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Stick and stones may break my bones…

A little while ago I posted a piece that contained some racial epithets. As I expected, it generated a bit of a stir. Most people saw the points I was trying to make, and responded. A few, however, homed right in on those particular words and made them the focus of their response. This got me to thinking about such terms, and now that a little time has passed and passions have had a chance to ease, I thought I’d start a calm, serious discussion about such terms.

Whenever I hear someone use certain epithets (for example, “the N-word” for blacks and “the C-word” for women), I have a rather complex set of reactions. My first is revulsion – I loathe the idea that, in a single word, one person can completely dehumanize another by reducing them to a single characteristic. It’s a wretched thing to do, and never justified.

I also feel a slight sense of comfort. At least 90% of the time someone uses those terms, it allows me to instantly determine that they are an idiot, a hateful lout, and probably not worth my time arguing with them.

I also feel a twinge of relief. Every time I hear those terms, I’m reminded that there are no terms like that that can target me. I don’t belong to any category that has ready-made epithets like the ones cited above. If someone wants to insult me, they have to base them on who I am, not what I am. I can only be insulted about matters that are in some way under my control.

I also feel a smidgen of both guilt and envy. Here’s a whole category of human experience I am denied. Is it my fault I’m a white male?

(I know that’s a little bit twisted, but that’s the way I am.)

But that brings me to the point I am trying to reach here. What is the best way to deal with those words, and the power they have? One argument is to ban them, if not through law, then through social pressure. Any time someone uses those words, jump on ‘em hard. If they use them out of ignorance, educate them. If they use them from hatred, confront them. And if they use them to make a point, debate the necessity with them.

This approach has several flaws. For one, you end up with absurdities like the Washington, DC official who had to resign his post because he used the word “niggardly” (meaning penny-pinching) in a report, and that was too close to a racial epithet for many people. In essence, he lost his job for having a better than average vocabulary.

It also has the effect of creating different classes of citizens. Call me a “C-word,” and I’ll give you a funny look and maybe a contemptuous snort. Use the same term on a woman, and you’ll be facing a huge lawsuit (that you’ll probably lose). And uses of “the N-word” have been successfully prosecuted as civil-rights violations and hate crimes.

Another approach is to take the power out of those words. Dilute them, weaken them, make them meaningless. If someone hears “the N-word” 400 times a day, in every context, it’ll eventually lose it’s power over them and simply become part of the background noise, much as the word “like” has become a verbal filler, the equivalent of lettuce in a sandwich. It’s the approach standup comics like Eddie Murphy and George Carlin endorsed, and I find that once you get past the laughs, standup comics are among the quickest and most observant thinkers around.

I find myself favoring the second approach, but I’m not comfortable carrying it out myself. I lack the courage of my convictions on this matter.

Any thoughts, anyone?

J.


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Comments (7)

Sorry, but I missed the ori... (Below threshold)
Alex:

Sorry, but I missed the original story. Can someone give me a link back to it?

To follow the approach you ... (Below threshold)
Boyd:

To follow the approach you recommend, Jay, the targets of the epithets would themselves have to take the power out of those words. They have to refuse to be offended when someone tries to insult them.

Once that step is taken, it doesn't matter if the words are frequently repeated or not. The sting comes from the reaction of the intended target.

Some words, including the two specifics you mentioned, are vulgar, and somehow I don't relish the idea of turning them into everyday words that my children would speak every day.

I do believe it'd be that s... (Below threshold)

I do believe it'd be that second one there. Trying to pound it out of existence increases it's leverage. Diluting them beyond meaning would work. But as Boyd said, it's pretty much gotta be done by those people who are the targets themselves.

Or by the media at large. They dilute things beyond meaning all the damn time.

good lord, what a pompous, ... (Below threshold)
nickname:

good lord, what a pompous, reactionary little twat you are.

Dems and Repugs become more alike everyday.

The funny thing about any o... (Below threshold)
Tom:

The funny thing about any of these words is that they are differentially acceptable depending on who's using them. Listen to a hard-core rap song for a few seconds and you're like to hear 2-times a few seconds worth of N-words.

On the other hand, if I (being an upper middle class white boy) used that word people would be all over me (and right so, I think).

I'm not sure that simply using them over and over will dilute their meaning for two reasons. One, if the 'acceptable' group uses them and that action is accpetable, they retain their power, if in a different sense. If, on the other hand, I use that particular word I'm shunned long before I could use it enough to dilute it.

I like Boyd's approach (2nd comment)...the targets of such slures must destroy the words' power. However, for that to happen, those people must first give over themselves and get working towards their own personal imporvment. When someone is working towards something he or she desires (and is worthy of them), that person doesn't have the time or need to sit around and get offended when someone acts like an a$$hole.

Well, I didn't get to read ... (Below threshold)
Alex:

Well, I didn't get to read the original story referenced here, since I can't find it, but I wouldn't mind seeing a piece involving racial slurs. Free speech works both ways -- you have to take the bad with the good.

Besides that, look at the origin of the N-word, and it's much harder to find the problem. It's nothing more than that -- a slur. The original term was "negro," which means "black" in English. Since the term "black" is acceptable, I'm not quite sure why this one isn't. It shouldn't carry a negative connotation just because it's in a foreign language. Then realize that the N-word is simply a slur of "negro," so its offensiveness was developed by a political-correctness freak.

I'm not advocating racism personally, but if someone feels that way or wants to use language that others have deemed "offensive," he/she should not be afraid of expressing it.

What pisses me off is when ... (Below threshold)

What pisses me off is when black people use the N word with each other: "Yo my N, whasssup!" You get the point. They're the type of people who would call BILL COSBY an "Uncle Tom" like they have with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.




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