The Other ‘N-word’

Aphorism of the Day I: The mild feelings that accompany your presumption have no bearing on the mildness of your presumptions. Even Nazis wonder about all the fuss.

Aphorism of the Day II: If a word offends thee, pluck it, sure. If a word really offends thee, say it over and over again, until its nonsense is revealed. So, repeat after me: deconstruction, deconstruction, deconstruction, deconstruction…

Censoriousness is part of the human floor-plan. Everybody thinks certain people shouldn’t be allowed to say certain things. We instinctively understand that controlling actions–power–turns on controlling beliefs. If you let the latter get out of hand…

When I was studying in Nashville, one of my classmates married this Polish guy who got a job working in construction. Shortly after getting the job he apparently approached one of his coworkers and said, “Excuse me. Please. Could you tell me? What is the difference between redneck and white-trash, and which one are you?”

On another occasion, I found myself debating two fellow PhD students, both from the deep south, who argued that the word ‘nigger’ was simply the word they grew up using, that they didn’t ‘mean anything’ by it. The resulting argument, as you might expect from philosophy grads, led nowhere, though it did sketch a couple of interesting circles. I argued that what they thought they meant had precious little to with anything. Words were social and historical–and most importantly, bearers of value. In other words, words were huge, and some were larger than others. ‘Nigger,’ I suggested, was about as big as they come.

Read the rest on the Three Pound Brain.

Tags: Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, books, language, literature, nigger, slave, words

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Replies to This Discussion

I agree with original Saturday Night Live, replace the "N-word" with "Jungle Bunny".

As far as redneck and white-trash, I find trailer-trash to be more offensive, but Eminem wears it as a badge of honor, and rightfully so.

Personally I find the terms "idiot", "fool" and "retard" to be much more offensive than any racial slur.

There are many ways to deal with discrimination, everyone is discriminated against in one way or the other, everyone has their own way of dealing with it either by themselves or as a group, they either repress their feelings or let them out. Let each deal with it in their own way and leave the words alone.

My feeling is that using racial epithets shows how stupid the speaker is.  Any demeaning term that lumps a group of people together and acts as a short hand for "inferior" packs the group of people with baggage and assumptions, and is used when abusing them, is not part of reasoned discourse.


I think only someone who has been degraded with slang knows how that slang feels to them.  I have mixed feelings about re-writing Mark Twain's work, although it's done with the Bible all of the time, ether to make it more accessible or to re-interpret it.  


I truly hate demeaning slang when applied to anyone.  It is a verbal equivalent for violence.  If spoken in my presence, I call people on it.  At this point, people know better than to say it around me, or I have excluded those people from my life, or they have excluded me, or we just have nothing in common.  

Huckleberry Finn loses the 'nigger' he loves, thanks to a publisher's ethnic cleansing

There is a great fuss in America about a new edition of Huckleberry Finn from which the word nigger has been excised. It occurs in the novel 217 times, or 219 (tallies vary, and I have lost count), so its loss makes quite a difference. It is like The Merchant of Venice without the word Jew.

Indeed Jew is far more pejorative in the mouths of Shakespeare’s characters than nigger is in the mouths of some of Mark Twain’s. Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant, resolves to run away, and declares: “I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer.”


Continue here.

I watched a biography of Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens today. If only the people who argue both sides of this were as nuanced and human as Mr. Clemens. I have not seen it. I prefer that people read the book in its original form, but also that they THINK and do not use the literature as an excuse to spout bigotry.
You talking about the one done by Ken Burns? I think I've seen that.

I'm not sure who by- it was on Netflix.  Watching the video, listening to the quotes by Clemens, etc, he seems very anti-racist and humanist, a man against his times, and revolutionary compared to the environment that he came from.  He was also the top selling writer of his time, and his words had great influence.  He gave lectures to sell-out crowds, in an era when lectures were the popular form of entertainment.  


I'll take his use of language over that of someone today.  People should understand the man, and what he was saying, and his culture, and from that understand the context of  the words that he used.  (as an aside, the Iraq war of his day was the American-Philippines War, unjustified and unjustifiable, and racist - and Clemens was outspoken against it).


I don't think we should censor Huckleberry Finn.  I also don't think people should use dehumanizing or racist language today.


I once saw a toddler amuse himself and others by saying "fuckface fuckface fuckface".  It was the shock value of the language coming from a toddler that made it outrageous and funny, and brought lots of attention.  I think sometimes people today use racist terms the same way - for the shock value and the pleasure of saying something taboo.


Problem is, most of us are adults, and we can use out brains in better ways than using dehumanizing words that almost never have socially redeeming value, that set off red flags and argument from emotion, and mostly just show people what side they are on.



There is no question that Mark Twain was an anti-racist. And there is no relationship between the use of the word "nigger" in the mouth of a lower class white boy in a 19th century novel and its use today by people who claim they "don't mean nothin by it". As for the latter point, when people say this, my first thought is: "what do you mean by 'I don't mean nothing by it'?" Regardless of the actual intent, conscious or otherwise, it's a question well worth investigating.

Some Mark Twain quotations:


"I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse"


"There are many humorous things in the world: among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages."


I'll have to re-read Huckleberry Finn - my distant memory of the book is that it is a humanistic and antiracist story that occurred in a racist era and place.


He was also against the Philippine-American war.

When all is said and done, the 'N-word' is still just a word. What matters is who is saying it and who they are saying it to, and in that respect any word will do. If you take away the 'N-word' another will just as easily take its place, then you take away that word, then the next, there is no end to it.
That being said, it is reasonable to punish radio and TV personalities that use such language to encourage hate, 'hate speech', but it is not the words themselves, but the hate behind them that is punished.
As far as Mark Twain, there is no hate there, and he is not speaking, he is writing.
There is never, ever, an excuse for burning books because we don't like what they say, no matter how hateful.


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