By Tommy DeSeno
“There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.” – William James
A regrettable development in American culture is that racism is being obscured by false claims of racism. Both destroy their targets.
If a racist is one of the worst things a person can be, then falsely claiming someone is a racist is one of the worst things you can do to a person. We are in a current whirlwind of Cancel Culture and instant ostracization by social media. Those who are careless labeling others as racist can easily ruin the life of someone who had been careful not to be one. No one should have such power over the reputation of others, but in these odd times where the Internet is forever, everyone does.
This just happened in Red Bank, New Jersey.
Local Red Bank activist Sue Viscomi is a political Independent who has for a decade worked on projects with both Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, she may have committed a Red Bank mortal sin – she ran for office as an Independent against the Democrat ticket. What choice did she have? The whole council is Democrat.
Last month on a Red Bank public Zoom meeting, Sue Viscomi had what is known in Latin as a lapsus linguae, or in Greek a parapraxis. In English it’s known as “an innocent slip of the tongue.”
Sue was addressing business administrator Ziad Shehady, who had just belittled the emotions expressed by a prior speaker. Obviously, the room was tense and speakers were anxious.
When Sue attempted his name “Ziad,” she stumbled over the letter Z. What she pronounced was no sound found in English, but it sounded most like the French pronunciation for the letter G. Instead of pronouncing “zee,” she said, phonetically, “zhee.” Putting that with the rest of his name, instead of Ziad she said, “Mr. Zhee-ad.”
There are numerous works from linguists describing what happened to Sue Viscomi tripping over the sound of “Z”by saying “zhee” as one of the most frequently made speaking errors.
Despite that, someone on the Council decided that she actually said, “Mr. Jihad,” perceived as an insult, because Shehady is of Middle Eastern descent.That also suggests someone on the Council misunderstands the word Jihad as always meaning something bad, but we’ll circle back to that another day.
In any event, it was objectively false that Sue said Jihad. She sounded out “Zhee-ad” without a second h, rhyming his name Ziad. Had she intended Jihad, she would have sounded, “Zhee-hod” with a second h.
There were two possibilities presented here: Either this well-regarded advocate who dedicates her time helping to make better her diverse community (she herself was born in Ecuador) suddenly became a person yelling racist remarks on the public record, or… she had a meaningless slip of the tongue.
Faced with that choice, with this gentlewoman’s reputation in his hands, the Shaman of Red Bank Democrats, The Grand Poobah of Red Bank Democrats, Mayor Pat Menna himself, engaged in the most vulgar of politically opportunistic hit jobs: He decried her speaking mistake as “Islamophobia.” In a social media post, he basically declared this woman a racist. The post was liked by his fellow Democrat Councilmembers, Hazim Yassin and Kate Triggiano.
Here is what you should know about Sue Viscomi, dear readers. She has battled a life-long speech impediment, for which she has received therapy. She’ll make more physical mistakes in forming words than you and I. She can be expected to sound Zee as Zhee.
Linguists have posited that even people without speech defects, for every 1,000 words spoken, will have 2 slips of the tongue. If you are a constant speaker, you’ll have many. If you constantly speak in public, you’ll be seen doing it on film. If you don’t believe me, read this column out loud and see how many mistakes you make.
There are even several understood kinds of tongue slips.
A “Spoonerism” is the switching of vowels and consonants between words, like “the Lord is a loving shepherd” coming out “the Lord is a shoving leopard.” A misheard song lyric is known as a Mondegreen, like JimiHendrix “excuse me while I kiss the sky” becoming “excuse me while I kiss this guy.” An “Eggcorn” is the swapping of homophones (words that sound the same). So “windchill factor” becomes “windshield factor.” These are also called Malapropisms.
Some real modern examples: Ted Kennedy holding out his cupped hands and reciting, “we are the breast of us,” intending to say, “the best of us.” George W. Bush famously said, “we had a lot of sex,” intending to say “success.”
These slips are not“Freudian.” They don’t convey a bubbling up of hidden feelings from the unconscious, rather they are a “physical” error by the lips and tongue,while forming words.
A popular philologist described the lips and tongue as “banana peels in the path of a sentence.” Even Freud is attributed with the idea that not everything stated is a stand-in for something else, often expressed as, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sometimes a tongue slip is just a tongue slip.
Study of the phenomenon goes back to the 8th century, when Arab linguist Al-Ki-a-i wrote the book, “Errors of the Populace.” He proposed that mistakes in speaking are often associated with changes in language. Of course, languages tend to change when we acclimate ourselves to newer arriving ethic cultures – and their names.
Take my last name, DeSeno. It’s the most mispronounced 6 letters in language, if you ask me. But my name is ethnic and uncommon, so I don’t go apoplectic when someone mispronounces it, as Ziad (also not a common name) did to Sue Viscomi. I don’t even correct people who get it wrong. What difference does it make? I know they are talking to me. But I digress.
Usually these tongue slips are a little embarrassing and laughed off by the crowd. Oh, but not in the hands of the political down-puncher, Mayor Pat Menna. He saw the chance to turn Sue’s unfortunate speech defect she’s battled since toddlerhood into a political electric chair for her good reputation. Chivalry is indeed dead in the Mayor’s office.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Pat. Maybe he thought he heard what wasn’t there, due to the fog of constant political war. Mishearing happens like misspeaking happens. Maybe he didn’t know about Sue and her speech challenge, and he’s now embarrassed for himself, not knowing how to fix this for her and for him.
He did give some weird excuse in later days that his social media post about what she said didn’t actually say her name. Applesauce, Pat. If I talked about the Red Sox first basemen who had a grounder go between his legs in the 86 World Series, everyone knows I’m talking about Bill Buckner. Everyone knew you were talking about Sue, and that brings us to the bigger problem.
Because you are the Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of Red Bank, the media outlet Red Bank Green has now done two news reports online about this a month apart, naming Sue. The Internet, as you know, is forever. That means a search of Sue’s name will forever turn up an allegation of her being a racist, when she is really just a woman who tripped over her own tongue, with good reason.
You did that to her unfairly Pat, and you are the only one who can fix it. You need to publicly state, as loudly as you did before, that you reconsidered this in light of Sue; who she is, what the tape shows and her linguistic challenges, which are now revealed to you. Here is the important part – that same Google search of Sue’s name that turns up you effectively calling her a racist, needs to show you also saying that was a misunderstanding.
Pat, your social media posts show more photos of you in Catholic Churches in formal vestments than every Catholic Priest I know. I admire that. I’m one of the gang. So, I’m going to place a bet on you right now – I say you will do the right thing here. Not because I pointed it out. We both know that would very likely make you not want to do it. Leave me out of it. Save Sue’s reputation because you owe her the recompense, having hurt her in the first place. Do it because it’s the right thing, and the Lord expects you to right all wrongs when you can.
I’ve placed my bet, Pat. I’m endorsing your character, here. I’m holding a ticket that says you will fix this for Sue.
Tommy DeSeno usually rabble rouses Asbury Park. Red Bank readers should not pronounce his last name Di-Som-Ma
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