Remember when we generally accepted the premise that there is something inherently unseemly about calling each other names?
But when it comes to name-calling, we’re in new territory. Our president calls so many people so many names that we hardly notice unless an insult has an extra dose of venom, that is, it’s not only crude and mean but also, say, racist.
So when President Trump called Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog” last week, some suggested that the use of that particular term in connection with an African American is racist, that it’s a dog whistle audible to the portion of our citizenry who think of black Americans as inferior.
I’m uncertain about this. As Freud probably never said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And sometimes an insult is just an insult.
Still, the incident reminds me of signs that were commonly posted in front of restaurants and hotels in the Southwest during the early part of the last century: “No Dogs No Negroes No Mexicans.” That’s clear enough.
Furthermore, I don’t find the White House’s defense in this matter particularly convincing. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump is an “equal opportunity person,” meaning, I suppose, that he insults everyone, without regard to race, creed, color, gender or national origin. In fact, Trump’s defenders quickly produced a list of eight or 10 white men who Trump has referred to as dogs.
But this defense sounds like a cousin to the faulty rationalization that some white people deploy to justify their use of the N-word, which is that if some African Americans use the N-word, then they can, too.
In other words, it’s OK to use a term that would normally be seen as a racial slur, as long as I also call some white men the same thing.
But insults and racial slurs always have contexts, and their meanings depend on both the identity of the speaker and the object. It’s simple: A Jew can call a Jew a Jew; a non-Jew can call a Jew a Jew; but if a non-Jew calls a non-Jew a Jew, it’s an insult that capitalizes on a despicable racist stereotype. This is why, if you’re going to call people names, be more mindful about who you are and about whom you’re calling what.
Of course, Trump, well-known for his puerile preoccupation with appearance, has called plenty of white women dogs as well - Arianna Huffington, Rosie O’Donnell, Gail Collins. Sometimes he calls them pigs, too. He’s using the conventional meaning of the slur to describe the appearance of women who don’t rise to the standard that he believes complements his own physical attractiveness. They’re not women who he would date, marry or bother to assault.
But in that sense of the slur, Omarosa isn’t a dog. So maybe Trump is flirting with the racial sense, which equates other races with animals that can be dominated and whipped. It’s easy to see why African Americans find this offensive.
I’m always hesitant to attribute too much strategy to any of Trump’s statements. He often reacts angrily and impulsively. When it comes to name-calling he has an impressive arsenal at this fingertips and he uses it freely. Still, it’s logical that his insults reflect his deep feelings about women, minorities and other “losers.”
So when Trump calls Omarosa a dog, is it just an insult? Or is it a racial slur? It’s probably both.
Of course, it’s a sorry passage we’ve come to when we have to consider questions like these. A better question is how we elected and why we tolerate a man who behaves in this way.
His defenders say that when people hit Trump, he hits back. This principle is prominent in playgrounds and daycares. One hopes for better in the Oval Office. One hopes for thicker skin, more deliberation, more restraint, more civility.
And one hopes that if the president is as unenlightened about race as he often appears to be, he finds a way to keep his misguided prejudices on a strong leash.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.