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November 27, 2006

The N-Word

Posted by tunesmith at 03:04 PM

So, this started out as simply an entertainment brouhaha but has since become political.

What's most interesting to me is the murky societal battle about imbuing power in words.

In Hollywood in particular, there's been a concerted effort to reduce the power of these words. The main example I can think of is Pulp Fiction, and the extremely liberal use of "nigger", said by white and black characters alike. Quentin Tarantino's character said it a lot, and Tarantino defends it in an activist fashion:

[...] Tarantino claims that by using such a loaded word so frequently and almost randomly (white characters are called niggers almost as often as black ones) he is actually trying to defuse the word of its power. Nigger, he claims, "is probably the most volatile word in the English language. My feeling is that any time a word is that powerful, you should start screaming it from the rooftops, take away that power."

And I think it's fair to say that over the years, whether it's because of Tarantino's movies, or the younger generation's fandom of hip-hop culture (among both black and white youth), the power of the word has been slowly transformed and weakened. Not entirely and not permanently, but it's had an impact.

But now that the Michael Richards incident has happened, the fallout has included a concerted effort to re-imbue the word with more negative power:

Black leaders on Monday challenged the entertainment industry, including rappers, to stop use of the racial slur that Michael Richards uttered in his tirade.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and others said they will meet with TV networks, film companies and musicians to discuss the "n-word."

"We want to give our ancestors a present," Jackson said at a news conference. "Dignity over degradation."

Obviously, I'm describing this from the viewpoint of believing that the words should be stripped of their power. Now, I don't like dismissing Jackson as a simple spotlight-seeker - so, taking him at face value, he's of the belief that these words and symbols are imbued with their power permanently.

Now, what Richards did is clearly not comparable to Tarantino's intentions. I haven't even viewed or read the complete quotes of Richards' tirade, but I get that it was pretty ugly. Just by putting myself through the exercise, I can understand the various dynamics of the situation having an influence, but not up to the point that he took it. Like, you're being heckled, someone's hurting you in a personal way, you're exposed in a way they're not, you want to hit them back in a personal way... but it's at that point that it breaks down for me, I still don't understand how it goes from there to where Richards took it, even with all the (up to that point) coolness of de-emphasizing the n-word, being deliberately politically incorrect, etc.

It's interesting because while I think Tarantino was onto something, that rhetorical and linguistic walkback of de-emphasizing the n-word required a lot of grace and patience. In Pulp Fiction, it was done within the bounds of a social relationship - he wouldn't have had a character just start ranting it out of anger, in a way that he would have expected the audience to identify with. In True Romance, I saw Dennis Hopper's rant as being about baiting someone else's racism than expressing his (Hopper's character's) own. But here, Richards blundered right through it all and ruined the progression. As a result, there's a real slapback effect going on here.

What I'm interested in - was this effort to de-emphasize the power of the n-word doomed to failure? Was there a hard limit to how far that could be pushed? Was this an inevitable rubberband effect, a cultural reaction that was just waiting for a flashpoint? Or was Tarantino onto something anyway?

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