Wednesday

November 22nd, 2017

Insight

My own speech code

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published July 7, 2015

   My own speech code

Now it is The Hon. Barack Obama who has run afoul of the Language Police after using the forbidden word in an interview the other day, even if only to warn against its use. "It's not just a matter of it not being polite to say n----- in public," the president opined. Naturally he drew fire from our instant censors, who demanded that he find a way around the unspeakable word if he couldn't drop it entirely.

To quote Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, "I wish he had chosen to say, quote, the 'N' word as opposed to saying the word, because I have been long on record that coarse language used in any context in the public square is not the best way to talk about these types of issues." How discreet. Who says the Victorian Age is past?

Why not use the word or not use it -- instead of dancing around it? Authors from Mark Twain to Joseph Conrad, from William Faulkner to Flannery O'Connor, all have used the word without malice aforethought or afterward, and even shading its meaning depending on what their artistic conscience -- not the Language Police -- demanded.

Some of us can remember back when n----- was just a common, and I mean common, synonym for black people and nothing more, though our folks tried to teach us better. At the same time, we could recognize when the word was being used as just a hateful epithet, too. As when speaking out against racial segregation and being called a "n------lover" for it, or maybe A Traitor to Your Race.

The first time another boy called me that I could only look at him blankly. It was in grammar school after I'd made an offhand comment about how it was time to let the "colored" kids go to school with us, not thinking much about it. Traitor to my race? Whatever race this kid belonged to, I didn't want to belong to it. But the haters have their own politically correct speech code, and the same way to enforce it: by trying to bully others.

That was about the first time I realized that there was a simple way to handle bullies: Just stand up to them. And like this kid, they'd shrink away.

Now it's anybody who'd dare say the word n----- who's fair game for bullies of a separate but equally repressive persuasion. Quite aside from violating their fellow citizens' freedom of speech, that kind of censorship violates the very spirit of the ever-adaptable English language. Words are not simple things, and simply banning or allowing them with no consideration for the context in which they're uttered ignores the wonderful variety of connotations in the capacious English language -- connotations good, bad and otherwise.

Me, I've got a copy of the only speech code I'll ever need hanging on the wall of my office at home. It's beautifully embroidered and simply framed, a gift from a fellow editorial writer. It consists of only 45 words, and is called the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

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.

All the rest is commentary, and a wealth of it -- judicial interpretations, legislative enactments, heated debates -- has sprung from those 45 words over the years, and more doubtless will in the future. But those definitive words should remain as they were written -- sacred and inviolate -- and not be replaced by some simplicity like: Thou shalt not say n-----.

That simplistic prohibition isn't just an assault on freedom of speech; it's arrogance compounded by ignorance. The two do have a way of going together. As they did in the current brouhaha over the president's use of the verboten word. Besides, don't these people realize that banning a word only gives it more power?

This is scarcely the first time Barack Obama has spoken the unspeakable word. He used it again and again in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father." But his use of it now sent the press into all kinds of conniptions, evasions and a general tizzy. To quote or not to quote the president was the question, and if quoted, how fully?

Fox News and MSNBC bleeped the word in their news reports. CNN did the same, but only at first, and then decided it could be aired -- as if we were all adults who could be trusted to make up our own minds. The New York Times printed the word while Politico used it but only with dashes. Other news agencies couldn't make up their minds and changed their coverage of the president and the word as the day wore on.

Welcome to America, circa 2015: confused and confusing. While all the time the words of the First Amendment are right there. If we would only see them.

Comment by clicking here.

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Columnists

Toons

Lifestyles