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Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, Dec. 9, 2003

It was one of those political correctness stories the media are always dining out on. A white employee at the University of Virginia Medical Center was talking with some co-workers about the names of football teams, and remarked that having a team named the Redskins was as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks. His use of nigger was enough to provoke some of the staff to organize a protest. The university president called the employee's remark "unfortunate," "offensive" and "insulting." And Julian Bond, who's now a history professor at the University, demanded that the employee apologize and that he be required to take sensitivity training.

It's hard to find any word to describe that reaction short of obtuse. After all, the employee had only mentioned the word nigger as an example of an unacceptable racial epithet. But there was also something disingenuous about the way critics ridiculed the episode as another example of political correctness run amok, as if it revealed the fatuity of all our concerns about offending ethnic sensitivities. The fact is that nowadays a word like nigger has acquired a kind of incantatory power that even the most benign intentions can't entirely bleach away.

I remember something that happened one day last spring when I was talking to an undergraduate linguistics class about the origins and use of racial epithets. That's clearly as neutral and clinical a context as anyone could imagine. But when I pronounced the word nigger, one black student raised his eyebrows. "You sure you're not getting any secret satisfaction out of being able to say that word?" I told him maybe a little defensively that I was just mentioning the word, not using it. But the fact is that I had felt a complicated twinge when I said the word. I recalled making an effort to say it as offhandedly as possible, without betraying my unease with a telltale pause or change in pitch. It was the same feeling that I have when I have to mention a four-letter word in the course of making some recondite point about English syllable structure. I know that linguists have a dispensation to say those words, but it doesn't entirely dispel the sense of transgression.

That's what it means to say a word like nigger is taboo. It has become an incantation that evokes all the ugly violence of racial hatred, in exactly the same way that dirty words are contaminated by the things they refer to, with a taint that bleeds through any quotation marks you put around them.

Of course for us taboo is a secular and ironic word -- when we talk about "taboo subjects" or "taboo words," it's usually to make light of other people's uptight squeamishness. But in the Melanesian and Polynesian cultures that we originally borrowed the word from, it signified what Sir James Frazer described in The Golden Bough as "contagious magic." If a dead body was taboo, then so was the man whose shadow fell on it, and the utensils he touched and the meals he prepared with them -- and so was his name. Each of them became dangerous to other people and to itself. That's exactly the sense of taboo that attaches to what we call "dirty words" -- the sense that a name can be contaminated by the thing it's connected to. It's no different from the beliefs of the Polynesians, except that when we hold them, we don't describe them as supersitions.

Taboos are always a guide to the deepest fears and inhibitions of a culture. We have no memory of the sacral power that a reference to God's wounds or God's blood could conjure up in Shakespeare's time. And we find it amusing to imagine the horror that Henry James would feel if he could have seen an episode of "The Sopranos." But then James would be puzzled at our age's almost physical aversion to ethnic epithets, to the point where some people are uncomfortable when they have to read Huckleberry Finn or a Flannery O'Connor short story. Not that James was the sort of person who would have used nigger in his own speech. But he would have avoided it because it was vulgar, not because it was foul.

The shift is implicit in the way people talk about "the N-word," with the same coy formula that parents adopt when they want to upbraid their children for using forbidden language without actually having to pronounce the words themselves. And that may have been what was behind that recent story about the Louisiana second-grader who was sent home for using a bad word when he told a classmate that his mother was gay.

If those reports are true, of course, the teacher was even more stupefyingly clueless than the people who got worked up over the remark made by that unfortunate University of Virginia employee. To believe that gay is a bad word isn't just misinformed -- it implies that homosexuality might be so abhorrent that its very name could be impure, so that it becomes something literally unspeakable. But as demented as that misapprehension is, I suspect it wouldn't have occurred to that teacher thirty years ago, before the notion of magical taboo was extended to words like these.

That's the trouble with sacralizing these epithets -- it risks turning attitudes like racism and homophobia into guilty pleasures. Taboos always confirm the dark power of the ideas they suppress. Describing nigger as "the N-word" doesn't just mark it as something we're not supposed to say in public -- it also ensures that it will have an intriguingly transgressive force when we say it in private. Not that anyone should ever mention the word for any reason without a sense of its considerable power, but it doesn't deserve the awe that a taboo implies. Let it
lie in the sun to rot.

Copyright 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.