'Union mentality' column an exercise in prejudice, not legitimate commentary
Warner clearly had the right to write his column and to try to get it published. AnnArbor.com clearly had the right to publish it. But it shouldn’t have done so. Although I strongly disagree with it, there’s nothing illegitimate about the viewpoint that unions are bad or do mostly bad things. Unfortunately, Warner went well beyond that, engaging in the worst sort of stereotyping and guilt-by-association.
Imagine, if you will, columns titled “The Catholic (or Jewish or Muslim) mentality,” “The female (or feminist) mentality,” or “The black mentality.” How about “The colored mentality?” It isn’t hard to find examples of that last phrase in publications in the early 20th century. Isn’t it offensive, and beyond the bounds of reasonable public discourse, to suggest that every member of a group thinks the same and acts in the same way?
Warner said: “The union mentality looks out the window on a snowy morning and says: ‘That might be enough to serve as an excuse for not going to work.’” This isn’t a criticism of union actions or policies; it is a suggestion that a worker who belongs to a union is lazy and looks for excuses not to do his or her job.
Is there really much difference between the classic racist characterization of blacks as “lazy and shiftless” and Warner’s depiction of the union worker as inclined to find any excuse to not show up for work? That’s not a view that deserves publication on an editorial page; it’s simple prejudice.
It is one thing to write a column arguing that the Catholic Church is “corrupt,” because sexual abuse by priests was ignored or covered up by some in the Church’s hierarchy. It’s quite another thing to say that “the Catholic mentality excuses sexual abuse by priests.” It’s one thing to argue that “moderate Muslim clergy and lay people should more vocally criticize Islamic terrorists.” It’s quite another thing to say that “the Muslim mentality condones terrorism.”
Warner attacked and demeaned individuals for being associated with unions: “[T]he concept of unionized professionals is an oxymoron. The union mentality is incompatible with operating as a professional.” By this reasoning, virtually all teachers, nurses and police officers are not professionals. Warner would, apparently, also strip the “professional” label from University of Michigan medical interns and residents, who have bargained collectively for over 35 years through their House Officers Association.
In the rhetorical history of this country, the use of the word “mentality” to characterize whole groups of people has been associated with attempts to demean and disparage disfavored racial and ethnic groups. Think “colored, negro, slave, Irish, Polish or Indian” mentality. If negative traits of thinking or acting can be attributed to a whole group of disfavored people, it is much easier to justify treating them badly, and worse than, favored groups. That’s exactly what Warner’s rhetoric invites.
Surprisingly inflammatory language could be found even in establishment newspapers and other publications for much of our nation’s history. This largely disappeared in recent decades as greater sensitivity developed around issues of race, gender and ethnicity. Before the advent of the internet, getting “published” to anything approaching a large audience meant getting through the filters imposed by the editors of daily newspapers and the news directors of radio and television stations.
The downside was that some legitimate viewpoints may have been effectively suppressed. The upside was that some truly vile, racist, sexist, false or inciting material was not widely distributed. Now, there are few effective filters, and almost any material can reach large numbers of people.
I would have hoped that AnnArbor.com, which still passes its news stories, columns and letters to the editor through the filters of accuracy, fairness and appropriateness, and which tries to be the main source of local news and opinion to a diverse audience, would not have published this exercise in prejudice.
What is particularly strange is what happened when I posted on AnnArbor.com’s website a comment in response to Warner’s column. It said, in part: “This column is little removed from old racist treatises about the ‘colored mentality,’ about those ‘lazy, shiftless Negroes.’” The comment was removed by an AnnArbor.com’s staff member, who said the comment “was removed due to an offensive, off-topic analogy."
So, according AnnArbor.com, Warner’s entire column of prejudice directed at unions and, more importantly, individuals who belong to them, was acceptable for publication, but my statement comparing it to other examples of prejudice, was not. The Ann Arbor community is entitled to expect a higher, and more consistent, standard of journalistic practice than this.
Ann Arbor resident Thomas F. Wieder is an attorney who retired from active practice in 2003. He continues to do pro bono work, primarily for the American Civil Liberties Union.