Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Can We Hear the N-Word One Day and Not Get Upset?"

I start this post by admitting that I will never know what it is like to be a black person. I was born white, I am white, and I will always be white. If that admission causes you to not want to read any further, that is on you. I do, however, know what it's like to be a human being, to be a part of the economy, of society. My skin color does not define who I am anymore than it defines the person to my left or to my right. A person is defined by his beliefs, by the way he lives and interacts with the world around him.

But growing up, I have often wondered why the word nigger is so taboo. It is, after all, just a word. While other words (e.g., fuck, kike, cunt, Jap) are considered--shall we say--less than ideal in the public forum, they are never met with the same amount of vitriol as when someone utters the word nigger.

The word is not off limits to everyone; those within a group tend use it freely, or it's derivation nigga, as a term of endearment, while those without are immediately condemned for using said word, often regardless of the context. That's not to say that every time the word is used by a non-group member it is completely neutral, as Michael Richards and countless others have proven in the past. Still, we do not see a mass movement by all Buddhists to prevent non-Buddhists from saying nirvana. Perhaps an odd example, but it does illustrate that there is a group of insiders who have a better understanding of a word than those on the outside.

There is a history of oppression with the word nigger, so it does make sense that there will be some who remain sensitive to hearing it said. But the outrage generated by the use of this one word has grown so great over the last 15 or 20 years that even similar sounding words with long-standing usage are becoming more or less taboo. In 1999, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was offended by her professor's use of the word niggardly (meaning extremely stingy or reluctant to give or spend) while discussing Chaucer. Chaucer, as in the author of The Canterbury Tales, who lived in the 14th century and used that and other words in their original meaning (I recall at least one classmate in English class who would involuntarily gag when reading across the word cunt) regularly.

We are told that it is racist for a white person to say nigger. And yet it seems far more racist to automatically assume an entire group of people will be offended by a word's usage (and thereby banning it, censoring it, or casting out all who use it), then to actually just say or write nigger. In the former example, you are treating hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of individuals as a uniform block who can only feel one way when they hear a word, and in the latter you--an individual--are interacting with other individuals and do not know how they will react. Much like a declaration that someone is renouncing their religion, or coming out of the closet, or starting a new career, there will be those who are shocked or bewildered by such news, those who are indifferent, and those who are pleased, among any number of additional reactions.

Ultimately, the use of the word nigger boils down to whether one's right to free speech (highly valued in this country) overpowers one's perceived right to not be offended. The latter simply does not exist; for if it did, there would be no shortage of harassment lawsuits claiming so-and-so had offended such-and-such. Unfortunately, while the lawsuits are kept more or less in check, that does not mean that people are completely free to say what they would like. Some people still like to believe that their feelings are more important than open discussion or freedom of speech. Going back to the example of the use of the word niggardly at UW-Madison, that was the brunt of the argument made by the Amelia Rideau, the offended student. From Reason Magazine:
"I was in tears, shaking," [Rideau] told the faculty. "It's not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid." Rideau's plea was a reality check. If the proper use of a Chaucerian term while teaching The Canterbury Tales could be construed as harassment of a student who did not know the word's spelling or meaning, then the code was teaching some interesting expectations indeed. Many "abolitionists," as they now were called, believe that Rideau's speech, widely reported, was the turning point, setting the stage both for greater attendance at the March meeting and for the final vote. John Sharpless, a history professor, asked, "What other words are to be purged from our language? Thespian?"
Free speech is one of the foundations of liberty. This does not mean one is totally free from judgment, but it should mean that if we truly value free speech then we will not allow someone's thoughts or ideas to be suppressed just because they contain offensive language or words. Punishing someone for something they said is no different than punishing someone for the way they look, and isn't that the mentality that we have been trying to break away from as a country for the last 50 years?

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