Tuesday, November 28, 2006

this week in the n-word...

Jesse Jackson makes a fool of himself again (by the way, I'd originally come up with an individual link for every word in that sentence, but I ended up needing to split two of them in half to accommodate all the links, so I decided I should scrap it for being too hard to navigate).

Putting aside the bizarreness of the priorities here, and the general distastefulness of straining to politicize this issue, can Jesse Jackson et al truly be claiming the word "nigger" as "unprotected" by the First Amendment? Really, honestly? Even if you grant the existence of hate speech, and grant it an exception to the Constitution, and grant the word "nigger" a place in the hate speech lexicon, can there be any way to construe it as unprotected without context? Chaplinsky set the bar in this regard, outlining a First Amendment exemption for "fighting words," or words that could incite an immediate breach of the peace. Since then (1942) other cases (R.A.V., Doe v. Michigan) have expanded and qualified how the law ought to view these kinds of exemptions, but in every instance the context plays a fundamental, determining role. If Jesse Jackson actually attempted a legal argument for "nigger" -- the word alone, isolated from other words and its usage context -- as unprotected "hate speech," I imagine he would end up completely buried by the mountains of contradictory evidence. Hell, you could probably win the other side of that case using That Nigger's Crazy (Richar Pryor, 1974) alone.

One last thing on Jesse Jackson. Think about the last, say, 20 times you've heard the word "nigger" used in some sort of public context, or in some artifact intended for public consumption. I'd be shocked if it occurred in anything besides a) a hiphop song, b) a comedy routine (that includes Richards, despite him being profoundly unfunny), c) a journalistic piece on the topic (though you'd be hard pressed to find the word itself, unfortunately), or d) some form of white-pride bigotry on a short-range AM talkshow or a website. With the exception of the last one, which people in the "entertainment industry" have virtually no control over, can you think of a single instance that would meet any of the requirements of an exemption? Me neither. This is a waste of time, and each time Rev. Jackson does something like this, it makes me feel less honored by having marched with him various times.

If you really want to prevent a breach of the peace, take away
DR Period's MPC sampler. I've barely even been in a fight, and the "Ante Up" remix makes me want to yap fools.

There's another entry to go with this, on John Ridley's Esquire "Manifesto," but that'll have to wait till tomorrow.


Julie said...

Thanks for writing this, it's a great piece about the legality of policing language and I've learned from it.

I came across this piece by Christopher Hitchens, of all people, and I think he hits the nail on the head concerning the edges of politcal correctness. http://www.slate.com/id/2154854/

Words like "nigger," "faggot," "Chicano," and "bitch" are words that were/are derogatory and/or racist, but are now being reclaimed by the groups who were oppressed by them. That's cool, but just because someone's using the word bitch in a 'revolutionary' or 'feminist' way doesn't necessarily make me feel comfortable in saying the word myself. I'm also not down with the idea that people who, for instance, aren't gay could use the word faggot and feel protected in doing so, because some gay person said they 'could'. Some words are now further along in the process of reclaiming - for instance, I'd say that Chicano and gay have come a long way. But we've still got a l-o-o-o-ng way to go.

Creating a language police, as Jackson basically suggests, is not the answer. However, I'm not sure what a better solution would be, other than further dialogue and conversation about language's power to oppress/liberate people. It seems like an awfully slow and probably uneven process, but for now it's the only solution I got.

You got any other ideas?? I'd be interested in hearing them.


alek said...

In place of speech codes and restricted speech, the ACLU recommends counter-programming & education iniatives, along with some other things. They have a guide to speech on campuses that I think does a good job of addressing the issue (and in fact informed my comments above).

The reclamation argument seems irrelevant to me, as a justification and as a way to classify who is and isn't eligible to use certain words. That's the reason why context plays such a critical role, and simply cannot be categorically denied. You don't need to be a linguist to know that Communication doesn't work like that, with a one-to-one relationship between signifier and signified. So, my problem with the reclamation argument isn't its contention that a group of people can alter the fundamental nature of a word through use. A word can absolutely be made less "offensive" through various means, one of them (perhaps) being reclamation. My problem is the implication that our right to free speech depends on how offensiveness of the content. That's just a terrible rubric.

One last thing: I think it's worth noting the difference between people _feeling_ protected in using words like "bitch," "fag," "nigger," etc. and actually _being_ protected from censorship. I don't believe you're consciously confusing the two. Your comment just reminded me that sometimes the desire to label (and censor) "hate speech" comes from a frustration at how -- as perjorative words enter mainstream usage -- bigots can come to feel "protected" in their use of prejudiced speech.