Issue 35, Final Fringe

The N-Word

by Nancy Bauer Issue 10 02.07.2006

Like most seemingly intractable social controversies, the hate-speech debate is framed in polarized terms: either you’re in favor of not causing serious pain to people who have suffered a long history of discrimination or in favor of the idea that every citizen, even the most politically and economically disfranchised, ought to be able to word the world (or draw or sculpt or film it) in the way that she sees fit. Take your pick. You can’t have it both ways.

As a philosophy professor, I’m embarrassed about the miserable failure of my discipline to reframe the terms of this debate. We argue back and forth about “words that wound” versus censorship in just the same stalemated way that the general public does. The recent Imus-inspired news stories and editorials on what to do about the N-word exemplify the impasse—should we ban it? only in certain contexts? only when it’s used by certain people? but not when it helps other people articulate their sense of identity and history?

A thinking person ought to see that under certain circumstances the use of the N-word will constitute a serious breach of someone’s civil rights, while in others its use by that very victim may amount to a salvific exercise of power for her. This is because words, like tools, actually do things in the world. And, like tools, words can be put to good or ill use.

There is, however, one enormous difference between words and other sorts of tools, and that is that what words do is much less a function of their users’ intentions than what tools do.

Take a simple case. I need some diced onion, and so I use a knife to chop one up. It’s possible that in the process I’ll slice my finger or mar your antique cutting board or deprive you of the vegetable that you were saving for your science presentation. In intending to dice the onion, I didn’t intend any of these consequences. All of them might be said to result from my not attending sufficiently to what I was doing. (And an observer would have to judge whether I should be held responsible for that lack of attention.) The knife edge was too dull; I might have surmised that the cutting board was hanging by itself on the living room wall for a reason; it’s courteous to ask one’s housemates before helping oneself to the last onion. Still and all, the fact that the onion got cut up is largely a function of my carrying out my intentions. If you come to me furiously waving the damaged cutting board, and I say, “I didn’t mean to wreck it; I just needed something to cut the onion on,” your fury may not abate, but in an important way you and I will be on the same page: neither of us will think that setting out to dice up an onion was an inherently bad thing to do. My intention was perfectly acceptable, even if the way I carried out the intention was idiotic or otherwise problematic.

The same holds if I use the knife to carry out a (morally) bad intention—say, to stab someone who owes me money. I might bungle this, too; the person might escape with nothing more than a rip in his clothes. Still, that I intended to hurt him matters, even though I failed in my intentions. Of course, if I were to use a more morally complex example—say, whether I should go buy a new cutting board for you at Wal-Mart—we might well argue over the value of my intentions. But what is not in dispute is that what I do with a tool is very much a function of those intentions.

It’s just not the same when it comes to words. I can be fully aware of what’s going on around me, fully attentive to the circumstances of my speech, fully on top of my intentions in speaking, and still say something the meaning and ramifications of which are simply not in my control.

A deconstructionist will tell you that meaning is always completely out of control, that it can never be pinned down, that anyone can take what anyone else says in any way he or she chooses. But this kind of hyperbolic skepticism is unwarranted. What you do when you use words is a function not of what you intend to do with them but of what the words themselves do under the circumstances in which you utter them.

Suppose Diego and Maria are dating; in time, Diego gets down on his knees, tells Maria that he loves her, and asks her to be his life partner. Two weeks later, Maria discovers that Diego has another girlfriend. She confronts Diego: “You told me that you loved me!” Diego can say lots of things in response: “I do love you! She means nothing to me!” or “Sorry: I lied” or “I’ve changed my mind.” But what he can’t say is that when he said he loved Maria, he meant that he loved her in the way that he loves his flat-screen TV: that he’s fond of her and really likes having her in his life but feels no commitment to her. Let’s say that Diego genuinely intended to convey this message to Maria. His failure to do so is not a function of his carrying out his intention in a clumsy or mindless way. He fails because his intentions in this instance don’t matter: when you get on your knees and tell your girlfriend that you love her, you cannot be saying that you care for her merely in the way that you enjoy a thing you own.

When it comes to hate speech, the problem has nothing to do with intentions. It doesn’t matter if the person using the words meant to cause pain or to provoke politically or to express identity or solidarity. What matters is what the words do despite these intentions. And yet it’s often hard to figure out what fraught words are doing. This is actually the case in the Imus instance. I doubt that Imus, who I happen to think is a menacing jerk, meant to cause pain to the Rutgers women’s basketball team or anyone else. What he wanted to do was entertain. Entertaining people gets ratings, and ratings bring in money.

(Why it took this particular instantiation of Imus’s racism and arrogance for the likes of Proctor & Gamble and other big Imus Show sponsors to cry foul is a mystery to me. Only someone who was incredibly politically naïve could imagine that it’s because the executives at P&G were simply moved to tears of rage by Imus’s slurring a group of impressive women athletes as opposed to all the other impressive people he’s slurred over the years.)

But what did Imus’s words actually do? The reactions of the members of the Rutgers team indicate that they dredged up in an acutely painful way a legacy of humiliation for African-American women, one that has contemporary and historical dimensions, one that Imus was in effect claiming could not be overcome no matter how impressive the team’s achievement. More tellingly, his words identified the source of this humiliation as alive and well in our collective cultural consciousness—as though no amount of grace and poise and hard work and success could ever be a match for the racism and sexism that we are all steeped in.

That you and I even understood the phrase “nappy-headed ho”—that such a phrase instantly conjures up a certain picture for us – is a sign of how deep the problem runs. My 10-year-old son is, as far as I know, unaware of the concept of nappy-headedness. He has heard the word “ho,” though I don’t think he knows exactly what a ho is. But give him a year or two, and he’ll be one of us. He is bound to take on the mantle of his culture, no matter how heavy or unasked for—or unintended by you and me.

In intending to speak for no one—not even, I daresay, himself—Imus spoke for all of us. His words peeled the veneer off of our smug self-assurance that we have taken massive steps to make it the case that being white and male is inherently no more valuable than being non-white and female (or not “masculine”). What Imus exposed is how ugly the truth is, how little progress we have made, how anxious we are to avoid facing these facts, how varied are our levels of consciousness of them, how impoverished the terms in which we find ourselves discussing these matters.

No ban on words will have the effects that its advocates hope for until we, as Americans, find a way to take responsibility for our own implication in what these words do. Our speech will not be genuinely free until we are able to transform its sorry legacy in American culture. Enabling us to talk truthfully about this legacy is perhaps the hardest burden our words stand to bear for us.

Nancy Bauer

Nancy Bauer

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Nancy Bauer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, where she teaches courses on the history of German and French philosophy, philosophy and film, Austin, Wittgenstein, and ethics. She is the author of Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism (Columbia University Press, 2001) and is currently finishing up a book called How to Do Things With Pornography, which relies heavily on the understanding of how language works that’s sketched out in “The N-Word.”