July 22, 2008

Context is King, _***er

By: James Poulos

Julian wants to argue that The N Word is not always offensive. I agree: we can run offensive vulgarities that degrade everyone in their full printed glory but yikes when someone types out The N Word. The title of this post would be considered cheekily naughty if that last word’s blank letter were filled in with an F, yet vile and unconscionable if it were filled in with an N. All without even supplying the rest of the letters.

Yet sure enough I see little occasion to throw The N Word around…and when someone wants to argue that it SHOULD be abandoned, by all, I am not going to be the one to make a stink about it. Because the world would be a better place if, for instance, we were all convinced that it would be a better place if, say, The C Word were abandoned. So I take issue with the nut of Julian’s argument:

If you have to convince people that a word isalways offensive—including the very people to whom it’s supposed to be most offensive—that seems like sufficient proof that it isn’t, at least some of the time.

This sounds right but sidesteps the main point. Which is that if some critical mass of sixteen-year-old-girls decided that Slut Butt became a term of ironic endearment, that development itself would be neither here nor there when it came to determining whether someone interested in convincing them that their decision was a horrible mistake should shut the @#$^*& up. One of the strongest ways of trying to make that argument involves telling people that the bad words they use are bad because they are always and everywhere bad in and of themselves, just like fire was noteworthy to Aristotle for being fire and burning upwards everywhere, always. As it happens, this is a primitive version of the even more forceful argument that the bad thing about self-debasement is exactly that it blinds you to your own debasement.

So I take Julian to be right but also slightly misleading, and hope that people militating against bad words graduate from the approach of the guy he’s mocking to my own message of hope and healing.