Running amok around that word

At first, it was simply going to be a Weekend Edition item but then a contrasting item using the same phraseology I intended appeared, causing me to plunge into dangerous waters.

First was the news that a publisher is releasing an edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that totally eliminates the word “nigger” from the text. I know it’s a hateful word but banishing it from the book (apparently replacing it with “slave”) seems to also remove the context of the times in which it was written, an element to understanding almost any work. My thought upon reading this was that we were again seeing pc censorship run amok. (By the way, the publisher also intends to remove the word “Injun”.)

Then my exact thought, “political correctness run amok,” appeared in yet another story dealing with that word. A federal court judge in Philadelphia ruled that a former TV news anchor can sue for being terminated after he used the word “nigger” during a newsroom meeting. Essentially a reverse discrimination lawsuit, the anchor claims the Fox station fired him for using the word because he was white. He claims that in discussing how to phrase a news item, he was asserting that using the phrase “the n-word” actually gave the word “nigger” more power. In saying the case must go to trial, the judge wrote, “When viewed in its historical context, one can see how people in general, and African Americans in particular, might react differently when a white person uses the word than if an African American uses it. Nevertheless, we are unable to conclude that this is a justifiable reason for permitting the Station to draw race-based distinctions between employees.”

Yes, that word is offensive, as are many other words. But as Lenny Bruce said decades ago (see below), our fear and reluctance to address the core issue gives such words their power. Perhaps Bruce’s view and mine are too simplistic and you can never eliminate the hurt the word causes. Still, I firmly believe eliminating the word, whether from a Mark Twain book or a person’s speech, isn’t the answer. It just makes words like that more offensive and gives them a type of caché.

[T]he word’s suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, “Tonight I’d like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,: and he yelled “niggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggergigger” at every nigger he saw, “boogeyboogeyboogeyboogeyboogey, nigggerniggernigger” till nigger didn’t mean anything any more, till nigger lost its meaning– you’d never make any four-year-old “nigger” cry when he came home from school.

Lenny Bruce, The Essential Lenny Bruce

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