Words, words, words. They can never be just that. Especially when one is specific to a group of people with a sensitive past that can spit assault in itself. Like "Jew."
Some might consider the mere tone of "Jew" as offensive, but there's a huge difference between using "Jew" as a noun and "Jew" as a verb. It's the difference between grouping to identify and marginalizing to harm. When Oklahoma House of Representatives Majority Leader Dennis Johnson got caught up in a debate over whether small businesses can compete with big-box chains Wednesday, he succumbed to the latter.
Johnson, debating in favor of a bill that would repeal a ban on "loss leader" selling, declared that service rather than price is key to success. Small businesses with less buzz than say, Walmart, need to merit their products and services beyond brand name alone. The loss leader strategy allows businesses to offer products or services at or below market price in order to stimulate sales of other more profitable goods. It can backfire and cause bankruptcy if people take advantage of sale items only, but is practiced in hopes of building a customer base and securing future recurring revenue.
As a small business owner himself attacking a 70-year-old ban on loss leaders, Johnson was already on the offensive. But his effort was curiously misguided when he defended the free market with a racial slur. "They might try to Jew me down on a price. That’s fine," he said, dismissing a potential disadvantage of the practice, in that it'll induce customers to haggle.
But even more curiously, Johnson said this instinctively in the everyday way that slang is used without realizing its incorrectness. When a colleague passed him a note informing him of his error, he immediately apologized and laughed it off. He issued a longer, more sincere apology later in The Oklahoman.
In noting that intent is everything, this instance is an example not of racism but of propaganda's insidious effect in this country. Many people have come around to the idea that in the end we're all individual people beating to different drums, regardless of what part of the world we were born into or what religious ideology we find is most conducive to our comprehension of life. But religious prejudice is still a thing of the present and the worst of antisemitism is in the alarmingly recent past. Even for people who never experienced it, without our knowing derogatory caricatures of people and groups have slipped into our subconscious and tainted our language — in this case, a stereotype that Jews are cheap.
However, the innocent ease with which Johnson and his audience were seemingly able to skate by the slur maybe shows our progression as self-correcting and conscious creatures. Many suggest the only way to rid negative connotations is to stop labeling people with them. But erasing a word doesn't erase a past associated with it — a past that can be maliciously triggered depending on someone's intent and use of the word. But the fact is that there isn't anything wrong with labeling people.
There's a reason being a "good judge of character" is a virtue. It's happening in our heads whether we like it or not. We need to sort the disorderly amount of people in this world, and we do this by dealing with people on a smaller scale. Judging character starts with the broadest and most immediately evident distinctions, trickling down to more observed behavior. Seeing and addressing differences in each other isn't disabling, as long as we’re conscious of the associations and impressions we form around them.
So laugh it off why don't you, Johnson. But now that you've promised us it won't happen again, don't do it again ... or at least be creative. Pioneer reverse propaganda and spin it with a cool new meaning.