Category: Archive

Echo Opinion: Taking offense with consummate ease

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

You could tell that she never thought she had strayed into dangerous linguistic territory. She used the phrase matter of factly, using a term she no doubt had heard for most of her life while never considering its origins.
Ms. Fields is a candidate for mayor of New York, the only African-American in a field of Democrats seeking to unseat Republican Michael Bloomberg. And so every utterance is magnified, every statement scrutinized.
A reporter quickly seized on her use of “paddy wagon.” Didn’t she know that the phrase was offensive to Irish-Americans?
She clearly didn’t, and really, why would she, and why should she?
Of course, she immediately apologized for the offense. She hadn’t intended to offend, and indeed at that moment probably didn’t really know what the offense might be. All she knew is that somebody might be offended for some reason, and the tenor of the times mandates that an apology be forthcoming.
As far as I know, nobody has apologized to civil rights protesters who were hauled into jail in the 1960s for demanding that the U.S. Constitution be applied to black people as well as whites.
But in this day and age, a black politician felt obliged to apologize for using a phrase that, I’ll bet, most Irish-Americans have used themselves without any sense of why the phrase might be deemed offensive by the linguistic police.
I suppose it is to Fields’ credit that she immediately apologized for possibly having offended a few people with an overdeveloped sense of grievance. But still, it was a little over the top, don’t you think?
Some might argue that an Irish-American politician who used a racially offensive phrase without meaning to give offense would have to grovel before the cameras and issue a thousand apologies.
That’s probably true, but then again, it’s hard to think of a racially charged phrase that one might utter without realizing its power to cause offense. We know all the offensive words, in part because there was a time when they were uttered casually and accepted even in polite society. Political correctness surely has inspired excess, but it has also drawn attention to our use of language.
The phrase “paddy wagon,” however, is not used by bigots and racists to denigrate the Irish. That may have been true when the phrase was coined, when police vehicles — most of them driven by Irish-American cops — routinely carried off Irish-American criminals.
But it long ago became part of our everyday language. Most Irish Americans don’t know, or don’t care, how the phrase came about.
That is a sign of a group that is confident in its identity, a group that is not constantly on the lookout for offense, especially when none is intended. That is the sign of a group that has put ancient grievance behind, and is looking confidently to the future, and not staring darkly into the past.
That’s why, by the way, we can – even in this politically correct age — embrace the nickname “Fighting Irish” for the sports teams of the University of Notre Dame.
There was a time, let us recall, when the Irish were associated with all manner of fighting and violence. The phrase had its positive aspects — the Irish-American contribution to our military is well-known — and its negative, which is why they invented the phrase “paddy wagon.”
We live in an age when politicians feel obliged to issue apologies for all manner of offenses. Some are quite serious and help in putting the past behind us: Tony Blair’s apology for British conduct during the Famine surely was a positive and welcome statement. Pope John Paul’s apology to the world’s Jews for the crimes committed against them by Christians was another welcome, healing acknowledgement of past injustice.
And we still hear, every now and again, words that we shouldn’t hear, or jokes that simply are too offensive, and those who say such things ought to feel obliged to apologize.
But I’m not sure Virginia Fields’ casual use of “paddy wagon” was such a big deal. It was an innocent remarks, and while such remarks sometimes reveal something about the speaker, it did not such thing in this case.
Frankly, if I had been a civil rights marcher hauled off to jail in the 1960s, I’m not sure I’d be quick to apologize for such a trivial offense.
That is, not until I received an apology from those who jailed me.
To the credit of the Irish-American community, this story was over and done with very quickly. There were no demonstrations of outrage, no demagogic attacks on Fields.
In fact, for the most part, the offense and the apology went unnoticed.
Maybe, then, it can be said of Irish-Americans today that they are not so quick to take offense, because they are too busy living their lives.
Isn’t that how it ought to be?

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