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Who, Exactly, is a ‘Karen’?
Reflections on the racist and improper use of the term.
By Jason D. Hill
Last Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany “Karen” after the press secretary referred to the mayor as a “derelict mayor” at a White House briefing.
Lightfoot shot back with a tweet on Twitter: “Hey, Karen, Watch your mouth.”
The term “Karen” has been used routinely and reported in the press by various individuals capturing the often — it is true — obnoxious behavior of certain women who happen to be white. These behaviors have been recorded on cell phone cameras, and, in many cases, they have gone viral.
As an academic philosopher who regularly teaches theories of concepts and philosophy of language, let me say something about the conceptually improper and actually racist use of this term.
“Karen” is a slang and pejorative term used to describe a rude white woman who is exploiting her privilege as a white woman.
Proper names are not concepts like, say, chairs, tables, birds, furniture, democracy, justice, brave, kind, evil and so on. Such terms possess a set of distinguishing characteristics that define them, and hearing those terms will automatically conjure in one’s mind that shared set of characteristics. Any person who is evil or brave or kind, regardless of background, will share a set of attributes (and their attendant behavioral traits) in common with any other person in the world who is evil or brave or kind. These terms are designators that denote specific characteristics tied to a referent (an individuals or individuals) which holds them. That is why we don’t confuse evil people with kind people, and thieves and liars with honest and truthful people. The concepts mark out the defining behaviors of the persons who bear such attributes.
The same goes for chairs or tables or birds. Wherever we find such entities in the world — USA, Germany, China etc. — the reason we do not confuse them with other objects, like, say, a ball, or in the case of birds, with wasps, is because they have certain attributes that define them as the entities that they are. When we use the concept “table” or “bird,” we don’t have to point to each and every table or bird in the world. We function like wholesalers rather than retailers in the realm of cognition, and we function with an enormous degree of cognitive and verbal economy. The concept is enough to tie together in our minds the defining characteristics that give the entities (birds, tables, chairs) their definitional meaning, and a recognizable status in our minds.
Proper names, as such, do not function that way. They identity referents in the world — yes. This particular person named Karen, and that other particular person named Karen; but not because the person or persons named Karen or because all the Karens in the world have any common characteristics that mark them out as “Karens.” If we take the millions of tables, chairs and birds in the world, we see they all share common attributes. If we gathered all the people named “Karen” in the world, we would find no identifiable characteristics in the world that unite them under a conceptual common designator. None. The same goes for any proper name such as Michael, Kevin, David, Doris, or Michelle.
The attempt, therefore, to use a proper name as a conceptual term is not only improper: it is nefarious. Think now of all the people named Karen who are not white, privileged or rude. A proper name has been used as a conceptual designator to apply to them. This is so evil a phenomenon that whoever created the term “Karen” as a conceptual identifier of a rude and privileged white woman should be reckoned with for the conceptual mayhem it creates in the human mind.
This is how post-modernists have polluted language and, by default, polluted cognition and methods of efficient thinking. This is precisely how distorted thinking gets inserted into the public space with few, if any, willing to challenge the foundational premises on which it is predicated. This is how the intellectual bankruptcy of our age has led to colloquial usage of terms that indict people on charges based on language that is vacuous. Conceptual inanities are mouthed by everyone; they are codified into moralistic coinages that are nothing more than the neologisms of village idiots who think it is funny to take a wonderfully proper name for a woman and turn into a marker of universal insult.
I have an idea. Every woman named Karen should take it upon herself, as a test case, to take legal action against anyone who invokes the term “Karen” against anyone who is white, privileged and behaves in an obnoxious manner, on the premise that usage of the term degrades her own personal name. I do not believe there is a legal precedent for this, but what better way to test the waters than for all the women named Karen in the world to sue those people who call those women whose behaviors are obnoxious, who happen to be white and who are privileged: “Karen.”
Some may say, why make such a big deal over this issue? Beyond what I have written, I must add that the English language is eroding. Some may not be bothered by this state of affairs and, indeed, if the problem were merely the fact that more people were committing grammatical and syntactical infelicities in their writing one would have little cause for too much worry. A good editor with old-fashioned sensibilities would be a curative antidote to this dilemma. The surest sign that language is eroding is not by ostensibly pointing to the sloppy ways in which people communicate either verbally or in written form, but by way of how their thinking manifests itself in the world.
Observe the infantile style of commentary that accompanies many written articles, and the petty bickering among commentators. Reading such commentaries, one feels like a statistician in gutter trivia. People emote and tend quite often to respond from their “gut” rather from a reasoned and thoughtful point of view. Disagreements turn into petty squabbles until individuals are no longer debating contents of an article but, instead, are literally cursing each on a level that not even eighth graders would lower themselves to. Rather than pick up a dictionary to locate the meaning of words they do not comprehend, many readers demand that writers lower themselves to the level of a reader’s intelligence, missing the point that the proper role of a good writer, like that of an artist, is to give one a picture of the high view — provided that one is willing to climb up to see it.
Observe the frequent manner in which people resort to personal attacks when they are engaged in a discussion of events; or they succumb to the “Argument From Intimidation.“ This is a case in which, instead of offering up evidence and rational arguments, persons emote snarls, grunts, shouts, huffs and puffs and other emotional vibrations which are all meant to substitute for reason itself, are all meant to cower their interlocutor into submission. The extent to which people personalize what they read or hear from even friends is a sign of cognitive deterioration, an indication that feelings rather than thinking have taken the place of adjudicating and/or arbitrating disputes. This means that more and more people are resorting to an emotion-based level of not just communicating, but of using emotions as a method of appraisal and of making moral judgments. Emotions tell us what we feel; unfortunately they do not tell us the why of what we are feeling. They are not tools of cognition. My emotion of anger alone will not, in the absence of introspection and a process of thought, trace the root of my anger.
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.