George Carlin used to do a routine in the 70's called The Seven Dirty Words. These were run-of-the-mill cuss words that one could not say on TV. Carlin was poking fun at the uptight mores of American establishment that restricted the hip and cool crowd from being hip and cool. What does he have to say today about a word that is so shocking that proper people allude to it only by its first letter, N? Even George Carlin is not brave enough to take on that one, no matter how silly that people go around saying "The n-word" instead of nigger. Where are all the Free Speech advocates, the rebels who are constantly battling society's strictures on our personal freedoms? Where are the iconoclasts who are so eager to chip away at cultural taboos?
How did such a state of affairs come about that people are literally afraid to speak a word in public? Doesn't such fear hearken back to medieval times, when some words were thought to have infernal power and were forbidden, banished from public discourse? The prohibition on saying "nigger" is even more peculiar in that some people are free to say the word as often and as openly as they wish. Somehow, somebody determined that blacks are free to call each other nigger or nigga or niggaz and their doing so does not connote the same dastardly meaning as it does when non-blacks say it. I don't understand the logic of that. I can't think of any other word in the English language the meaning of which depends upon the skin color of the person who utters it.
Matters have gotten so absurd that some people in certain communities have advocated the banning of HUCKLEBERRY FINN from public libraries for no other reason than that the Great American Classic contained the nigger word, a word of common parlance in Twain's day. One reason that O.J. got off was detective Mark Furman's admitting that he used the word at one time several years before. George Allen, running for the US Senate in Virginia, got into trouble when someone claimed that he had used the word in the locker room when he was a football player at UVA 30 years ago. Heavens to Betsie! Can a word have that much power, that much efficacy, that much evil potency?
I grew up in the South and hardly a day went by that I didn't hear the word. More often than not, it was spoken not with malice or hatred; it was simply the accepted way of referring to African-Americans. As the Civil Rights movement gathered steam, most respectable Southerners gradually became embarrassed by the word and amended to it "niggra," at least in polite society. I can remember the headmaster of my prep school standing before the student body during Friday morning assembly and talking about the "niggra" school that we would be playing in football that night, the message being that we should watch our for our possessions and personages.
I understand why blacks are offended by the word. Even if people spoke it in a pedestrian way without any underlying tone of hatred, the word did convey disrespect. I don't like the word and never use it. I appreciate how it evokes an horrible time in our nation's history, especially for blacks. What's disturbing about the word isn't so much the word itself as the times that it evokes. But there are many bad words that have mean and ugly connotations, and they are not eradicated from the language.
I am bemused by the special status that that the word has attained. Take the case of Michael Richards, the guy who played Kramer on "Seinfeld." He's gets pissed off at a couple hecklers during his stand-up and calls them niggers. And for the past three days, the incident has been all over the news, just after stories about how Iraq is coming apart at the seams. Richards horned in on his friend Jerry's appearance on Letterman to give an apology to the nation. Ok, the guy made a mistake and said a terrible word. Does that mean he has to grovel on national TV and ask for forgiveness? For saying one word. Gimme a break. My opinion of him was even less after his apology than it was after his racist rant. Are Chris Rock and other black comedians now going to give apologies when they offend whites and other ethnic groups during their stand-up routines?
But Richards doesn't have to worry too much. As Brittany and Paris have shown, there is no such thing as bad publicity in this day and age. This incident will end up being the best thing that has happened to his career since Seinfeld went off the air. I guarantee that his stand-up shows will be booked solid the rest of his tour.