Nobody needs to tell John Schnatter this now, but, on the other hand, maybe we all need to. Maybe we need to tell him and go on telling him and people like him, tell ourselves, again and again.
Don’t be an ugly idiot. Don’t talk like one. Don’t think like one. Don’t use words that don’t belong to you.
When the Jazz recently announced they would end their relationship with the company Schnatter founded, Papa John’s, it was the latest blow for the national pizza chain, a corporate partnership that existed in Utah for more than a decade. If the Jazz won ... well, you know the deal. You may have benefited from it. The product, the pizza, was perhaps not your favorite, but, still, pretty darn good.
You won’t benefit anymore.
Schnatter’s insensitive comments, using a racial slur during a company conference call, subsequently have caused him all kinds of pain, and cost him all kinds of business. His company removed him from its board. The Jazz are one of many organizations that have either dropped their connection to the company or are considering doing so. The University of Utah is reviewing its contract with Papa John’s. The University of Louisville kicked Schnatter off its board and took the company’s name off its football stadium.
Schnatter apologized for his insensitivity, and perhaps he really will learn from it, but … it’s too late. Words are more than just meaningless uttered sounds, especially coming from a person of influence, they are symbols, powerful public representations of what’s going on inside a person’s mind.
And, in this case and many others, people who use hateful, hurtful verbiage can say whatever they want — but there can also be a heavy consequence attached to that right.
And there’s a triple hit to these situations. Not only does any individual who talks like Schnatter did send ripples of hurt to whoever is within earshot, ripples that end up bouncing back and costing the originator for his choice, it also directly hurts in a powerful way people who had nothing to do with those words. Such as the thousands of folks who work at Papa John’s.
What did they do wrong? Nothing. And yet, many of their jobs will be threatened as the franchises for which they work are less profitable, not because their product or service is poor, rather because their company’s founder used the words of an idiot.
Having done radio-show remotes at numerous Papa John’s over the past few years, I’ve met some of those employees, workers who do their jobs well, who throw pizza dough, who sprinkle toppings, who bake up the pies, who hammer away at the cash register, who deliver the pizzas, most of them friendly people who would no sooner use the N-word as Mother Teresa.
And yet, they will be forced to deal with the consequences.
Some people fall on the other side of the equation, people who are growing tired of what they lump into one giant concern, which they label as “political correctness.” They wonder why a man like Schnatter should have his career messed over by the use of a single word, a word that tone-deaf dissenters like to point out is used, in some specific cases, in music and in conversation by and among African-Americans.
If blacks can use the word, why can’t whites?
Here’s the deal, and it’s not complicated: The word in question was used for centuries by whites to dominate and demean blacks. It blew straight past derogatory and disgusting, and went straight to terrifying and tragic. Now, a portion of the black community — not all of it, but some — has taken ownership of the word, using it in certain circles, certain situations.
The fact that the word is off-limits to whites but not to blacks is, in and of itself, seen as racist by some. But by those who think it through, it’s seen as nothing more than using a term that’s been properly wrestled away from the legacy of abusers and used now in certain settings among the legacy of survivors, people who still suffer through far too much racism in this country.
One African-American writer explains that it’s not unusual for certain terms to be used by certain individuals and groups among themselves that others cannot use. A wife might use a term for her husband that it would be inappropriate for others to use for him. One might be able to say something to a friend that could not be said to a stranger.
Schnatter’s use of the N-word and its consequences in the midst of an American society that hasn’t managed to completely correct itself from the mistakes of its past, but that, at least in some corners, is making the attempt to move in a more positive direction has its collateral damage.
The sooner that offensive speech — and the thoughts reflected by it — is exorcised, a noble and necessary pursuit, the quicker damage on all sides will be eradicated.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.