The comedian George Carlin, famous for his critique of taboo language, performed this routine to explain context (starting at 1:05):
“They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent!
“I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit! It’s the context that makes them good or bad. The context that makes them good or bad.
“For instance, you take the word [the N-word]. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word [the N-word] in and of itself. It’s the racist asshole who’s using it that you ought to be concerned about. We don’t care when Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy say it. Why? Because we know they’re not racist. They’re [the N-word]!
“Context! Context. We don’t mind their context because we know they’re black …
“They’re only words. You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth … I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms, because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have a lot of trouble facing the truth. So, they invent a kind of soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation.”
I feel like I need to apologize to Carlin for substituting “the N-word” for the N-word in the above transcription, which gives his routine an almost post-modern quality. To be fair, Carlin’s routine about context also has a context: the large theater where audience members have purchased expensive tickets to see a certain performer, fully aware of the kind of jokes he delivers.
Compare Carlin’s routine to an op-ed piece written for the campus newspaper by a college student:
“I hate the n-word. No, not ‘nigger.’ I hate the phrase ‘the n-word.’”
He follows this with the required preamble, that he writes this as a black man in America, but that he does not speak for all black people, etc. He then continues with his argument that “‘the n-word’ is problematic.”
“We may have claimed ‘nigga’ for our own use,” he writes, “but black people everywhere still suffer the vile word ‘nigger.’ And it is a vile word.”
In spite of its vileness, this student editorialist uses the word “nigger” no less than 13 times in his roughly 400-word column. He does not substitute “the n-word” for the word “nigger” because that would defeat his point. It would also make his piece less powerful.
“‘Nigger’ is so vile,” he continues, “that the American public decided to strike it from the list of acceptable words, only to replace it with the surrogate ‘n-word,’ as if not speaking the word out loud would be enough to move past its evils … ‘The n-word’ is still just the verbal symbol of a concept meant to make black people inferior to whites, but this one is somehow palatable to the general public.”
The student then confirms Carlin’s point about euphemisms.
“I wish people would stop saying ‘nigger’ all together. [But] I wish … that we would stop using a hollow substitute to talk about the word ‘nigger’ when it does come up.” He concludes his essay. “It’s about time to have that hard discussion about what “nigger” really means. So long as we still say ‘n-word’ instead of ‘nigger,’ I don’t think America will ever have that discussion.”
I agree. That is exactly the discussion I was hoping to have with my students before I was yanked from the classroom for reading the n-word aloud when quoting from James Baldwin’s novel, The Fire Next Time. Ironically, this student was one of those leading the campaign against my having that discussion in the classroom.