These words like the “n” word
A word that navigates between the blacklist and freedom of expression. A word that evokes in some the slavery of a people. A word that hurts too much. What can be said of this word when its context is educational or when the intention is to understand? What can we say about the “n” word when we express it with tact to shed light on a harmful history we must avoid repeating at all costs?
What about the “b” word?
The word that millions of men use to compare women to nothing less than a female dog. This “b” word, so denigrating, has become so common in everyday parlance that we no longer even grasp the full weight of the offence it causes. Worse still, even women use it among themselves to crush each other rather than stand in solidarity against this oppression. What about this word that drags nothing but hatred in its wake?
What about the “f” word?
A word with which Anglophones have long denigrated Francophones in this bilingual country? Equally infused with hatred, it has settled in our everyday vocabulary like a bad joke – regardless of how harming it is to the person who received it like a slap in the face.
What about the French Canadian “t” word?
That word which for my mother, her generation and a few others after her was the worst swearword one could utter – a mortal sin, at the time. Yet Quebec remains the only nation in the world where “church words” are blasphemous when used out of context. “But it’s like saying ‘pew’ or ‘table’,” said a Dutch friend who was taken aback by how ridiculous it sounded to him.
It’s about context
One word alone does not live. It requires a context, an intention. When words in “n”, in “b”, in “f” or in “t” are infused with hatred or spat out to offend, certainly we should rise against it. But when pronounced to explain or educate so that the history they carry does not repeat itself, then verbalizing these words is essential.
Must we bring back the blacklist?
Must we regress by a few centuries to revive the blacklist? Or worse, penalize the use of these words? Imagine a list of words that no one is allowed to pronounce under penalty of [insert the sentence of your choice]? I see an absurd dystopia taking shape… I can imagine Atwood’s Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, where a woman who dares to read the Bible gets her finger amputated.
When we promote extremes on either side, we create exclusivity, which goes against our quest for inclusion and diversity. Let’s avoid extremes and, instead, aim to be part of the solution.