I grew up in the rural South fifty years ago. Back then, a lot of white people, mostly men, would occasionally tell racist jokes or make racist comments in almost any company–as long as it was white. They usually played on negative stereotypes, impugning African-Americans as ignorant or shiftless or making fun of physical features. Most of them honestly didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. They just thought they were making jokes.
Then the world left them behind. Today, the only people telling racists jokes are angry white people clinging to a past they rationalize was better than today and people more ignorant than the stereotypes that they’re portraying. The rest of us learned a long time ago that demeaning behavior is damaging and unacceptable.
That’s what we’re seeing with the Duane Hall episode. It’s painful to watch, like a slow motion train wreck that just keeps coming off the rails. I want to grab Duane and yell, “Stop talking!” Duane doesn’t understand what he’s done or how the world has changed.
He can’t comprehend that comments he’s made are hurtful and unacceptable. When he says he can’t have attractive women as legislative assistants, he thinks he’s making a joke. He doesn’t seem to realize that flirtatious comments loaded with sexual innuendo are not okay, in part, because until very recently they were—at least if you were the man making them. Women had little recourse. Now, they do. The world has changed and Duane has been left behind.
Duane’s defense sounds familiar. When society began telling those white folks that their racists jokes were unacceptable, defenders of passive racism complained about political correctness, or the co-called PC police. What they were saying is, “We’re not doing anything wrong. You’re just oversensitive.” That’s essentially Duane’s argument.
That said, just as the PC police could be overbearing and censorious, the self-righteousness of some of the people calling for Duane to step down almost makes me want to defend him. A group of Young Democrats is demanding political leaders call for Hall’s removal. Twitter is awash with people calling on legislators to take a stand against Hall, implying that they’re somehow complicit if they don’t. They sound like modern day Jacobins.
Duane should step down, as much for his response to the accusations as for the accusations themselves. Duane’s behavior was boorish and insensitive. Billy Ball is a good reporter and his story is well documented. Duane’s inability to see his own flaws or acknowledge that his behavior might have been out of line is what will eventually end his career. Even if Duane survives through the primary, his response to the situation has left him politically isolated and will render him ineffective.
That said, mob justice without due process is not right, either. The price we’re demanding of people for their behavior is high. A lot of people are losing careers for actions and comments that were tolerated not very long ago. We need to find a way to deal with the accusations of the #MeToo movement that is not always reactionary because some of those accusations will be false. Trial by social media is not justice.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >