Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lin(k) in the Armor

So, chances are, you've heard about Jeremy Lin, the Harvard graduate now New York Knicks professional basketball player of Taiwanese descent who came off the bench and out of obscurity with an amazing series of high-scoring, well-played games. 

It's one of those Cinderella stories that sports are famous for, with an added bit of ethnic interest, in that Chinese players are rare in the NBA, especially Chinese-American players.  Indeed, one of my son's high school classmates who is also of Chinese descent, was interviewed by the North Jersey Record on what Lin means to him, as a role model representing their ethnic group.

But of course, Lin's story resonates with all American's, as a real life variant on the Horatio Alger myth of the American dream, that anyone can make it with just a bit of pluck, and luck.  He was an underdog, never expected to succeed in the way that he has, and we just love underdogs. So Lin has become something of a craze--they call it Linsanity, word play being a common feature of sports reporting, and this following the formula used several years ago for NBA star Vince Carter, i.e., Vinsanity.

Indeed, Linsanity is credited with motivating the settlement between Time Warner cable and the Madison Square Garden cable network that had made Knicks games unavailable for subscribers throughout the New York Metropolitan Area (myself included) until now.  (For previous posts on conflicts between content providers and cable television, see All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable Neutrality, Tell Old Pharaoh to Let My Channels Go!, Ordering TV À La Carte, and FCC It Now.)

So, I indulged in a bit of my own play in the title of this post, but did so to make reference to the recent scandal that followed as Lin's hot hand and the resulting 7-game winning streak that he led the Knicks to (or Linning streak as some put it) was snapped on Friday night. You see, it seems that the cable sports network ESPN used a headline for this story that turned out to be a bit, well, problematic:

The Huffington Post ran a story by Chris Greenberg with the rather unsympathetic headline, ESPN Racist Jeremy Lin Headline: Network Apologizes For Insensitive Headline For Knicks Loss.  Here's an excerpt from the piece:

Several hours after the Knicks' Lin-spired winning streak was snapped by the New Orleans Hornets, ESPN ran the headline "Chink In The Armor" to accompany the game story on mobile devices. ESPN's choice of words was extremely insensitive and offensive considering Lin's Asian-American heritage. According to Brian Floyd at SB Nation, the headline appeared on the Scorecenter app. The offensive headline was quickly noticed, screen grabs, Twit pics and Instagrams were shared and it began circulating widely on Twitter.

The use of the word "chink" is especially galling as Lin has revealed that this racial slur was used to taunt him during his college playing career at Harvard. After a brief run, the headline was changed to "All Good Things.."

On Saturday morning a statement was posted on the ESPN Media Zone website by Kevin Ota, ESPN's Director of Communications, Digital Media ESPN Communications.
Last night,'s mobile web site posted an offensive headline referencing Jeremy Lin at 2:30 am ET. The headline was removed at 3:05 am ET. We are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.
Ota also tweeted about the headline, noting the brief window of time that the headline was visible across mobile platforms.

So, lots here on the power of social media, but we all knew that already, didn't we?  By the way, Greenberg went on to state:  "Perhaps most shocking is the fact that this headline has been used before. In August 2008, Deadspin called out ESPN for using nearly the same racially insensitive headline with a story about the U.S. men's basketball team during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing."  What Greenberg doesn't seem to consider is whether the phrase "chink in the armor" had been used in other contexts as well, contexts not involving anyone not of European descent.  Somehow, I suspect it has.

Look, I am very much concerned with racial slurs.  As a Jew, I have heard on many occasions phrases like jewing someone down, a verb for cheating or bargaining, and have been quite naturally offended by such usages.  And I am the first to call people on the use of gyp and gypped, a slur against the Romani people, one that many people still think of as acceptable, even cute--and while we're at it, get rid of welshing on a bet too.  And I empathize with the older African-Americans who cringe at the way rap stars throw around the old pejorative nigger.

But let's be reasonable here.  The main definition of chink is, "a narrow opening or crack, typically one that admits light."  Synonyms include  crevice, crack, fissure, cranny, rift, cleft, and split.  There's also a second meaning for chink, "a high-pitched ringing sound."  And says the following for chink in one's armor:
A vulnerable area, as in Putting things off to the last minute is the chink in Pat's armor and is bound to get her in trouble one day. This term relies on chink in the sense of "a crack or gap," a meaning dating from about 1400 and used figuratively since the mid-1600s.
So, unlike the other slurs I mentioned, the one that is used for individuals of Chinese descent is a homonym for these other, older uses of the word, or more accurately, these are two different words that happen to share the same sound and spelling.  There is nothing about the racial slur, as far as I know, that is meant to suggest a narrow opening or high-pitched ringing sound.  There is no suggestion in this instance of an Asian warrior dressed in chain mail.  Rather, the slur is an abbreviated nickname for Chinese, one that carries with it an air of disrespect, along the same lines that hebe is used as a derogatory term for Jews, as a shortened form of Hebrew.

I hope I'm not making you uncomfortable in talking about this use of language.  We have to be able to talk about it, don't we?  To study it, examine it, as well as criticize and essentially outlaw it?  It's times like this that Alfred Korzybski's general semantics proves particularly useful, as that discipline requires us to consider our own semantic reactions to stimuli, especially words, and reflect on their meanings and our own personal responses to them, and how those responses might give words power, rather than empowering ourselves to take control of our own minds.

It's like the famous exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, beginning with Humpty making the point that

There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents —'
'Certainly,' said Alice.
'And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

Who is to be master, indeed!  I was a freshman in college and had just recently been introduced to general semantics via Jack Barwind's Introduction to Communication Theory course, when the movie Lenny, a biopic about the life and tragic death of comedian Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman, opened, and I was struck by a part of the opening sequence that involved the use of bigot words for their shock value (unheard of in the very early 1960s), but ending with a plea to take away their power by confronting them.  I'd embed the clip, but YouTube won't allow it, so you have to watch it over on there, go ahead, do it, just come back here when you're done:  Lenny Bruce hard words.

And while I'm on the subject, let me go off on a slight tangent and mention that the word niggardly, which I happen to like for its antique quality, bears no relation to the racial slur that I know you were thinking of.  Here's a write up on it, in response to an inquiry, from a website called The Straight Dope:

the origin of "niggard" is unclear, but not its timeline, which predates the N-word in the English language by a couple hundred years at least. "Niggard" comes up as early as Chaucer, late 14th century. The most commonly speculated origin is Scandanavian nig/Old Norse hnoggr, meaning miserly. Don't know how much faith you want to put in Indo-European roots, but one meaning of the root ken- is conjectured to relate a family of words with a connotation implying closing, tightening, or pinching (the family of related words is hypothesized to include such n-words as nap, nibble, nod, nosh, neap, nip). The racial slur "nigger," on the other hand, doesn't enter the lexicon until the 1500's, first as "neger" or "neeger," obviously from the same root as the French negre and Spanish negro, words for the color black, which are derived from the Latin niger.

Likely, your conversation on the word occurred about the same time as much of the country's, when poor David Howard made the national news for use of this term. Howard, head of the Office of Public Advocate for D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who described his own administration of a particular fund as "niggardly" in the presence of two of his staff members. He has since been quoted as saying he "immediately apologized" for making what might be misinterpreted as a "racist remark," but the damage had been done. Rumors circulated that he had in fact used a racial epithet (one attribution claimed he said, "I'm tired of all these niggers calling me with their problems"), and he eventually resigned. Eventually the mayor, after determining the facts, asked him to rescind his resignation, and he rejoined the administration, albeit in another position. The D.C. mayor's web page lists him as the mayor's scheduler. 

The moral of the story is, this is what happens when people insist on relying on folk etymology and speculation. Howard was pressured to resign by people who, as columnist Tony Snow put it, "actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance." There are hundreds of words in English, or any language, that sound similar--or even identical--to others, but have completely unrelated origins and definition. Sure, you don't want to offend anyone deliberately, but there's a fine line between not being a jerk and examining every word you speak for nuances that might be misinterpreted by people who don't understand them. If there's one thing the Straight Dope has taught me, political correctness should always take a back seat to actual correctness.

So, how about a plea for Lin(guistic)sanity?  And speaking of Lin, it turns out that the ESPN headline was preceded by a bad call on the part of one of the cable network's sportscasters:

And over on the story was reported under the headline, ESPN Uses "Chink in the Armor" Line Twice UPDATE- ESPN Fires One Employee Suspends Another.  In case you were wondering, it was the sportscaster who was suspended, the headline writer who was fired.  This perhaps says something about the relative value of writers and on-air talent, but maybe also something about the differences between the two different media.  As the Forbes columnist Greg McNeal explains,
the headline is a different matter.  As anyone who has worked in digital media knows, the headline is what draws attention and hits.  Editors and writers try to maximize visitors and shock value with their headlines (check out mine, it got you here didn’t it?).  Unlike an on-air comment, most writers and editors obsess over the headline even after they click the publish button.  So my sense of things is that whoever posted the headline thought about it, giggled, and clicked publish.  In fairness to the writer/editor, the term “chink in the armor” has been used over 3,000 times on, but just because it is a frequently used term doesn’t absolve the writers and editors of responsibility to use common sense. 

Now, in all fairness, we have no idea what went through the headline writer's mind, how much time he had or took to come up with that headline, or what his motives might have been, but McNeal is absolutely correct that the headline is a different matter, or as Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the message.  And I also agree that there is a need for common sense, and perhaps more importantly, common sensitivity, sensitivity to the context of the headline, sensitivity to the need to show respect to all human groupings and identities.  Is an apology in order?  Absolutely!  Should a writer be fired for this, assuming it was an accident? I'm not so sure.

But the point that I wanted to get to is one involving orality and literacy, appropriately enough given that this year, 2012, is the centenary of Walter Ong's birth.  The question was raised on the Media Ecology Association's discussion list by J. Martinez, and here is part of my response:

I once read an article in a communication journal on how sportscasters rely on clichés, more so when there's a lot of action in the game, and it struck me that calling a game has some similarity to oral composition/performance (they are one and the same in oral culture). It's not epic poetry, but given that some of the same dynamics are in play, sportscasters rely on formulas and clichés to stitch together their spiel.  
So it's not just that it's harder to pay attention and "focus" when listening than when reading, that there's little or no time to contemplate the meaning of the words as they're flowing by, and that it's harder to keep them in memory when they're quickly replaced by new talk, nor is it only the fact that much of the language is filler used to keep the performance flowing rather than to communicate anything informative, but it's also that a phrase like "chink in the armor" as an oral cliché or formulaic expression is treated as a whole chunk, as chink-in-the-armor, rather than parsed into separate words.  
In Orality and Literacy, Ong explains how in oral cultures there isn't even the conception of "word" common to literate cultures, but rather something more like "vocalization" or "utterance" which could refer to a single syllable or an entire poem or song.  It's only with writing that words are conceptualized as entirely separate and discrete symbols, each with its own separate meaning that exists independently of any pragmatic context.  When written, "chink" appears as an isolated word rather than a part of a larger whole, it allows for other individual, decontextualized meanings, notably the unintentional racial slur, to be ascribed to it.

So, the word as written is much more problematic than the word as spoken--even though the content appears to be the same, it is not.  Martinez also brought up the case of Rush Limbaugh (not Lin-baugh), whose brief stint as a commentator on ESPN was cut short when he brought his conservative commentary about racial preferences to a discussion of NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb:

My response to this was

in the case of Limbaugh, which is less interesting in my opinion, when his comments were made as part of a flow of sports talk, it's quickly passed over.  But when it's recorded, isolated, and replayed, this allows for reflection and criticism, not to mention magnification of whatever is said, and that makes his comments intolerable.  The irony is that he was done in by the same technology that made football successful on television in the first place, the instant replay.  Without instant replay, football has too little action to be really interesting to viewers (an early study of a Super Bowl game by Michael Real clocked the ball in play at something like 8 minutes).

I also went on to note the similar fate that befell Don Imus:

So, here's how I ended my response:

A similar case, I would add, is that of radio "shock jock" Don Imus when he employed a bit of racist/sexist humor talking about the Rutgers women's basketball team in his MSNBC simulcast.  The internet, and especially YouTube, is functioning as a mirror to television, leading to more critical reflection and self-conscious examination of the broadcasting medium.

McLuhan and Ong have emphasized the oral/aural qualities of broadcasting, and while some of what we hear is scripted, and therefore governed by the written word, allowing for self-conscious editing and self-censorship, and some of it is recorded and then edited as video and/or audio in various ways, live television and radio relies on a degree of spontaneity that will always allow for the possibility of error, and accident, and therefore offense.  Even with delays and oversight and careful understanding of what is acceptable, we never know what might bubble up from an individual's unconscious mind, what monsters from the id might appear.

But without the spontaneity of the live, the immediate, the unplanned and unexpected, without the possibility of novelty, mistake, and failure, is it possible that we'd be losing something exciting and vital about our media experience?

On the other hand, there's always Twitter... 


Mike Plugh said...

The interesting issue to me in this whole mess is the latitude we give to particular characterizations of those outside the central discourse, compared to those who have feet firmly planted within. SNL did a sharp piece on this contrasting the way loose talk about race is handled with respect to African-Americans and Asian-Americans in our culture.

In fact, I've done a bit of blogging about this in the past when the Spanish national basketball team posed for a photo in China, all pulling their eyes into stereotypical squints to mimic the Chinese. There was a predictable backlash. The same occurred in European Football (soccer) when a player scored a goal against the Koreans and went streaking to the sidelines in celebration while making the same eye contortion in mockery of his opponent. In these cases, the examples of symbolic communication weren't linguistic, but non-verbal. Nonetheless, they are a part of a rather rich tapestry of continuing and very open mockery of East Asian people, which seems to be acceptable in some quarters of our population even while others have come further.

I used to sit in my Korean friend's liquor store at Washington Square Park, behind the counter with him, and people would come in all the time calling him Bruce Lee and other racially tinged things. He was very cool about it and told them where they could go, even though he was a formally trained martial artist since childhood.

The social media (and broadcast/cable media) angle to this particular story is the "No Sense of Place" story all over again. Finally, Americans are getting a little (very little) window into the type of open race-baiting and stereotyping that Asian-Americans endure every day. (Go ask your local Chinese restauranteur what their day is like in New York.) The fact that we're negotiating what's beyond the bounds of good taste with respect to Asian-American stereotyping is a positive outcome, long overdue, and it's taking place at hyper(Lin(k))speed, if I can combine that many puns into one parenthetical jumble.

The negotiation of race in public discourse for the Asian-American community has been slow and sporadic for a lot of reasons (see: Abercrombie and Fitch and the Chinese Laundry) but sports has proven once again to be the great equalizer by forcing people together in one of the few true meritocracies and splashing it all over our digital discourse. About time.

Lance Strate said...

Of course you are right, Mike, and the incidents you describe are incredibly juvenile, as well as racist.

So many of these things come to a head in the United States, because here, more than anywhere else on earth, we have all of the races and ethnic groups living together. There's more friction as a consequence, and I find it incredibly hypocritical of elites in other nations criticizing us when they don't have the same demographics to contend with. And the ultimate outcome is negotiation, tolerance, cooperation, and sensitivity that goes beyond anything that exists elsewhere.

On this particular issue, though, as much as it serves to move the dialogue on racial sensitivity forward, there needs to be more acknowledgement of the unintentional, unconscious, and medium-based aspect of the incident:

Report: Fired ESPN Employee ‘Devastated’ By Uproar Over Offensive Lin Headline

Mike Plugh said...

I completely agree with you. Lin does too, to his credit. The poor guy who read the copy off the teleprompter doesn't deserve to be suspended. The guy who wrote the headline on the other hand had the wisdom of ESPN prior mistake to contend with (and of course the medium).

One of the big things that could come from this, but won't obviously, is a discussion of our culture as a blame/punishment culture. The first thing that happens post-gaffe/faux pas/insult is a search for someone to blame and a demand for punishment. It all seems quite natural and goes completely unquestioned. In fact, these things are "teachable moments," as Obama is fond of saying, and ought to represent an important point on our maps where we all have important conversations about our beliefs, taboos, and our relationships with people outside the central discourse. Instead, we want heads to roll...except Lin to his credit.

I'm teaching Hall's PMS, an analytical methodology to my Japanese undergrad students in Intercultural Communication this winter. These things are fertile ground for discussing formal sets, isolates, and so on. Lin has been a part of our discussion.

Lance Strate said...

I'm not sure that the headline writer was aware of the previous mistake, though. I agree that we focus on blame/punishment, with the emphasis being on the individual. And I can understand if there were some pattern of behavior established, but in this particular incident, there seems to be a reasonable chance that this was all an accident, and there'd be more to gain from dialogue and education than scapegoating one or two guys. Maybe it's just the circles I move around in these days, but I haven't heard this particular racial slur used in years, maybe close to two decades.