The Sciences

Sometimes a black hole is just a black hole

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJul 9, 2008 5:15 PM


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UPDATE (July 11, 2008) I have followed up on this issue with another post. Turns out my opinions in the post below were right in the first place, so you can mentally remove the strike-throughs.

I try to be sensitive to other peoples' feelings, when it's called for. However, some people also seem all-too-ready to be offended. Take the case of two Dallas County commissioners. One of them commented that so much paperwork had been lost in an office that it had become a "black hole". Another commissioner took great offense at this, and said it was more like a "white hole". Then a judge demanded that the first commissioner apologize for his "racially insensitive" remark. The first commissioner is white, the second two men are black. I have news for the two men who were offended by this remark. [Note: I may have been too hasty to include the second commissioner as being offended here; that's how I read the article, but it's not clear.] One: the term "black hole" has been around for decades. It has nothing to do at all with human skin color. Interpreting it that way is at best bizarre. Two: the analogy of a black hole has been used countless times in situations just like this one, and it's not offensive. [Note #2: this next comment of mine may be incorrect. It's again how I interpreted the article, but several commenters interpreted it a different way, and their way makes more sense to me. So I will leave the following comment but strike it through.]

Three: the real racially insensitive remark in this transaction was the comment about a "white hole". Or maybe it's a racially oversensitive remark. After all, it's clear there was no intent that the black hole comment was racially charged, and the term itself is totally benign. The only interpretation here is that the second commissioner is way too sensitive. Would he have been upset if the office had cleared its debts that month, and was told it was now "in the black"?

Sometimes words mean just what they are supposed to mean. Four: the judge should have told the second guy to lighten up. Now maybe this is a very racially-charged area of the country. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that to be the case. If true, it's not surprising that there might be sensitive feelings over this issue. But that's no excuse for what happened, and it's certainly no excuse for the second commissioner to himself make a racial comment as he did. And it's definitely not an excuse for the judge -- a judge -- to demand an apology. The first commissioner apparently did not back down, saying that the term was a figure of speech. Good for him. White or black, I don't care: this is a foolish situation, where innocent terms get twisted due to subjective interpretation... and in this case, a grossly incorrect one. And five: black holes don't care what color your skin is. They'll gobble you down without a hiccup if you're white, black, green, or blue. They are the ultimate equal opportunity destroyer. We have lots of problems in this country that need to be dealt with, and racism is a big one (a very big one, likely to be much, much bigger come the election in November). But it needs to be treated seriously, and overblowing nonsense like this doesn't help.

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