Why bad words aren’t the problem

Sam Smith– Read the following sentence: “F*** you.” What did you just say to yourself? The asterisks wouldn’t work if you hadn’t filled them in.

– Using correct language is the obsession of that part of our culture least likely to produce any positive social or political change. One reason for this is that people obsessed with the matter think that when they say things the right way, they’ve done everything they have to.

– Word censorship damages history.

– Ironically, it also often damages the very cause the censors are promoting. For example, the elimination of the word “nigger” from its historical usage actually lessens the cruelty of the language that was being used.

– My rule is to only use such words when they truly help the point you are trying to make. For example, writing of my early days in radio news I noted:

|||| More than once, when calling the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action, I was told, “Nothin’ but a few nigger stabbings.” It had, after all, only been twelve years since the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell arrived to take his seat in the House of Representatives. Stepping into his office for the first time he found a memo on his desk headed “Dos and Don’ts for Negro Congressmen.” One was “Don’t eat in the House dining room.” |||||

Using a euphemism or asterisks would only have weakened that. Similarly writing about the police mistreatment of protesters at a national political convention, I wrote:

|||| An officer told a prisoner, “I’ll fuck you up the ass and make you my bitch.” ||||

To have prettied that up would have been to let that officer off the hook.

– Censorship of words also creates censorship of information. For example, here is an excerpt from a Review story in the 1990s on the political center that got hardly any coverage elsewhere:

|||| The Good O’Boys Roundup, a festival for law enforcement personnel sponsored by agents of the BATF, . . . included such things as signs saying NIGGER CHECKPOINT, T-shirts with a target superimposed over Martin Luther King’s face, others showing DC police officers with a black man stretched across a car hood above the caption BOYZ ON THE HOOD, and cards labeled NIGGER HUNTING LICENSE? ||||

The conventional media couldn’t report that story because of its language rules.

– There is no particular correlation between the use of socially correct language and social and political improvement. For example, note this Google Ngram chart of the use of the word “nigger” in books over the past 50 years. The peak occurred at the end of the 1960s, when blacks were making more progress than they are today. The most recent peak occurred around the time America was electing its first black president.

– The censorship tends to be selective. For example, Don Imus used the word ‘ho’ once and got fired. 50 Cent used the word 13 times in one number and in the same number used the word ‘nigga’ 14 times. 50 Cent is a former drug dealer and Don Imus is a former drug addict, miner, gas station attendant and railway brakeman. At the time, however, they lived just 59 miles away from each other: Imus in Westport, CT; and 50 Cent in Mike Tyson’s former mansion in Farmington, CT. According to Mapquest, it would have taken only an hour and 17 minutes for one to pay a visit on the other. In a sense, Imus was just copying something a neighbor had said. 50 Cent has sold 21 million albums using language such as the foregoing. Don Imus got fired.

– There is an argument made by Al Sharpton and others that blacks should control use of such words. But if RIAA can’t even control who downloads records, how is the NAACP going to control what effect 21 million albums have on people? Or the phrases they pick up from them?

– You can write about it, excoriate it, and suspend the offender of the day. But when it’s all over, words travel without a passport and are impervious any type of security screening.

– And it changes by the year. In the mid nineties, for example, Michael Marriott wrote a New York Times piece on the revival in black culture of the word ‘nigger.’ One rapper Kris Parker argued that its use would de-racialize it: “In another 5 to 10 years, you’re going to see youth in elementary school spelling it out in their vocabulary tests. It’s going to be that accepted by the society.” He was off by a bit.

– The best rule of thumb is: don’t use bad words unless you have a good reason to.

– And don’t get too upset when others do. Remember a 16% unemployment rate is far worse than a few bad words.


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