Protecting the covert with the overt: The real problem with Ann Coulter’s F-bomb

By Brian Pierce

By now it is old news that Ann Coulter recently called democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a “faggot” at the 34th annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference and that she was greeted with wild applause from many of those in attendance.

The response was rather predictable. The left, “saddened” and “disappointed” by this “lowering of the public discourse,” swiftly called for leading conservatives, especially Republican presidential candidates, to condemn Coulter. Said conservatives then expressed condemnation and declared that Coulter’s vitriol does not represent mainstream conservative thinking. A few of the newspapers that ran Coulter’s syndicated column dropped her from their pages. Though on the whole, she received little more than a series of wrist slaps, and it soon became clear that her career would keep on sailing largely as it had before. The media reported ad nauseam on the whole sordid mess, and then reported ad nauseam on why the media was reporting ad nauseam on the whole sordid mess.

All in all your typical news cycle.

But the problem with what Ann Coulter said in that crowded banquet hall isn’t what she said at all. It’s that what she said offers a quiet excusal for what so many others say, do and think on a daily basis. Ann Coulter becomes the standard against which we measure our own bigotry, and because her breed of bigotry is a rabid, seething and wild cur, the softer bigotry of most everybody else becomes seemingly harmless, unnoticed, and what’s worse, acceptable.

While John McCain responded to Coulter’s comments by calling them “wildly inappropriate,” he made no mention of the fact that in the 2006 election cycle he appeared in advertisements for an Arizona state constitutional amendment not only banning same-sex marriage but also denying any legal benefits to same-sex couples at all. And more insidiously, while John Edwards decried his victimization at Ann Coulter’s hands as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama leapt to his defense, not a single one of them believes the institution of marriage can withstand the inclusion of gay men and women.

But this is not just a political problem. While we may hope that Coulter’s hate speech would expose the ugly underbelly of discrimination in this country, the far more likely scenario is that it will only serve to distract us from real problems. When Coulter employs the word “faggot,” it makes the everyday usage of the phrase “that’s so gay” more protected by comparison. This is despite the fact that the latter is far more pervasive and as a direct result of its ubiquity, far more hurtful to real gay people trying to live their lives without feeling targeted.

This is a mentality that has plagued race relations in this country for decades. Because the overt racism that embraced segregation and made lynchings commonplace has been so successfully stigmatized, the hidden and institutionalized racism of today has become less assailable and more easily ignored, because hey, at least nobody’s getting lynched and the schools are legally integrated.

The reality isn’t that Coulter sits on the fringes of our society. It’s that everybody else has learned to successfully hide their prejudices in ways Coulter chooses not to. Politicians like Edwards or John Kerry before him have been feminized by the mainstream media (see Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, Maureen Dowd, et al) for years. Just because the media chooses to make the word “faggot” implicit rather than explicit doesn’t make what they do any less harmful. Indeed, it makes it far more harmful.

Some have responded to the coverage of Coulter’s slur by saying we should pay no attention to her. That’s not quite right. We need to pay attention to what Coulter said, but only as a reminder to remain vigilant in our sensitivity to those manifestations of prejudice which might not otherwise catch our eye. Her behavior is not a sign that hatred still exists on the extremes; it is a sign that it still exists everywhere.