1.12.2010

Language and Offense

The non-story about Harry Reid saying "Negro" has me wondering about language and power and stuff. I can't find a good source tracing how/why/when the word "nigger" became an offensive term. Wikipedia suggests it wasn't always so -- if it was always an offensive word, I can't figure out why. What I'm wondering is if I might discover that the word "nigger" became an offense not because of how it denoted, but because it denoted at all... in other words, I wonder if those who were offended by the term were offended by being identified by skin color as such.

In any case, I'm wondering how, once the offense became embedded in the word, the resistance to the word mounted a successful counter-campaign.

Same probably goes for a word like "retarded," which I understand was a neutral, descriptive term in its beginning. How did it become offensive? In this case (or others) could it be that the language becomes offensive by its attachment to the thing itself? -- not that people called "nigger" or "retarded" are offensive, obviously, but only that some people perceive(d) them that way.

Are there labels given to me that I might refuse? Could I declare that I find the label "White" to be an offense... and if I did, what would have to happen for the movement I'm trying to start to find legs? Of course, I wouldn't be objecting to "White" because it has always been a negative term, but only because I (first among men) find it to be offensive now. Was that the case with the term "nigger?" And if my paragraph above about the causative process of the word being attached to the thing is right, isn't it possible to begin thinking about whiteness as an offensive "thing-itself?" Avatar certainly framed it that way.

Linguists? Racial-history pundits?

8 comments:

Wishydig said...

read mcwhorter on the reid issue.

on the more general issue of offense, that takes a while to talk about. my approach to it has always been that when the use of a word seems intent on showing disrespect, offense is taken. mind you, offense taken, is very different from intrinsic offensiveness.

politicians are held not only to a standard of "show no disrespect" but also to the extra standard of "show no ignorance" and "show no deafness." it seems a bit much at times. in this case. in trent lott's case. in biden's case. in too many cases.

Casey said...

Mcwhorter's so clean and articulate. He does leave room for my old and usual objection, tho... he says toward the end, "who among us -- including black people -- thinks someone with what I call a 'black-cent' who occasionally popped up with double negatives and things like aks could be elected President, whether it's fair or not?"

That's really interesting to me. Are we at a point, collectively, where we're willing to admit that white-language and white-culture (including things like business suits and ties) are and will be the dominant force into the forseeable future? In my perhaps-naive mind, MLK's ideal must've transcended not only skin color, but also language markers... is "linguism" any better or worse than racism? What about the content of a man's character?

in short: my usual objection is: linguists are objective to a fault. :)

Insignificant Wrangler said...

The word does not exist as pure logos. There's ethos and pathos there, too. (All of which, of course, operated kairotically).

Casey said...

So we have a new paradox: what came first, the logos or the ethos or the pathos, or the firstness?

Wishydig said...

"is 'linguism' any better or worse than racism? What about the content of a man's character?"

but isn't mcwhorter just saying this is the way it is? he could turn his essay into an argument about why dialect prejudice is so short-sighted and ignorant, and why it works hand in hand with racism, and why he hopes it will stop. but he's written several books that make that view pretty clear.

being "willing to admit" that prejudices rest in certain ideas, and saying that it's not going to change overnight is just honesty isn't it?

i'm really interested in your objection. i think we all agree that it's objectionable that people have silly prejudices. but is it objectionable that we comment frankly on the prejudices we see?

or are you saying that such comments are akin to throwing in the towel? crying uncle? cause that's an interesting texture.

Wishydig said...

(and don't think i didn't notice the "clean and articulate" crack)

Casey said...

So I guess describing this bias against Black English would be like a late-18th century anthropologist who described the way African customs were not acceptable in America... right? And maybe that's not a bad thing. I suppose there's a need for people who call a spade a spade.

But yeah, it does come close to feeling like a willingness to accept the order of things.

In a way, I like it. It's just such an unfamiliar pattern of thought to me right now... I guess I've been trained to always be pushing revolution, like a good professor of American literature.

Anyway I don't know. I just like the sound of "Anyone among you could grow up to be the President" more than, "Well, the truth is, kids, dark-skinned black people, and people who 'talk black,' really can't be the President."

I just think the election of Obama was so unexpected that we ought to be careful about making supposedly objective observations about who could or couldn't be elected president. It's actually not objective, is it? So maybe I'm objecting to McWhorter stepping out of his scientific/linguistic role and making pronouncements about culture.

But I'm sure someone could/has put together an objective study showing that the "black-cent" is a problem during job interviews. Right?

Sorry I'm so unclear here. Ask me a yes/no question.

Wishydig said...

"So maybe I'm objecting to McWhorter stepping out of his scientific/linguistic role and making pronouncements about culture."

remember, he's a sociolinguist. it's within his area of study to make 'pronouncements' about culture. but let's just call them claims.

sure, it might be folly for a scientist, even a sociologist, to say "*this* wouldn't happen in this culture. yeah, there were some who said specifically that obama would never get elected. tho it wasn't the majority. i think biden's statement, and for that matter reid's, was/were a fair assessment of the culture. we know that deviation from a certain white center is pretty unlikely to get a certain block of votes.

certain races/ethnicities are viewed… suspiciously?

consider the difference between italian and hispanic.* between argentinian and mexican. between a black person with colin powell's accent and one with jesse jackson's.

how much do those simple and isolated differences affect perception. quite a bit. it's not stepping away from objectivity to make these observations. but yes, it is stepping away from objectivity to say culture invariably must be, and will remain, so.

*(consider the different reactions to alito's and sotomayor's statements about their backgrounds affecting, for the better, their impartiality.)