Words We Cannot Say
Words We Cannot Say©
The following is Chapter 7 of a book I am currently working on. It contains strong language which some may find offensive.
Words We Cannot Say©
Many years ago, I became involved in an interesting debate with some coworkers; we all had been in the Equal Opportunity business for different lengths of time. Of that group I think that I was the newest member of the team with less than a year of formal experience, the oldest in our group had over 20 years experience. During the course of the conversation one of the team members, a lawyer by training stated that we needed to come up with a list of words that people should not say. According to him, if someone was caught speaking one of the words on the list they would be immediately disciplined for it. My reaction to his plan validated the claim that people make about me when they say that I tend to be a bit liberal in my thinking. When I heard he wanted to create a list of words to be banned from public discourse, I immediately thought of censorship and how it may impact the First Amendment and our Freedom of Speech. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It should be noted because of this idealistic view of mine; I have listened to a ton of crap over the years.
I would normally just discount the idea of an official censorship list outright, but this was an intellectual conversation without the beer, so I wanted to further explore this idea. I asked him what words did he think should be on this list? He claimed any derogatory word that was designed to humiliate or otherwise demoralize a person would be a candidate. Words like bitch, faggot, nigger to name just a few would be the first on the list. Even with these words, which I find offensive, I voiced my concerns about censorship and the slippery slop that I thought he was on.
To further complicate this discussion, you need to understand the dynamics of the conversation. The folks involved with this ad hoc debate were all very intelligent and passionate people. They all believed in the work they were doing and the position they took on this issue. Hence, our voices started to rise, not in anger but rather in an effort to verbally intimidate and out do the other in this duel of wits.
That particular day we happened to leave our office door open and across the hallway another coworker was teaching a mandatory EEO class. He was right at the point in the class where he was talking about how it is not the person that you are talking to, that will get you into trouble but the person who is listening in the hallway. As he came into our office to tell us to shut up, in the next breath he thanked us for such a wonderful example, because our debate was filled with many of the words he just told his class would get them into trouble. There is no excuse for the five of us to be that sloppy, but that does not mean that we should not have had the conversation. Nor does it mean that the words we used to defend our position were inappropriate for that situation. The context in which words are being used goes a long way in determining the appropriateness of their use.
I want to draw us back to the purpose of the debate. What my co-worker wanted was a sanitized language. He was promoting the idea of a language that was free of all inappropriate words. To some this might appear to be a good plan, if the words are the problem then eliminate the words, to create a language that has the government stamp of approval on it. The idea of manufacturing a purified language or to barrow a phrase from George Orwell “Newspeak” is not a new idea. In his book, 1984, Orwell explains the process by which the government at the time of his story is attempting to create the perfect language. A language that is free of ideas that may counter the beliefs of the government. “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotee of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” Language/words are powerful mechanisms in the development of our thoughts and actions. For most people these are the tools which we use to validate and challenge sensory information.
I once had an argument with one of my college professors about the usefulness of symbolic logic. Symbolic logic is a method of representing an argument through mathematical symbols like A+B=C, this is done to verify the validity of the argument. He claimed that symbolic logic would one day become the perfect language and that through mathematical symbolism interpretation and misunderstanding would be eliminated. As such, we would not have to worry about specific words or phrases because the symbols used would only focus on the validity of the argument not the impact of the words. Without the impact of the words the emotion and value judgments are taken out of the equation. I had at least two problems with his line of thinking. First of all, this new perfect language would become nothing more than another form of elitist communication, only accessible to those with the time and the money to be involved in such an endeavor. The second problem is that he was making the assumption that at some point in time language would become stable and stagnate. Language is alive; it is constantly evolving, changing and devolving. If we were to eliminate or create a prohibition against certain words from being uttered, new words would be invented to take their place and meaning.
Instead of trying to create lists, which is a futile effort, a society may look at concentrating their efforts on intent and impact of the words. Context of any speech or word usage is always important. Creating a list is a process of treating the symptom and not the source of the illness. Recently I was on a job interview. Prior to the actual interview they wanted to see a sample of my writing style; the following is the question I was asked to respond to. Note that the position was a Labor Relations Specialist and one of my many responsibilities would be the investigation of workplace issues. Here is the question:
“An employee presents you with a grievance about an incident in which she heard one of her co-workers tell another, “You know how those people can be. They are lazy, cheap, and good for nothing.” The employee wants the co-worker who made the remark disciplined. What do you tell her and what issues have been raised by the co-worker’s statement?”
Here was my answer to the question:
“Without more information from the complainant or witnesses disciplinary action may not be justified in this instance because we do not know who the comment was directed towards or the context the statement was made. Central to this discussion is finding out who “those people” are. The co-worker could be talking about any number of groupings of people from a specific demographic group or the personnel in a department or they could be talking about the employees of a particular vender. With that being said that does not mean that the incident can be ignored because the organization has now been placed on notice of a possible situation. To ignore it would open the organization to an indefensible position.
The issues that are being raised in this incident are a possible form of illegal discrimination or the creation of a hostile work environment. If the complainant believes that the comment was directed at her or a group that she identifies with the comment (whether illegal or not) now becomes a catalyst for a disruptive division in the workplace.
I would inform the complainant about the need for more information, specifically who she thought the comment was directed towards and in what context it was said. Then she would be told that the issues she had raised would be looked into and that she would be contacted after an investigation was completed. No matter what the outcome of the investigation reveals, it can not be promised that any specific type of disciplinary action will be taken. She can be told that the appropriate measures will be taken to address any issue.”
I took this little side trip not to show off my great writing and interviewing skills, but to show how we sometimes will jump to a conclusion about what was said without having access to the context of what was said. Now I am not making excuses for people who knowingly use or like to throw racial slurs or offensive terms around just to get a rise out of people. In the situation that was presented to me the person filing the complaint did not know who the speakers were referring to and she did not know the context of the conversation.
In our current society, one word appears to be at the very least divisive. Today the trigger word for many people is Nigger, and there has been a great deal of debate in the use of this particular word. Some point to Richard Pryor through his comedy for mainstreaming the usage within the Black community in the 70’s. I found it very interesting that as he matured in his routine, the use of that word decreased until it was nonexistent. He explained the reason for this transition in a 1982 interview with Ebony magazine. “I was sitting by myself (in the Nairobi Hilton in Kenya) and I just looked around and it was like a voice said to me,”What do you see?” And I said,”People of all colors doing things together”.And another voice said “Do you see any niggers?” And I said,”No!”. And the voice said “Do you know why?”. And I said(whispering),”No”. And it said,”There aren’t any…”.
There is a paradox that exists with the use of Nigger in American society. Adding to this confusion is the prevalent use of the word with some in the Black community. Turn to any HBO comedy special that is featuring a Black comedian and you will see an almost excessive use of the word referring to others in the Black community. Claiming that using it with their act they come to own the term and take away the power from it. Yet for other groups they can not decide where this word belongs, it is so problematic that the NAACP held a funeral for it at its 2007 annual convention (Figure 7.2). Stating that there is no longer any need for the word in society.
The author Randall Kennedy talks about the use of the word and the impact it can have. The following is an excerpt from his book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, where the author is reflecting on a skit performed on 1975 Saturday Night Live with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor.
“Chase is interviewing Pryor for a job as a janitor and administers a word association test that goes like this:
‘White,’ says Chase.
‘Black,’ Pryor replies.
‘Whitey,’” Pryor replies lightly
‘What did you say?’ Pryor asks, puzzled.
‘Tarbaby,’ Chase repeats, monotone.
‘Ofay,’ Pryor says sharply.
‘Peckerwood,’ Pryor yells.
‘Nigger,’ says Chase smugly [Aware that, when pushed, he can always use that trump card].
‘Dead honky!,’ Pryor growls [resorting to the threat of violence now that he has been outgunned in the verbal game of racial insults].”
As this exchange shows this particular word has the ability to incense rage. One other point you need to notice about the exchange, many of the terms have come in and out of common usage except one. In 2011, you do not hear many people using the word “Honky” as a negative slang for a White person. If you do, the reaction will not be as severe. The term “Nigger” on the other hand still holds its own as an offensive term. With that being said, no matter how offensive, it is not reasonable or possible to banish words or phrases. We can however hold people accountable for the context in which the offensive speech is utilized.
Placing the words in the proper context is important to take into consideration when people use racial slurs. Understanding the context will help determine the appropriate response. Read the following lyrics and think about your first impression.
“Are there any queers in the theater tonight?
Get them up against the wall!
There's one in the spotlight, he don't look right to me,
Get him up against the wall!
That one looks Jewish!
And that one's a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?”
A number of impressions come to mind when a person first hears this song. It is homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, and the person singing the song has delusions of grandeur. Let me add some more of the lyrics and background information, then see if your opinion of what is going on in the song changes at all.
Might like to
Go to the show.
To feel that warm thrill of confusion,
That space cadet glow.
I've got some bad news for you sunshine,
Pink isn't well, he stayed back at the hotel
And they sent us along as a surrogate band
We're gonna find out where you folks really stand.
Are there any queers in the theater tonight?
Get them up against the wall!
There's one in the spotlight, he don't look right to me,
Get him up against the wall!
That one looks Jewish!
And that one's a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
There's one smoking a joint,
And another with spots!
If I had my way,
I'd have all of you shot!”
The song is In the Flesh off the 1979 Pink Floyd album and movie, The Wall. The album tells the story of a singer who is slowly losing touch with reality. In this song the fictional character “Pink” thinks his concert is a political rally, which has the feel of a Nazi rally pre-WWII, where he can spout his hateful rhetoric with impunity. Understanding the context in which certain words are used do not make the words them self any less offensive. In the case of the song the artist is using the words to demonstrate the character’s battle with his own demons. The story line would not hold as well without them, because the writer is highlighting the obscenity of his actions. Once the words of the song are placed into context, the absurdity makes more sense. As such it should not give people free license in the use of offensive terms. As with this song, their usage needs to be called into question and the people using them held accountable.
Sometimes the fiction that was created becomes the reality. In this case the character, Pink, had a symbol for his imaginary group which was a pair of crossed hammers. Sometime after the movie was released, the White supremacy group, Hammerskin Nation had adopted it as their logo. (Figure 7.5) The absurdity is that the movie and the album were attempting to show the insanity associated with sociopathic beliefs—yet how is it that their words could inspire a hate group? Simple, the hate group did not understand the context of the words.
This idea of holding people accountable for what they say is not mine. I would like to take credit but I can’t. What I can do is relate a story of the first time this message was driven into my thought process. When I first entered the Army, I had a Drill Sergeant during basic training tell me that I had all the freedoms that any other citizen of the United States enjoyed. I tried to argue with him by saying, “but Drill Sergeant,” I protested, “we do not have the freedom of speech.” Thinking that I had just pulled one on him I felt fairly good about myself, until he said, “You have the freedom to say anything you want to anyone in your chain of command or of senior rank to you. The only difference is we are going to hold you accountable for everything that you say. Now drop and give me 50.” In his statement, there is some sage advice, about holding people accountable for the words they utter. I cannot stop anyone from saying what he or she wants. I can do two things. First, I can educate and then I can hold them accountable.
One of the rights that we hold very dear is the Freedom of Speech. I love this right for without it I would not be able to write a book such as this. However, there is a difference between taking away a person’s right to free speech and holding them accountable for the speech that they use. If a person is not held accountable, then there is no value to the speech. In December 2007, an example of this manifested itself in the case of a Maine man who made very clear that he did not like Black people; he had made it so clear that it has caused him some trouble with the state’s attorney general. In one statement he managed to threaten the majority of the state’s minority population. “In October, the N.A.A.C.P. chapter for northern Maine got shocking news. A man from a nearby town had threatened to shoot “any and all black persons” attending the group’s meetings at an old stone church here, and state prosecutors were worried enough to seek a restraining order.” The gentleman making this statement was not intent on opening a dialog with the members of the NAACP, he was clearly trying to intimidate and threaten them and that is why he is being held accountable.
The challenge is not to become so over policing that we stop communicating with each other. Intent of use and knowledge has to be taken into consideration when considering a response to inappropriate speech. I say this not to create excuses for people, “oh I did not know what that meant!” when they really did. But this can be a point of learning for both sides of the conversation. At the end of the day if you have truly stopped learning, then you have just died.
I would like to end this chapter with an observation. I focused most of this chapter on the use of the N-word. However, there are many more terms that are just as hateful that refer to other groups. In American society, words such as “Chink”, “Raghead”, “Blood Libel”, or “Wetback” are used often without thought of the implication or of the human that exists behind the label.
1. What point is the author trying to make in Chapter 7?
2. Was the author’s use of language, especially the N-word appropriate?
3. Why does the author think that the context a word is used in is important?
4. Why did the NAACP have a funeral for the N-word?
5. How do you balance the “freedom of speech” with the fight against offensiveness?
6. Is the creation of an unacceptable word list possible? Is it advisable?
7. What was your initial impression of the song In the Flesh?
8. Did that change after you learned more about the song? Why?
 It is a shame that I can make a living and there is a whole industry is based on inequality.
 Orwell, George. 1984. New York. Penguin Books. 1949. p 246
 Richard Pryor,l982 in an exclusive interview with Ebony Magazine,page l98
 Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. P 31
 Water, Roger. In the Flesh. Pink Floyd The Wall. Capital Records. 1979
 Reference is for me to do 50 pushup
 Goodnough, Abby. Threat in Maine, the WhitestState, Shakes Local N.A.A.C.P. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/28/us/28bangor.html. Published December 28, 2007. (accessed January 14, 2011).
 Yes I went back to using the “N-word” instead of spelling it out, because at this point of the chapter it is no longer appropriate.
Figure 7.1: No Thinking Zone: Some people would like you to stop thinking about the words you use.
Figure 7.2: NAACP Funeral for the N-word NAACP lays ‘N’ word to rest. Bankole Thompson. New Pittsburgh Courier. http://newpittsburghcourieronline.com/articlelive/articles/38205/1/NAACP-lays-N-word-to-rest/Page1.html. (Accessed January 14, 2011)
Figure 7.3: Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase in a 1975 Saturday Night Live Skit on Race.
http://snltranscripts.jt.org/75/75ginterview.phtml. (Accessed January 14, 2011).
Figure 7.4: Bob Geldof plays the character Pink, in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, as he starts to lose touch with reality.
http://www.thewallanalysis.com/secondflesh.html. (Accessed January 14, 2011)
Figure 7.5: Walking Hammers: Two sets of walking hammers, one is the representation of a dilution of the main charter from the movie The Wall. http://www.thewallanalysis.com/worms.html
Images copyrighted by Pink Floyd and MGM studios. A Literary Analysis of Pink Floyd's The Wall copyrighted by Bret Urick 1997- 2009. (Accessed January 14, 2011)
The other is the symbol for the group Hammerskin Nation. http://www.adl.org/hate_symbols/groups_hammerskins.asp. (Accessed January 14, 2011)
© 2011 Mark Monroe