If you’re exposed to popular culture in any format, you’ve likely heard the travails of poor ol’ butter-soaked Paula Deen. Following the revelation that she had used a racial epithet, the Food Network cooking star has been in a deep public relations tailspin. Endorsement deals have been dropped like a twice-baked potato with cheese and chives and other secret ingredients. She’s made a few awkward mea culpa attempts and her dutiful sons have rushed to her defense.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge out of the furor is the fact that Deen’s dumb remark (which may reflect deeper unflattering opinions) has garnered so much of the public’s attention. At its base we have the aberrant hateful musings of a celebrity cook. Moreover, the remarks in question were made decades ago. Who among us would want to be held publicly responsible for things we said 30 or more years ago? Assuming that most of us don’t know Deen personally, it’s difficult to understand the broad social currency of this controversy. Similarly, it’s tough to understand why this didn’t get a passing reproach — because that’s just about all it deserves.
It’s not that we condone such remarks. We don’t. Enlightened people find other words. As such, it’s not whether she said something she shouldn’t have. It’s that anything she has to say — on any topic other than folksy home cookin’ — matters to us.
It’s almost as if people suddenly found out that their pastor was caught stealing from the building fund. She’s hardly that. She is an “up by her own bootstraps” entrepreneur, who got caught being stupidly human. Maybe her business acumen and cooking prowess should be lauded, but only a fool looks to celebrities for moral, ethical, political or spiritual guidance. Why then does this even register?
To be sure, Deen deserves consequences. She’s clearly getting those, but that fails to explain why we as a culture must feign such horror.
Sociologists provide a clue in their description of how society deals with other deviants. Take for example the case of an individual committing a terrible crime. Invariably the television reporters swarm the criminal’s neighborhood. They interview all of his neighbors. Most of them give the canned, “he was a quiet boy who kept to himself” type response. They do so almost subconsciously.
Even if they can’t articulate it, their subconscious instructs them to psychologically and socially distance themselves from the evil-doer. They do this for a simple reason: To admit that you thought the criminal neighbor was up to no good implicates you. It says that by your silence you are somehow complicit in their misdeeds. You failed to stop them.
Rationally you realize that you might not have been able to have any effect on the course of events. Subconsciously, you want to make sure the world knows too. This distancing also reaffirms your subscription to the normative and moral boundaries of society.
So it is with Deen. In order to reassert the societal proscription against racial slurs and racism, the media goes into a full-tilt overcorrection. Her sponsors follow suit. To buy Deen’s pots and pans at Walmart somehow turns you into Lester Maddox. Not that a feeling person would want to support someone whose ethics are of a different meter than their own, but the controversy has to play out on many stages in order to reach full social saturation.
Financial rebuke is one way to demonstrate solidary against what she putatively represents.
To be clear, Deen shouldn’t have said what she said, but when seeking to assign more meaningful fault, we need to look closer to home. Without having a full provenance on her person and proclivities we chose to elevate her. We rewarded the flow of butter and matronly cackle. We made her more than she was.
Like a raccoon with its paw caught in a trap after reaching for something shiny, we got caught and now we’re just a little embarrassed.