Of “faggots”, “niggers”, and “blood libel”. Dealing with awful words.

Important note: the words above are BAD, buy and we don’t approve of any words ever being used to slur or demean human beings.

Seriously, treat it was even painful for me to write them in the headline – particularly since I am neither gay, advice 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?

8 thoughts on “Of “faggots”, “niggers”, and “blood libel”. Dealing with awful words.”

  1. Dennis – Wasn’t the old adage that if you couldn’t learn from history, you would be destined to repeat it? I was an English major in college so will only comment on Twain’s American Classic.

    Huck Finn is seen by many as the prototypical hero in American literature. Was it written during a period of American history that folks want to forget? Yes, but it was correct in the period that it was written in. It also shows the beginning of tolerance where Huck sees Jim as not a runaway slave, but rather a friend.

    If we’re rewriting history, will we also write out the internment camps that were in the US for Japanese citizens during WW2?

    Our country has an ugly past and we’re destined to be just as bigoted if we run and change things because it may be offensive.

    Micro-censoring may have worked in Orwell’s 1984, but in the real world it doesn’t work and we’ll keep doing the same mistakes over and over.

    1. Absolutely agree. I’ve always been in favour of a “warts and all” approach to history, literature, marketing, whatever. Bad words are ugly, but they’re not the evil we should be fighting; it’s the IDEAS behind them. We need to understand why people use those words, and how to fix the real problems they represent.

  2. You should throw in as a fourth not-very-recent example the movie Tropic Thunder, with the controversy over the word “retard.” In context, the use of the word makes sense, but this doesn’t mean we should condone the general use.

  3. In the first two instances the words were used in fiction (the song implies a made-up narrator) and one of the strengths of fiction is that it allows us to see how human mind actually works, in all its flaws and short sightedness. The intent of neither work is to denigrate blacks or gay. The novelist Julei Schumacher has said that “good fiction never lies to me” and by this she means fiction shows us human beings as they actually are as opposed to essays and political speech such as Palin’s where we really should be on our best behavior.

    1. Completely spot on Kevin. Fiction, and the literature class, is actually the best place for kids to encounter the word “nigger”. It allows them to see it in use as dispassionate observers, and think about how and why it is used. Then, best of all, they can DISCUSS it with their peers and teachers – which can be so much more helpful as a way of addressing racism than a thousand well-intentioned sermons.

  4. Removing “bad words” from literature studied by high school students (Presumably this isn’t being done to all copies printed from now on) seems foolish on a number of levels. Coming across an ‘uncomfortable’ word presents an opportunity to discuss the historical context in which the book was written and compare to today’s realities. Perhaps even trace how use of/ nuances of the word has changed. (Whoa, so history, sociology, politics etc intrude into English class? )
    Do we need to protect these kids, who are exposed to more language, stereotypes, etc. than any previous generation, from words used in the popular music many of them listen to, and probably all are exposed to?
    I also don’t see “slave” as an equivalent to “nigger”. One is based on skin colour/ethnicity, the other on ownership/employment/social status. There was a lot of overlap, both in population and deemed status, but they are not synonymous.
    From what I understand, Dire Straits was commenting on the ideology from which “faggot” would be used, again within a different cultural-political context. (But it really can’t be that different, can it? After all, that was during my teen years….)
    And Sarah Palin. I don’t even want to go there. Too many contradictions to untangle at this time of night.

    Thanks for stimulating our thinking, Dennis.

    1. No, thank you for your thoughtful – and long – late night post. It really speaks for itself. Bravo.

      On your comment “I also don’t see “slave” as an equivalent to “nigger”.” a correspondent on the daily show nailed this when he said “Slave? That’s just a job description, and it isn’t even accurate!”

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