When the mob descended upon someone for making what someone deemed an incorrect utterance, the target had choices. One was to shrug and let the chips fall where they may. One was to defend against the vicissitudes of the mob attempt to dictate correctness to others by fiat. And one was to apologize and repent, often performing an act of contrition to demonstrate the sincerity of obsequiousness to the aggrieved and offended.
If you will recall, Dave Weigel, of the joking Weigels, attempted the third option, immediately deleting his retwit of the putatively offensive joke and apologizing for the error of his ways. Rather than end the torment, it emboldened Felicia Sonmez and others who tasted blood to pound harder.
Lizzo, on the other hand, pulled it off.
For Lizzo, who enjoys a warm public persona and produces upbeat, feel-good music that promotes self-acceptance, the lyric struck fans as particularly off-brand. The criticism began almost immediately after the song, the latest single from her upcoming album, “Special,” was released on Friday.
But the swift removal satisfied many of the fans and activists who had criticized her, believing it to be an example of someone listening, learning and acting on new information.
A disability activist, Hannah Diviney, twitted that Lizzo’s use of the word “spaz” was offensive and an ableist slur. Lizzo, like Weigel, immediately responded apologetically and changed the song lyric.
But she was “blown away” by Lizzo’s rapid reversal, she said. Instead of being defensive, the rapper took action once she heard the criticism, making her “a real genuine ally because she’s willing to learn.”
There is, of course, a curious disconnect in the “willing to learn” paradigm, since it presumes someone to be entitled to teach and compels someone else the duty to learn. Why shouldn’t Diviney be expected to learn from Lizzo? Words “evolve,” as the excuse commonly goes, so does the word mean what Lizzo intended or what Diviney found offensive?
So why did Lizzo get a pass when so many others who tried to capitulate to the mob’s demands get their heads chopped off anyway? Why was LIzzo’s apology taken as laudatory, a demonstration of her genuine allyhood, when the same reaction from others was sneeringly deemed a cynical effort to avoid well-deserved ruin?
Lizzo, of course, is Lizzo, and not Dave Weigel. She’s a morbidly obese black woman who has become an icon to many who adore victimhood, a status for which she holds a good deal of cred. Due to race, she can utter the “n-word.” Due to gender, she can utter the “b-word.” But she didn’t have cerebral palsy, so she could not utter the “s-word.”
“As a fat black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me.”
Would it be hurtful to call Lizzo a “fat black woman”? She can call herself that, but can anyone else call her that without it being “hurtful”? Is her being a “fat black woman” in America sufficient cover to allow her to apologize and get away with it where others* have been excoriated, ruined, canceled, despite their apologies?
As a child in the schoolyard, the word involved here, “spaz,” was most assuredly an insult, much like other words applicable to medical conditions and challenges like “retard.” The post-hoc argument was that the word used by Lizzo wasn’t understood in the United States to be offensive, whereas the Brits saw it that way.
Warren Kirwan, a spokesman for Scope, a group in Britain that campaigns for equality for people with disabilities, said the term has been “quite a common term of abuse for disabled people for the better part of 30 years in the U.K.” In 1994, the organization changed its name from The Spastic Society to Scope to avoid association with the slur.
The differing cultural contexts may help explain why Lizzo, an American, used the term, even if it doesn’t excuse it, he said. But Lizzo handled the situation well once she learned more about the word, he said.
“It was in her power to own that mistake and change it, and well done for doing that,” Mr. Kirwan said.
It is, of course, quite possible that within Lizzo’s sphere, whether due to race, gender or age, there was no familiarity with the use of “spaz” as a slur. But it’s more likely that it was pretty obviously a derogatory word, but not one which Lizzo found hurtful. Whether it should be eliminated from the lexicon for being offensive to people with cerebral palsy is a fair question, although they are likely aware that the word isn’t being used today to denigrate CP sufferers.
A great many people are now searching for words to eradicate as offensive to someone, and they range from the “s-word” to “hysterical” to “woman.” And if someone, Lizzo in this instance, chooses not to use a word, chooses to apologize for its errant use and chooses to genuflect for the mob’s mercy, that’s entirely her choice. Just as she can choose to use it and take whatever beating the unduly passionate decide to deliver, she can choose not to.
But the Lizzo privilege, the mob’s willingness to both forgive and extol her as the epitome of an ally, isn’t universal. Lizzo is a “fat black woman in America,” and unless you carry Lizzo’s cachet, don’t expect the mob to be as forgiving.
*As have occasionally been the subject of posts here, the universe of canceled people consists of a great many who are now forgotten and not only Dave Chappelle and Louis CK. Consider, ironically enough, another of Sonmez’s victims, Jonathan Kaiman. Who, you ask? Exactly.