Friday, August 13, 2010

Quote of the Day


"Yesterday, I did the wrong thing. I didn't intend to hurt people, but I did. And that makes it the wrong thing to have done."

-- Dr. Laura Schlessinger, apologizing for an exchange with a caller to her radio show in which she repeated the word "nigger" over and over again

I don't have time to go too deeply into this -- which I know is unfortunate because what I'm about to say requires as much explanation and context as possible -- but here's the bottom line: As much as I never thought I'd be on the side of that dingbat Dr. Laura, I back her almost 100% on this and don't feel she has much to apologize for.

Granted she was flippant about a subject that a lot of people take very seriously and an argument can be made that she was unnecessarily insensitive, but the point she was making about the arbitrary ban on the use of the dreaded "n-word" (see how ridiculous and childish that sounds?), regardless of context, was largely dead-on. I've made the same point several times throughout the history of this site, hopefully in a slightly more thoughtful and articulate manner.

That said, claiming that the use of a certain word by anyone but a specific, pre-designated group of people is verboten -- once again, regardless of the context in which the word is being used -- isn't half as offensive as Dr. Laura's contrivedly contrite assertion that just because something upsets people, it's inherently wrong.

Now that I think about it, maybe this will help explain my position a little better:

"The Nth Degree" (Originally Published, 11.21.06)

Anyone who writes -- certainly anyone who wishes to pursue writing as a career -- will tell you that the first few words are always the most difficult. The opening volley in the battle to get the attention of readers can't be overestimated and therefore choosing the proper way to begin a novel, volume, essay or column becomes a Herculean task -- and one which can reduce even the most assured and veteran of scribes to tears.

So with that in mind -- and after much internal contention -- allow me to begin by simply coming right to the point.

Nigger.

You obviously wouldn't be able to tell from where you are, but after typing that word I put my laptop aside, got up from the couch and walked to the refrigerator to pour myself a glass of iced-tea before returning to my computer a minute or so later. What's important about this isn't what happened during the short interval -- it's what didn't happen. The world didn't explode. Lives weren't lost. Hordes of people didn't pour out onto 125th street, or the corner of Florence and Normandie, or MLK boulevards all across the land to engage in weeping and gnashing of teeth at the assured knowledge that they would immediately be returned to a life of indentured servitude. The universe, as far as I know, didn't collapse in on itself, sucking reality -- or at the very least, a substantial portion of the population -- into a giant black hole of nothingness.

The reason of course is simple: Despite whatever heft, whatever power to destroy or dehumanize, that we've unwisely granted a single word -- any word -- in the end it is still just a word, and nothing more.

Except that in the most advanced and preeminent culture to ever exist upon this earth, in the early days of the 21st century, it isn't just a word. On the contrary, the word "nigger" holds an unparalleled level of ascendancy in our society. There's no better testament to the truth of this statement than the fact that otherwise educated, intelligent people -- the type who normally would rather step on a live land mine than be taken for an idiot -- will gladly allow themselves to be reduced to spouting the vernacular of a four-year-old to avoid speaking it.

No matter the alternative's power to offend and instigate, is there anything -- anything -- more painfully ridiculous than a grown man or woman saying, "The N-word?" It's an absurd verbal tip-toe that not only proves that there is apparently no safe context in which the actual word can be uttered, but also that there exists an unspoken implication that those whom one would expect to be angered by the use of such a word are so stupid that they can't discern between the desire to dehumanize and subjugate and the need to openly discuss, and therefore should be protected from hearing the word altogether -- for the good of everyone. This latter possibility -- an indictment of an entire culture, whether out of condescension or outright fear -- is infinitely more offensive than the utterance of any one word.

Unless you've returned from a mission to the International Space Station within the past fifteen minutes, you're well aware of the curious case of Michael Richards and his bizarre obscenity and racial-slur-laced tirade against a group of black hecklers. It happened last Friday night at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles and if you believe a media hype machine that's more than happy to feign the necessary level of ratings-driven contrived outrage -- the Earth has stood still since.

Admittedly, it's tough to get past the image of Richards -- TV's Kramer, for God's sake -- yelling at the top of his lungs that his tormenters are "niggers" who would've been lynched fifty years ago. Once you do, however, you realize that there are a whole lot of issues which come into play regarding both the incident and its aftermath; one man yelling bad words like a child throwing a temper tantrum may be the least of the problems.

I've mentioned on more than one occasion the tenuous and obviously subjective nature of offense and being offended -- as well as the dangers inherent in acquiescing to the demands and restrictions of those who take offense, essentially putting the power to censor in their hands. Needless to say, if we strived to create a world in which no one was offended or insulted and everyone was consistently made "comfortable," it would be a totalitarian society where nothing worthwhile is ever spoken or expressed.

Which brings us to Kramer.

What he said was indeed insulting -- it was certainly stupid -- but did it prove him a racist?

Michael Richards, from what I've read, fits the stand-up comic stereotype in every sense of the word -- despite the fact that he isn't technically a stand-up comic. He's insecure and overly-serious about his craft, which makes him ironically arrogant. He's occasionally difficult to work with. He has more issues than Time magazine and considers himself to be a mildly tortured artist. In other words, he's the furthest thing from the character he played for eight years, whom we all loved so wildly. Hence, the first problem: the expectation that Michael Richards is somehow not a human being and is a television character. The real Richards allowed a couple of people talking at a show to fluster him so badly that he lashed out and verbally brutalized them in the strongest way possible. I've said before that I believe that -- although ill-advised -- it's entirely possible to spout racist language without actually being a racist, per se. The argument for this belief is simple: There are times when a person can become so enraged that he or she wants to say the most hideously damaging thing possible. The aim is to inflict pain, as much as you can; calling someone a name that you know will devastate and demean as nothing else will is nothing more than the verbal equivalent of punching someone in the face. In that case, the offender may not need diversity training as much as he or she needs an anger management course.

Another thing to consider is this: Michael Richards is a graduate of the Andy Kaufman school of comedy. According to popular legend, he was one of the handful of people who were in on Kaufman's notorious joke during his appearance on the TV show Fridays in the mid-80s -- the tense and far-from-funny incident in which Kaufman supposedly went "off-book" for the entire show, improvising his lines, throwing the cast into disarray and eventually disrupting the live show by getting into a fist-fight with Richards. Kaufman was less a comedian than he was a terrorist; his brand of performance art was sowing uncomfortable confusion and anarchic dischord. It was this very volatility and unpredictability that made him brilliant beyond words. The point is, it's entirely possible that Richards was hoping to do what a comic mind -- like Kaufman's -- is supposed to do: incite, instigate and in some cases, infuriate. Lenny Bruce did it back in the 60s, typically using the word "nigger" more often than an NWA song; Kaufman did it in the 80s; it could very well be that Richards is hoping to do it for a new generation.

I concede, however, that Richards is no Kaufman or Bruce, as his shtick at the Laugh Factory may very well have proven.

But then there is the most disturbing aspect of this entire controversy -- yes, even more disturbing than a lanky middle-aged man spending three minutes shouting bad words: the chilling effect which is already being trumpeted as a direct and desirable consequence of Richards's actions. It was expected that the NAACP would hold a news conference along with Najee Ali of L.A.'s Project Islamic HOPE -- an opportunistic idiot who never met a camera he didn't like -- to demand that Richards be banished to pop-culture oblivion. What no one expected was for Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada to not only bow to the unnecessarily sweeping outrage of the angry mob but to proudly announce that he was banning all offensive material at his club from this point on, and that Michael Richards was not welcome back at the Laugh Factory until the black community approves. I'll repeat that in case the draconian severity of these measures didn't sink in: The owner of a facility which acts as a stage for artists is going to allow one facet of the population to dictate what is and is not acceptable humor. Forgive me for speaking in soundbites, but art should never be subject to democracy. Ever.

It's worth mentioning that Masada is the man who initially introduced a young boy and his family to his personal friend, Michael Jackson; that family eventually wound up accusing Jackson of child molestation. It's obvious Masada's judgment isn't exactly stellar -- a point which will once again be proven when audiences looking for decent, wholesome entertainment (if such people exist in Los Angeles) are still willing to flock to the Laugh Factory, but good comics avoid it like a double-bill with Carrot-Top.

There are other issues which can and should be up for debate in the wake of this indisputably prototypical celebrity controversy, circa 2006 (just ask Mel Gibson): the somewhat disconcerting fact that almost everything we do these days -- all acts noble or unscrupulous -- are documented on video. Everything you do can be seen and videotaped by someone. Also, the thoroughly ludicrous nature of issuing a prepared and almost certainly insincere apology in an effort to appease the masses and subdue their bloodlust -- the masses who are, by the way, not owed a damn thing.

All that's missing from this story is a trip to rehab.

Still, in the end, it all goes back to that one -- as Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy calls it -- "troublesome little word"; the one we do not speak of; the one we're afraid of, and afraid can consume us as a culture.

It's time we started really talking about the "N-word." We can start by actually being able to say it.

16 comments:

toastie said...

It's nice that Dr. Laura apologized, but she's made a career out of hurting people. Her callers probably have the highest suicide rate of any radio talker's (not counting Delilah's). I guess the difference is that she intends to hurt those people, like the housewives who feel guilty because they want part-time jobs and showed off ankle flesh at the grocery store.

Chez said...

Oh, don't get me wrong -- she's a piece of shit. She just happens to be, for the most part, right this time.

Capt Clown said...

The least you could have done is post one of her naked photos instead of that Muppet-looking one to make up for the fact that you've skewed my emotional equilibrium this morning by making me remember she exists for the first time in about 5 years.

Fucking ugh...

Anonymous said...

She may not have used the word in a malicious or racist context, but that's just weaseling around the fact that she still meant it. It's like those assholes who try to rile up the Royal Guards at Buckingham Palace. She delighted at the prospect of getting away with saying "nigger" to a black caller asking for advice about a situation she... well, she shouldn't have asked fucking DR. LAURA about.

I think that we all need to relax on it but we can't argue that Laura's use of the word "nigger" as opposed to saying "the n-word" (which I agree is a ridiculous phrase) was intended to be offensive and inflammatory without actually being able to take her to task for saying it. Hiding behind rhetoric doesn't really make it okay.

This isn't like the Michael Richards thing or the even more insane Andy Dick thing that was clearly satirical. Bottom line, this cunt said "nigger" because she thinks "nigger."

Anonymous said...

I think if I can't say nigger, niggers can't say nigger anymore either.

VOTAR said...

You don't think words can actually hurt people?

"Anail Nathrach orth bhais betha do'cheol de'nmha!

POOF!

There. I just used the 'Charm of Making' to turn you into a toad.

Mart said...

My Polish in-laws were watching a football game with their brand new Italian in-law. A receiver with an Italian name drops three or so passes. The Polish boys go into a twenty minute rant about greasy fucking Italians, and how could they catch a ball, etc. It was not as racist as it was hurtful. That's how Dr? Laura, advice counselor, should have approached it. So you feel hurt? Instead of just relax nigger.

Anonymous said...

I used to agree with you, it's just a word. But, sticks and stones break bones, and words incite people to pick them up. Words hurt; we, as humans, use language to bend people to our point of view. There are a lot of words no one should say.

Anonymous said...

Chex, it's not nigger. It's nigga!!

'bout time this bitch gives us gays a break,,,,

Lisa said...

The whole politically correct thing just grates on my nerves. I wish someone would just come up with something definitive on the whole "N" thing and bury this issue forever. It's beyond ridiculous. I work with black (I'm white-why can't they be black?) people and become utterly confounded when they slap each other on the backs daily and say "what's up nigger"? To me, it causes more separation of the races because it says "we can but you can't".

And why isn't "redneck" considered offensive? It is! I call white people redneck all the time.

And please, can we eliminate the whole "African American" name? The current generation of blacks is no more "African" than I am German.

I'm just sayin'.

Deacon Blue said...

I agree that it is foolish to always use "N-word" when sometimes "nigger" works better. The problem isn't the use of the word; the problem is the context.

Lots of white people want to throw around "nigger" in a casual sense and not in some sort of neutral or substantive discussion.

Fact is, many black folks have used the word too much, and to their own detriment. But still, they have more a right to use it among themselves than to hear it from a bunch of white people who still seem to be blind to the entire concept of white privilege.

In the same way, I don't feel I can be throwing around "queer" or "cunt" in any but the most isolated circumstances.

I dislike political over-correctness as much as anyone...perhaps more so than many...and a lot of this is subjective (because, let's face it: I see many of these situations as quite "retarded"). But the fact is that the word nigger is incendiary. Some words are. (And the baggage between black folks and white folks is deep, long and legendary in its scope)

I wouldn't deign to call an Italian a "dago" either. Or a Native American woman a "squaw." But given the history of past and continued treatment of blacks, I sure don't throw around that ole N-word

Anonymous said...

As a 52 year old man who remembers seeing the “Dunk A Darky” tank at Riverview Park in Chicago I am aware of how harmful words can be. That being said, I worry about my sons who are 25 and 18. They both love Rap, watch a lot of movies and TV shows featuring black performers and listen to a lot of black stand up comics, have a lot of black friends, etc. At some point, people hearing a word dozens of times a day are gonna slip and use said word. And the shit will hit the fan for them.
That’s where I have trouble with the whole “blacks can say it, whites can’t” argument. Yes, I get why that argument is made – the history of the US is such that it makes sense on one level. However, the word has become so commonplace that to demand entire groups of people never use it is asinine. Either it goes into the trash bin for all or we accept its use.
And as far as “the n word” goes, not only is it infantile, it is the exact same thing as using the word. Semiotics 101 – a collection of symbols we all agree on.

Tracer Bullet said...

I swear I will never understand why white people are so goddamn desperate to say nigger. Look, there are certain neighborhoods where I can't buy a house and this is a word you can't say. Accept this and you'll be much happier.

Chez said...

I agree with you 100%. It's never been a word I'm eager to use, and you're not the first person to make a crack about how you'd trade, say, being able to catch a cab at three in the morning for the ability to use one fucking word that somebody deemed off-limits. I only take issue with the fact that it's a word no one seems to be able to use in any context -- even when it's simply being discussed. That's silly.

And by the way, it's probably true that Dr. Laura has spent a good portion of her life just dying to spout, "nigger, nigger, nigger" at somebody.

toastie said...

Like a Chinese fortune, I must append "in bed" to your last comment.

Vermillion said...

I would comment, but I think a blog post is in order....

Well, eventually. My new Japanese commenter friends seem quite intrigued.