Important note: the words above are BAD, and we don’t approve of any words ever being used to slur or demean human beings.
Seriously, it was even painful for me to write them in the headline – particularly since I am neither gay, black or Jewish (hence the quotation marks). But this week, three news stories, and three web controversies, erupted over these three incredibly nasty terms, so let’s talk about the power – and complexity – of evil words.
Case 1: removing “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn
A new edition of Mark Twain’s classic Huck Finn will replace all instances of the word “nigger” with the word “slave” for high school classrooms.
Case 2: removing “faggot” from Dire Straits Money for Nothing
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council decides that the “gay slur in lyrics disaqualifies Dire Straits hit from Canadian radio play.”
Case 3: Sarah Palin is raked over the Internet coals for using the term “blood libel”
She used the term in a video posted to her Web page which has a history of being used as a truly ugly anti-semitic slur.
To me these are all different issues with different historical nuances. But to me that’s the point of talking about them. In the first two instances, two works of art are being “sanitized”, ostensibly to avoid offending a minority group. But in both cases, the words are being used by characters in a way that is authentic to their own time, place, and mode of speech.
In the last, we have a case of a public figure using a sensitive term in a sensitive debate in a way that is either really dumb or really evil, depending on how much credit you give Sarah Palin or her speechwriters. In either case, it was a tone-deaf move and showed a disregard for the loaded history of a term which is guaranteed to create controversy.
So over to you readers.
My question is this: does the kind of micro-censorship we see in the first two cases actually breed the kind of ignorance we see in the Palin case? Is it better to avoid sensitive language, or to deal with it in a thoughtful, intelligent – or even ironic – way, as in Huck Finn and Money for Nothing?