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Apologizing for Colloquial Slurs: This Could – and Should – Be One of Those Cases

In Apologetic rhetoric on May 7, 2011 at 2:25 am

Claiming that offensive language is common only demonstrates that an apology is needed that much more.

That’s the gist of the story out of Wisconsin, where a county supervisor made the following remark during a board meeting: “We jewed ’em down some.”

That was his response when asked about the county’s dealings with a contractor. Chances are he didn’t mean to offend anyone. He may not have even known the implications of what he was saying. The problem is, now that the significance and underlying message of his remark have been pointed out to him, he’s still standing by his words.

In fact, instead of apologizing as requested, he’s actually defending his use of the term “jewed” by saying it’s different from other racial slurs because it’s a “business word.” And a few of his peers are offering similar defenses for him, such as claiming that “jewed” is common language for some people.

Those defenses (or apologia) actually prove why an apology is needed. Apologies aren’t just casual words we say to get out of trouble. They’re negotiations of a society’s values, obligations, and expectations.

By refusing to apologize for his remark, this county supervisor is essentially arguing that such misguided views of other races and religions are not only ok, they’re actually valued. Moreover, his “everyone is doing it” defense is offered as evidence that society as a whole feels the same way about those races and religions.

Look: there are negative implications behind many colloquial expressions. Unfortunately, people say them without considering those messages or their ramifications. Who hasn’t said something they later regret? This could – and should – be one of those instances. As the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Madison stated: “People say things in the heat of the moment. Just own up to it, apologize, and move on.”

But when a person doesn’t regret it and even justifies it, that’s indicative of a broader problem. And stating that others feel the same way only demonstrates how significant an apology would be in bringing to light and condemning those implied sentiments.

An apology by this county supervisor would not only acknowledge the wrongfulness of his particular remark, but would essentially serve as an argument that all such sentiments (whether subtle or direct) are unacceptable in our society.

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