Who Is in Charge of Determining "Offense?"
And When Does the Word Lose Its Power?
A lot of what has been at issue for me lately is the fact that language choices considered offensive can get in the way of communicating. And, after all, communication is key in a society so hellbent on not listening to one another.
The question of the day is when does a word - any word - lose it's effectiveness to communicate and become One of the Forbidden Words? And who decides it's offensive to say it anymore?
Most reasonable folk will agree that saying Nigger or Faggot is just sort of jarring (I mean, it's a punch in the nads just to see these words in print.) Whether it's meant as a pejorative or not, Society has shamed us into seeing those as Unsayable Words - words so strong that it is impossible to separate them from the contextual viciousness that spawned them. And they're right - it is impossible to separate the words from the history. But is banning these words really the way to eradicate the viciousness?
From Lenny Bruce (I've posted this before):
Are there any niggers here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot.
Now what did he say? "Are there any niggers here tonight?" I know there's one nigger, because I see him back there working. Let's see, there's two niggers. And between those two niggers sits a kike. And there's another kike— that's two kikes and three niggers. And there's a spic. Right? Hmm? There's another spic. Ooh, there's a wop; there's a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there's three lace-curtain Irish micks. And there's one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie.
Mm-hmm. I got three kikes here, do I hear five kikes? I got five kikes, do I hear six spics, I got six spics, do I hear seven niggers? I got seven niggers. Sold American. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kikes, three guineas, and one wop.
Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, "I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet," and if he'd just say "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" to every nigger he saw, "boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie," "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" 'til nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.
At the turn of the last century, in New York, one of the most discriminated against groups of people were Irish Catholics. The term's "Mick" and "PaddyWagon" were as derogatory and filled with menace and hate as Nigger was in the 1930s - 1960s. The Irish were lynched, beaten, sold, shanghai'd, and were subjugated to the lowest rungs of New York's societal ladder. Yet, at some point in the last century, these terms became benign. I'm Irish and none of the traditional ethnic slurs bother me one bit.
Now, some will say that that is because the Irish are white and thus still in the dominant racial class and there's some truth in that. However, in 1903, telling an Irish immigrant he was in the dominant racial class likely meant nothing. Discrimination and bigotry is discrimination and bigotry no matter who the target is and there is simply no special class of people who get most injured status (except for perhaps the Native Americans and there are still sports teams with the Native American equivalent to "Jungle Bunny" or "Wet Back" in plain sight.)
Every racial group on the planet has slurs against it. To assume that blacks or gays or undocumented immigrants have had it harder than, say, the Indians under British rule during Gandhi's heyday or the Polish Jews under Hitler's bid for world domination or the Muslim's during the Crusades is not only shortsighted but ridiculous. Humankind sucks. We make war against those different from us for no other reason than it's more exciting than farming or jerking off. We imprison the poor, we ignore the hungry and we myopically destroy ourselves and our planet with little regard for future generations. And every race has assholes who want nothing more than to dominate the other races.
Are there more assholes among the dominant racial class? Of course. In America there are more white people than any other race. By virtue of simple math, there have to be more white assholes than black or gay. I'd imagine that worldwide, there are more Chinese assholes than any other race combined. Law of freakin' averages, man. But regardless of your skin tone or cultural background or sexual preference, asshole is the common denominator.
And we all can join hands and create the Circle of Brotherhood and vow to never say those awful things again and, in that big Circle, I guarantee you there are at least 10% that are assholes. And by forcing the censorship of the obvious words, we make it easier for them to hide behind labels that the concept of racist slips off of like "Birthers," and "Tea Partiers," the Religious Right, and Donald Trump. [Again, this was written in September of this year...]
Does that mean we shouldn't circle up anyway? No. While I don't believe in any sort of racial Utopia where we all get along and sing happy Beatles tunes to each other, to quit trying is to give up the fight to the assholes. And in spite of my cranky nature, I cry at Rocky movies because I am inspired by those who keep fighting for that tiny scrap of dignity however they can.
"...it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness..."
I'd rather take the power of the word away than imbue it with more. Lenny was a junkie, hippie Kike but he sure had a point.