Don't Use the 'N' Word….Please!
by Justine Nicholas
by Justine Nicholas
When it comes to legislative action (Is that an oxymoron?), the work of New York's City Council (Is that another oxymoron?) may not be any more arcane, intrusive or simply silly than that of any other group of municipal lawmakers. However, this week the City Council did something (yet another oxymoron?) that defies even the shakiest logic and the lowest common denominator of sense.
My city's august legislative body passed a resolution that — are you ready for this? — symbolically bans the use of the "N" word.
Now, you might say that because the legislation is symbolic, there's no reason to worry about it. Well, as we all know, sometimes symbols can be powerful. As a libertarian, I am offended at an attempt, however unrealizable, at restricting free speech. Also, as someone who has seen that something done voluntarily as a result of enlightenment is better than something that someone was forced to do, I am appalled at the lack of common sense and insulted at the cynicism behind such a vote. Finally, as someone who's practical at least some of the time, I am annoyed that a group funded by my taxes is spending its time in such a way.
Now, I'm not the sort of person who uses the "N" word or other ethnic slurs. A longtime friend recently told me that he's never even heard me use any of The Seven Words You Can't Say on TV. As a lady of education and refinement (Someone's snickering, I'm sure.), I have no need and certainly no wish to use them. At the same time, I don't think that I or anyone else has the right to prevent someone else from using them. On those rare occasions when an acquaintance uses such terms or indulges in stereotypes, I let him or her know how I feel. An apology invariably follows and we move on: Each of us respects each other's sentiments and, at the same time, our right to express them.
Such moments also give me the opportunity to explain why the slurs and curses are upsetting. The "N" word has a particularly ugly history and nasty connotations, and as someone who is committed to promoting peace, I don't want to add to whatever spiritual violence already exists in this world. That is the reason I don't accept the argument that if rappers use the word or young black men call each other that name, it must be OK. If I follow that line of reasoning, I can justify shooting people who shoot each other. Is that sort of rationalization any different from the one that's used to justify intervention in the unrest of a nation that poses no threat to us?
I know others who share my ideals; none of us were inculcated with them through legislation. Our respect for other people is, rather, a product of our upbringings or other experiences we've had. Still other people eschew prejudice because of their religious beliefs. Although I am not religious, I think that faith is a much more solid basis for tolerance than legislative fiat could ever be.
Speaking of which: Although the ban is symbolic, I can't help to wonder how on earth anyone could enforce a prohibition on using the "N" word. Save perhaps for a few white supremacist websites and publications and some rappers and other popular entertainers, nobody uses the word publicly anymore. And those who use the word usually do so only for an audience of like-minded people. So would the intent of a ban be to restrict what people say in private conversations? If so, how exactly would that be accomplished? Even if a government were to bug people's homes and workplaces as well as streets and other public areas, it couldn't drive all offensive speech underground.
So, even though there is no bite behind the bark, it should be cause for concern that legislators think that they can use the tail of legislation to wag the dog of people's behavior. As we have seen, that approach only works on people who weren't going to engage in the prohibited behavior anyway. Legislation cannot substitute for education.
Besides, do you really want to get an earful from someone like me? If not, don't use the "N" word….please. Thank you.
March 5, 2007
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.
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