ 6:17 am

  124. The problem is the experiment. If this would have been a real incident, it would be none of our business. By making it our business, and over-thinking all this, we perpetuate this race bullshit.

    If we want to take this to the ultimate conclusion, let’s stop using the word “boy” and call it the “b-word”.

    You know what causes racism and race mongering? Mixed race societies. I envy the Chinese and Finnish. I hope to live in a society free of racism some day.

    Comment by j curtis (16db43) — 3/16/2009 @ 6:55 am

  125. Mr. Peden,

    No one is saying that meaning inheres in the individual. I am saying that meanings do not inhere only in dictionaries or semantic situations; words also have histories that have meaning for some people that they do not have for others. That’s all.

    We all want to get the author’s point. The problem is that two readers will not necessarily come to the same conclusion regarding the author’s intent in spite of making every due effort to do so. Why is this? I say it is because readers form somewhat different impressions in their minds when they read exactly the same words and this is because of their different experiences. What is impossible is for a reader to form precisely the same mental picture in his mind that the author had in his mind when writing because words are imprecise vehicles for conveying mental pictures from one mind to another.

    Therefore all reading is interpretation and each interpreter will interpret somewhat differently.

    Comment by Craig R. Harmon (608dee) — 3/16/2009 @ 7:38 am

  126. J. “Trashman” Peden – Why instead try to intentionally misunderstand what is being said,…

    For political or monetary gain.

    Comment by Apogee (f4320c) — 3/16/2009 @ 8:53 am

  127. The post is titled “giving and taking offense” – but I find that the racial issue distorts the interpretation. Perhaps that is Patterico’s point.

    If, for example, it was a young white boy and his friends at Sea World outside the Shamu (Killer Whale) tank, and a very heavy set white woman was nearby, would the use of the term “whale” change anyone’s take on the various scenarios?

    My personal belief is that the responsibility for communicating information lies with the speaker, and the listener must try and interpret the information, otherwise there’s no real communication. Since the listener cannot ever truly know authorial intent, then the extent of the continuation of the communication should narrow down the possibilities. The more communication, the better chance of clarification. Again I find the expectation of immediate clarity for either party to be contrary to the purpose of communicating.

    As for the example, I would say the boy’s actions can be distilled to three possible intents.

    The first is that the boy means no offense and has no knowledge of any possibility of offense.

    The second is that the boy means no offense yet understands that there is a possibility of offense.

    Third, there is an understanding of a possibility of offense and an intent to impart such offense.

    I feel that all three scenarios are irrelevant, along with the other party’s reaction.

    Why?

    Because the classification of right or wrong intent regarding the giving and taking of offense is not important, and leads to such short cut non-logic as the term ‘racist’ (hat tip to JD for his brilliant skewering of such inanity) to describe any person to whom an aggrieved party disagrees. It blurs meaning, and anyone failing to continue communication is responsible for the lack of clarification.

    It is not possible to remove offense (given or taken) from our society. What is possible, however, is to recognize the value and necessity to communicate, and not fixate on the responsibility of either party. It is both parties responsibility, as both parties are necessary for communication to occur.

    Comment by Apogee (f4320c) — 3/16/2009 @ 9:09 am

  128. The meaning of words is strictly convential. They mean only what your peer group agrees they mean. If you use a word, then you are responsible for all its definitions.

    In this example, neither the meaning of “boy” when addressing a dog nor the meaning of “boy” when addressing a black man is really in question. We know exactly the difference in meaning in the respective situations.

    However, I would find the kid “not guilty” in all the variations of the hypothetical. He is a kid. He is not yet fully socialized and should not be expected to have internalized all of our conventions.

    Comment by nk (0a1ba0) — 3/16/2009 @ 9:51 am

  129. 1a) Wrong? Yes. He intentionally did not care about someone else, and knowing that, acted to show that.
    1b) In that he became angry over what he knew could have been an imagined slight (since he’d seen the dog), yes.
    2) No. Depends on what he does in response to the child’s disobedience.
    3) The child is either a sophist or a lawyer-to-be. He will hopefully learn that playing with people in this fashion is painful for him, and learn not to do such things.
    4) Yes, he’s wrong.
    5) Since he doesn’t know (only assumes) that their laughter is at his expense, it’s probably better that he not be angry. Unlikely to happen, though.
    6) The child is a sociopath-in-training, and should be executed.

    Comment by htom (412a17) — 3/16/2009 @ 10:01 am

  130. [...] interesting problem… By datechguy …concerning language and action at this post at Patterico’s [...]

    Pingback by Very interesting problem… « DaTechguy’s Blog (2a8bd7) — 3/16/2009 @ 10:13 am

  131. My last post got stuck in the spam filter(?).

    Two Dog, I missed your comment questioning the boy’s race. Agree with you.

    OK, now the “boy” is German, and an adult, and is doing the “wrong” as an homage to American culture and food. From Der Spiegel:

    A German frozen food company hopes to raise sales with a new product: Obama fingers. The tender, fried chicken bits come with a tasty curry sauce. The company says it was unaware of the possible racist overtones of the product.

    “We noticed that American products and the American way of eating are trendy at the moment,” Judith Witting, sales manager for Sprehe, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “Americans are more relaxed. Not like us stiff Germans, like (Chancellor Angela) Merkel.”

    Comment by BfC (7f7501) — 3/16/2009 @ 10:54 am

  132. NK,

    Two things. First, the hypotheticals point out that he is aware of the conventions, whether internalized or not. Second, we are not told how old he is. He could be 17 years old, for all we know, quite old enough to be held morally responsible for his behavior, in my opinion.

    Comment by Craig R. Harmon (9dd450) — 3/16/2009 @ 11:40 am

  133. #1. No, neither party did anything wrong. A teaching/learning moment, punctuated with (perhaps) nervous laughter and a handshake by both parties.

    #2. No, the son learns that there are people to whom “boy” is a lonstanding, historical perjorative. And no harm done to the son or the black man. I’ve had the same moment with my five-year-old when she was four, and asked about the “brown boy” making a delivery to our house, within his hearing.

    #3. Dumb-wrong, not bad-wrong. If the young man realizes his comments could give offense, then he shouldn’t be surprised by the reaction (or the beat-down).

    #4. Dumb-wrong/borderline bad-wrong. Saying “boy” to amuse his friends would be equally as insulting as saying it to the black man’s face.

    #5. No. Assuming the other boys were laughing at the potential insult.

    #6. Dumb-wrong, which an explanation and a handshake should fix.

    No, but the level of offense taken should be proportionate to the respect/regret shown by the young man.

    Comment by furious (dc6e4c) — 3/16/2009 @ 2:36 pm

  134. Without having read the comments:

    # 1.
    The boy has done something wrong; choosing to not care whether or not someone is offended by unnecessary word choices is a minor sin, but it’s a sin nonetheless.
    The man has done nothing wrong in being offended.

    #2.
    The dad has done nothing wrong; he’s trying to teach his son how to “play nicely with others.”

    #3.
    The boy has done something wrong. This is a worse case than #1; he’s deliberately choosing to offend someone in order to make a point. That’s the kind of behavior that it might be ok to engage in with friends or family; but with strangers, it’s downright rude.

    #4.
    The boy has done something wrong. He is choosing to use someone else’s pain to amuse his friends.

    #5.
    The man was being unreasonable to be offended; if he knew the dog was there, he should assume that it’s directed at the dog. That said, I’d want to know more about his personal history; he may be more sensitive to the word for reasons I’m unaware of. In which case, his extrasensitivity doesn’t make the boy more culpable, but it does reduce the man’s culpability.

    #6.
    The boy has done something wrong for the same reason I think he’s done something wrong in 1-4. The “watch this”, I think, makes it more likely that he’s trying to bait the man than that he’s trying to call the dog, and the man is not being unreasonable to be offended.

    Comment by aphrael (e0cdc9) — 3/16/2009 @ 3:14 pm

  135. My comment appears trapped in a spam filter, now, too.

    Comment by aphrael (e0cdc9) — 3/16/2009 @ 3:14 pm

  136. Mr. Peden,

    No one is saying that meaning inheres in the individual.

    Right. I was just trying to cover this base, because I’ve heard the claim made elsewhere, especially by Relativists and Subjectivists, who, unsurprisingly, don’t seem to know what they are implying, since they can’t really be implying anything [objective] to begin with, while they still seem to think they are making some kind of objective sense.

    Comment by J."Trashman" Peden (ffba0c) — 3/16/2009 @ 10:47 pm

  137. Cranky black guy needs to get over himself.

    kid may indeed may be tweaking the black guy, but the kid’s intent may just be to watch cranky black guy lose his mind over trivialities he(the black guy) holds a little too tight.
    Or maybe the kid enjoys “upsetting the applecart just to see which way the apples go rolling”

    Who is the adult here?

    Of course when a black calls me white boy or cracker it is always OK regardless of malice or coordinated destruction…. for example, I assume a black man could call me racial names while destroying my car or shooting my dog and suffer at best only the consequences of the damages… but my experience says that simply by spouting phrases that would be a hate crime if uttered by a white, the black man inoculates himself from any consequences.

    Oh. Wait. Obviously the white kid is the adult and the black adult is a toddler…

    Comment by SteveG (a87dae) — 3/16/2009 @ 10:57 pm

  138. aphrael: Without having read the comments:

    # 1.
    The boy has done something wrong; choosing to not care whether or not someone is offended by unnecessary word choices is a minor sin, but it’s a sin nonetheless.
    The man has done nothing wrong in being offended.

    Well, the man didn’t do anything “wrong”, but he did make a mistake. The only reason he learned of his mistake – and probably won’t make it again – is that the boy did not bow to racially stereotyping the man as some strange, “other” kind of human merely because the man was “black”.

    Why should the boy assume that blacks cannot understand even common words correctly? Why should the boy censor himself based upon this bigoted assumption?

    Why is it better for the man go on thinking [racistly and in the mode of "victim"] that anytime a white person uses the term “boy” around him, that it refers to him and is intended to be derogatory?

    If on the other hand the boy had bowed to the a priori stereotype, neither the boy nor the man would have learned anything of substance. Instead they both would have continued to bow to Progressive stereotyping and its regressive attempt to divide people and control their thoughts, partly by controlling their language.

    Now that’s what is actually “wrong”.

    Comment by J."Trashman" Peden (ffba0c) — 3/16/2009 @ 11:37 pm

  139. The kid should not be dictating to the dog. It’s like he ‘owns’ it or something. Wouldn’t that be ‘racist’?

    Comment by GarandFan (a6550f) — 3/17/2009 @ 10:11 am

  140. I don’t know whom I dislike less on this thread. The people who blame the boy or the people who blame the black man.

    “Some stupid f____ kid said something” and “some dumb, oversensitive, f____ n______ took offense.”

    I’m sorry, Patterico. It’s not Socratic.

    Comment by nk (0a1ba0) — 3/17/2009 @ 10:19 am

  141. Does this hypothetical event occur on a Tuesday evening, by any chance?

    Comment by NeedMoreInfo (5ec025) — 3/17/2009 @ 10:24 am

  142. I think the black man is feigning indignation in order to distract from the fact he was car-jacking someone.

    Comment by Harry (8d744d) — 3/17/2009 @ 10:49 am

  143. Comment by nk — 3/17/2009 @ 10:19 am

    Well, this is a blog comment section. Someone has to be excoriated. Executed, even, if we go by htom.

    Comment by no one you know (65b7aa) — 3/17/2009 @ 11:15 am

  144. Is all this “Socratic” stuff just a cheap ploy to introduce the uneducated slave-boy fom Plato’s Meno into the thread?

    You should all be ashamed of your racist selves.

    Comment by doc_benway (c4ba77) — 3/17/2009 @ 3:24 pm

  145. #1

    It seems to me that there is a difference between freedom of speech, which every man is granted, as an inalienable right by his Creator, and social niceties, which are the lubricant that reduces friction among members of a civilized society.

    In this instance, the boy was cognizant of the fact that his words would be interpreted as causing offense, but chose, regardless, to use the phrase in question. He was exercising his right to free speech. The black man, hearing the phrase, took offense. From a constitutional point of view, the boy was in the right.

    #2

    Absolutely not, the father is teaching his son about the social niceties mentioned above. The father understands that, while we are guaranteed free speech, this does not mean we need to exercise it indiscriminately, without regard to the feelings or dignity of others. While the boy is free to address his dog in any manner he chooses, and the man is not guaranteed to be free from offense, the father is teaching his son consideration, a valuable lesson in applying the social lubricant that helps society to function.

    #3

    Not to belabor the point, but again, the boy has the right to address his dog in any way that he sees fit. This is his right, not to be taken away merely as a result of the offense that others may decide to take at his words. However, in this case, we stand squarely at the intersection of the boy’s right, and consideration for our fellow man. While it is admirable that the boy, at such a young age, takes enough of an interest in constitutional matters to wish to illustrate their importance to his father and others, he may also wish to understand that by choosing to do so at the expense of a stranger might be considered hurtful. He understand the impact that his words may have, but chooses to use them anyway. His right, but from a moral standpoint, it leaves a bit to be desired.

    #4

    I find this example a bit hard to swallow. Again, has the boy done anything wrong? It depends on the definition of wrong. He has the right to speak his mind, clearly. But, does he morally have the right to cast (potential) aspersions at a stranger in order to amuse his friends? His motives are puerile, his intentions dishonorable. While he is legally entitled to use the term, his use of the term is morally questionable.

    #5

    The man has the right to take offense. It does not mean he will, or will not. It only means that it is his right to do so. However, he does not have the right, should he choose to take offense, to restrict the boy’s speech. The boy’s father, though, should turn him over his knee. Punk.

    #6

    From a constitutional standpoint, the boy has done nothing wrong, just as in every example. As we do not know intent (regardless of his aside to his friends, which could be taken to mean – watch the dog come when I call him), it is impossible to assign moral guilt or innocence based on the information at hand.

    The man, not knowing intent, is of course free to take offense or not. Is he wrong or right? It seems silly to ask. Offensive is a subjective term, and it is rather difficult to assign a negative or positive value judgment. From a strictly constitutional view, offense is irrelevant. From a moral standpoint, with regard to those social niceties, perhaps less so.

    Of course, the main problem with curtailing speech so as not to cause offense is that anything is liable to cause offense. In a culture in which the capacity to take offense is forever expanding, at what point have we crossed the line that divides the desire to be nice from self censorship, or allowing our good intentions to be used as a cudgel to stifle our freedom of expression?

    Tricky questions.

    Comment by Estarcatus (f84639) — 3/17/2009 @ 8:10 pm

  146. Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t make it right. The questions were about right or wrong, not constitutional/legal or unconstitutional/illegal. Wearing a t-shirt with a profanity about the bride to a wedding is both legal and constitutional… that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.

    Comment by Stashiu3 (460dc1) — 3/18/2009 @ 1:33 am

  147. The intent of the questions is open to interpretation, of course, and thus you see a wide variety of answers concerning specific points.

    As to the question of right and wrong, I am wondering if you have really read through the answers provided, as at least mine do discuss morality, as well as legality. There is a distinction to be made here, an important one.

    Your statement about wearing the t-shirt is accurate and obvious, but you were not the first to make it, nor was I. Having said that, I found the exercise a useful one, even at the risk of being redundant in some of my answers. How about you?

    Comment by Estarcatus (f84639) — 3/18/2009 @ 5:47 am

  148. The reason that we see such a wide variety of answers is because we are not using the lowest common denominator but the lowest possible denominator. When you divide by zero, the answer is indeterminate — a different number each time.

    Comment by nk (0a1ba0) — 3/18/2009 @ 6:35 am

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