Words have power. The official story (the story, that is, that we forward-looking, empirically-inclined, reasonable rationalists like to tell) is that their power stems from the ideas that our words express, and usually not one at a time but in concert, as they depict and explain. But it turns out, as any fair-minded, forward-looking, empirically-inclined reasonable rationalist should admit, that words have other force as well. Our ancient forebears knew some words as a summons to demonic powers, as curses that bedeviled the unwary and unlucky against whom they were loosed. Something of that spirit seems still with us. I’m referring to the power of sound wrapped in invisible quotation marks.
You crave an example or two of these murky abstractions? Very well. Do you remember the hubub only days after the horrific 2015 massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, when during a podcast interview with Marc Maron President Obama uttered “the N-word”? Denying that America was somehow “cured of” racism, he said:
And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.
His measured words, vigorously defended by the White House, scared quite a number of news outlets, including broadcasters that bleeped out the sound and print outlets that proclaimed, apparently with astonishment, that the President “uses the N-word.” Commentators were flustered, and much of American media was cowed, conflating using the word to name itself with the hurling of it as a slur. Politico, for example (among many other squeamish publishers), couldn’t bring itself to use the word at all, replacing it with “n ——.”
The tizzy, such as it was, consumed print and the airwaves for several days. The surprise in all this was not the blustering, tut-tutting, and faux outrage by the usual detractors but the expressions of anguish from the President’s allies. For instance, Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, declared that the word should “be retired from the English language,” never to be vocalized by anyone, for any purpose, as if bringing it to consciousness will devastate those who hear or see it.
Morial’s is a common confusion. As John McWhorter, a linguist and professor of English literature and American studies at Columbia, noted in a piece in Time a few days later:
Where things have gotten complicated is the idea that it is equally sinful to even use the word at all. People have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that referring to the word is not the same as using it.
In other words, quoting a word for the purpose of discussing it as a word is not the same as directing it at anyone. Dissecting an offensive term—a slur on the slab—is no more a monster than the dead body of a mass murderer on the coroner’s table. When we quote the word to analyze it, we are at one remove; it is like a picture of an arrow, not a shaft on the move.
This simple point seems to elude even the literate, and to our peril. A Vox columnist, Dara Lind, observed:
But because Obama used it after it’s become impolite, people are pouncing on it — and doing exactly what Obama said the problem was: focusing on the expressions of racism that aren’t considered polite anymore, rather than the ones that are.
Pouncing on the offensive, rather than conquering the offense, is an enduring theme in our history (as I have noted on this site). It seems instinctual that those who offend, regardless of the impetus or the offense must be squelched, or even punished. Of course, not every offensive remark or gesture is a response to a more underlying evil, but often it is. But what we should have learned by now is that reflexively assailing as an offender one who is claimed merely to have acted offensively is often to miss the point.
Here’s an almost up-to-the-minute example of this phenomenon, with the same word in play. Three weeks ago, as I write this, on February 6, a Princeton University anthropology professor emeritus, Lawrence Rosen, was lecturing on “oppressive symbolism” in a course titled “Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography.” The course aims, among other things, to prompt students to think about cultural and linguistic taboos. During the class, Rosen asked his students, as he had asked other students without incident in the same course over many previous years, to consider whether it was worse for a white man to physically assault a black man or to refer to him as a “nigger.” Several black students walked out; some complained to administrators about his using the word. A week later, despite a strong defense by university officials, including the anthropology department chair Carolyn Rouse, who is black, Rosen cancelled the course, saying that it would be impossible to “get [it] back on track.”
Rosen did have at least one professional detractor, noted in a piece in Inside Higher Ed. Professor Christina Berchini, who teaches education at the University of Wisconsin-Au Claire, adopted the Morial critique, arguing in the words of IHE that “there is no circumstance under which using the N-word is acceptable.”
These examples are, of course, just that: anecdotes about a problem with how people understand language, not proof of any solid trend toward deteriorating gray matter that can no longer detect nuance. But it does seem worth emphasizing that the problem is serious. We lose much when we can no longer calmly discuss the use of language in its own terms, especially if the claim is that the reason for averting our eyes and ears is not because we don’t understand the difference between slur and definition but because the very sound is just so upsetting. Much of the history of the world, viewed with self-interest and rationalizations swept aside, is profoundly offensive, but that’s no reason to avoid the study. Can we not stiffen our backbones and steel ourselves to the task?
If we cannot, we may find ourselves, and those training to be adults, at the far end of an odd cultural reversal. In 1973 in a celebrated monologue, George Carlin named seven words in everyday use that couldn’t be spoken on the public airwaves. Nearly a half century later, we now seem to have found words that are ubiquitous on much of cable TV, but that can’t be used in everyday discourse, at least when the subject is the very words themselves. Carlin’s broadcaster was condemned, sort of, when an indecency case wended its way to the Supreme Court in 1978. Though the subject is different (then it was sex and excretion, today it’s denigration of persons and peoples), the refrain is the same: the tone deaf are insisting that words are always used in the same way, to serve the same function, and wound the same way. The Supreme Court, no stranger to nuance, wasn’t up to the task forty years ago, and heaven help us if we aren’t all of us up to it today.
If post-mortem exams of verbal expressions and even ideas and concepts can no longer be conducted out loud, if we cannot autopsy on the linguistic slab even the degraded and disgusting, then we will come to inhabit the courtroom where the evidence is too sensitive to reveal and the stories too upsetting to tell, so that anyone can be convicted of anything. We will all be defenseless when guilt is conclusive on someone’s feeling offense.