By any other name
Move over George Carlin. Your hometown is adding to your list of words we can’t use. In February, the New York City Council unanimously passed a resolution to ban the n-word. You may remember Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” from a 1972 album, which did not include the n-word, but rather sexually tinged words.
New York joins at least a half dozen other local governments in four states to ban the word, including Westchester County, N.Y., and two cities in New Jersey — Patterson and Irvington. Fresh from his victory, Jamaican-born New York Councilmember Leroy Comrie, the resolution’s main sponsor, now is asking the GRAMMY’s organizers, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, to stop honoring artists who use the n-word in their songs.
New York’s ban stops short of punishing someone from using the word, likely because it wouldn’t pass legal muster, a fact that might have led Brazoria, Texas, Mayor Ken Corley to ditch a similar proposed ordinance in January that would have outlawed the word in his community. The mayor’s town meeting to discuss the new law had to be held in the middle of Main Street because the council chamber wasn’t large enough for the more than 200 residents — out of a population of 2,800 — who showed up.
A Houston newspaper reported that those who were against passing the law also were disdainful of those using the word, but most felt it wasn’t necessary, which led the mayor to withdraw his proposal. Later, the Brazoria City Attorney reportedly said that the $500 fine would have applied only to someone using the word to disturb the peace. But, he was missing a key fact: Nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that individual words cannot be banned, and with good reason. Words can do nothing more than offend. It’s when you put words together to make ideas — such as discriminating against someone because of their race, sex, color or creed — that we have a legal problem.
Nevertheless, those in favor of banning the n-word, such as Andrea McElroy, a black councilwoman who sponsored Irvington’s ordinance, say that contrary to its current acceptance, the word speaks to a time in our past when it only meant hateful, if not murderous, thoughts. Others, such as black author and filmmaker John Ridley, argue that by saying the word, singing it or even changing the ending slightly, we conquer it.
However, those ordinances have encouraged something critical to the viability of our system: the public discussion of important ideas. That we can have a civilized debate, especially on subjects that carry us to our emotional core, embraces the noblest intentions of our freedom of speech. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from the current discussion on the n-word as we grapple with the many ideas that divide us.