December 11, 2006

Nigger, nigger, on the wall

It was recently pointed out by Heidi Harley that discussion of the use of the word nigger has reached the comics page. The word featured hugely in comedian Michael Richards' on-stage career meltdown at the Laugh Factory on November 17 (captured in video on someone's camcorder phone). Jesse Jackson now wants "to prohibit that word in public usage as hate language." I don't think nigger should be banned at all, in any sense. Not by anyone who thinks it's important for us all to have a clear view of who we are and what we're like. If you want to make sure you know what you look like, don't take down the mirrors. (Count Dracula did smash one mirror in a fury, early in Bram Stoker's novel; but that was because Jonathan Harker had just noticed Dracula's tell-tale lack of a reflection. As you'll see if you read on, that lashing out at the source of the evidence only underlines the aptness of my metaphor.)

Others have already opposed a word ban, of course. "Blaming a word for its users is an ill-conceived approach with no designated goal," says Kaffie Sledge at the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia: "If we're going to ban words, where will we start? And when will we stop?" One answer would be that in general we're not in a very good position to ban any words. It can't be done by an act of Congress, that's for sure, because of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." It is true that the FCC manages to exercise some control over the designated "obscene" words that can be used in broadcasts over the publicly territory of the airwaves, but to think there might one day be a law against saying nigger on the stage or printing it in newspapers or on Language Log is quixotic. I doubt that nigger is going to go away by statute.

Jesse Jackson's campaign seems in fact, from what I've read, to be centered on getting showbusiness people to agree on a voluntary basis that they will not use it in their performances. But that isn't a ban; it's an agreement. It's not analogous to a law against littering the beach; it's more like a team of volunteers deciding to clear litter off the beach. However, the Laugh Factory is reported to have banned the word nigger since November 17, and to have already fined black comedian Damon Wayans $320 for using it during his act after being been warned. (That, I guess, is constitutional; it's like fining the caterers at your private party if they litter your patio.)

Personally, I don't think any ban, or even a voluntary agreement among showbiz folks to suppress the word, is the right way to go.

The Michael Richards event provides its own lesson, for everyone. (See it if you have a strong stomach.) It is truly painful to watch: Richards is so bad up there, so unfunny, so unequipped to find ripostes that might stem the talking and heckling from a disruptive group of latecomers. He is dying in front of that audience, and he knows it. His offensiveness is so inept, his ineptness so offensive, as he paces back and forth, looking sideways into the wings as if for rescue but never directly at the black hecklers he is trying to confront. He walks about hollering things like "Fifty years ago, we'd have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass!" (Nervous newspapers are leaving out fucking and printing that last word as "---", as if those words were the problem!) And he shouts "nigger" at his main heckler, over and over and over again.

But look at Richards now: his career in ruins, his name a byword for impotent white rage and pathetic public collapse. He used the word in anger, and he's pretty much being kept at bay with garlic and crucifixes in showbusiness right now. Remember that.

Ban the word? I say let it stay right with us. (In everyday life it will stay anyway. Any kind of explicit attempt at suppression would only enhance its insultingness and taboo value.) We all know the word well; we know where it lives. We know it's a deeply offensive insult left over from slavery and its hundred-year aftermath of discrimination. And there are other things most of us know about it. Use it in seriousness from a stage or podium and your career on stages and at podiums is over, that's clear. Address it to a black man in the street you are extremely likely to get beaten up. You might recover from the beating, but what will be harder to get over is that from then on you are almost certain to be judged despicable by most ordinary people who heard you.

If you're black and young, then in some very informal contexts you may be able to get away with using it to friends as an edgy but basically affectionate in-group term, connoting familiarity and solidarity (making this use more widespread is what Jackson thinks black rappers and comedians should cut back on; I say Damon Wayans is the expert on how to be funny and black, and he should decide what he's going to do in his act).

Mind how you go: it's a loaded, dangerous weapon of a word, especially now. Don't try it with people over fifty, for example. In fact, no matter who you are (and dictionaries should provide a brief warning along these lines), if you're at all in doubt, don't touch it with a ten-foot pole. But if you think you know what you're doing, by all means use it where and if you dare.

I want you to, because there are things I need to know about you. Whether you refer to African Americans as niggers is relevant to whether you and I are ever going to have lunch together or be drinking buddies, for example. I don't want to know you have been cowed by some ban or convention; I want to know how you think it is appropriate to talk. Knowing how Michael Richards used the word nigger is highly relevant to my decisions about whether I will ever put my money down to see his act in a comedy club. Useful information.

Use the word as you think apt; it will reflect things about you very informatively, like a mirror on the wall. Ultimately your linguistic choices are up to you. That's exactly as it should be.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 11, 2006 12:48 AM