Why “coons” or “punks” doesn’t really matter
One of the most common logical fallacies is that a single utterance can reveal someones ‘true’ character, wipe away all the pretense and reveal what they ‘really think.’ This fallacy seems to be especially common in punditry and in the world of trial law (at least as portrayed on TV shows, fictional or ‘reality’ based). You know, if you can demonstrate an individual ever spoke a single untruth, that makes them a “liar,” or if you can establish that Jesse Jackson once referred to New York City as “Hymietown” that proves he’s an anti-Semite. Well, arguments along such lines are just bull excrement.
In scientific terms, they’re generalizing from a ridiculously small sample, that is typically a sample of one. If, in fact, George Zimmerman said, “fucking coons” during his police call on the evening of 2/26, that could have been an utterly unique slip of the tongue, something he never said before or since. If you wanted to try to establish something about his character from his vocabulary, you’d need a statistically significant sample: you’d need to be able to prove that he used that language or similar terminology with enough frequency that would indicate it was indeed characteristic of his thinking.
In semiotic terms (the study of meaning in language and symbols), suggesting that “coons” is evidence of some entrenched bigotry is ripping the term away from it’s context. It means something very different to utter a slur TO another individual, and to utter a slur to yourself under your breath, as Zimmerman does (be it “punks” or “coons”). If I call an African American a “coon” to his face, even only once, it’s a fairly safe bet to assume I’m a bigot, all the more so depending on who the target may be (just for a minor differential, let’s say I’m addressing Flavor Flav on one hand or Chuck D on the other, much less Mike Tyson on one hand and Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the other). But I ask, which among you has never uttered an epithet based on some demographic distinction to yourself, either at loud or merely in your mind? Who has not thought of an unpleasant woman as a bitch, an unpleasant man as a bastard, an obnoxious fellow who happens to be Jewish as a kike, an overly dramatic gay man as a fairy or fag… there are so many categories. If none of them have ever crossed your mind, please hurry and apply for Sainthood. Now, if you have passed any such slur through your inner voice, or an actual vocal aside, what did you mean? I’ll wager that you were not expressing any generic condemnation of a whole class of people, but rather reaching for a convenient cutting word to describe a specific person. That is, most of the slang vocabulary we have for distinguishing ‘good person’ from ‘bad person’, or even ‘person behaving well’ from ‘person behaving badly’ is gender, race, ethnic etc. specific. I take my own experience as an anecdotal example. I make no claim to be free of all vestiges of racism, but I’m no bigot, and it was civil rights issues that animated my initial interest in politics as a child. Yet, sometimes when I encounter African Americans acting in ways that are both anti-social and in-line with negative stereotypes, I’ll kind of internally shake my head and think an epithet in a kind of half ironic way. How can those folks act like that? Don’t they know they’re feeding the negative stereotypes? It’s something like the distinction Snoop Dog observed in the wake of Don Imus referring to the Rutgers womens basketball team as “”nappy-headed hos.” Snoop said, “It’s a completely different scenario. [Rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about ho’s that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing sh–, that’s trying to get a n—a for his money.”
So basically, if George Zimmerman said ‘coons’, he was probably just using a racialized term for ‘punks’ because our vernacular is already racialized, not because he has any special animus against African American’s in general. It does seem he has an issue with young black men he doesn’t know personally wearing hoodies or other forms of ‘street’ attire, but that’s a very specific prejudice that involves not only race, but gender, age, class, and culture rolled into a specific configuration. One thing few pundits have made proper note of: this is the only phrase he whispers under his breath during his call? Why would he do that? I’m guessing, of course, but my thought is that at the moment the words are travelling from his mind to his lips he realizes that this is something he should not say, not just because the police operator is listening and embarrassing, but because in some part of his mind where his moral sense resides he knows that it’s wrong. He can’t stifle the phrase entirely, but it comes out as a whisper.
Now, as an audio techie, I’m intrigued by the puzzle of trying to figure out what he said. The news clip where a CNN engineer claims Zimmerman said “fucking cold” is a complete travesty. He’s ‘enhanced’ the audio by applying broadband noise reduction (BNR). Now any noise reduction algorithm is incapable of knowing where ‘noise’ ends off and ‘signal’ begins. The person operating the software has to know where to draw the line. I’ve used noise reduction a lot trying to clean up less than optimal field recordings for documentary films. If you take the settings too far, the BNR will start affecting the sounds of words, muddying them up, making them sound like something they’re not.
Now, you’ll notice that we’re only hearing the “enhanced tape” indirectly, the sound is being played back over the speakers in the edit suite and picked up by the lav mics the two men are wearing. So we can’t hear it clearly, as we would if they bothered to splice the ‘enhanced’ clip directly into the audio of the news story (which would be extremely easy for them to do, BTW). Now to my ear, the muffled indirect audio still sounds like ‘fucking coons’, but the CNN engineer TELLS us it sounds to him like ‘fucking cold.” We don’t ever actually get a clear shot at hearing this for ourselves. Just ridiculous.
So I did try my own hand at the puzzle, using a different method than the ones I’d seen in the media. I took the recording of the mystery word and broke it down into phonemes: the first consonant, the vowel the end consonant. Then I went through Zimmerman’s 911 call and cut out every other instance where he uttered the phonemes in question: all the ‘uh’s as in punks, all the ‘oo’s as in coons, all the ‘p’s as in punks, all the ‘k’s as in coons, and compared them simply by lining them all up in a row. The first consonant sounds like all of GZ’s ‘k’s and not like his ‘p’s. The vowel sounds like all of his ‘oo’s and not like his ‘uh’s. He said “coons.” You can bet on it. I was going to throw this all into a video and put it up on YouTube, but I gave it up. It’s a lot of work, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s just something a guy said to himself on one occasion. Now, if at some later date, Zimmerman goes all Mark Furman and says he never uttered a racial epithet in his life, then it matters as a question of his integrity. But at this point it’s a red herring. There’s plenty of information in Zimmerman’s call that he had concluded Martin was a criminal just by looking at him, including the fact that he called him a “fucking [anything]” in addition to an “asshole” “up to not good” “on drugs” etc. etc. etc. Getting all worked up about one word uttered sotto voce just makes no sense at all.