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A Thug By Any Other Name

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If you are one of those people who are often the last to hear about the latest addition to the list of politically-incorrect words, this blog is for you. I clearly count myself among your number. Not since I heard that "dutch treat" was considered a pejorative have I been so surprised at the inclusion of a seemingly innocuous term on the cultural no-no list.

I am speaking about the word "thug." It's possible that you have not yet heard that it is considered by some to be a racist term. I first learned this a couple of weeks ago while dining out with a group of friends. We were discussing the subject of Zimbabwe and the tyrannical rule of Robert Mugabe. A young African-American woman in the group, a prominent activist, said she was offended when whites referred to Mugabe as a "thug." "But why?" asked the other (Caucasian) diners. Because, she responded, "thug" is a racist term. After a rather stunned silence, there were protests offered all around. The word "thug," we insisted, referred to all sorts of nefarious bullies, from muggers to Mafioso. The dictionary (once considered the final arbiter) defines thug as a "cruel or vicious ruffian, robber or murderer." The young woman did not budge. "Racist," she insisted. And she kindly suggested that our insensitivity could be chalked up to a generation gap. This struck me as ageist, but not worth debating. Surely, I thought, this is one PC argument that will never go anywhere.

Wrong. A friend who attended that dinner with me has been sending me evidence that, in fact, the "thuggery" debate is taking hold. The first example she sent to me was from Rush Limbaugh's show. Apparently, Limbaugh had referred to Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama as "Chicago thugs," and was immediately criticized by a listener because "the word 'thug' has racial connotations." Limbaugh was incensed. "You know," he responded, "I've been talking about union thugs for a long time... all of a sudden now 'thug' has racial connotations?" He also pointed out that Rahm Emanuel was not black. Even so, there it was -- the same politically-incorrect stigma attached to the word that we had first encountered at a small dinner party the week before. Worse, I found myself agreeing with Limbaugh, at least in principle if not in practice. While I most certainly don't think Emanuel or Obama qualify as thugs, I do think co-opting the word as a racist term is beyond the pale.

"Beyond the pale," of course, might just be the point. I remember, so many years ago, how shocked I was to learn that so many African-Americans believed O.J. Simpson had been framed. The chasm between white and black perceptions -- especially regarding the justice system -- was enormous. So I was willing to concede that perhaps I had some cultural blind spots regarding thuggery. More research (mostly from my vigilant friend who keeps sending me blogs on the subject) informed me that "thug" is often related to rap and hip-hop artists, as in the late Tupac Shakur's album, "Thug Life Vol. 1." But I was still confused; if rappers chose to identify as "thugs," then why was it racist to use the term in a broader context?

Apparently, others are wondering the same thing. One blogger, writing on Cyber Commorancy, stumbled onto the "thug" controversy when he heard a TV commentator berated for calling football player Michael Vick a thug. Vick has been in the media spotlight for illegal dog-fighting and, most recently, for being arrested at the Miami airport when he bullied a security screener and refused to hand over a water bottle he insisted on carrying onto the plane. In the words of the blogger, "it has ballooned now into a racial conversation, with many asserting that 'thug' is the new "N" word and is racist. NBA star Joe Johnson of the Hawks said, 'I do think it's definitely a race-based stereotype.'"

Now that I have been educated on the subject, at least in terms of the racial and cultural disparities in our understanding of the word "thug," I still maintain that this is one term that should be free of PC shackles. To rob the language of this excellent noun is tantamount to linguistic thuggery. This is a time-honored term that should remain available for identifying all those who qualify as "cruel or vicious ruffians." You know, like Al Capone and Robert Mugabe.