Monday, June 24, 2013

In defense of Paula Deen (?)

For reasons that I don't need to get into, but wholly unrelated to the late controversy, I'm not a fan of Paula Deen.

I can usually deal with that by turning to a different channel, or turning away from the magazine rack at the checkout stand.  And since we gave up cable a couple of years ago and gave up the Today Show last September (when we discovered CBS This Morning--really, if you watch a morning news program, you should be watching that one), very little channel-turning has been required.

But somebody went and sued her for racial discrimination, and my Good Counsel duties require that I take a position on that.  As often happens in lawsuits, the opposing attorney took her deposition.  Uncomfortable questions were asked.  Being like most people, she was anxious to tell the truth and ended up admitting to having held some opinions and undertaken some acts a long time ago that she may or may not be proud of today.

I can't see into her head and discern how she actually thinks on these issues.  She may well be a racist, privately unrepentant, who has a public persona that is oh-so-apologetic when an ugly past came to light.  Or, like many people of her generation, she may have come around to the right side of things later than she maybe should have.  Or she may just be a dunderheaded relic who speaks without thinking, emphasis on the without thinking.

Put me solidly in the column of people who find racism repugnant as a general principle.  There is no excuse for casual use of the term that modern communications mores require that we render as "N-word" or "n*****."  And there is something very odd about a person whose sincerest dream wedding is attended by black people dressed and acting as slaves, in an antebellum travesty that borders on farce.

But we are, of course, talking about allegations made by a plaintiff who is seeking money from Ms. Deen.  In such suits, remarks made sarcastically, in jest, often read as monstrous.  Context matters, and history matters, and it only takes a slight tweak, an unreported wry smile or eye roll, to turn a droll comment into something nefarious and discriminatory. For that reason, I cannot seem to summon the outrage necessary for me to agree that the public Paula Deen should be dismantled and fed to a hungry Mario Batali.

Certainly not solely on what has been alleged in the complaint against her.

And, good grief, I'm a lawyer who has most often represented plaintiffs in lawsuits.  The truth is that not all plaintiffs tell the whole truth, especially when there are so many dollar signs trailing the defendant around like dogs after a pan-fried pork chop.

That's not to say she should be off the hook entirely. 

Ms. Deen has certainly not made things better with her apologies.  I really don't understand what she's talking about--it's almost as though she's apologizing for current conduct, or maybe even apologizing for allowing the PR aspects of this situation to spin out of control.  Really, if
the problem is that she used a racial epithet in anger thirty years ago and has sometimes harbored fond feelings for the images conjured by Al Jolson singing "Swanee," the needed apology doesn't sound like what she said.  What it sounds like is, I told the truth in my deposition because that's the right thing to do.  Thirty years ago I said something in anger and fear that I shouldn't have said and that I wouldn't say today.  I'm sorry that I said it then because of how much pain it causes people.  The truth is that I wouldn't be where I am today without the love and support of people of all races.  My life today is about good food, cooked well, and that's something we should all be able to agree on.

Then she should settle the lawsuit and say, We have a difference of opinion about something I said. Instead of fighting this, I should have made it right from the beginning, because the last thing I want to do is hurt somebody else.  I didn't realize that what we were doing could be seen this way, but we're going to make some changes starting now.

That would win her more fans, of all races (I think), than spinning three fuzzy, out-of-control YouTube apologies in a desperate attempt to hang onto her empire.  And if it had been handled correctly from the get-go, this would blow over with an Oprah interview and a 60 Minutes profile.

1 comment:

  1. A good post, Jim. I agree, lots of folks (especially those in their mid-to late-60's and beyond) said things 40 years ago they regret now. Like you, I thought the whole plantation thing was just plain creepy. But, I think she handled it very poorly. She really should have spent the money to hire a crisis management company (they're out there) to help her with it. The public can be in love with you one minute and very unforgiving the next.