Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why Words Hurt

I've had this post in my mind for some time, but have hesitated writing it because I am afraid some will find it unnecessarily offensive. I apologize in advance if your sensibilities are hurt; I assure you, that is not my intention, although perhaps that is inevitable in some cases. On balance, however, I believe it is important enough to justify some hurt feelings. So here goes:

This post is about the word "nigger," a word that has become so offensive that most people will not utter the word, nor write it down. For example, the media learned that presidential candidate Rick Perry owned a property that a previous owner had dubbed "Niggerhead." Perry owned the property for years before changing the name. In reporting the story, the media almost uniformly refused to use the word "nigger." Instead, they used euphemisms that suggested the real name.

I find the refusal to utter a word to be highly counterproductive because it only serves to make the word more offensive and shocked when it is used by those who seek to offend.

To be perfectly clear, I find the word "nigger" to be highly offensive, and I certainly do not condone anyone actually using the word, e.g., calling someone a "nigger" or referring to someone as a "nigger" behind their back. But saying the word, as in reporting that, "Rick Perry's failure to change the name of his ranch from 'Niggerhead' to something else shows that he is grossly incentive to Blacks" is not in the least bit offensive nor racist.

The word "nigger" comes from the word "negro," spoken with a Southern accent. While the word "negro" was not in any way offensive at the time, most Southerners who spoke the word no doubt held Blacks in disdain and treated them like sub-humans. It is easy to see how the Southern utterance "nigger" soon came to make people's skin crawl.

The socially correct word for people of African descent has changed over time, as has the socially correct for disabled people and many other groups. The reason for this is related to the origin of the word "nigger." A group of people is mistreated or looked down upon by society in general. As a result, when the then-current word is used in conversation, it is usually in a negative fashion. Eventually, negative connotations build up around the word. Those who are more sympathetic to the group in question become offended, and demand a new word.

But, if society does not change, the new word also eventually builds up negative connotations as well. Those who are more sensitive or sympathetic demand another new word. And so a word that was introduced in order to avoid an older and offensive word can itself become offensive. I love how Berkeley Breathed played on that cycle of new words in an old Bloom County cartoon. The dialogue below involves the character Steven Dallas, who is learning to be more sensitive, and his older parents, who just doesn't seem to get it:

Mom: That's the most adorable little colored girl playing outside.
Steve: "Colored"? You're saying "colored people" in 1988? You know better, Ma.
Mom: Then why the "National Association for Colored People? I don't think Negroes mind at all.
Steve: Don't say "Negroes," Ma! You can't say "Negroes"!
Mom: Can I say "United Negro College Fund"?
Steve: You are baiting me, Ma!
Dad: That's it. We're leaving.
Mom: Stay put, Reginald. "Mister Socially Sensitive"isn't finished shaming his parents into enlightenment.
Steve: Everybody just calm down. Let's agree to use the the New-Age term "People of Color."
Mom: People of Color.
Steve: People of Color.
Mom: Colored people.
Steve: NO!!
Dad: We're leaving.

An interesting counter-example is the word "queer." Gays took this word and made it their own, thus changing the negative connotation. Similarly, the Republican party has taken the positive word "liberal" and managed to give it a negative connotation by repeating the word in a negative light, over and over. I certainly do not believe that we need to try that with "nigger"; better to leave that word to die off. But we can understand that not saying the word is not making things any better.

Perhaps the bigger and more important lesson is that words only mean what we agree that they mean. Changing the words does not change reality. Calling the Navaho "Native Americans" or "First Nationers" rather than "Indians" is not going to get us anywhere if we do not start treating Navaho people better. Absent better treatment of the group, we can expect the name to keep changing every ten or twenty years.