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ANTHONY FRAZIER: Don't blame the words

on July 11, 2013 11:00 AM

The “N” word

I can still psychologically taste the soap from my early childhood experience with saying something my grandmother didn’t approve of.

Though none of us is able to remember our first spoken words, we do however possess the ability to develop from simple word meanings to complex sentences, thoughts and language use.

Through human and culture interactions, we develop our language skills and quickly figure out that some words seems to have more power than others. George Carlin’s 1972 monologue on “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” caused a stir and, needless to say, challenged the TV broadcasting system to ban such words.

But can we just say anything we want? You can’t shout “fire” in a theater.” Shouting fire in a crowded theater refers to an outdated legal standard. At one point, the law criminalized such speech, which created a “clear and present danger.”

But since 1969, for speech to break the law, it can’t merely lead others to dangerous situations. It must directly encourage others to commit specific criminal actions of their own.

It’s becoming increasing more complicated when it comes to what words one can, cannot, should and should not say. We hear folks say the “N” word, “F” word, “B” word, “C” word and so on. It’s true that some words have historic racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and xenophobic pejorative meanings.

We now have words that are considered hate speech. Swearing, profanity, cussing, etc. are all examples of actual, and sometimes made-up, phrasing that is a part of our language, history and culture.

You can find it in our comedy, literature, movies, TV, schools, work, family and or social environments et al. Some of our most famous comedians use language that would be inappropriate in church. Much of our media is filled with comments, phrases and words that are less than encouraging or helpful to or about others.

At the heart of it all, it’s not the only the words, but how the words are used and who uses them. Take for example Paula Deen, the celebrity chef who being sued for using the “N” word 30 years ago. If she was Paula Deen, owner of some small-town store with four employees, would we have even heard about this? Or when Rachel Jeantel, testifying for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial, used a derogatory word/phrase referring to white people?

The truth is words mean different things to different people. The words we use are usually very different in social (informal) vs. business (formal) and or religious events. Maturity provides us an opportunity to know the difference. Banning is not a very effective ways to deal with unwanted, hurtful or unacceptable words. Replacing them with modifications is also pointless.

Language and words are tied to our history and culture. We must take the good with the bad. The choice always comes back to the meanings we tie to words. Always remember, we teach what we speak! My grandmother used to say: “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing!”

Anthony Frazier

Indiana

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