Fighting Words

Eschew the Taboo

The pernicious effects of banning words.

Michael Richards

One effect of the witless racist tirade mounted by Michael Richards has been a call, made by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Maxine Waters and endorsed by black comedian Paul Mooney, for a moratorium on the use of the word nigger by those in the entertainment industry. If successful, this might, I suppose, put an end to the pathetic complaint made by some white people that it’s unfair that blacks can use the word while they cannot. In fact, no question of “double standards” arises here. If white people call black people niggers, they are doing their very best to hurt and insult them, as well as to remind them that their ancestors used to be property. If black people use the word, they are either uttering an obscenity or trying to detoxify a word and rob it of its power to wound them. Not quite the same thing.

There is a third category here, which is the use of the word in what I can only call an objective way. Thus, professor Randall Kennedy not long ago became the second black American to publish a book called Nigger. (The first was Dick Gregory, who told his mother that henceforth whenever she heard the word, she could think of it as a promotion of her son’s best seller.) Kennedy’s milder justification, with which I agreed, was that he was writing a history of the word’s power and pathology, and it did not need a mealy-mouthed title.

However, in mentioning Kennedy’s book in its treatment of the Richards affair, the article in the Washington Post’s “Style” section did not give its title at all, referring to it instead as “a controversial book about the word” and to the word itself as “the N-word.” Indeed, the Post has a policy of not printing the word at all, as do many other media outlets.

I found this out myself recently, when I went on Hardball With Chris Matthews. It was just after John Kerry had (I thought unintentionally) given the impression that young people joining the armed forces were stupid. Chris asked me where liberals got the idea that conservatives were dumb. I said that it all went back to John Stuart Mill referring to the Tories as “the stupid party.” After a while, the Tories themselves began to use this expression to describe themselves. I added that the word Tory was originally an insult—it means something like brigand in Gaelic—and it had also been adopted, by those at whom it was directed, as a badge of pride. In this respect, I went on to say, it anticipated other such appropriations—impressionist, suffragette—by which the target group inverted the taunt thrown at it and, by a kind of verbal jujitsu, turned it back on its originators. In more recent times, I finished with what I thought was a flourish, the words nigger and queer (and I may have added faggot) had undergone some of the same transmutation.

Very suddenly, we went to a break, and the studio filled with unsmiling people who detached my microphone and announced that the segment was extremely over. My protests were futile. Should I have remembered to cover myself and say “the N-word” instead? It would have seemed somehow inauthentic. Did MSNBC think that anything I had uttered was inflected with the smallest tinge of bigotry? Presumably not. So, what we now have is a taboo, which is something quite different from an agreement on etiquette.

The next day, I was teaching a class on Mark Twain at the New School in New York, explaining why it was that there had always been attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn. In the old days, this was because of its rough manners and alleged lack of refinement and moral uplift. But now, as I went on to say, it is because of the name of the character for whom Huck is willing to risk going to hell. Excuse me, but I did not refer to this character as “N-word Jim.” I have more respect for my graduate students than that. I suppose I could have just called him “Jim,” but that would somehow have been untrue to the spirit and shade of Samuel Clemens. And I would have thought of myself as a coward.

I did, once, decide to be a coward anyway. It was while giving a speech in Washington, to a very international audience, about the British theft of the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon. I described the attitude of the current British authorities as “niggardly.” Nobody said anything, but I privately resolved—having felt the word hanging in the air a bit—to say “parsimonious” from then on. That’s up to me, though.

Not long afterward, a senior member of the Washington, D.C., government used the word niggardly in a budget memo and was forced to resign, even though Mayor Anthony Williams said publicly that he knew the term was both harmless and precise. At this point, we see the effect of taboo. It got even worse a short while later, when a local teacher praised her class for being so “discriminating” and provoked floods of tears and much anguish. Now, the word niggardly can pass out of the language and leave us not much poorer. But the meaning of the verb to discriminate is of some importance and seems to me to be worth fighting over. It is odd, when you think about it, that we accuse racists of “discrimination.” This is the very thing of which they are by definition incapable: They think all members of certain groups are the same. (The late Richard Pryor dropped the word nigger after he went to Africa, saying that he didn’t meet anyone on that continent who answered to the description. Doubtless true, but when the Hutu militias in Rwanda referred to allTutsis as “cockroaches,” you can be sure they intended something more than a “stereotype.”) Hatred will always find a way, and will certainly always be able to outpace linguistic correctness.