Troublesome Words

(In order to avoid Internet filters and other perhaps-obvious "issues", some character strings below have certain vowels replaced with asterisks.)

Meanings evolve, and words that were once benign can over time acquire implications that make them difficult or impossible to use in polite society. Among the most obvious of these are terms that have picked up s*xual connotations and denotations. "Int*rcourse" once simply meant trade or commercial dealings. An "ej*culation" was an exclamatory verbal outburst. "S*x" was a biological category of creatures. "Gender" was a linguistic term for classes of nouns and adjectives. And so forth.

Randall Kennedy, Harvard law professor, wrote a book in 2002 titled N*gg*r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. It's a thoughtful, heavily footnoted treatment of a tangled thicket of problems that have arisen from historical and social mistakes during the past several centuries. It also unabashedly uses the "N-word" in almost every paragraph and prominently on the cover. "Maybe you shouldn't read that on the subway!" a family member advised when I got the book recently.

Kennedy outlines the questions he will address in the first paragraph of Chapter One ("The Protean N-Word"):

How should n*gg*r be defined? Is it a part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does n*gg*r generate such powerful reactions. Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such as k*ke, w*p, w*tback, m*ck, ch*nk, and g**k? Am I wrongfully offending the sensibilities of readers right now by spelling out n*gg*r instead of using a euphemism such as N-word? Should blacks be able to use n*gg*r in ways forbidden to others? Should the law view n*gg*r as a provocation that reduces the culpability of a person who responds to it violently? Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be ousted from his or her job for saying "n*gg*r"? What methods are useful for depriving n*gg*r of destructiveness? In the pages that follow, I will pursue these and related questions. I will put a tracer on n*gg*r, report on its use, and assess the controversies to which it gives rise. I have invested energy in this endeavor because n*gg*r is a key word in the lexicon of race relations and thus an important term in American politics. To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one's life.

The book N*gg*r is rather legalistic in the tone of its discussion. It's shorter and less passionate than Kennedy's later InterracialIntimacies, and perhaps it's less important. But it does have some major lessons to teach. As Kennedy concludes (in the "Afterword" essay to the Vintage paperback edition):

I deplore racist uses of any word. I believe that it is a good thing that n*gg*r is widely seen as a presumptively objectionable term. I think that people who use n*gg*r in their speech should bear the risk that listeners overhearing them will misunderstand their intentions. I am glad that many people who interview me about this book express discomfort with pronouncing the N-word (though I get the distinct impression that some of these protestations of innocence and discomfort are merely formulaic.). N*gg*r has long been used as a weapon of abuse and continues to be so used today; we ought to be keenly attentive to that fact. The problem is that insofar as n*gg*r is deployed for other, socially useful purposes — satire, comedy, social criticism — we should also be careful to make distinctions between various usages. Unwillingness to make distinctions — the upshot of the eradicationist approach — generates all too many pathetic episodes ....

One purpose of this book has been to urge caution before attributing the worst meaning and motives to any word or symbol since all can be put to a variety of purposes, good as well as bad. The swastika evokes memories of evils thart are among the worst in all of world history. Yet artists (for example, Art Spiegelman and Steven Spielberg) have movingly used the swastika in a variety of useful ways, including comedic lampoons designed to satirize Hitler's colossal failure. Another purpose of my book has been to counsel likely targets of racist abuse to respond in ways that are self-empowering. All too often, they are told that they should become emotionally overwrought upon encountering racist taunts. They are taught that they ought to feel deeply wounded and that authorities should therefore protect them from this potentially crippling harm by prohibiting n*gg*r and other such words and punishing transgressions severely. In my view, such a lesson cedes too much power to bigots who seek to draw psychological blood from their quarry. A better lesson to convey is that targets of abuse can themselves play significant roles in shaping the terrain of conflict and thus lessen their vulnerability through creative, intelligent, and supple reactions.

That last is particularly wise counsel: "supple reactions" are appropriate in countless contexts throughout life ...

(cf. InterracialIntimacies (24 Feb 2003), RacialRelationships (10 Jan 2004), InterracialCheckmate (20 Jul 2004), RaceAndLove (6 Aug 2004), ...)

TopicLanguage - TopicSociety - TopicLiterature - 2006-04-09

(correlates: TemporalUtilitarianism, StaticActors, HakoneEkiden, ...)