I once saw a cartoon entitled “What You Say/What Your Dog Hears.” In the first panel we see the owner shrieking: “You’re a very bad dog, Ginger! Look how you broke my favorite lamp, Ginger! Bad, bad Ginger!” In the second panel we see the dog wagging its tail with glee as it hears, “Ooooooo, Ginger! Oooooooo, Ginger! Oooo, oooo Ginger!”
This came to mind as I read the latest chin-strokers about the impact of Rahm Emanuel’s personality on the likelihood that he’ll hold onto Chicago’s mayoralty. Journalists have emptied their thesauri searching for the closest analogue to the unprintable “asshole;” but most of their accounts suggest that the entire topic is unworthy of discussion.
That’s probably because many journalists have backgrounds like mine. When Rahm speaks, I hear the boys I went to high school with, or the guys with whom I practiced law: loud and obnoxious, blunt and profane. Plenty of those guys were assholes—but just as many weren’t. Their swearing and yelling was pretty much beside the point, just a matter of style. And a familiar style, at that: the style of urban Jews from loud-mouthed families where you had to shout to be heard.
So when the mayor is rude, I don’t take it personally. But it seems likely that what African-Americans hear is disrespect, and they do take it personally. Nor would I claim that they shouldn’t. I suspect to many black people Rahm’s profanity and flippancy register as ways of saying, “You’re so unimportant I can’t even bother to be polite to you.” It comes across as one of the thousands of variations on addressing adults as “boy.”
So the issue isn’t whether Chicagoans are too thin-skinned to handle a tough-talking mayor; it’s whether what they hear is tough talk, or disdain. And given Rahm’s determination to do things his own way and his reluctance to listen to other people’s points of view, the ones whose reaction is that the mayor doesn’t care what they think or even believe them qualified to have opinions—those people cannot be held to be wrong.