Thursday, August 4, 2016

Addressing the Magical 'N-Word'

A few suggestions to perhaps lessen the linguistic impact of the most taboo word in the English language. 

By: Jimbo X

Back in the medieval days, people used to freak out over this thing called a tritone. You know that song “Black Sabbath,” by the band Black Sabbath, off the album Black Sabbath? Well, that whole song is basically a five minute long tritone. And back in the Dark Ages, people thought it was some kind of magical note that literally conjured up evil spirits when performed. 

Of course, we are a smarter, wiser and much more scientifically-inclined species than we were 500 years ago, and we’ve long abandoned such silly, superstitious and frankly – stupid – ideas about certain sounds being able to summon the forces of darkness.

Well, with one glaring exception

Now folks, I don’t know if you are aware of it, but apparently, there is this one very, very special word in the English language that has supernatural powers. In fact, it’s such a mightily evil term that not only are you not allowed to say it, you better not even think it, unless you are mulling how ungodly terrible it is. And even then, you better not even imagine stringing all the letters together in such a way you can hear both syllables in the inner monologue in your brain. Not even.

We all know what word I am talking about. Of course, it being a horrific curse word that LITERALLY has the ability to summon Ku Klux Klansmen out of hell mouths in the Great Plains, we will refuse to address it by its full six-letter nomenclature. Alas, for the sake of simplicity, we will henceforward refer to this term by the euphemism "Nukie" - in honor of the much maligned 1980s E.T. clone - if only because it phonetically sounds like the actual word no one is ever allowed to say ever, for any reason. And also, because substituting the unholy word with an obscure, tongue-in-cheek disempowering referential point could go a long way in changing the constructional connotation of said unholy word, but we'll get to that just a little bit later. 

Before we get into finding ways to "dismantle" the verbal and literary force of the prejudicial slur "Nukie," we must first delve into why "Nukie" is considered by the totality of U.S. society to be such a foul and unthinkable word. 

Now, in 2002 a legal scholar named Randall Kennedy penned a pretty thorough book describing the etymology of the term "Nukie." In his own words, he determined that the word is used in such "a rich panoply of contexts" that it's hard to come to a single concrete definition of what the term is supposed to imply. Regardless, he said "Nukie" has - historically - been used as pejorative meant to demean and belittle people based on their purported genetic, cognitive and moral inferiority. 

Now this is where the discussion gets interesting. While historically the term "Nukie" has been used to describe allegedly intrinsic attributes of a person (even if they were unabashedly superficial and oftentimes scientifically incorrect), some have made the argument that the term "Nukie" in modern discourse refers not to one's supposedly innate features - thus, giving them a linguistic shackle they can never free themselves from - but rather, is a derogatory term meant to criticize and condemn one's actions. Lest we forget the philosophical musings of renowned sociologist and demographer Christopher Rock, whose hypothesis regarding "Nukie" as a behavioral descriptor remains among the most heavily cited in all branches of the social sciences. 

Adding even more intrigue to the "Nukie" dilemma is the argument that the word has been "reclaimed" as a positive social identifier, and to some capacity, now represents a term of endearment used to symbolize closeness, trust and reverence. Of course, the big variable there is that this reclaimed "Nukie" - most frequently stylized as "Nuka'" and almost always pronounced in such a way to omit the "er" suffix - is almost exclusively referenced as a positive term when the word is used by African-American individuals to celebrate other African-Americans. No matter how much respect or admiration is meant, it is almost universally considered offensive for a member of any other reductionistic, arbitrarily-defined racial group to express the stylized "Nukie," especially in the presence of African-Americans and doubly-especially if said "Nukie" is directly addressed to a specific African-American individual. 

So what we have now is an incredibly complex hydra of a word, whose concrete meaning is cleaved by two contradictory definitions, which are further complicated by the contextual circumstances of both why the term is being said and who it is, exactly, who is using the term. Nonetheless, the word remains far and away the most controversial term in the English language, having reached an unparalleled place in the American lexicon that not even the famed "seven words you can't say on television" ascended (or descended) to. Beyond a "forbidden" word, it is viewed as form of true verbal assault, representing not just a linguistic attack in the eyes of most U.S. inhabitants, but a bona fide physical one. To call an individual a "Nukie" isn't just an attempt to belittle him or her, it is considered practically a vocal stabbing - the very act is as unconscionable as literally jamming a blade into the flesh of another human being, and as a result, we consider the amount of tangible harm intended and sustained virtually the same. To many, many people, saying "Nukie" is much more than an insult - it quite literally constitutes a form of physical battery and is a felonious hate crime on par with lighting a cross on someone's front yard. Actually, it is far worse than that; the latter is a mere property crime, wheres calling someone a "Nukie" is a legit form of interpersonal violence, no different than gang attacking them, spray painting their genitals and attempting to douse them in kerosene and set them ablaze

With that in mind, it's not surprising at all that some people want to keep the word cloaked in secrecy, as if it was the modern English equivalent of spouting Voldermort's name. The problem there, of course, is two-fold. For one, the term "Nukie" is by no means a "secretive" term - everyone and their mother has heard it and they know very well the linguistic power it conveys. The secondary problem, however, is a bit more nuanced. By making the word so utterly taboo - to the point that even mainstream media outlets only refer to it with a series of asterisks - we are indeed empowering the term. It sounds contradictory, but by framing "Nukie" as some all-powerful curse word with virtually metaphysical properties, all we are really doing is reinforcing the strength of the slur. Instead of watering it down to make it less impactful, we seem strangely obsessed with maintaining the term's unholy power. 

Seeing as how words are simply an arrangement of letters, their real power isn't concrete, but constructed. If enough people agree on a uniform definition or connotation, pretty much any word can be re-construed to mean something entirely different. Go ahead, reach into the never-ending drawer of sexual euphemisms - your hoes, your screws, your humps, etc. - for validation of such. If society truly wanted to de-power "Nukie," there is nothing stopping us. Indeed, there's more than one way to take the piss and vinegar out of the term, thanks to this little thing called "semantic satiation."

Do you ever get a random word stuck in your head, and after saying it aloud a couple of times, it stops sounding like a real word? Go ahead, say the word "buttercup" over and over again for a minute. I guarantee you by the 61st second, instead of processing "buttercup" as dewy flower, you can only think of it as a weird clashing of hard "t" and "p" sounds (we call them plosives, if anybody every asks you.) Well, theoretically, all of society could do the very same thing with "Nukie" - if we completely dismantled the core definition of the term and supplied it with a new concrete (not contextual) meaning, the much-loathed word would be robbed of all of its hateful, bigoted power. 

Perhaps the best way to sap "Nukie" of its linguistic force is some good old fashioned systematic desensitization. If you hear the term enough - and used across a wide spectrum of contextual situations - it becomes impossible to interpret the term under one singular, highly-specific connotation. By making it a mundane word with so many different potential meanings instead of some verboten term with a very direct meaning, you can slowly but surely strip the negative connotations of the word from the realm of social consciousness. 

For example, what if someone made a movie called "Nukie: The Motion Picture," which featured actors and actresses of all ethnoracial backgrounds saying nothing but the term "Nukie" over and over again for an hour and a half? You could have one vignette featuring a white couple in a loving embrace, cuddling and cooing lingering, syrupy "Nukies" at each other, followed up by a scene of a Hispanic man shouting "Nukie" as a general expression of outrage over a malfunctioning blender. Hell, maybe you could include a scene where an Asian man teaches his child the names of assorted vegetables, all of which he describes as "Nukie" in various, fluctuating vocal modulations, followed by a scene of black kids playing a heated game of street hoops and using the term "Nukie" to describe everything from time-outs to what kind of shoes they're wearing. And for the kicker, it could conclude with a KKK rally; after a grand wizard screams "Nukie" over and over again while pointing at a photograph of a spotted tabby, a Barack Obama-impersonator could walk onscreen, shake his head and call them "Nukies" before the whole flick fades to (fittingly enough) black. After hearing 90 minutes of completely contextual "Nukies" uttered at least a thousand times, you'd have to have the cognitive will of a KGB super-spy to still cull any sort of core meaning out of the word, at least for an hour or so.

It's a strategy we know as an evidenced based psychosocial engineering tool would work. The thing is, as hurtful and destructive and enraging as the word is, a lot of us - a staggeringly large number who are black - don't want to let go of the word. Instead of allowing the wound to heal, we keep ripping open the scab with our teeth yet still act surprised to see  blood start pouring out of the perforation. 
A ton of people still want to keep the term "Nukie" and its core negative connotation pertaining to black individuals alive, perhaps as some sort of linguistic remnant of the bad old days of unabashed, codified white supremacy. As much as we collectively loathe the term, for reasons that still aren't 100 percent explicable, we don't want to leave behind the word's historical connotations, either. 

If we don't want to reduce the linguistic harm of the term by definitionally obfuscating it Bunuel and Dali-style, perhaps we could reduce the narrowly tailored prejudice of "Nukie" by expanding its core implications as a behavioral slur to people of all colors and creeds? After all, turning "Nukie" into a color-blind insult to describe individuals who engage in irritating, unmindful, cretinous, oafish or (ironically) intolerant conduct - no matter if they are African-American, Czechoslovakian, Taiwanese or Palestinian - would effectively erase its intrinsic "value" as a pejorative, ultimately making it as toothless as general put-downs like "jerk" and "asshole." Indeed, the term to some extent already has become a ethnoracial-neutral term of condemnation: lest we forget the immortal words of Gin Rummy in that one episode of The Boondocks, "I don't mean [Nukie] in a disrespectful way, I mean it as a general term for ignorant motherfuckers ... anybody of any race can be an ignorant motherfucker.

As elementary as it may sound, perhaps the easiest way to overcome the dreadful specter of both historical and contemporary bigotry is to use the old "I am rubber, you are glue" approach. If a skinhead or Stormfront forum member calls a more melanated individual a racially-based slur a'la "Nukie," maybe the best thing to do isn't to take extreme offense to the declaration and demand the offender apologize for the Atlantic Slave Trade (which, according to Newton's Third Law of Motion, would prompt at least half of the tertiary parties involved to get outraged at the person experiencing outrage for insisting they should replace their own emotions and perspectives with theirs.) If you want to "disempower" the term, you first have to a.) reject its own power over you as an individual and b.) find a way to redirect whatever malicious intent the term implies back to the speaker of said slur. The second part has kind of been implemented - indeed, being socially recognized as a "racist" in contemporary American culture is considered by many to be a fate worse than being accused of molesting your own children - but collectively, we just haven't been able to nail down the requisite part a.

Shaming people under the auspices of some mandatory neo-neo-liberal ideology has only intensified racial animosity, deterred nuanced public debate and driven legitimate racists deeper underground into the anonymous pockets of the Internet. Meanwhile, claiming the metaphysical ability to detect undercurrents of subtextual racism in clearly non-racist actions or statements only serves to make people dislike racially-cognizant activists and lobbyists even more. By constantly chiding and condemning and criticizing people for intentional or unintentional displays of racial bigotry - be those utterances malicious by design or as innocuous as a butterfly's fart - the expressive power of terms like "Nukie" can only grow stronger. Instead of trying to fan out the conflagration of verbal prejudice, we keep throwing chunks of gasoline soaked rubber on the campfire, shaking our heads and crying to the skies "why, oh why, won't racism go away?"

If some bigoted old honky calls a black person a "Nukie," the most effective reply probably isn't crying, calling Al Sharpton, tweeting about it nine million times (with its own vanity hashtag, no less) and holding a community rally to fight the incorporeal menace of "racism" three days later. In fact, that's probably the BEST way to embolden legit racists, because like all hateful people, they get off on watching others suffer and feeling like they have any sort of power over another human being. Really, the best way to defuse those kind of scenarios - and really, to defeat racially prejudiced language altogether - is to simply reject the linguistic and literary force of the offensive terms. It's kind of like Freddy Kruger in the first Elm Street movie - it can only hurt you if you really believe in it. If you want to kill "Nukie" as a pejorative, having literal funerals for words ain't the way to do it. You've got to make a conscious, concentrated effort to NOT be offended by the term, then turn around and make it something the racists have to wear themselves. And what better way to disempower the term AND royally piss off real racists than by subverting their preferred ethnoracial slur to describe them? That's right, it's time we started turning around and calling neo-Confederates and skinheads and David Duke-esque white nationalists "Nukies," themselves. Just over and over again, every time they use the word to demean individuals of color, we fire back by calling them the "real Nukies." It's verbal jiu-jitsu at its finest; taking a discriminatory phrase, rebranding it as a derogatory term to describe the people who use it most frequently as insults, and throwing it right back into their faces like a ricocheting racquetball. "Hey, you see that Klansman over there? God, what an annoying little 'Nukie,'" In a way, it's downright beautiful, ain't it?

Of course, before we even get to that point, we have to socially agree to stop feeding the proverbial beast. To officially "kill" the dreaded "n-word," that means we have to strip it of its bizarre, perversely reverential status as a curse word. We have to stop treating it like it's some sort of mystical incantation with supernatural properties, and instead view it - as terse and hurtful it may be - as just another collection of letters with arbitrary, context-specific meanings. But above all, to "de-power" that most unholy and taboo word, we have to stop investing so much time and energy into it. That means choosing to ignore it and refusing to buy into its' intrinsic "value" as a slur. As our good homosexual pal Ludwig Wittgenstein said way back in the day, words only have merit if people collectively decide they should, and the same way we collectively "empowered" the slur "Nukie" 200 years ago, we can collectively disempower the phrase today by recasting what it is, precisely, that it references. Language, after all, is a social construct, and there's nothing stopping society from reconstructing the verbal artifacts we inherited. 

Alas, both critics and proponents of using the term "Nukie" as an ethnoracial descriptor just don't seem like they want to move on. It's almost like both sides want to keep the hyper-polarizing pejorative around, as a kind of weapon of mass destruction that benefits them and lambastes their sociopolitical rivals at the same time. Racists and anti-racists both want to keep "Nukie" alive and thriving, almost as if its survival embodies a linguistic form of "mutually assured destruction." It's mere existence is like some kind of literary life support mechanism, which ensures a contentious debate about race relations in the U.S. never, ever dies down - and, of course, never becomes tempered by that most unwanted guest, reasonable debate

Now, will anybody take the advice laid out here and run with it? Eh, probably not, for all the reasons I stated in the above paragraph. Alas, if marketing psychology has taught us anything, it's that mindsets can be created, language can be reshaped and historical contexts can be revised to fall more in line with contemporary mores and values. 

Simply put, we can change the debate about "Nukie" literally anytime we want ... that is, if we actually make the conscious, coordinated efforts to actually move towards post-racialism instead of looking for any and all excuses to default into identity politics whenever it behooves us. Alas, despite having all the resources in front of us to wipe "Nukie" off the face off the earth, lamentably, we've all decided to keep hanging on to it; funny how a society that allegedly despises the term absolutely refuses to let it fade from memory, no? 

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