The Word “Tar” Causes Trouble Once Again

You may remember how White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was criticized for using the phrase “hug the tar baby” in a May press conference. Well, now the phrase “tar and feather” is also taboo. In response to Professor Steven Baldwin’s excellent editorial in yesterday’s Chronicle criticizing the Duke administration and faculty for its treatment of our student athletes, Professor Robyn Wiegman has a letter in the Chronicle today taking Baldwin to task for his use of the phrase “tar and feather”:

Cultivate community of critical thought

I read with amazement Tuesday’s Chronicle and the opinion by my colleague Steven Baldwin, who finds the faculty response to the Duke lacrosse scandal one that warrants their being “tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy.” In a guest column in the same issue as a story about the panel at the law school last Friday, in which many participants proclaimed the over emphasis of media reportage of race, class, gender and privilege last spring, one can only wonder what symbolic world is being culled here and denied all at once?

Being tarred and feathered is the language of lynching, and the practice of lynching was rarely one that eventuated in a court case of any kind, let alone one in which the defendants claim 10 minutes on one of the most important television programs in the United States. My disappointment in Duke right now is that it wants to avoid the analysis of the language and history of race, instead of using this moment-in its broad social implications-to actually study it. We can all have our opinions about the court case, but the time now is for engaging, as a university, the harder project of cultivating a community of actors who value and perform studied critical thought. Journalism can aspire to that as well.

Robyn Wiegman
Margaret Taylor Smith Director Women’s Studies
Professor, Women’s Studies and Literature

Apparently knowledge of history isn’t required in Wiegman’s “community of critical thought,” because if it were, she would know that the act of tarring and feathering someone has a long history largely separate from race. American colonists did it as a punishment and a deterrent to British Loyalists and officials, such as tax collectors; see here and here. The practice didn’t stop with the colonial days, though; for example, an International Workers of the World (I.W.W. or “Wobblie”) organizer was tarred and feathered in 1918. I don’t doubt that this form of harassment may have been used against blacks, but as I see it–and please, anyone with more knowledge of history should feel free to correct me–the term “tar and feather” has about as much of a racial overtone as “hanging” or “mob violence” do–that is, none. Moreover, Baldwin is obviously using the phrase as a metaphor for public censure. In fact, he also has a letter in today’s Chronicle, graciously apologizing for any misunderstanding over the language he used, which he did not intend to be racial. All he meant was that we should shame these faculty that were so unfair to the lacrosse players. It’s not “the language of lynching”; it’s merely a common phrase that is not symbolic of anything racial.

It’s ironic not only that a professor of literature doesn’t understand metaphors, but also that someone urging “critical thought” fails to think critically, and prefers to make a silly ad hominem attack rather than actually respond to the substance of her colleague’s arguments. Making every little thing into a racial offense does not bring the issue out into the open and force us to confront something we may have been avoiding, as Wiegman ostensibly hopes it will. Rather, it only makes it harder for us to discuss race if we always have to be worried about using language or expressing ideas that are deemed politically incorrect. Those who really care about an honest discussion of race–or any issue, for that matter, since Baldwin’s article was unrelated to race–would do better to analyze other people’s arguments on their merits than to smear them as users of “the language of lynching” because of some imaginary offense.

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