Sunday, June 4, 2017

Bill Maher, racist epithets, contextual meaning, free speech, 'free speech,' and the confederate flag

by David Balashinsky

First, a trigger warning: this essay uses 'the n word' frequently.  I believe that the brouhaha surrounding Bill Maher's use of the phrase house nigger provides an appropriate context for a frank discussion of these two terms (the phrase in its entirety and the racist noun itself which is modified by house when used in that phrase).  Sometimes, painful topics need to be discussed and this is one of those times.

While it's always risky to use any word that can be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a racist epithet, there is a fundamental difference between nigger and house nigger.   Use of the word nigger situates the user himself in the present context as a racist (unless the word is being used by a black person, which I discuss below).  In contrast, use of the phrase house nigger situates the word nigger in the historical context of the South's enslavement and exploitation of African Americans.  One is a 'real time,' actual use of an epithet that is demeaning to blacks as human beings.  The other has almost the opposite meaning: it refers to a quasi caste system in which some enslaved black Americans were permitted the relative 'comfort' of  serving their white oppressors by performing domestic, indoor work as opposed to the far more brutal and difficult labor of field work.  That is how Maher used the term. 

Temporally removed, as we are, from the legalized enslavement of human beings based on their genotype (though not so removed that the wounds are not still open and not so removed that positive, concrete steps do not still need to be taken to at least ameliorate the lasting effects of the African diaspora and enslavement of millions of blacks, including some sort of reparations), invoking the term house nigger constitutes a critique of that system of organized enslavement.  The term, to my ears and, I think, to the ears of the majority of people who are familiar with it, refers to the system under which blacks were enslaved, exploited, raped, tortured and murdered.  There is a fundamental difference between using a term that refers to one element of a system that was based upon racism and using a term that is itself racist.  House nigger is an example of the former and nigger is an example of the latter.

Obviously, racism still exists and the existence of the word nigger both reflects and sustains that awful reality.  Thus, to use the word by itself is to participate in the perpetuation of racism.  But to situate the term within the historical context of the racist and economic system of enslavement of African- and African-American black people by the slave-holding states of the United States prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and the victory of the Union over the treasonous Confederacy, serves to remind us that the ultimate purpose of enslavement was simply to enable one group of human beings to enrich themselves at the expense of the rights and the very lives of another group of human beings.  It reminds us that slavery thrived here and that the system was based on racism.

Now, having said all this, and even if one accepts my reasoning, can it be assumed that everyone is familiar with the full meaning and significance of the phrase that Maher used?  I would say no.  That is one reason why Maher ought not to have used it and why his apology for having used it was warranted.

But, far more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that, thanks primarily to Donald Trump, we are living in a social and historical context in which the lid that had been kept on covert bigotry has been torn away.  We are living in an age when the use of insulting, demeaning and marginalizing language is more and more defended, thanks largely to Trump's repeated rejection throughout the campaign of 'political correctness' in tandem with his scapegoating and vilifying of Mexicans and Muslims (and to a lesser extent, of Jews) and now by Trump's supporters on the specious grounds of 'free speech.'  It is no coincidence that this very day a 'free speech' rally is to be held in Portland, Oregon by alt-righters (white nationalists and neo-Nazis), including such notable hate groups as the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the Alt-Knights, ostensibly to defend the principle of free speech.  This is in the wake of several notorious instances this year in which racist, misogynistic and bigoted charlatans such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Charles Murray were shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking on several college campuses.  Obviously, someone has to create a 'safe space' where bigots can promote their racist and xenophobic worldviews and far-right hate groups are only too happy to answer the call.  Hence today's demonstration in Portland.

Trump has seriously torn the social fabric of the United States and it will certainly take generations to repair it, if it even can be repaired.  I wonder whether Maher's gaffe does not in fact reflect this new reality.  As the old-fashioned notion of concerning oneself with the feelings of others and moderating one's speech lest it cause needless pain and offense (quaint by today's standards) is increasingly discarded and dismissed as 'political correctness,'  a general coarsening of public speech and a breakdown in propriety - a shift in the border between what is permissible to say publicly and what is not - seems to be the inevitable result.  Trump didn't create bigotry but he certainly made it far more socially acceptable to give voice to it - whether through a careless and arrogant disregard for the feelings of others or whether because of an overtly militant bigotry which seeks to proclaim itself publicly, defiantly, and proudly.   Again, in this context, claims of 'political correctness' and 'free speech' are disingenuous: it is no coincidence that the neo-right, white nationalist movement has taken to dismissing as 'snowflakes' those who, inexplicably, object to being subjected to hate speech and thereby demeaned and marginalized.

Maher, of course, has always been about rejecting 'political correctness.'  His previous show, after all, was called "Politically Incorrect."   But, as always, context provides the key to determining when a term is meant or used disparagingly and when it isn't.  What was Maher talking about when he used the phrase for which he has drawn so much outrage (much of it faux outrage, as all of the outrage coming from the right is in this case)?  He certainly wasn't talking about the institution of slavery and the relegation of some enslaved people to field work and others to domestic work.  He just used the phrase metaphorically to explain his own unsuitability to the hard physical labor of field work.  But, other than the fact that his interviewee, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, had made this comment to Maher - "We'd love to have you work in the fields with us" - there was absolutely no reason for Maher to invoke the phenomenon of the 'house nigger' as opposed to an enslaved person consigned to field labor.  Field work is honorable and valuable work and, without it, most of us would have to do without much of what is grown and harvested on farms.  There was absolutely no reason for Maher to tie working in a field to slave labor.  This is why it was jarring and disconcerting to hear Maher use it, even leaving aside the question of whether the phrase house nigger is racist in and of itself.  It had absolutely nothing to do with the conversation.  So why did this particular phrase come so readily to him?  Given that there was virtually no contextual justification for him to use that phrase, does his having done so reflect his own latent or covert racism?  Does it reflect the coarsened, anything-goes tenor of today's public discourse?  Perhaps some of both - only Maher can answer the first question.  My sense is that it was thoughtlessness and insensitivity on Maher's part.

So when, if ever, is it okay to use 'the n word' or a phrase that includes it?  This leads me to the phenomenon of blacks using 'the n word.'  I understand that, in certain contexts, use of that word is meant to be descriptive of the inferior status of blacks in a white-dominant culture.  It does not appear to be an act of 'appropriation' or 'reclaiming,' as queer was reclaimed and 're-branded' as a self-designation by gay men back in the '80s as an act of defiance against a heteronormative and homophobic culture.  I think that that is why it is socially permissible for both gays and non-gays alike to use queer but not permissible for both blacks and non-blacks to use nigger.  When blacks use 'the n word,' as I understand it, they are speaking among themselves and within the context of their shared experience in a society in which racism remains entrenched and prevalent.  They are using the term not in order to neuter it or to confer legitimacy upon its use by non-blacks but the very opposite.  Nigger, when used by blacks themselves, should be understood to be a kind of shibboleth.  That is why the argument by some whites - "if it's okay for blacks to use 'the n word' then it should be okay for whites to use it" - is false.  It is a deliberately false argument when invoked by those who are actively racist and an ignorantly false argument when invoked by those who are passively racist.   Nigger simply has a different meaning and significance depending upon who is using it and why.

There is a vast difference between remembering history and celebrating history, just as there is a vast difference between acknowledging a history of racism by using words that reflect that history and  merely uttering racist words for the purpose of expressing racist thoughts.   Again, this is why context matters.  This is particularly relevant now, as the movement to do away with the living symbols of black oppression, such as the confederate flag and monuments to the heroes of the confederacy, gains traction.  The failure - or refusal - to distinguish between the act of remembering and the act of celebrating is a disingenuous way of perpetuating the original harm.  I mention this here because I see an analogy between the controversy regarding the civil-war- and post-civil-war-era symbols of the south and the movement to banish them from the public square on the one hand, and the controversy regarding Maher's use of  'house nigger'  and the impulse to banish 'the n word' from the public sphere, on the other.  If one seeks merely to document and remember history, then the appropriate location for the symbols of the south's rebellion over the issue of slavery is a museum.  If, alternatively, one seeks to perpetuate the legacy, the effects and the worldview of those who enslaved blacks, then the appropriate locations for the confederate flag and monuments to the heroes of the confederacy are flying over state capitols and in public spaces, respectively.   That is the difference between between a museum and a public space. A museum creates a context in which its contents are viewed critically.  If it is a historiographical museum, its contents are contextualized as artifacts.  The curator is, in effect, saying, "This is what was"; not "This is what ought to be."  In contrast, a public space presents its contents as a living statement of what is.  Its curator - the state - is, in effect, saying, "This is who and what we are."

Similarly, if one seeks merely to refer to the phenomenon of the 'house nigger' in service of a larger historiographical and didactic purpose, language, in that context, functions as sort of museum: a repository of a sordid past.  But if, alternatively, one seeks to perpetuate that past, then language functions in its capacity as a vital and immediate means of conveying racist sentiments.  That, I maintain, is the difference between the phrase that Maher used and 'the n word.' The problem, here, aside from the fact that Maher had no legitimate reason to use the phrase that he did in the first place, is that his show is much more public sphere than it is museum.  Indeed, that is why it's called Real Time.

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