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Banning offensive words can still be detrimental to society

The most basic truth about a fundamental right many hold higher than any other – freedom of speech – is that it either applies to those with whom we vehemently disagree, or it doesn’t apply to anyone at all.

Once in a while, statements or words can land people in very real trouble. During times of war, the government clamps down on seditious statements. But even during times of peace, there are limits to what people can and cannot say. One word is packed with so much venom that its utterance guarantees a public backlash, and some people go so far as to suggest it ought to be banned.

The ‘N’ word is probably the most notorious and vile word currently in the English language. Other words might carry high levels of offensiveness, but none cut as deep and target so ruthlessly an entire group of people.

On Thursday at 6 p.m. in Union 316, a forum will be held on whether the word ought to be banned outright. The arguments for banning the word seem compelling. It has a long history of being used to keep black people down and in a supposedly post-racial society, Americans should swear it off completely.

However, banning the word is just a superficial attempt to control thought. If by some magical process, the word is removed from history and the minds of every American, institutionalized racism and racist thoughts will continue.

It would be better if society moved forward in more meaningful ways. Rather than patting ourselves on the back for the great strides we have made towards moving toward a post-racial society, we ought to acknowledge that race in America is still an issue and won’t go away by willful ignorance and the prohibition of certain kinds of language. True, the heroes of the Civil Rights movement are to be applauded and great strides have been – and continue to be – made, but the work is far from complete.

Recently, there has been concern that much of the ire opponents of President Obama display toward the man stems from racial tensions or hatred. Former President Jimmy Carter came under fire for statements, disowned by the Obama administration, that some of the most extreme elements are almost certainly racially inspired. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Carter’s allegations, it doesn’t seem as wild and far-fetched as pundits responding to him made it seem. During the campaign, polls were held asking whether America was ‘ready for a black president.’ That the nation might even need to prepare for such a thing reveals how much further we still have to go.

There is also an argument to be said that some of the power the word carries comes from its suppression. The unspoken nature of it gives it more force than it deserves. Perhaps this explains why certain elements of the black community, in cities and other places, use the word so casually to refer to one another – it allows them to blunt some of the damage the word is capable of causing.

As a white man, it isn’t my job to explain the harshness and pain the ‘N’ word can cause. Nor is it the job of white pundits on television news to declare racism a moot point. Neither they nor I can begin to understand how deeply the ‘N’ word wounds those it targets. But I also cannot imagine the banning of the word bringing about any meaningful improvements in living conditions for anybody. To paraphrase comedian Wanda Sykes, no black person’s life was ever made better by the phony liberal proclamation that it was more proper to refer to them as ‘African Americans.’

Political correctness is diluting meaningful debate in our society. When Don Imus or Michael Richards make hateful remarks, they are immediately chastised and held to account. It isn’t clear to me whether this is good or not, but it seems to reduce the long history of popular struggle to opportunistic lawyers and petty fines and forced apologies.

Worse, it may even be detrimental to any cause of racial unity. It is impossible to properly understand the centuries-long struggle without the word, the only one with the ability to convey the horror of a history of slavery and oppression.

Rather than bringing about an Orwellian society of phony politesse, we should work to evolve a culture in which the word is not banned, but it brings so much shame to anybody who speaks it that it becomes voluntarily and completely unspoken.

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