Salem witch trials 2013: Paula Deen

Paula Deen has become the latest victim of a modern-day witch hunt. She has lost all she has worked for professionally: her cooking show, her five book deals, and most of her endorsements. Although we’ve come a long way since the Salem Witch Trials of the late-seventeenth century, in a way, the Paula Deen controversy is proof that our collective fascination with public lynchings is alive and well—albeit in a way more palatable for our 21st century conscience.
The story surfaced last month, when Lisa Jackson, a former employee of a restaurant owned by Deen and her brother, filed a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual segregation. Jackson, who is white, alleges that Deen made derogatory remarks toward African-Americans. Deen’s remarks were personally offensive to Jackson because her nieces are bi-racial.
The National Enquirer reported last month that Deen admitted using the N-word in her deposition at times, saying “Yes, of course. But that’s just not a word we use. I don’t—I don’t know. As times have gone on things have changed since the ‘60s in the south.” Deen, who is from Georgia, said she used the term while describing a incident she was a part of to her husband “when a black man burst into a bank that I was working at and put a gun into my head.” She followed that up by saying, “I didn’t feel real favorable towards him.”
In addition to that, Deen also admitted using the N-word since the aforementioned incident, but that she probably used it while repeating a conversation between blacks.
That was when the controversy began for Deen.
The Food Network promptly announced they would not renew her expiring contract at the end of June, leaving her out of television for the first time in over ten years. Days later, many of Deen’s sponsors followed suit. Smithfield Foods, Wal-Mart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, and K-Mart all terminated or suspended their contracts with Deen. Few have jumped to defend her, but by and large, she’s become this month’s whipping boy for mainstream media.
If what we’re trying to create is a society with zero tolerance for racial epithets and behavior that will offend minorities or historically oppressed groups, that’s fine. Personally, I believe public figures generally take too much scrutiny for the things they say publicly and have to live by an unfair and hypocritical set of standards most ordinary folk could never live by should they ever find themselves in the public eye. I think the amount of people who have admitted using that word—regardless of the context—pales in comparison to the amount of people who have actually used it. But if we’re going to rigidly restrict what public figures can or can’t say, let’s apply those restrictions to public figures across the board, not just to the ones that best fit the role of whipping boy.
In a recent interview on Fox, TMZ host Harvey Levin pointed out the hypocrisy of media and of society in general when choosing which public figures to scrutinize for their offensive mishaps. The interview was part of a short segment, so Levin didn’t have an opportunity to elaborate on his point extensively, but he was as clear as he could be. He pointed out how Kobe Bryant got off the hook so easily for using the word “f***ing faggot” toward a referee recently, having only been fined $100,000 for the incident. He wasn’t suspended a single game, and unsurprisingly, none of his sponsors abandoned his side.
Perhaps Levin was quick to point that out because he is gay, so Bryant’s remarks likely hit closer to home for him. But in any case, he brings up one of the best examples of public hypocrisy there is.
Why Deen and not Bryant? Is “faggot” more offensive than the N-word, or vice-versa? Scholars can have a long, sit-down conversation about which is worse, and points could be made for both. But when determining the public’s hipocrisy in their reaction to each of the cases, the matter of which is worse is irrelevant. You could even argue that Bryant’s remarks are worse, because they happened recently, on national television, and he directly called an individual a “faggot.” Deen, on the other hand, admitted to using the N-word decades back, and that she’s used it to paraphrase a conversation. In any case, having a debate over the severity of each word or which of the offended communities has it worse in 2013 won’t lead to any answers.
The question that does produce an answer is asking why the media and public responded to each offensive word so differently, to which there is a simple answer. The reason for that is because Deen is dispensable to us as a public figure. She has a popular cooking show, but we don’t “need” her. I’m sure many people have only heard of Deen for the first time specifically because of this incident. Bryant, on the other hand, is someone we “need.” I’m being a little facetious, but it’s true, we can’t live in a world without Kobe Bryant.
After being fined for the incident, Bryant released a quote saying, “My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do not reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were not meant to offend anyone.” That is about as unapologetic an apology as he could offer. In no way is he admitting he was wrong. He is essentially saying “Sometimes when I get pissed at people on the basketball court, I lose any regard for who I offend and say whatever is on my mind. I have nothing against the LGBT community, but I’m also too arrogant to care about who I offend because I’m Kobe Bryant.”
Deen was a fixture in the world of culinary television, so she is likely to find her way back to television. Maybe some of her sponsors will take her back after they have enough hindsight to put everything into perspective and see things more clearly. She’s also likely to find a publisher to publish the books she was ready to write. But the unfairness and hypocrisy of the public lynch mob in 2013 is sickening. Who are we to get on our high horses and pontificate only to select public figures about what they can and can’t do? Who are we to put a halt to someone’s long career for something they said decades ago, while another person with a similar offense gets to reap the benefits of sponsorship deals because they are important?
Not only are we hypocrites who want to publicly end a person’s career under the false pretense of racial tolerance, but in service to our “morality,” we’re becoming bullies ourselves—which is ironic considering all the recent anti-bullying campaigns.
The truth about all this is that we don’t really care what Paula Deen said because we’ve clearly shown we don’t care about what Kobe Bryant said. Maybe we’re becoming this way because today’s technology and social media gives anyone the opportunity to affect the big picture. But again, the witch hunts of today have many similarities to the events that occurred in 17th century colonial Massachusetts, even though the colonists lacked the advent of social media. The only major difference between then and now is that the colonists probably did believe in witches, which doesn’t vindicate their actions, but shows their concerns were sincere. Our concerns, on the other hand, are about as sincere as Bryant’s apology—and just as arrogant.