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“All allegations against me in these circumstances are 100% false,” Fox News host of The O’Reilly Factor and conservative pundit claimed recently through an attorney in response to a report suggesting O’Reilly assaulted his ex-wife, Maureen McPhilmy.

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Back in 1993, Tupac Shakur denied accusations of sexual assault through his lawyer. Shakur would end up serving time in prison for lesser charges related to the assault. But the point is that he, like O’Reilly, denied the accusations.

Don’t all thugs?

Tupac Shakur, as many readers know, embraced the THUG LIFE—even offering a backronym of the lifestyle describing it as “The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fucks Everyone.” Thugs aren’t so much born as they are made through various forms of hatred—disdain, censure, reprobation from others. Thugs are typically regarded as outside the law. Some folks have lately claimed that “thug” is the latest instantiation of “nigger,” a twenty-first century euphemism for one of America’s oldest ideas.

At first glance, O’Reilly and Shakur are unlikely thugged-out compatriots. But in fact, O’Reilly has made a career-long effort helping to constitute the idea of the “thug” in the popular American imagination through a near-constant critique of rap music and rappers. Lazy, ostentatious, prone to violence, reneging on fatherly duties, misogynist—these are the characteristics of “thugs” according to O’Reilly. Hip hop, rappers in particular, have been O’Reilly’s poster child of the thug, and he’s spewed disdain for thugs for about as long as his show has existed. In one interview from 1997, O’Reilly says “I’m not going to say [Tupac] deserved what he got, but I’m not surprised…” Last year, regarding the Michael Brown shooting, O’Reilly wrote that “the thug life depicted in [rap music] is a siren song” towards violence, claiming that Brown’s views towards cops came from an increasingly “pernicious rap culture.”

The O’Reilly Factor follows a “set of binary codes of the form sacred vs. polluted,” expressed in a number of ways according to sociologist Matthew Norton. These include traditional vs. progressive, little guy vs. the system, folks vs. elites, rational vs. ridiculous, American vs. un/anti-American, open discourse vs. secrecy/silence, facts vs. political spin, fairness vs. media bias, and brave/strong vs. cowardly/weak. Norton’s analysis is instructive, but I’d add another binary in the form of moral exemplar vs. thug. Rhetorically, O’Reilly is always right because whoever he’s talking to or about is always wrong. And the tactic is effective. His show remains popular nearly twenty years running. But such rhetorical strategies always come at a cost. Where race or rap music is concerned, O’Reilly’s constant ad hominem assaults have led Nas to rap “The only fox that I love is the red one. The only black man that Fox [News] loves is in jail or a dead one.”

Now, it seems the hate he’s given has come back to haunt him a bit. Could it be that O’Reilly’s been a thug, all along?

After all, as Gawker’s J.K. Trotter eloquently notes, there’s a heavy dose of irony in these recent accusations against O’Reilly considering he’s made a career of vilifying the black community, in particular thugged out young black men who (according to O’Reilly) are pretty much responsible for all the world’s problems. As recently as August of 2014, Trotter notes O’Reilly even went so far as to suggest “The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the African-American family.”

If O’Reilly really believes his own words, then he’s no doubt the thug he’s been accusing others of being all along. His own daughter is reported “to have witnessed her father dragging McPhilmy down a staircase by her neck.”

My point is not that O’Reilly really is a thug; the point is that his rhetorical techniques should be held as morally suspect for having labeled others thugs for so long. If anything, this latest discussion about his domestic life should give him (and us) pause to rethink how he’s treated so many others for so long. It doesn’t feel good, people presumptuously looking at the more complicated, frustrating aspects of a person’s life and using those moments to make broad generalizations of whole peoples and whole communities.

Rather than concerning himself with tirades against rap music’s thugs, perhaps O’Reilly—regardless of the “facts” of the case—indeed, he’s known for the no-spin zone—at the very least, should use this moment to take stock of who he’ll be trying to blame next for his own thugged out antics.


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Theory and Society, Vol. 40, No. 3 (May 2011), pp. 315-346