Thursday, March 16, 2023

Is this Blog's Name Problematic? An Agreeably Dissenting View

by Neil H. Buchanan

Does it matter whether the people engaged in something potentially offensive know that they are running the risk of causing offense?  Of course it does, but how completely does lack of intent or knowledge get a person off the hook?  There is no general answer to that question, but Professor Dorf's column yesterday -- "Jack Daniel's, Confusion, and the Problematic Origin Story of this Blog's Name" -- presents an opportunity to explore some nuances through an example in which we have access to an unusually large amount of the relevant facts.

The fundamental issue is whether the punny inspiration for this blog's name -- a series of videos in the 1980's by the comedian Tim Conway, the first of which was titled "Dorf on Golf" -- is potentially offensive enough to suggest that we should change that name.  (Although he only mentions the one video, I should note that there was more than one, with my limited memory dredging up only "Dorf on Tennis" but with the strong sense that there were others.  Yes, I could look it up online.  I didn't.)

Professor Dorf drew what I think is the right conclusion: "I gave the question some thought but elected to keep the name."  My disagreement here is with his analysis of the question of whether there is anything necessarily offensive about the name in the first place.  In Professor Dorf's telling, Conway's original "Dorf on Golf" comedy video can reasonably be described as an effort to get laughs at the expense of people with dwarfism.  Is that accurate?

Before getting there, let us situate the discussion within the culture wars of 2023.  Why?  Because that is where everything is now situated, thanks to Republicans' decision to do nothing but crank up the cultural grievance machine.  It is exhausting, but here we are.

As it happens -- and I definitely did not coordinate topics with Professor Dorf in advance -- my latest column Verdict, published today, directly confronts the current phase of the political right's panicked effort to make everything about this bottomless pit of meaningless branding called "wokeness": "Rhymes with ‘Joke’: A Word that Already Meant Nothing Now Means Even Less."  In columns both here and on Verdict in 2021 and 2022, I had critiqued the whole woke freakout essentially by saying that it was exactly the same thing as "political correctness" and "cancel culture," neither more nor less.  At the time that I wrote those columns, that was true.  It was all merely more of the same thing that American conservatives had been doing for decades.

In today's Verdict column, however, I note that something has changed.  I did not invoke the overused "jump the shark" concept, although I could have (as I am doing here, while pretending not to).  My observation was that whereas woke's predecessors were ever-present methods that conservatives would use to go on the attack when they had nothing better to say (which was often, but not all the time), the sheer volume and intensity of their anti-woke jihad has at long last overwhelmed everything else.  Public discussions about banking and military policy are now unthinkingly cast as matters of evil liberals' wokeness.  Ad campaigns are attacked for even the slightest hint of anti-bigotry, i.e., wokeness.  As I note in the column, even the celebration of Pink Floyd's great "Dark Side of the Moon" came under right-wing attack for daring to use its 50-year-old cover art depicting a prism (and thus the colors of the rainbow).

I have little doubt that I used the term "singularity" incorrectly in the column, but my point was that in less than a year, we have moved from an annoying situation in which right-wingers would at random shout "cancel culture," "politically correct," and/or "woke," to the impossible current situation in which they might as well just go all in and say "woke ... woke ... woke ... woke ... woke ..." nonstop, 24/7.  It is a bit like the character Groot in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" franchise, although they doubtless have some anti-wokeness complaints about that Hollywood product as well.

It was thus a bit amusing to read Professor Dorf's column yesterday and come across this: "'People with dwarfism' is the preferred term of the organization Little People of America, so it's the term I'll use."  Oh, you satanic groomer, why must you be so woke?!

Seriously, however, my imagined right-wing objection to the quoted sentence is a perfect illustration of the emptiness of the anti-wokeness mindset, demonstrating why it is truly indefensible.  Going back to the emergence of "the PC police" complaints in the first round of these culture wars in the 1970's and 1980's, the right's persistent objection -- sometimes stated explicitly, often not -- is that they should not have to learn anything new or change anything that they say.  Somehow, they had no problem going along when football stars like Tony DOR-sett and Joe THEES-man changed their names to Dor-SETT and THIGHS-man (the latter motivated directly by the desire to position himself for a certain college trophy), but if a vulnerable person says that they are personally hurt when people use a word or set of words, then the culture warriors demean them for being hypersensitive.

This, of course, is the same motivation for the right's current obsession with pronouns.  Unsurprisingly, they claim that it is the left that is obsessed, because projection is what the right does best.  But even if a person thinks that another person's feelings "make no sense," what is the harm in saying, "But hey, it's their life and their feelings, so why not?"  Dipping back into the 1980's for another example, SNL alum Dana Carvey had a hilarious bit in which he imagined a young Gordon Sumner going to his local pub in England and telling his mates that he would henceforth be known as Sting.  Even something pretentious and precious is still a personal choice, so Sting it is.

And in the pronouns "debate," we are not talking about a White working/middle-class guy who is simply making an artistic/career move.  The people involved are vulnerable, bullied, and worse.  They want to be referred to in ways that feel right to them, but the Ted Cruzes of the world have gone ballistic -- thus proving that these marginalized people are still being marginalized.

I thus completely agree with Professor Dorf's approach: When possible, find out what people want to be called, and respect that.  That is not always easy, as the ongoing flux in the discussion about Native Americans versus Indigenous Americans versus American Indians shows.  But honestly, so what if it is unclear or the answers change over time?  Prince Rogers Nelson went from Prince to a symbol and back again, and although those moves were the target of some humor, most people were willing to go with what the man wanted, even the second time.

Why is that difficult?  More importantly, even if it is for some reason difficult, why does it inspire fits of rage from the right -- but again, only when it applies to people whom cultural conservatives want to continue to oppress?  As one commentator pointed out, people learn to refer to other people by different names all the time -- my kindergarten teacher (for some strange reason that we could not understand) went from being Miss Canitia to Mrs. Nelson one day -- and politicians do not bat an eye.  Yeesh.

But back to the people with dwarfism and the name of this blog.  Having emphatically stated my agreement with the apparently-radical idea that people -- in this case people who have had to hear "jokes" about being "tossed" (and not just to hear those jokes but to have it happen to them, shockingly) -- have the right to tell me what to call them, why am I offering a dissenting view about Professor Dorf's concern about the name of this blog?  The short answer is that I do not think that there is any connection between the source of the joke and bigotry against people with dwarfism.  Why not?

Professor Dorf offers two reasons for concern: First, the Derk Dorf character was created by having Conway put his legs through two holes in a false stage, with pants/socks/shoes situated at his knees as if his legs ended there.  This necessarily meant that Conway was shorter when playing that character than when he played any other character.  Even so, I vividly recall watching those videos when they were released, and it never even once occurred to me that Conway was playing a shorter person, much less a person with dwarfism.  Whey do the bit with the legs?  Because it allowed a very specific slapstick move in which he could swivel and totter in a way that was visually unexpected.  There was, as far as I perceived, no element of "Look at how funny this guy is because he is short," but rather "Look at this physical comedy that looks like he is defying the law of gravity (and that has nothing to do with stature at all)."

To be clear, I have not watched these videos in decades, making it possible that they are offensive in ways that I would not have been primed to notice at the time but which might not have, as we say, held up well.  Try watching, say, "Animal House" or "Diner" with 21st Century eyes without finding yourself agape.  The difference is that I can think about those movies now and immediately think of the offensive scenes in them, only wondering how we ever laughed at the racism ("Animal House") and sexism (both).  But at least for current purposes, I think that it is meaningful that I perceived nothing about the visual joke in the "Dorf on ..." series that was tied to height.

Second, Professor Dorf suggests that Conway most likely chose the name Dorf because it sounds so much life dwarf.  Again, maybe, but I doubt it.  For one thing, dwarf was not the standard word used at that time to describe people with dwarfism  More to the point, however, the name Dorf simply sounds funny.  David Letterman named his production company Worldwide Pants because he believed that most people think the word "pants" sounds funny, and he is right.

When we were in our respective graduate programs in the 1980's, now-Professor Dorf and I lived in an undergraduate dorm as "resident tutors."  In one year's annual skit show, the funniest guy in the house came up with several Top Ten lists (speaking of Letterman) that brought down the house.  One such list was "Top Ten Joke Names of Our Resident Tutors."  Nine of the ten joke names mined humor from adding syllables or words to tutors' names, the most memorable of which was turning our colleague Bapa Jhala's name into "Bapa 'Don't Preach' Jhala."  Fun stuff.  After setting us up with a series of such joke names, the student then said: "And the number 1 joke name of our resident tutors: 'Mike Dorf.'"  It brought down the house.

My point is that some words and sounds are, in any given cultural context, simply funny.  Both Derk and Dorf almost sound like dork, which is a put-down but not a culturally insensitive one (to my knowledge).  I have even heard people tease Professor Dorf by calling him "Mike Dork" on purpose, knowing that he would not be offended.  (On a serious and tragic note, however, I should mention that the Dorfs, like large numbers of American Jews, are in fact not sure what their family name was before their relatively recent ancestors came to US shores.  When people make fun of that name, it is in some sense not even a direct hit.)

When Professor Dorf was considering creating this blog in 2006, I was rather unhelpful, telling him that it would be a useless time-suck and that if he did make the mistake of creating it, I would almost never contribute to it.  I have been wrong many times in my life, but that was a big one.  In any case, I recall the conversation in which he suggested the name, and I can say that sixteen and a half years ago, it did not occur to me for so much as a nano-second that there was anything insensitive about it.

In any case, as he wrote yesterday, most of this seems to be irrelevant in the current context, because "I've learned over the years that almost nobody has ever heard of Dorf on Golf. Certainly my younger readers hadn't. Thus there's not much of an association with Conway's work to begin with."  That is certainly true, and my intervention here is offered simply to say that it is not obvious to me that Conway's "entire premise is offensive" in the first place, as Mike argued.

But what if I am wrong?  Professor Dorf notes that the could not get himself to watch the video through to the end, and I am conceding that everything here is drawn entirely from decades-old memory.  If I were ever to learn that my memory is wrong, I would readily update my view, although I would still agree with the decision not to change the blog's name, for the other reasons given.

More broadly, however, if we were to learn that in fact this is an intensive name, or if at any point in the future new facts or arguments come to light to suggest that keeping the name would be insensitive in that new context, the name would have to go.  Why?  I guess that's wokeness for you!

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