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Monday, March 08, 2010

Taking Offense

There's a weird psuedo-Thai cafe on campus that sells cheap food, but you order off the menu, no substitutions, and you'd better darned well know what you want when you get to the front of the queue, even though you can't really see the menu until you're right there. I went once or twice, but frankly, it was insufficiently good food/price to deal with the pressure of the situation. It always felt like a stressful way to get lunch out, and if I'm leaving my desk, I'm seeking a relaxing experience.

It has been closed for a while. I'm not sure why. Someone posted to the Staffers list (an opt-in mailing list on campus intended for university staff):
Anyone know if the Thai Nazi is open? It was closed during the fall semester to re-open in a different location....please help?


The almost immediate reply was:
As a Thai who works here at Stanford, I am very offended by your “Thai Nazi” comment. While I understand why you call the people who run the café with those terms, I have two problems with your remarks. One – they are not Thai. Two – calling anyone a Nazi is highly derogatory.

I am surprised to receive this from someone in our community and especially that someone who works closely with our students.

Holy cow! So I write back, thinking yikes, big misunderstanding, saying:
Please don't take too much offense. I believe Shannon meant it as a humorous pop culture reference to the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, not as a direct referent to the Nazi party of Germany. She's referring to the food, not the nation or its people and the brusque attitude of the staff.

So here's the thing - assuming you know the Soup Nazi reference, why is it that you can willfully ignore the intended reference of the person and take offense for something that is clearly not their intention? It's a tricky thing, because there are plenty of backhanded ways to do things, but in this case, it's hardly the first time that I'd heard this referred to as the Thai Nazi. (Poor Shannon likely had no idea of the flame war she was about to start when she randomly repeated something that was common parlance around her office.) But to play the devil's advocate, I still hear schoolkids refer to things they don't like by saying, "That's so gay!" They don't actually really mean it as a slur against the homosexual community, but it does promote homophobia as a norm, and LGBT kids still struggle with harassment and violence in school. But is using something like "Soup Nazi" equivalent (or it's derivative "Thai Nazi")? Should Seinfeld have not been allowed to make that joke? Is referencing that joke the equivalent of calling someone a Nazi, and what does that mean exactly? And is it a reasonable expectation to assume that any use of the word Nazi is like using nigger or kike? And if so, must it be equally expunged from language the way those terms have been? And finally, what is the value of being offended? Just because someone takes offense at what you're doing or saying, does it make it wrong? I'm quite certain I offend lots of people worldwide with my uncovered hair and form-fitting clothing choices, but by the standards around me, I dress quite conservatively, so does it matter that I do offend some people? Is there a difference between controlling speech and controlling fashion?

Meaty stuff for a Monday morning...


  • Hmm. my dictionary has two definitions for 'Nazi', the second being: "(derogatory) a person who holds and acts brutally in accordance with extreme racist or authoritarian views."

    Seems appropriate to me.

    As for Seinfeld, even in that case they were using the word Nazi as a secondary reference, applying the term under the same definition that I quoted above.

    I don't know what the decorum or size of the list is, but if they were talking with their friends I wouldn't think it's a problem. And, unlike teens using 'gay' in a way that unintentionally marginalizes a minority, I don't feel there's a danger of flip use of the term 'nazi' demeaning the actual National Socialist minority.

    But maybe that's just because I'm racist against them. It's a legitimate point.

    By Blogger Kevin Fox, at 5:42 PM  

  • “What Americans describe with the casual phrase … ‘political correctness’ is the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation” — Peter Hitchens

    “Political correctness is a doctrine, fostered by a delusional, illogical minority, and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a turd by the clean end” — winning entry from the 2007 Texas A&M University definition contest.


    By Blogger Michael, at 5:49 PM  

  • I'm not sure how to address this one.

    My parents are both 1st generation German and would really not like to be called Nazis and would be uneasy with the term being used in conversation around them. They had experience with the real thing. I don't think either are familiar with the Seinfeld episode. I know it and I would not be thrilled with it myself. Pol Pot Hot Pot is also a really bad name for an Asian food place. But I can laugh at that where as others may not.

    On the other hand,
    If you have a casual conversation around an office that may be acceptable, it's one thing, in a larger list, where it's not clear who's listening, that's another.

    You needn't worry about your lack of head covering because Stanford is understood to be a secular school in a secular country. If you were going to visit a mosque, I'd grab a scarf on the way out the door.

    Is there a larger simple rule to avoid situations like these that is generally applicable and easily applied?
    I don't know and that's the problem.

    By Blogger Chrisfs, at 9:14 PM  

  • > Is there a larger simple rule to avoid situations like these
    > that is generally applicable and easily applied?

    I think so. My view is that we should all keep in mind Johann von Goethe words in The Sorrows of Young Werther: "misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent." In general, people should chill out, relax, and think twice about claiming offense.

    On a somewhat related note, we should also keep in mind the words of Sir Bernard Ingham: "Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory."

    By Blogger Michael, at 10:57 PM  

  • While I acknowledge that it is possible to offend someone without intent I feel very strongly that there are social and cultural qualifiers in which that offense has the right to be validated.

    In the case of a Soup Nazi reference - yes, the Thai faculty has the right to be offended but such an expression is easily dismissed.

    Two easy examples that I've dealt with personally -- on a circus performers list someone was launching a site for performers to rate recruiters and promoters. The site included a "black list" nomination to warn performers away. This created a months long rant from a group of black performers who were deeply offended citing all sorts of historical reasons why "black list" was racist that could never be verified... but within our community "black list" has nothing to do with race. They had the right to be offended but this was not directly or indirectly promoting racism any more than a blackout or brownout are.

    The second has happened to me many, many times -- I have been told off, screamed at and harassed for referring to women as "ladies." As in, "good morning, ladies." This is inevitably done by white, educated women. I've been told that I'm being classist and demeaning. Ironically worrying about being called a lady is pretty classist -- but, again, cultural language being what it is you won't see restroom signs changed any time soon or "ladies and gentlemen" being abandoned.

    Long story longer -- yes, the Thai faculty has the right to be offended. Of course. But you have the right to dismiss it.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 9:14 AM  

  • I think the tendency is when sending an email to a list like your co-worker did is to use vernacular and familiar language as if you were talking with your pals. People who understand you and know your references.

    The problem is with these even informal lists is you don't really know who you are addressing. They may "get" you they may not.

    Even if the objector knows the Seinfeld reference they may be objecting to the comment in a type of one-up-man-ship of correctness. Instead of comparisons of wealth or power now we have a contest can be more correct. Not quietly, but on a soap box.

    Really I think it is good to be sensitized to people taking your comments the wrong way. I think honestly it is best to keep your comments on email mailers squeaky squeak squeaks. No real gain in using such frank language and possibly a lot to lose.

    By Blogger mice, at 11:47 PM  

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