Scaros: The Problem with 'No Context Allowed' for the N-Word
There’s a word considered so horrible that we’re not even allowed to say or write it, no matter what the context. Just in case anyone’s unsure what word that is, it’s a derogatory term for African-Americans (and really blacks throughout the world) that begins with the letter “n” and modernly is referred to as the “N-word.”
For the purposes of this column, so that my points are conveyed clearly, let’s pretend that word is “neighbor.” After all, words are merely letters arranged in a particular order and pronounced in a specific manner. Let’s imagine, then, that the word used to demean blacks is “neighbor.”
Do you follow so far? Whenever I write “neighbor” from this point on, I really mean the bad word.
So, because “neighbor” is too horrible to be spoken, society refers to it as the “N-word.”
In the mid-1970s, when I was in the third or fourth grade at a large multiracial, multiethnic public school in New York City, we often called each other “neighbor” in the schoolyard, understanding it to be a friendly and harmless term, synonymous with “bro” or “dude.” We never used the word in anger or to demean. And we were a true melting pot: blacks, Latinos, Jews, Italians, Greeks (like me) and the occasional Anglo.
We’d say, “Hey, what’s up, neighbor?” Or, when playing ball, “Neighbor! I’m open! Neighbor, throw me the ball!”
By the time I was in my teens, I realized the awful ramifications of the word, that it really wasn’t innocuous at all, and I haven’t used it since. That was over 40 years ago.
I wasn’t the only one who stopped saying “neighbor.” The word began disappearing from movies and television shows — even where it was used to mock or lambaste the user — very quickly.
In fact, over the decades, I’ve heard “neighbor” less and less, to the point where among my numerous, diverse and sizable circles, it’s almost extinct. On the rare occasion when it’s uttered in my presence, I feel an intense displeasure in my gut, like I’ve been sucker-punched.
But here’s an important distinction that no longer seems to matter: using the word as a racial slur (“All the problems in this country are caused by neighbors!”) versus pointing out how bad it is (“You should never use a word so ugly and terrible as ‘neighbor.’”).
In some cases, educators who told their students “don’t say ‘neighbor’” or who merely read aloud literature containing the word “neighbor” have been suspended and even terminated.
This brings us to Joe Rogan, who has a popular podcast on Spotify. Recently, Neil Young made headlines when he pulled his music from that platform in protest of Rogan’s views on the COVID-19 vaccine and was later joined by fellow musicians Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, and by Mary Trump, a niece and harsh critic of the former president.
Even though I had no idea who Rogan was, I supported him because he had become a victim of cancel culture for daring to entertain the idea that the Fauci Ouchie is anything short of infallible.
But then something very concerning surfaced: Another musician, India Aire, said she too would pull her music from Spotify because over the years, Rogan had said “neighbor” on air several times.
Rogan profusely apologized for having used the word, though he said it wasn’t in a racist manner but to point out the absurdity of giving a word such power whereby whites aren’t allowed to say it, no matter the context. In fact, Aire admonished him based on that very principle.
But the point here is not Rogan’s specific case. Rather, it’s where we go from here.
One of Rogan’s predictions is that soon, even saying “the N-word” to describe “neighbor” won’t be allowed because it will remind people of the full word.
Analogously, most of us can agree that Adolf Hitler was a very bad person. Will we reach a point where we can’t even utter the name “Hitler” and will have to say the “H-person”? Furthermore, will saying “H-person” itself become so intolerable that we will just say “the person” and everyone will understand that we mean Hitler?
It’s one thing to condemn racists, but another to treat those who merely utter “neighbor” as an example of what not to say as if they’ve just lost a round of the Parker Brothers game Taboo.
A thought-provoking essay by linguist John McWhorter, who is black, sheds important light on the etymology of the N-word, which is spelled out fully in the article, along with two other words McWhorter deems on the same level of societal disapproval. So for those who can’t handle it, read at your own risk.
The cancel culture could learn a lot from it.
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