The Other ‘N-word’

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day I: The mild feelings that accompany your presumption have no bearing on the mildness of your presumptions. Even Nazis wonder about all the fuss.

Aphorism of the Day II: If a word offends thee, pluck it, sure. If a word really offends thee, say it over and over again, until its nonsense is revealed. So, repeat after me: deconstruction, deconstruction, deconstruction, deconstruction…

Censoriousness is part of the human floor-plan. Everybody thinks certain people shouldn’t be allowed to say certain things. We instinctively understand that controlling actions–power–turns on controlling beliefs. If you let the latter get out of hand…

When I was studying in Nashville, one of my classmates married this Polish guy who got a job working in construction. Shortly after getting the job he apparently approached one of his coworkers and said, “Excuse me. Please. Could you tell me? What is the difference between redneck and white-trash, and which one are you?”

On another occasion, I found myself debating two fellow PhD students, both from the deep south, who argued that the word ‘nigger’ was simply the word they grew up using, that they didn’t ‘mean anything’ by it. The resulting argument, as you might expect from philosophy grads, led nowhere, though it did sketch a couple of interesting circles. I argued that what they thought they meant had precious little to with anything. Words were social and historical–and most importantly, bearers of value. In other words, words were huge, and some were larger than others. ‘Nigger,’ I suggested, was about as big as they come.

They argued a variety of face-saving things before petering out. The social authority gradient was skewed against them, and they could feel it. This is what shuts most people up, when you think about it. Numbers, not reasons. There was just more of me.

I mention this because of all the hoopla surrounding the new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where the word ‘nigger’ has apparently been replaced by the more palatable ‘slave.’ Whatever you think about sanitizing works like Huck Finn, trimming and tucking them to facilitate the ease of consumption or whatever, what you can’t say is that its ‘just a word,’ you’re taking out. ‘Nigger’ is a social historical bearer of value, a monstrously huge one. So huge that we’ve invented a name–the ‘N-word’–for the name, to spare us the back-breaking effort of actually lifting the thing.

If you concentrate on the ink of the word, you can convince yourself that the stakes are low, insignificant compared to the various advantages, such as not having to worry about irate mothers on parent-teacher night and the like. If you concentrate on the meaning, you suddenly find yourself trying to wrestle history itself to the mat.

Where the ink is externally related to the text, the meaning is internally related. Plucking the former is like fishing a bagel out a bakeshop bin. Plucking the latter is like ripping a skein of nerves out of meat. Imagine going through the Bible and replacing every instance of ‘knew’ with ‘fuck.’  “And Abraham came unto Sarah and fucked her…” Gonzo scripture, baby. Everything changes where charged language is concerned.

This asymmetry, the lightness of the ink versus the heaviness of the meaning, explains the inevitability of censorship, as well as its attraction. It’s powerful stuff: all you need is a Sharpie and you can black out whole swathes of the world. The beautiful is rendered ugly, and the ugly, beautiful. It’s just too damn easy not to be utilized. As any parent who spells words rather than speaking them knows, there’s nothing like managed ignorance to keep a child on task.

Which brings me to my point: the good and the bad of it depends on the task. The question of removing ‘nigger’ from Huck Finn, I think, ultimately turns on how you define the task of literature. Is it supposed to do, or is supposed to be? If you see literature as a kind of tool, as something to be judged according the utility of its effects, then who cares how you modify the thing, so long as it gets the job done. If you see it as a sacrosanct object, as quasi-scriptural, then modification becomes sacrilege. What? Change the Prophet’s words?

(I can’t help but pause and think just how gnarly all the competing intuitions are: purity, utility, respect, courage, pollution, embarrassment, guilt… And here I am, trying to dress them up with ‘reasons’ like everyone else!)

“Believe!” the blockbuster cries. “Believe!” the commercial whispers. “Believe!” the schoolteacher smiles. Self-deception has become our greatest cultural good, and in an age when we can least afford it. Given my commitment to cultural triage, I’m inclined to chuck principle, and to say that anything that gets more kids reading Huck Finn is a good thing–if this indeed is the consequence. There’s plenty of gristle to chew on, otherwise. The original is always there.

And anything that popularizes Twain, the Great Sage of Human Stupidity, is even better.

Otherwise, I find myself wondering what Twain himself would think. As hard as he’s laughing at all the semantic hygienists, my guess is that a part of him would be both heartened and honoured. Heartened that things have changed so much as to make an international issue of the role language plays in bigotry, and honoured that after all this time we’re still paying so much attention to an old fool such as him.

Ultimately, his genius was to write books that show us for the tender idiots we are.

Again and again and again.