Every now and then, something happens in the world outside politics that defines the sharp divide that exists in this nation. The Paula Deen debacle is one of them.
It came to light recently that Deen used the N-word in her past, prompting a controversy that ended in her forced separation from just about everything that had made her a kitchen icon. She lost her show on the Food Network and lucrative deals with Target, Home Depot and diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk, among others.
Her use of the racial slur emerged during a lawsuit filed against her.
To some people, it seems as if her penalty is too harsh for something that, decades ago when the slur admittedly occurred, was far too common as a form of behavior, particularly in the South. She is from Savannah, Ga.
To many people, though, the idea of anyone using that kind of language is reprehensible. It should be no surprise to anyone that use of the N-word is considered, by people of all races, to be a great affront. It has been for many decades now.
A full-scale battle is on between those who now demonize Deen and those who still adore her. Boycotts have been undertaken against Food Network and others who have cut ties with the cooking queen, and orders for her new cookbook are soaring.
At this newspaper, we have seen elements of the fray. Some readers wonder, for example, why the N-word is seen any differently across America from age-old slurs against other groups: Italians, Irish, Puerto Rican, Jewish … practically any group, in one way or another.
“I just accept that, as an Irishman, I’m going to be called names associated with my ancestry,” one man said. “I don’t take particular offense against it, and I don’t expect anyone to feel sheepish about it.”
However, there is a big difference between use of the N-word and just about all other insulting terms linked to national origin or religion. Few groups have undergone the long-term, repeated assaults and hatred that African-Americans have in this country — starting with brutal capture, importation, sale and exploitation in slavery.
The N-word, alone among them all, remains a hateful insult that, when used, immediately brands the user as a thoughtless, insensitive boor — and possibly a racist.
One measure of how reprehensible its use is considered is the reaction of corporate America to Deen’s admission of past use. How could anyone use it while knowing that it creates such a deep wound?
Deen has certainly tried her best to make amends, but it’s hard not to feel that her frantic apologies are compromised somewhat by the matter of her lost fortune.
Most of us just shake our heads when reflecting on anyone using racially offensive language. Those people certainly deserve censure. It is up to society to judge whether they also deserve forgiveness.