Yesterday, I posted a critique of Will Smith on Twitter. Personally, given that I do investigatory work into workplace conflict including instances of physical and emotional abuse, harassment, and other breaches of psychological safety, I was especially disturbed by his recourse to violence in hitting Chris Rock coupled with the toxic masculinity encapsulated in modeling of the man who needs to exert violence to defend his woman. Forty minutes later when Smith accepted the award for best actor, I was again shocked and dismayed when he offered a justification for his behavior by saying that one’s love of family can make them do extreme things. The clear implication was that his devotion to his wife provided a rationale for hitting Rock.
And so, I posted a tweet in which I called out Smith’s behavior:
Will Smith should've got his Oscar for playing a nice guy for thirty years when it turns out he's actually a thug who thinks hitting people 1950s-style is the way to "defend your wife's honor."
— The Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) March 28, 2022
Some people agreed, others disagreed: fair enough.
A few specifically took issue with the fact that I used the word “thug”. They insisted that the word is racialized to refer to black men. I pointed out that the word does not have that implicature in my linguistic usage as a Canadian. I use the word thug according to conventional definition, “a violent, lawless, or vicious person, especially one who commits a crime such as assault…” (source)
I further pointed to my own use of the word on Twitter: I have referred to Trump as a thug here, and here and here. The one other time I used the term on Twitter was with respect to the Filipino dictator Duterte. That’s it.
It didn’t matter. A few voices demanded that I delete the tweet.
One of the things that irritates me about this is the way that some Americans assume others must conform to their linguistic usage. As a Canadian, I have rather more self-awareness about such matters. For example, the word “indian” is verboten in Canada as a term of reference for First Nations people. It is considered a demeaning and borderline racist term. Nonetheless, I am quite aware that the term is much more acceptable south of the border. And so, when I speak with Americans, I don’t demand that they conform to my linguistic usage and I certainly don’t suggest they are racist if they decline to do so.
Alas, I was not accorded such minimal generosity. Before long, some person I don’t know with a large Twitter following tweeted a brusque reply: “You are racist!” That was followed by a barrage of additional people accusing me of being racist, hating black people, and using the ‘n’ word. So I promptly blocked the individual who posted that grotesque and wholly unevidenced accusation slandering my character.
Before long, I received another tweet, this one from Jeff Lowder, demanding that I unblock the individual who had just publicly slandered me without evidence. Lowder was apparently untroubled by this individual’s unqualified accusation and the fact that they were subsequently liking tweets that accused me of wanting to use the ‘n’ word. But he was offended that I would dare block the individual.
Lowder went on to tweet that my use of “thug” was analogous to the use of the term “gypped”, a racialized term that associates thievery/dishonesty with a historically marginalized ethnic group (the Roma people). That is a spurious analogy. The etymological origin for the word “thug” is with reference to a group of criminals in India who would rob and kill people and who were extinguished in the 19th century.
As for contemporary usage, as I already pointed out, it is no more proper to censure Canadians for using the word apart from a racialized context than it is proper to censure Americans for using the word “indian”. (And even that is far from a perfect analogy since the problems with the word “indian” are intrinsic to its origins while the problems with the word “thug” are incidental recent regional associations.)
Anyway, my experience over the last 24 hours is a capsule summary of the phenomenon that Jon Ronson soberly described in his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Social media brings out the worst in people and I had a small sampling of that. It is enough to solidify my conviction that I hate Twitter and I’m going to greatly restrict my usage going forward. I am not sure how much I will tweet in the future, but at the present moment I am anticipating keeping my use to a baseline of announcing new projects, interviews, articles, etc.