The "d-word"—when discussion goes missing
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois
WildSide is done and we, at CharPo, had a very good time there. The site itself grew with the festival's popularity and this week, before the end of seven weeks of existence for us, we passed the magical 10,000 page-view mark.
Much to be happy about but while we were all partying, two stories in the last weeks drew my attention and perturbed me as they should perturb all artists.
On the face of it one of them would seem fairly anodyne: the banning of an old pop song from the airwaves because the song lyric included the word "faggot." (Anecdote: an editor of mine at the Mirror once told me that I could not use that word in print unless I was one so I outed myself to her.)
The other controversy is a little more important because it involves a classic work of literature, one that has literally changed lives and, arguably, the course of history. The work is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I have only recently reread the work. I was given it and Tom Sawyer in heavily expurgated aimed-at-kids editions when I was a boy. The adult read was an eye-opener. I was not at all horrified by the use of the word "nigger" simply because literature from that age and that place—even works with good intentions—is chockablock with words like that, not to mention stereotypes we would now deem highly offensive (Uncle Tom's Cabin's Topsy, anyone?) if they were written in the present day.
You'll note two things in that last paragraph. Firstly, the itals (just to end the point) and secondly, I did not use the euphemism "n-word." I have always been bothered by the use of "the n-word" in normal conversation simply because, as comic Louis CK says, it only serves to put the word "nigger" into the heads of its listeners. In a civilized world there should be no discussion of the words "nigger" or "faggot" simply because, in a civilized, polite society those words have no place. But we are not there yet so the words—in full—and their import must be discussed. We must always be examining the intentions of the people who use them. The words are alarm bells.
But here's the thing. Sometimes, as any principal will tell you, it's a drill. A well-known artist, a comic, a writer of yore, an intellectual, uses words like these for specific reasons and to deny them rights to them because they offend sensibilities is to deny that a debate exists. More importantly, it is to deny that now, here, people just don't use those words anymore for the worst of reasons as well as the best. Louis CK, in the riff I cited above, also talks about the words "faggot" and "cunt." They're all alarm words and his audience reacts to them with some horror—but the very subtle point he is making is a true one: we're getting hung up on words and not looking at the intentions—the people!—behind them.
And in so many cases, those people are thinkers, poets, playwrights, comics and improv actors who are saying something we should be listening to.
I'll tell you what offends me more than Mark Twain or Dire Straits. It offends me when posters in an anti-Obama rally portray the president as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. Do they really need to say the "n-word" for us to understand that it is there and that the "protesters" real intentions must be discussed? It also offends me when school board regulations and actual laws are passed which are meant to protect children but instead throw on fires—real and metaphorical—books like Harry Potter or Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye or plays like Angels in America. Or when, with the best of intentions, we create a law in Ontario to protect the society from degrading images of women and one of the first works indicted under that law is a work aimed at Lesbians.
What does all this have in common? Good intentions conjoined with a lack of profound, thoughtful discussion about what things mean—images, words—and why they were chosen by the artists, protesters, or—even—best friends who used them.
And if we remove the actual words from that discussion, we are removing alarm bells which are ringing when it is not a drill.