Friday, March 02, 2007

Giving words power

Maybe you walk your dogs somewhere different to me, but I can't recall ever hearing anyone shouting "Hey, Bastard, come here", or "Twat, sit. That's a good dog, Twat". People don't generally give their pets names that are abusive or insulting. So the most likely reason why Guy Gibson named his black labrador "Nigger" is that it was black, not that he wanted to call it by a racist epithet.

Nevertheless, such is the contemporary sensitivity to the "n-word", the dog's name is generally suppressed or altered whenever the film The Dam Busters is shown. That's a shame because it conceals from a modern audience an interesting linguistic fact: that the word "nigger" began life as a general nickname for black things. It didn't mean something bad. Black did not equal bad.

We rarely hear about the attitudes of the white English towards black American servicemen during the Second World War:

From May 1942 until the end of World War II, some 130,000 black GIs came to Britain. Most contemporary accounts tell how they felt completely liberated in Britain compared to their restricted lives in the United States. Many were at first astonished and then delighted to find a white society that actually showed them hospitality and then respect.
The American brand of racism did not come naturally to British civilians. Many had welcomed the blacks and were adamant that all soldiers - black and white - fighting for European liberty should be treated the same. When rioting between black and white soldiers broke out in a city centre and military police waded in, some British locals lined up alongside the black GIs.

Researching this, for one reason or another, I have found some lovely anecdotes. When the American Defense Department brought pressure on the British War Office to discourage the accommodation of black GIs in mixed lodgings, the War Office wrote to a number of Landladies stating that they should not offer rooms to black GIs. The Landladies wrote back, stating that the money of black servicemen was as good as that of white ones, and they would continue to rent them rooms, thank you very much.

I do feel it would be entirely beneficial were these stories as well known as the equally true but possibly much less common experiences later of "no dogs, Irish or Blacks" notices we have all heard of.

In the 1940s, then, the word "nigger" did not seem to carry a negative connotation in England. Of course, it did then come to be associated only with racial prejudice. Words change and evolve, and so do attitudes to them.

It's fascinating to note that, in the wake of a vote by New York city council to ban the use of the word "nigger" in the city, the only voices of protest have been black:
The black American comedian Chris Rock uses the N-word in his routines and showed little sympathy with the move. He said: "What? Is there a fine? Do judges say, '10 years, nigger!"

Others agreed that the resolution is a waste of time. "We grew up saying it, and it's what I say all the time," said Tiara Smith, 17, from Dallas. "It's not going to stop anybody from saying it."

Sabrina Vidal, 19, a New Yorker, said it didn't really bother her to hear the word in lyrics. "Some people are really offended by it, but me personally, I think there is much more out there to worry about than some word," she said.

Some blacks argue that co-opting the word and giving it a new meaning has taken away its negative impact. The Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx recently said he would not stop using the word, and didn't see anything inappropriate about blacks using it among themselves.
Lenny Bruce doesn't seem to have lost his contemporary relevance, which is a shame because we haven't moved on as we might. In one of his most famous routines, he said:
Are there any niggers here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot. Now what did he say? "Are there any niggers here tonight?" I know there's one nigger, because I see him back there working. Let's see, there's two niggers. And between those two niggers sits a kike. And there's another kike— that's two kikes and three niggers. And there's a spic. Right? Hmm? There's another spic. Ooh, there's a wop; there's a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there's three lace-curtain Irish micks. And there's one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie. Mm-hmm. I got three kikes here, do I hear five kikes? I got five kikes, do I hear six spics, I got six spics, do I hear seven niggers? I got seven niggers. Sold American. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kikes, three guineas, and one wop. Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, "I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet," and if he'd just say "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" to every nigger he saw, "boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie," "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" 'til nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.
The real difference between Bruce's idea and the quote above from Jamie Foxx is that Bruce called for the involvement of people of every colour in rendering the word powerless, whereas Foxx wants this to be the province only of black people. At first sight, Foxx is the racist.

At second sight too. Identity politics - whether based on race, nation or class - is the root of all fascism. It is deeply disheartening that campaigns for racial equality have somehow morphed into organisations, like BLINK, that filter everything through a lens of undisguised racism, at the taxpayers' expense ("When We Ruled" - the "we" being black people - is the title of a book advertised at the top of their website. Try inverting that...).

I always thought Bruce was unrealistically idealistic in his call for the neutering of hate-language through coöption, but now I think he was right. Limiting free speech does not cure underlying problems, and adds new ones. After all, as Lenny also said:
Take away the right to say fuck and you take away the right to say fuck the government.
Lots of people find the word "fuck" offensive. To paraphrase a hippy mantra of the Vietnam era, you can use an aeroplane to drop napalm on children, but you can't write "fuck" on its cockpit, because that would be obscene. It's stupid.

It's also worse than stupid. Take away the word "nigger" from all but black people and you get linguistic apartheid, where one group of people get to police the language of another, without their own being policed in return. Absurd concessions start being made to the new speech-police, like the enforced resignation of a man who used the word "niggardly" - which has no racial meaning whatsoever, in the correct way, in an appropriate place during a conversation. Police officers in the UK are told not to use the phrase "a bad egg", because it's racist. Why? Because "good" eggs were white and "bad" eggs were brown. This is nonsense - bad eggs were eggs that were old, something people encountered more often in the past when quality controls were less well developed, and that people who keep chickens encounter today when they try an egg they found lying under a bush. You can't tell a bad egg from the outside, because it looks the same as a good one - that's the whole point of the phrase.

So people not only have to obey these absurd regulations, they also have to accept a plain untruth as the justification.

The word "nigger", used as a racial epithet, is foul, and people who do that are rightly ostracised. Racial prejudice in all its forms is held in contempt by all right-thinking people. In fact, increasingly, prejudice in all its forms is only held in contempt by the libertarian right; large sections of the left have bought into racist identity politics, especially anti-Semitic prejudice, in a way that troubles many who have always thought of themselves as of the left, and there's something of a fightback going on at the moment.

New York City has not been racist with this legislation - it applies to all races. It's still wrong. Legislation against language is not the answer.

No comments: