The Common Scold

The Common Scold is named after a cause of action that originated in Pilgrim days, when meddlesome, argumentative, opinionated women who displeased the Puritan elders were punished by a brisk dunk in the local pond. Believe it or not, the tort lasted until 1972, when State v. Palendrano, 120 N.J. Super. 336, 293 A.2d 747 (N.J.Super.L., Jul 13, 1972) pretty much put it to rest. But the thought of those feisty women, not afraid of a little cold water, has always cheered me up and inspired me. I first used the moniker as the name of my humor column at the University of San Francisco School of Law many moons ago, and revive it now for this blawg!



Rude There's a very effective series of public service announcements, from the Freedom Center that use the tag line, "imagine the power of one voice." The PSAs show everyday examples of people making judgments fueled by stereotypes, and individuals challenging their behavior.

In one, an Korean shopowner becomes suspicious when a young black man enters his store.... and calls to his grandson, in dialect, to "watch that guy."  The grandson recognizes the shopper as his friend, and then gently chides his elder, saying something along the lines of "Grandpa, you taught me treat everyone as an individual and not judge by stereotypes."  Click here to see it.

Sometimes, it's hard to know how to react when someone says something that you find offensive. Especially in a social situation where you don't really know the person well. Often, it's easier to be silent.

I struggled with how to deal with the situation Saturday, at the Yankees/BoSox game at the Bronx. I was attending the game with a relative of a close friend -- I brought him as a favor to my friend, but I had never met the fellow before. Everybody knows that Yanks/BoSox games can get a bit, um, er, heated, especially up in the cheap seats. The guy -- I'll call him Joe -- is a very, very devoted Yankees fan, and doesn't keep his allegiance under wraps. Early in the game, Boston's Johnny Damon was up, and Joe yells a taunt -- calling Damon a "faggot."

I blanched. I was dumbfounded. I thought of the PSAs, and debated saying something -- but I didn't want to make a scene. I didn't know Joe at all, and I have tremendous loyalty to my close friend and didn't want to do anything that would create a problem between her and Joe.

Meanwhile, a few innings later, Joe referred to one of the stadium staff as "that gay guy" and it was too much for me. I whispered in his ear, with as non-judgmental tone as I could muster, and said, "You know, I have many gay and lesbian friends, and I would appreciate it very much if you would not use homophobic language." Joe lost it, chided me loudly, and insisted angrily that "faggot" was not homophobic in the context of baseball and the Red Sox. This time I was not quiet. I held my ground -- and told him so that everybody who heard his outburst could hear my response -- that it was rude, homophobic and that I wouldn't tolerate it.

I waited a few minutes, and then made my excuses, and left the game. (Of course, if the Yankees weren't getting shellacked by Boston I would have just found an empty seat somewhere else and stayed at the game.) 

I went home, called my friend, and explained what happened. She was completely supportive, and the way we handled the discussion brought us even closer.

During the whole incident, I kept thinking about that PSA and the grandfather. I doubt I made a dent on Joe, but hopefully, my behavior was noticed by the people who witnessed the interaction. I firmly believe in the profound power of language to shape our beliefs and realities. (That's why I insist on gender-neutral language when I edit.)

When we label people with hateful monikers, we dehumanize them -- and ourselves. When we stay silent, we allow hate and stereotypes to thrive. When we don't challenge bigotry, we allow it to continue. Language can hurt more than knives.

Sometimes, we just have to be brave, even when it's easier to stay silent. I'm not sure I would have said something, had I not been so moved by that PSA. As hard as it was to do, I'm glad I found the courage to take a stand. I found my voice. 

Update 5/31: Thank you to those of you who have commented here and via e-mail. Much appreciated. In the meantime, here's a very interesting article by teacher Nick Devito, from Newsweek, about similar issues, "I Kept Quiet, and Lost My Job Anyway."

Update 6/2: Here's an editorial from USA Today about homophobic taunts at sports events.

May 30, 2005 | Permalink


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» It oughta be a law: Stereotypes, slurs and Boston's Johnny Damon from Inside Opinions: Legal Blogs
Monica Bay couldn't hold her tongue at a recent Yankees vs. BoSox game. Find out why her readers are thanking her -- and why she recommends a series of public service announcements about stereotypes from the Freedom Center. [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 1, 2005 3:09:17 PM


Good stuff but Yankee fans can never be trusted ;)

Posted by: Steve | May 30, 2005 1:07:50 PM

Well said. It always makes me uncomfortable when anyone is overtly racist or bigoted, whether it is in private or public.

I don't like that kind of negativity in my life and call people on it. Depending on the situation, I ask them at the very least to not use that language around me.

I have to admit that more often than not, I kept my mouth shut when I was younger.

Posted by: Dave | May 30, 2005 8:09:18 PM

What an excellent story-- and what a jerk the guy was, going off on you like that (on top of just being a jerk). I hope there was someone in the stands that heard you, and will use your example as an inspiration the next time.

Posted by: Bill Altreuter | May 31, 2005 4:58:26 PM

I know I am not the only person who read this post and then took a hard look at myself and asked, “What would I have done had I been in her shoes?”

Would I have joined Archie Bunker in his retro bigamist heckles? Absolutely not.

Would I have sat there and laughed along? No way

Would I have felt offended and acutely embarrassed by this knucklehead – yet not offended or embarrassed enough to do anything about it other than blanch and slump down in my seat? Sadly, I must admit I probably would have…at least before I read this post.

Someone (I forget who) once said that courage is not the absence of fear or dread – but the ability to go on in the spite of that fear or dread.

All of us in the blawgosphere recognize what a kind and generous soul you are. Now, we all learned what a courageous and righteous one you are.

For me personally, its not a lesson I will soon forget.

Much respect.

Posted by: Matt McCarrick | May 31, 2005 5:55:16 PM

I feel threatened by your political correctness, as should everyone who supports ball game free speech. Your bullying, supercilious, moral superiority is offensive. Whether guest or host, your puerile, public tantrum shows a lack of manners, cheap seats or not.

This story is very upsetting. I recommend a course in ballpark etiquette, and several hours of continuing legal education in constitutional law, focusing on the First Amendment Free Speech Clause.

Posted by: supremacyclaus | Jun 1, 2005 8:03:52 PM

I don't like that kind of negativity in my life and call people on it. Depending on the situation, I ask them at the very least to not use that language around me.

Posted by: medieval dress | May 12, 2010 12:36:35 AM

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