Thursday, November 29, 2007

Allowing Certain Words

Recently, while surfing some comics sites, I came upon an interesting critique of Garth Ennis's work. In this piece, the writer, an American black man, wrote that Ennis, a white (Northern) Irishman, didn't have the right to use (and I'll pause here for those who do not like the N word, this is your chance to stop reading because I'll probably use it once or twice during this post) the word nigger. The use in question appears in issue 12 of Ennis's The Boys when a Russian character, not black, refers to another character, also not black, as "my nigger".

I think this brings up an appropriate topic for writers to discuss: are there any words in which we are not allowed to use? Are there certain words that can only be used by certain people? My answer is no.

First, let's differentiate between the use of the word by the writer and the use of the word by a character. If the word is coming directly from the writer's own perspective, then he or she deserve every bit of criticism that comes his/her way. But I still don't think one should be censored. Here's an example: recently someone I know came upon a dilemma regarding another person's submission for a workshop. The submission in question was quite awful to begin with, however it was also incredibly offensive and down right racist. Now the piece was not from a character point of view, but from the writer's own opinion. The question raised was whether the material should be allowed in the workshop at all. My answer was that it should be allowed, and that the participants had the responsibility to tell him or her that it was a racist piece of shit. I mean really dish it out.

The usage of the word in the comic however appears because it is what this character, one kind of familiar with American vernacular through rap music and some movies (the most obvious one being Training Day), would say to someone. Granted, the character comes from the mind of the writer, but does that limit the writer from writing this type of character? One needs to write him truthfully. That is the job of the writer, no matter his or her race.

The criticism of Ennis's work states that a white writer doesn't have the right to use the word, but it's OK for someone who's black. I can understand someone being offended by the word and not liking it used in any variation by anyone, but does the argument stand when certain people are allowed and others are not? By this logic would I be allowed to write prairie nigger since I'm Indian?

For better or worse, nigger is a part of the modern American vernacular, used by some as a form of comraderie and others as a racist slur, depending on how it's pronounced. (However, if you have a Maine accent and all of your R's sound like A's it's hard to tell which way you intend it.) To deny a writer a part of that vernacular is to cripple him from finding any type of truth in life and turn all writing into superficial gunk. Granted, The Boys will not bring any kind of incredible insight into the human condition, but it will give us a clue of what a certain character is like.

Now, I'm not so completely daft as to not realize racism is a problem in this country. Believe me, I come across plenty of people during my day who have zero clue that what they say to me is offensive, as if contacting an office that deals with Indian issues gives them free range on expressing their ignorant views. But I'm not about to stop a writer from using terms like redskin (if I did I'd have a Hell of time with Sports pages during this time of year).

I think censoring writers is just a way of ignoring reality. If we prevent someone (and does it matter what the writer's race is?) from reflecting the truth, what are we accomplishing? It won't make the problems of racism go away, it would probably have an opposite effect.

Here endth the rant.


Stephen Blackmoore said...

"are there any words in which we are not allowed to use?"


In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there should be no subjects we should feel afraid to avoid, either, no matter how distasteful the reality of it might be.

There is a common misconception that writers are their writing. Just because I write about an HIV infected stripper who grew up blowing fundamentalist Christians as part of a blackmail scam run by her mother at Alabama tent revivals, doesn't mean that I am 1) any of those people or 2) endorsing that as a way of life.

Even if it is a profitable scam.

If I use the word nigger as a racial slur from one of my characters, even if he or she is the protagonist, doesn't mean I'm endorsing them or their use of it.

We're not our characters. They're not us.

I think the person who did the critique not only doesn't get the distinction, but is so overwhelmed by the charge on the word itself, that he can't get the distinction.

There's clearly an inability to separate the word from its meaning and from its charge.

Sadly, there are a lot of people out there who do this.

I've never understood the mentality that says, "Well, I'm (Jewish, Italian, Latino, etc.) so I can use (Kike, Wop, Spick, etc.), but you can't."

It's a double standard. If the word is a slur it's a slur, regardless of who is using it.

I understand the desire for people to want to "reclaim" a word that's been used as a slur. Redefine it as an empowering word. Fine.

A gay man referring to himself as "queer", for example. But when that person is surprised and bothered that I'm also going to refer to him as queer, there's something wrong.

Anonymous said...

Agree. Censorship only lends the subject legitamacy and in some cases gravity.

Can a WASP truly write a black/ethnic/coloured perspective succesfully? Examples?? Nothing obscure.

If someone genuinely dosen't know they are being offensive should one be offended?

Steve Allan said...

Great example of white guys writing another race - THE WIRE. I think David Simon and Ed Burns do an excellent job.

As for people who don't know they're being racist, I think it's the ignorance that is more offensive. I talk to a number of people who don't know when they're saying something about Indians; bit on the other hand I get a kick out of people who try to be so PC that it's ridiculous. People seem to go out of their way not to say Indian, which is something I say and my family says all the time. There's really nothing offensive to the word, at least to me.

Anonymous said...

So broadly speaking you are saying education. . .but not too much education is the key. :-) :-)

I understand your position. A collegues' marketing report was once rejected because it contained the phrase 'A chink in the armour' in case it gave offense to any Asian (by which I think they meant Chinese) readers. The company was Canadian, I shall say no more.

A bientot