Thursday, January 26, 2006

Overheard In Avebury

Inside the Avebury stone circle at the Red Lion the young people at the next table were having a discussion about the f-word. A tall young man with several piercings and alert eyes offered the opinion that it was the forbidden nature of the word that created its attractiveness to his juniors. He drew the common conclusion that if we did not forbid the word, it would soon lose its power. This is a variation of the “well if we just get all this talk about sex out in the open and not hush it up, we won’t have these problems anymore.” I have not often heard that in the last ten years, but it was a common refrain when I was younger. In popular culture, we seem to have talked about nothing but sex for several decades, and I have not noticed a decrease in sexual preoccupation, but an increase. So apparently being frank and candid was not quite the way to get back to the garden.

But I perked up my ears at the next part, as this lad had done more thinking than the average bear. “Take the word nigger,” he said. “Because you can’t say it, it’s become a worse insult. It used to be just coarse and stupid; now it’s a real insult, much more cruel.” This is not blindingly profound, but it represents more exercise of the little gray cells than I had expected. Words of opprobrium do change in strength in inverse proportion to their use. The phrase “you suck” has nowhere near the insultive power it had when I was a boy. And I think the man from Avebury is correct: nigger is a worse insult now than it was then.

One word became more acceptable, one less, and their intensity changed accordingly. Though by giving good evidence for his minor point he undermined his major one. When a word is in common use it does not provide the contrast an uncommon one does. When you heard the n-word in the 1960’s, it was not immediately clear whether the speaker was being vicious or just stupid. Stupidity is now a very unlikely explanation. It was good that we forbade the word and gave it more power. By doing so, we removed a lot of the dilute racism from our discourse and concentrated it into the few individuals who really meant it.


Anonymous said...

I disagree. "Nigger" has become less of an insult and more of a polarizing term - Whites can't use the term except as an insult, but Blacks have attempted to co-opt it and destroy its power to harm. I don't personally know what the difference between "nigger" and "nigga" is, but one is an insult used by White people - and one is a term of familiarity used by Blacks, with about the same rhetorical power as "brother," which I'm sure you've heard guys call each other.

Of course, I prefer to think that Chris Rock has the best interpretation of "nigga": that guys who wilfully self-identify with that term are, coincidentally, Black America's answer to the poor-White-trash phenomenon.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Say more about the difference between an insult and a polarizing term

Anonymous said...

A polarizing term, at least in this context, is one that can only be used by ONE group of people without provoking an outrage. The N Word is the quintessential example - Blacks are not publicly damned for using the term, but no one else could use it without being accused of racism.

They are LOADED WORDS - you can hear them coming out of your own mouth, but it itches like hell to hear them coming out of the mouth of someone who has no right to use them.

Political buzzwords are particularly susceptible to this polarization, as one wing or other of the government takes possession of the ideals a certain word represents and disclaims the opposing side's right to use it. Republicans are not supposed to have any concern for the poor, so when a Democrat hears them talking about "helping the poor" his suspicions of their honesty are automatically raised. It's not as polarized or volatile a situation as a White man calling a Black man "nigger", or anyone calling a Hispanic a "wetback" - but it represents the same principle.