Thee, N-Word

Books and Literature, Culture, Education, Media, War and Politics

I’m as skeptical of safe spaces and trigger warnings as the next asshole, and I’m on the record comparing them to “the crystal vibrations of homeopathy and hypnotherapy,” but in that same post, and by the same token, I believe that while most of the proponents of this sort of thing suffer at worst from a naively misplaced trust in institutions to do right in the hands of the proper government and an overabundance of sincerity, it’s their loud public detractors who frequently suffer from a cancerous form of intellectual hypocrisy. So it was this past Sunday when, emerging from the palace to denounce the worries of the gardeners, Judith Shulevitz, a prominent critic and author frequently published in the most prominent and widely circulated publications in America, rang the alarm on the most worrying trend in the universities today. No, it is not the necessity of entering a lifetime of debt servitude to graduate from even our lousier state schools, nor the declining practical value of general education outside of a few faddish and vocational majors, nor the fact that war criminals and state security charlatans occupy positions of prominence in our best universities, nor even something as banally scandalous as the criminal extortion cartel that is the NCAA. No, indeed, it is the tremendous trauma inflicted upon poor administrators, and society as a whole, when, for example:

Last fall, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, apologized for causing students and faculty to be “hurt” when she failed to object to a racial epithet uttered by a fellow panel member at an alumnae event in New York. The offender was the free­speech advocate Wendy Kaminer, who had been arguing against the use of the euphemism “the n­-word” when teaching American history or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the uproar that followed, the Student Government Association wrote a letter declaring that “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.”

“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.

Now, I actually agree with this sentiment; I think the notion that we may be harmed, or traumatized, or “re-traumatized” by the mere utterance of unpleasant or offensive or troubling words and ideas, especially in the service of exploring and criticizing those words and ideas, ranks high on the list of the most bogus notions ever dreamed up by our species. And, I mean, what is the Anthropocene if not one grotty epoch of our species’ inexhaustible supply of bogus ideas? But here is the rub, and the hypocrisy. Judith Shulevitz is making this argument, lighting these lamps in the Old North Church, in America’s premier organ of news and opinion, which, Oh By The Way, does not permit the use of the word nigger in its pages, not even “when teaching American history or ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’”

Here, for instance, from last month, is Dwight Garner’s review of the widely praised new novel, The Sellout:

So much happens in “The Sellout” that describing it is like trying to shove a lemon tree into a shot glass. It’s also hard to describe without quoting the nimble ways Mr. Beatty deals out the N­-word. This novel’s best lines, the ones that either puncture or tattoo your heart, are mostly not quotable here.

I should mention that Garner is also required to “[work] around a perfectly detonated vulgarity,” lest the mere appearance of such traumatizing and re-traumatizing language should besmirch the Average Reader’s tender eyes and brain.

This is a minor point; we could all very easily find thoughts and expressions and whole political ideologies which would never pass the gates of the unofficial but powerful censors of mainstream discourse in America. But I happen to believe that its smallness makes it all the more pertinent, because what, after all, is the complaint about safe spaces and trigger warnings if not that they are small, petty, and un-serious; that they are the ill-considered attempts at prior restraint by what amount to a novel class of intellectual prudes, whose contempt for freewheeling debate is at last a kind of puritanism? Well, so what if it is? Where is the greater threat to freedom, in the seminar room, or in the nation’s most important paper? Censor, censor thyself.

18 thoughts on “Thee, N-Word

  1. I like that you carry on the tradition of punny post titles. But where now are the lulzy, epic comment threads?

    1. I’m willing to bet that most of the people responsible for the great comment threads of our IOZ-past are probably still hunched in front of their computer screens desperately hitting Ctrl + R, weeping and gnashing their teeth and drinking White Russians to excess.

  2. Seriously, if you’re an adult and you find yourself reading an op-ed by a junior at Columbia about sexual assault and free speech, it’s time for you to kill yourself. There’s something pretty disturbing about being a business major interested in partying and then finally, years of failure later, starting to follow campus politics.

  3. I think one can distinguish between the use of obscenity in the pages of a publicly distributed broadsheet and a “panel” at a university.

    No, what interests me is people’s crazy religious beliefs, including what “obscenity” is. “God damn it” used to be considered obscene, when I was kid. It was “taking God’s name in vain”, and reprehensible. No more. To the progressive, “fuck” and “shit” and various derivatives are not obscene. They are just words, and you’re square if you protest their continual utterance. “Nigger” is, with other badthinkwords like “spic” or “Jew” to a lesser degree. You know someone’s religion not by what he says it is, but by how he acts and reacts emotionally. The NYT-believing progressive says “fucking” as an adjective that means she is angry and therefore should be obeyed regardless of whether her demands make any sense. But she will never even think the word “nigger” unless an asshole like me sticks it in front of her.

  4. I don’t think the NYT self-censors out of an excess of prudery. (Since when have journalists been known for that?) I think they self-censor out of a very realistic assessment of the likely consequences if they don’t.

  5. No one’s concerned about the “Average Reader’s tender eyes and brain”. It’s not so much the Word itself as it’s a question of group-authenticated or approved standing to use the Word, as well as to use and apply related words and concepts from prevailing social-justice creeds and concordances.

    For proper standing, then, either we have a member of everybody’s favorite perpetual-victim constituency using the Word, from comic to casual uses, to maudlin, opportunistic, sorry, profound and heartrending cris de coeur, or else the usage has been duly vetted in triplicate by credentialed mandarins of sensitivity.

    Goddess knows that no one seriously dares question the ineffable, all-purpose Pain from the Middle Passage, Jim Crow and Oscar nomination snubs which still beset almost every African-American, as mood or transactional exigency warrants, even–especially–in 2015 and beyond. History stands still when conditioning dictates.

    Invidious intent or even reckless insensitivity, then, are not the tests of offense, well-meaning nods to objectivity and due process notwithstanding. It’s about identity-group power, here conferred in the form of socio-cultural reparations and the right of denunciation, hopefully to be matched soon by targeted financial outlay.

    1. Good God. It’s like the CIA in conjunction with the RAND Corporation developed a weaponized style of prose designed to make internet radicals kill themselves after they saw it in the comment sections of their favorite blogs…

    2. reparations and financial outlay? when is this happening again? wait. don’t tell me. you, i, etc., will be long dead first.

      1. Of course it’s happening again—Charles Ogletree and Rep. Conyers and Eric Holder never really abandoned the modern version of the fight—but this time it might actually come off. As with amnesty for illegal immigrants, the name might have to be changed to protect the undeserving. Ta-Nehisi Coates called explicitly for reparations in a 2014 cover story for The Atlantic, and we’re in the midst of a extended jag of pearl-clutching and sermonizing on the subject of Black Pain in Bad America, unprecedented in sound and fury since the Sixties.

        It matters little—to the idlers, malcontents and political opportunists behind it—that the current momentum is comprised generally of patronizing, social-justice truthiness, and specifically of toxic fables like ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”. An inchoate (and more effective thereby) Sharptonesque shakedown on a national scale is nonetheless afoot, with “equity” (read: cash) to be the extorted price of peace on America’s streets. The emotionalized, default endgame is a “Something Must Be Done!” consensus to appease America’s Favorite Victim Class.

        It also matters little whether or Dave Chappelle’s famous comic prevision of Reparations Day is accurate. Yes, the grievance gases of professional victims will always expand to fill any container, But if a sufficiently meaningful amount of money is dispensed with sufficient ceremony so as to constitute an objectively reasonable accord and satisfaction, the inevitable whining and doubling-down might at last be safely ignored by the same conformist sheep so easily co-opted by specious public school and media-driven guilt and fear today.

  6. Jesus Inkberrow, you do know how to use words. I’m dim, ignorant, often hopelessly stupid in a shit storm, however this much I know: Words carry power to help or harm and shit in between, because we wouldn’t want to dip into dualism, would we?

  7. i got a concussion playing flag football on the native american team as a kid. i need multiple trigger alerts before viewing a promo for a Redskins’ game. even the team flags people put on their cars can cause a panic attack. and as a recovering gambler, i am not too crazy about the DC Lotto/Megabillions/”Come to Charleston WV” commercials either.

    and basically anything coming out of Madison Ave, the White House, etc., etc. causes nausea. America definitely needs more triggers.

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