The Joe’s Vs. Chink’s Cheesesteak War and Stand-Your-Ground culture

If it's “just a word,” why don't you stop using it?

Here’s a pattern I’m weary of. This should sound familiar: Celebrity uses racial slur. Having shocked and upset the public, celebrity apologizes. That apology, in turn, is met with a tide of indignation, of cyber-voices railing over what the big deal is and decrying our soft, hypersensitive society.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about Paula Deen’s entry into this cycle. A couple weeks later, Riley Cooper was making headlines, his own racist soundbite landing him public embarrassment and official disciplinary sanctions. Those incidents, plus the most recent national-news-making rigamarole over Joe’s Steaks (née Chink’s Steaks), have set this public shame-to-shouting-match cycle into motion three times this summer, drawing into full view the distressing number of people who either don’t understand the weight of a racial slur, or simply don’t care.

Deen and Cooper still have loyal fans insisting that their icons were wronged, because really, it’s just a word. One commenter on the “Boycott Food Network To Support Paula Deen” Facebook page wrote that the network that dropped her was a bunch of “politically correct spineless corporate buzzards.” A member of the “We Support Paula Deen” Facebook page (which recently rallied to send butter wrappers to the Food Network, QVC, and other companies who washed their hands of the Deen mess), recently told CNN that even after the revelations about Deen, he still strongly felt that she “kind of reminded him of his mom.” If you scroll to the bottom of just about every Cooper recap, there’s bound to be some nonplussed fan iterating that “rappers say it all the time!” and yet no one will cut this poor schmuck a break. (Indeed, aren’t all elements of Kanye West videos perfectly transferable to our own lives?)

We’ve been hearing a lot of this in relation to Joe’s – the much-discussed cheesesteak joint in the Northeast whose owner, Joe Groh, recently changed his store’s nearly 65-year-old name (Chink’s) to something less offensive (Joe’s). (“Chink,” apparently, was the original owner’s nickname, bequeathed because of his “almond-shaped eyes.”) Predictably, the outcry against Joe’s supposed bow to the PC machine has been loud and oppressive; everyone from Stu Bykofsky to Gawker picked up on the legion of former shop regulars boycotting. (My favorite comment on the original Foobooz post about the matter goes: “That’s what you get for caving to folks that ain’t even your customers, let alone in your neighborhood. You know ’em, the professional bitchers. There was Never any malice in the Chinks name, but if somebody insists on being offended wtf are you gonna do?” Stay classy, PPABootSquad.)

In response, Post contributor Joel Mathis is organizing an “eat-in” at Joe’s this Saturday, in support of the decision to shed the derogatory moniker.

Online, at least, Joel’s event is getting about the feedback you’d expect. Support, yes, but also an absurdly disproportionate number of naysayers, who are leaving Facebook comments insisting that Chink’s was named “in honor of the man who created the business,” and Joe’s should be “taking a stand for tradition,” instead of “[bowing] to a group of politically correct crybabies.” It’s “the people who think these things,” not the words themselves, that cause heartache.

I am always bewildered by these criticisms, but then, hurting other people’s feelings upsets me, so I guess I wouldn’t get it, would I? A friend recently told me a story I keep thinking of, about his dad, whose colleague gently corrected his use of the word “Oriental” in reference to Asian people. Dad sincerely didn’t know its connotations, and despite his embarrassment, was mostly glad he knew not to use it in the future. I can’t imagine reacting any other way than precisely that. There’s almost no word in my vocabulary that I wouldn’t immediately drop if I found it made someone else uncomfortable. If the word, as so many of these free speech vigilantes are suggesting, isn’t that big of a deal, what’s the big deal about just not using it? If to you, it’s just a word, and to others, much, much more than that, isn’t the decent solution simply to use a nicer word?

That’s not to say there isn’t a point at which political correction can get frustrating. If you read Sandy Hingston’s excellent Philly Mag piece this past May about the culture of PC, and the hair-trigger reactions that seem to come from the most far-fetched offenses these days, you know that there’s some truth to idea that substantive dialogue can be stifled by too much sensitivity.

But not all political correction is about conversational red tape. The culture of PC, as it were, was born out of a call for respect. Sometimes, yes, it’s about appearances and avoiding lawsuits, but it’s also about setting a standard of discourse that doesn’t demean or pigeonhole, and reflects the society that uses it – one that’s moved forward since 1949, when someone deemed it okay to print the word “Chink” on a sandwich shop awning.

This vernacular stand-your-ground mentality may be the easiest one to find these days, though. And really, I’ve got to stop looking for “discourse” in Facebook comments and other portals where noise often means more than dialogue; where writers are merely defending their ideological turf, and thus need every lexical weapon available; where somehow, we’re losing grip on the idea that a conversation amounts to more than any one word in it, and that a cheesesteak has very little to do with what you call it.