Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Evil Of Having An Evil Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken (except by a select few)

There is no doubt that it is an abhorent word.  Whether loaded with historical context or tossed out in a Quentin Tarantino movie or shouted in a rap song or still used with absolute ignorance by some racist asshole looking for a convenient, angry label, the word makes most of us cringe.

My own stance, though, remains in a constant state of flux--not about the repulsiveness of the word, about its usage.  When I was a young teacher in the 80's, it seemed okay and was a pretty standard practice for us to read it aloud if we were studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or some other work where we understood that the word was providing authenticity to the literature of a time period, or where we were so obsessed at demonstrating the moral change in Huck who "humble[d] himself to a nigger" to a bunch of Southern boys who, back then, weren't so sure they themselves were willing to do such a thing.

At the same time, it made me wonder about Twain, and it confirmed something about Hemingway when his objective, third-person narrator in "The Battler" used the word.  It seemed valuable when teaching Faulkner to be able to point out how a supposedly-ignorant black man could get the better of the white folks he worked for in The Reivers or how Joe Christmas, a tortured black man in Light In August, was actually a Christ figure.  Those were the 80's.

Sometime after that, over the next 10 years, using the word in a literary discussion moved from voluntary to a flat-out "No."  We did not say the word.  The "N-word" was born.  And it seemed to make sense.  And I was even more pleased that outside of class, students had figured it out and seemed to have stopped using the word altogther and, therefore (if this makes sense), not even seeing other people in those terms.

Today, I'm conflicted again.  The word itself is no less despicable, but the landscape is, arguably, more peppered with mines that ever.  My simple stance:  the word should not ever be used.  The more complex issue:  the word should not ever be used.  The reason that the latter statement is more complex is because the word is used.  Within some sub-groups of black culture, the word is perfectly acceptable, but if and only if, it is being said by one black person to another black person (probably male).

Let's take a little detour.  A bunch of women who work in an office together and are very close and feel free to say whatever they want to to each other take to calling each other "cunts."  As in, "Hey, cunt, when are you gonna bring me that report you were supposed to have finished yesterday?"  It is understood that all of these women are comfortable with the shared use of that term, however derisive, of affection.  

But enter male boss who overhears the daily back and forth and who, in the spirit of the moment (or not, maybe just out of misogynistic spite), says, "You cunts need to get back to work."  Said in jest, said in seriousness.  Who knows?  It doesn't matter, because he has crossed a line that he cannot retreat from.  He is going to be accused of anything from sexual harrasment to creating a hostile work environment.  He is probably going to lose his job.  And should.  Most of us don't call women "cunts," and certainly not in a work environment.  It is a combative, nasty word.  And the fact that the women use it in no way justifies the man using it.  Still.

Back to the problem at hand.  The N-word functions under two simultaneous dictums: 1) the word is foul and belittling and no one should say it and 2) the right people can say it to the right people in the right way at the right time.

Uh-uh.  I just don't see it working that way.  First, the nuances of that, and I'm good at nuance and not headed for any kind of personal issue here, are too complex for our culture.  Not every one of our citizens has the capability to understand "I can say it, but you can't."  If the word is bad, so bad that it is never uttered in polite complany or even, hopefully, these days in jest, then it is a word that needs to be shut down altogether with no nuance for its use at all.  It needs to be smallpox, it needs to be AIDS, it needs to be eradicated.  Completely and permanently.

Second, add to that the fact that if the wrong person says the word to the wrong person, the situation accelerates from 0 to 60 in about 1 second.  Of course, I'm right back to where no person should say it, but if he does, he then enters a world where violence is on the table and rationality is off of it.  The word is such that no matter what happened before, no matter what might be said to ameliorate the situation after, the line has been crossed.  Many and most reactions to the saying of the word will likely be justified, even if the person reacting to hearing it just said it himself.    

While I believe that the word should no longer exist, I also believe that no word should have that much power.  No word should be allowed to have that power.  Even though we can be the grossest of creatures with the basest of desires and actions, a mere word should not be able to send us into a blind rage and our own actions that we can't retreat from.

That's why I don't even want the word in play.  That's why my stance remains in a constant state of flux.  I don't go much for evils that may not be spoken.  I think evils should be named.  I fear that kind of banishment gives people curiosity, makes them want to try it out, gives the word itself more power than it had when it was casually spoken.  Or does it?  It's hard to say.  

But if using a word becomes a kind of game where only a relative few can join in and play, I'm pretty sure that others on the outside will be looking for justifications to crash the party.   That's why, despite my best intentions and my self-proclaimed ability to handle nuance, I remain confused.  Because the word can't just be disappeared in any realistic way, and it seems we don't have a Plan B.  

"You can say it but I can't?"  Deal, but not entirely.  Please understand that I don't tend to say it and I don't expect to think it and I don't want to navigate my life these days in terms of race.  In some ways, we've come too far.  But when you say it, it sure does undermine how bad it really is, doesn't it?  I don't want you to say it either, and I don't see how it empowers you or helps the situation if you do.  That's the only way it goes away.

1 comment:

G. B. Miller said...

I do remember reading a few months ago when Samuel Jackson was doing publicity for Tarrentino's latest and he managed to turn the interviewer into a pretzel because he challenged the man to say the word and the man wouldn't do it.