One special word has been trending heavily in the British media over the past week, but you are unlikely to have seen it spelled out in print or on screen. Like the character Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series, prevailing opinion and political correctness (albeit of the most well-intentioned kind) decree that it shall not be uttered, but only alluded to or heavily disguised for fear of the harm that it may do in its raw form.
Lord Voldemort burst back into the British news this time when popular television host, columnist and author Jeremy Clarkson (of Top Gear fame) had to plead for his job after being caught uttering the word while reciting a rhyme. Such was the frenzied speculation over whether Clarkson had indeed said the word that the Daily Mirror, in possession of the video clip, hired forensic audio experts to analyse the soundtrack in an attempt to decipher the contentious mumbled phrase. In the event, Clarkson apologised as he has never apologised before (rightly so), and lives to offend another day.
But as usually happens when making policy based on political correctness and overwhelming fear of public opprobrium rather than sound reason, the application tends to be panicked, sporadic and contradictory. So it was that after the A-list Jeremy Clarkson was let off the hook with a ‘final warning’ from the BBC and allowed to keep his position despite actually saying the word out loud with his own mouth, the decidedly C-list David Lowe, a provincial radio DJ, was peremptorily asked by the Corporation to resign for unwittingly playing a song containing the same word.
(BBC policy apparently decrees that as you move up the fame hierarchy you can earn the right to skate closer to explicitly saying the word in public without being fired. If the BBC’s top ten stars banded together and offered up their annual vacation allowance and overtime, presumably they could sing the word in the style of a four-part Bach fugue at the start of the Nine O’Clock News.)
What is more concerning than a BBC television star’s casual utterance of the word or the network’s inconsistent treatment of those who fall foul of the complex web of unwritten rules that govern its use, though, is the craven way that the media, almost without exception, voluntarily choose to censor themselves when reporting these stories. Somewhere along the way it was decided that not only is it wrong to say the word in anger (quite rightly – no decent person should), neither is it okay to write or speak the word in the course of a dispassionate news broadcast. And so news consumers are patronised with that childish and awkward compromise, the N-word.
Make no mistake: the word-that-shall-not-be-named is a hateful thing. It brings forth horrible echoes of enslavement, beatings, lynchings and repression, the worst that humanity can do to its own kind. And within some people’s living memory it evokes painful recollections of segregation, discrimination, bullying, voter disenfranchisement and domestic terrorism. But driving the word out of the public discourse completely cannot undo any of these wrongs – the main effect is only to spare us from having to face up to the brutal connotations that come along with it. We may claim to disguise the word for fear of causing offence, but it is just as much an evasion to spare ourselves from feeling discomfort.
The comedian and great observer of human nature, Louis CK, captures this evasion-disguised-as-concern perfectly in his stand-up HBO special comedy routine, “Chewed Up”:
Everybody has different words that offend them, different things that they hear that they get offended by… To me, the thing that offends me the most, is every time that I hear “the N-word.” Not “nigger” by the way. I mean “the N-word.” Literally, whenever a white lady on CNN with nice hair says, “The N-word,” that’s just white people getting away with saying “nigger,” that’s all that is. They found a way to say “nigger.” “N-word!” It’s bullshit ’cause when you say “the N-word” you put the word “nigger” in the listener’s head. That’s what saying a word is. You say “the N-word” and I go “Oh, she means ‘nigger’.” You’re making me say it in my head! Why don’t you fuckin’ say it instead and take responsibility, with the shitty words you wanna say.
CK is right inasmuch as that journalists are not really letting themselves off the hook by referring to the ‘N-word’ rather than its expanded form. Since journalists are effectively planting the word in peoples heads when they refer to the ‘N Word’ in a story, all that refusing to spell or speak the word out in full does is imbue that specific arrangement of letters with some nonexistent, mythical power that must be feared and respected.
The media’s unwritten policy would be slightly more understandable if it applied equally to other racially derogatory terms, but this is not the case. When three football supporters were charged with racial aggravation for chanting the word “yid” at two football matches, the BBC reported on the story and included the word “yid” in the headline. And several years ago BBC Four broadcast a documentary entitled “Kike Like Me”, in which the film maker “goes on a personal journey to find out what it means to be Jewish in the modern world”. But no matter how clinical or non-aggressive the context may be, the word occupies an exalted place among the racial slurs requiring it alone to be diluted before publication.
Yes, the word ‘nigger’ is about as deeply unpleasant a word as can be said. Used as a derogatory term, it has an abiding power to hurt – your blogger speaks from occasional painful experience on the receiving end. But because the word is so hateful, let those in the business of reporting the news show the word’s use in anger to be the outrageous and insensitive thing that it is – by repeating it, straight-faced and in all of it’s ugliness, not by sugar-coating it in the form of a child’s euphemism.
If, in the year 2014, someone in a position of prominence still decides to use the word ‘nigger’ in a derogatory or throwaway manner, we shouldn’t report it euphemistically as though we were embarrassed children tattling about a schoolyard transgression or other act of naughtiness to a teacher – “he said the F-word, she said the C-word!” – we should report it with the honest and brutal simplicity that the facts dictate.
This isn’t school. We are all grown-ups here. So let’s reflect that in our journalism, and put the N-word to bed.