This week I ran into a woman I know who is "disappointed" in me. The cause of her disappointment, as I soon found out, was that I had made jokes "at the expense of minorities" in my column of last week. (Last week I wrote about my high school experiences in the seventies, including the information that my class at Goddard High School contained only one Hispanic and maybe — maybe — one black.) I was surprised, because I was of the opinion that I had been writing in support of minorities, but then we've run across this issue at Wichita City Paper before.
At that time — it was our second or third issue, in September of last year — staff writer Teri Mott filed a story about the menace of terrorism as it affects tourist attractions in Kansas, and included in her story was the following quote, from the proprietor of western Kansas's Prairie Dog Town: "We don't even have very many ragheads come through here." Teri is nothing if not personable and my experience is that people come to trust her quickly; still, the human mind struggles to comprehend how anyone could be comfortable including information about "ragheads" in casual conversation with a stranger, no matter how appealing that stranger might be. In this case, incredulity multiplies with the understanding that Teri had identified herself as a reporter soliciting comment for a story.
It's often hard to believe what people are willing to say, out loud and in English, to members of the press. The imagination reels. But almost as surprising, to me, was the subsequent revelation that a WCP advertiser has since been confronted by a patron who, having seen the quote, scolded the advertiser for supporting a publication that would print it. Why? Did the patron believe that WCP shares any point of view, from any source, that is quoted in our pages? Did he believe that Teri erred in reporting this instance of racism — would he have preferred not to have known? Or did he simply object to the word "raghead" and believe that nothing — even Teri's faithful reporting of a spoken remark — could justify its usage?
I suspect it was the latter. I understand that some people find epithets such as "raghead" so distasteful that they would just as soon never encounter them. I find it distasteful myself. But would I wish it out of Teri's story? And if it were elided, do I believe something would be gained?
My quick answer to the first question is no.
I'm addressing these issues through Teri's story because the case that I hope to build is more clearly seen there. The premise for what follows is that words are expressive tools, that there's a place for most of them, and that much of the power that they hold to offend is willingly given to them. If you choose to see this as a Limbaugh-esque anti-political correctness screed, there's probably not a lot I can do to stop you except to say that I think Rush Limbaugh is an ape and a buffoon. (And I'll interject here that I'm a little frightened to discover that my spellcheck apparently knows the correct spelling of his last name.) I do want to state up front that I wish no criticism of that well-meaning patron, with whom I'm essentially, if not specifically, in agreement. In case they're needed, I now present my leftist credentials: I'm a lapsed member of the N.A.A.C.P. and the ACLU (I served for a brief moment on the ACLU's regional board of directors; it's poverty rather than apathy that caused both memberships to go by), misogynists sicken me, and a recent photo of a wet Justin Timberlake on the cover of Rolling Stone made me lightheaded. (Intellectually I'm just as appalled by this last revelation as you are — appalled not because it was an image of a man causing me to walk into end-cap displays and drop handfuls of change at QuikTrip, but because it was an image of Justin Timberlake. On the other hand, when I was fifteen I had a crush on Steve Gutenburg for almost two full hours, so there has been some improvement as you can see for yourself.)
That established, the least contentious of the points I want to make is that, among adults, I don't see how we benefit from editing all of the "ragheads" out of all of the quotes of all of the world's Prairie Dog Town proprietors. As I have previously reported, I once visited Branson, Missouri, with a friend, and when I insisted that we attend the John Davidson show at the John Davidson Theater there, my friend naturally insisted on knowing why. "We're keeping tabs on the enemy," I explained. As Sun Tzu wrote, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer," and at the time I interpreted that to mean that it isn't enough to know that John Davidson is performing; you need to know what and how he's performing, too. Safeguarding popular music meant acquiring a full understanding of its would-be assassins' methods.
It seems to me that the same holds true for xenophobes and racists. Teri might have substituted "r—h—s" or "[racial slur deleted]" in her story about the terrorist threat to Prairie Dog Town but, issues of readability aside, she does so to the detriment of her story. The fact is that "raghead" has far more impact than "r—h—d" (what would I have guessed? "Redhead"?) and Teri, in choosing to include that quote, obviously wished to make a strong point about intolerance. The interviewee's callous choice of words is turned to the author's advantage: it supplies her unwritten argument with force, it renders superfluous any speculation on our part about how closely the fear of terrorism is intertwined for some with the fear of Arabs, and it lets us know in what specific terms that fear is couched. It seems to me that substituting a construction of dashes mostly has the effect of mitigating the speaker's culpability, and what's the point in that?
In the case of this particular quote, the use of "raghead" isn't the primary problem anyway; the primary problem is the apparent interchangeability of "ragheads" and terrorists in the speaker's mind. With a central assumption as unwelcome as this, why should it make me feel any better if the speaker finds a way to express himself that's more acceptable in print?
Maybe this man's tastelessness was unintentional, although the possibility strikes me as being very, very remote — as probable, let's say, as a bona fide terrorist attack on Prairie Dog Town. More likely, he was using language that he knew to be inflammatory for the purpose of offending Arabs and those of us who wish to see people treated respectfully. Shall we indulge him?
I recently sent a story to press that contained the word "faggy," and my editor was kind enough to let it stand. I was quoting a friend who used that word to describe Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi in the most recent of the Star Wars films. My friend didn't mean that she found McGregor's Obi-Wan to be somehow homosexual-seeming; she meant that she found him vitiated, ineffectual, a little colorless, and maybe effeminate, in the sense of "lacking vigor." "Gay" and "faggy" have both come to sometimes carry these connotations in popular usage and maybe initially homophobia was somehow the root cause, but my friend used "faggy" because she didn't want to cast around for "vitiated," "ineffectual," and "effeminate, in the sense of 'lacking vigor'" — "faggy" is an expressive shorthand for those things. This friend of mine knows just exactly how I feel about Justin Timberlake in wet clothing, but because what she was saying didn't have anything to do with gays, I doubt that it ever occurred to her that it might cause offense.
Sure, I could have picketed her home. But why? My friend is possibly less homophobic than I am, for the reason that she's never dated gay men. I didn't much think about what she said until I was writing about the movie later; I could then have chosen to take offense at, rather than quoting for publication, her choice of adjective, but again, why? Her "faggy" seemed right to me, and in context it calls to mind my sexual orientation just as quickly as the words "elbow," "blanket," and "jaded" conjure an image of William Shakespeare, the man who coined them. Let's crucify her some other time.
It Gets Worse
We're encouraged as a culture to foster outrage when it's reported that a person's words have been used out of context, but there are special cases in which that all-important consideration is discarded. I can't imagine what Oprah Winfrey or Tim Robbins would do if called upon to give the title of the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" before a camera. Yet it's specifically the word "nigger," with many of its pejorative connotations, that Lennon and Ono needed, and its use in this context signals the songwriters' sympathetic support for the plight of blacks in Europe and America, not their derision. As with the quote my colleague used in her Prairie Dog Town story, substituting a euphemism for the offending word robs the song of its meaning. I agree that few words can be as dismaying to hear spoken or to run across on the page as "nigger," yet I fear that banning it only empowers bigots: Its hands-off status gives it a treacherous authority — it becomes something powerful, a word we must never, ever say — and the ignorant buttholes who trot it out to shock and offend us get the attention they crave by breaking this taboo.
Of course, it would be crazy to be blame minorities for being sensitive to the use of traditionally derogatory terms; on bad days I figure the ratio to be something like one Lennon/Ono for every dozen Prussian Blues. A particular vexation to me is a certain type of white man that used occasionally to call the ACLU and, after proclaiming his guiltlessness in matters of racial discord, complain of "reverse discrimination." ("Call Tiahrt," I used to advise these men.) A secondary complaint common to these callers is that blacks are allowed to use the word "nigger" however they like, yet they, just because they're white, are denied the privilege: It isn't fair. One wonders first what they would do with their full "nigger" privileges were they granted them — if they only use the word to greet their homies, then who's complaining? — and second if they've ever experienced a moment of empathy in their lives. The durable truth is that it's hard to wring anything like camaraderie or good humor out of a word traditionally used as a tool of oppression when that word is falling from the mouth of a person strongly resembling the traditional oppressor. If that arrangement seems unfair, please feel free to stack it up alongside the centuries-long tradition of slavery and let me know how it fares.
Experiments in Language
I grant that some words are culturally freighted with so much inflammatory potential that their use must be carefully overseen by their users. But does recording the use of the epithet "raghead" in a quotation make me politically incorrect? My conscience is clear; I've never written anything in which I set out to offend a person or a group of people for reasons having to do with their race or sex or what have you. But then I'm sloppy about the use of "girl," for instance. (A friend of mine was once accused of being a part of the "rape culture" for having referred to a female over the age of sixteen with that noun, but in truth what he said didn't devalue women in any way. I don't believe that using "boy" or "girl" when referring to adults automatically constitutes a derogation.) When choosing between "boy" and "man" or "girl" and "woman," I'm likely to ignore political concerns and go with the word that works best for me in the context. If the context is just right, I may even be able to work in "faggy" again, although as for "raghead," I admit that, outside of an illustrative quotation, it's hard to imagine legitimate usages.
In the Pantheon of the impolite and unprintable, that just leaves profanities, and here I have a story for you that perfectly summarizes my feelings. In the 1980s a friend of mine who worked at The New Yorker took a workshop that was taught by Edith Oliver, a theater critic of some renown who wrote for that magazine from 1961 to 1992. My friend had an interest in theater as well and she often was able to pick up complimentary tickets that were provided to the staff. The tickets were free but the plays were hit-or-miss affairs.
One night she and a friend were attending one such production and there she spotted Ms. Oliver, who was reviewing the show. This play was a doozy — experimental lesbian theater of some kind in which partially-dressed women roamed the aisles, dialogue was given extemporaneously, and audience members were forced into participation. It was chaos. During intermission my friend tracked down Ms. Oliver and introduced her to her friend.
Maybe the fact of Ms. Oliver's position at The New Yorker will give you a mental image of the type of woman she was: a Smith College alumna, she wrote for CBS and NBC for a time in the sixties and for twenty seasons served as dramaturge for the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut. Following her death in 1998, several auditoriums, including one at the O'Neill Center, found themselves rededicated as Edith Oliver Theatres in appreciation of her long years of service to the stage. She was remembered by her colleagues at The New Yorker as "very congenial" and "a real lady."
Earlier that day, my friend and her companion had been talking about the use of obscenities in literature. "Actually," my friend said, seeing a coincidence, "it was Ms. Oliver here whom I was telling you about a while ago. She's the one who told us in class that we shouldn't use the word 'fuck,' that we don't have a need for it."
Ms. Oliver would have been in her seventies on this night about which I'm writing, twenty years ago. "That's not true!" she protested. "There's a place for it, I think."
"Such as?" my friend asked.
Ms. Oliver glanced back at the waiting auditorium. "Such as, what the fuck is going on in there?"
And thus does The New Yorker, in a roundabout way, make the case for me.