No death sentence for slurs like the one Kobe Bryant used

At long last, I know what an angry Kobe Bryant said from the bench last week about an NBA referee who slapped him with a technical foul. Video reveals that Bryant called out the ref’s name and then in a lower voice, easily discerned via lip reading, said “fucking faggot.”

Alliteration and parallelism notwithstanding, I won’t be using that present participle again in this essay.

But if I’m going to make sense of the incident and the controversy that followed, I will use the noun defined by the participle. I promise to use it with caution because the word “faggot” — which has a long and convoluted history — now rests at the center of a renewed debate about dangerous, insulting, or hateful speech.

Bryant was fined $100,000 for what television hosts kept referring to as his “slur.” The hoops star, once accused of rape by a hotel worker, apologized (twice), suggesting in the end that the word faggot (which my spell checker suggests I change to “maggot”) should be “killed.”

In a now famous debate with other African-American artists, Oprah Winfrey has suggested a version of capital punishment for the “n-word,” so we now have at least two words sitting on death row.

Full disclosure: Having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s, I never once remember using the n-word (my parents forbad it), but “faggot” was in common use on the playground and in the locker room. Over the years, guys developed a small thesaurus of synonyms, depending on the nature and target of the insult:  fag, faggot, queer, homo, fairy, tinkerbell, fruit, three-dollar bill, and more.

Versions of the slur exist in other languages and cultures, a Spanish synonym being “maricon.” That was the word that Cuban boxer Benny Paret used against his opponent Emile Griffith in their 1962 welterweight battle. The injuries Paret sustained in that fight would result in his death, a story recounted famously by an eyewitness, Norman Mailer.

As I reflect upon the times when I first learned these insults, it occurs to me that they were rarely directed at a boy or man who was considered to be effeminate or a homosexual. In my town, use of such slurs were expressions of alpha male dominance and were especially strong on the playing field where the goal was psychological and physical domination.

Much has changed since those benighted days, including the emergence of the word “gay” to describe not just a sexual orientation but an entire culture. Beginning with New York’s Stonewall riots, a gay and lesbian liberation movement has been effective enough to move many Americans to new levels of tolerance.

Within this context, how should we make sense of Bryant’s angry outburst against a referee? To abbreviate what could be a much longer essay, let me offer some opinions in the form of these headlines:

  • No one should say anything in a public place he or she would not want to see or hear on the Internet. Yes, we can read your lips.
  • The public apologies that come from saying the “wrong” thing usually reveal that the source is not really sorry but wants to dispel negative publicity.
  • The answer to bad speech is not “no speech” — the death penalty — but good speech.
  • In such cases, news organizations should print or broadcast the offensive expression so that audiences can know what was actually said. Paraphrases, euphemisms, verbal veils do not work.

The Los Angeles Times not only used the term in the Bryant story but added a justification for its surprising appearance in the morning paper. With fewer inhibitions than newspaper editors, many bloggers used the word without apology, attracting the usual range of comments on issues of race, sex, and sports, some enlightened, others degrading.

Such candor was nowhere in sight on a number of news and sports gab fests.  I listened to one such show and waited for more than 15 minutes for someone to use the word in question. All I got were euphemisms, bowdlerizations, adjectives, passive constructions, and uncountable uses of the pronoun “it,” as in “it should not have been said …”

Publishing taboo words that arise in the news does not require red headlines, bold face or 30-point type. A word can be revealed in the body of the text, or inside the paper, or via a link on the website. Any further inhibitions smack of a misguided political correctness, however well intended.

As for the death sentence

Let’s focus for a moment on giving the word a death sentence. (Don’t you love the pun?). “Killing” a word, as if that were possible, would create a fallout effect, making even innocent uses of the word radioactive. Banning faggot means losing the short versions “fag.” And the original meaning of “faggot,” a bunch of sticks (which may be a relative of the word “Fascism”). And the word “fagged,” meaning “tired.”  And the British use of “fag,” meaning a cigarette. And the historical use of “fag” to designate a younger student who provides services, of a non-sexual nature one assumes, to an older student. All that history, all those meanings and more ripple through the Oxford English Dictionary.

We know from the recent history of the n-word, that context and speaker or author mean a lot. People who are the usual targets of such words are granted by many in the culture a license to use those words in non-offending, even affectionate ways.

While some may object to a double standard — “How come it’s OK for Snoop Dog to say it but not Dr. Laura?” — there is something deemed liberating about taking ownership and control of the instruments of intolerance. Among African-Americans, there are differences of opinion along generational lines on the use of the “n-word” by rappers.

To find a parallel example of this semantic change, I can turn to the experience of my oldest daughter Alison, a lesbian/thespian living in Atlanta. When she came out, it was hard to know how to describe her new identity until she expressed a preference for “queer” and the funny neologism “homo-flexible.”  Who could have imagined that a homophobic insult of the 20th century could become a source of pride in the 21st?

It is impossible to predict how language will change over time, except that it will. There are, indeed, responsible uses of taboo words. Bryant’s use of “faggot” was not one of them, but the coverage of that usage in the media should have included — in all instances — a non-sensational rendering of the word.

Here’s a replay of a chat I led on this topic …

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  • Michael Cromer

    Is replacing “bad speech” with “good speech” really the answer? It is possible to break a bad habit by substituting a more acceptable one…but is that the answer to real problem? No. it doesn’t change the underlying bigotry. It just hides it. As offensive as these words are, there’s at least one advantage to people using them: At least we know who the bigots are. And then maybe we can address the bigotry directly — instead of whitewashing it.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Thanks for your good and thoughtful comment. I’m tempted to say that individual words and phrases are morally neutral. It’s not that you use a dangerous word, but why and how you use it. Because some readers may object to the use of a particular word as “insensitive” or “discrimatory, does not require the writer to abandon the word or find another. It does require, however, some special caution: don’t be gratuitous, imagine the consequences, be ready to defend it, cushion the fall.

  • Anonymous

    Agree with you about the sensationalism and on the folly of “killing a word.”
    But “correct” and “incorrect” usage of slang, and defining appropriateness by context is also folly. When we “decriminalize” words — and they are just words — they have no power other than that which we give them — we’ll be able to move forward. And maybe decriminalize is not too strong a word. When careers can be destroyed or marred by a person’s epithets, we are not the free speech society we claim to be. The double standard is not the difference between Dr. Laura saying nigger and the rapper saying nigger. The double standard is living in a society of free speech and expression, that allows some public figures to inflame the public with misinformation (and I accept that’s part of living in a free society), but we can’t say certain words out loud. And words that everyone knows, of course. When is the last time someone got bleeped for bad language on television that you couldn’t immediately decipher the real word ? You can’t kill a word association in your brain by simply saying “N-word” or censoring with a bleep. I can hardly believe there are those who would argue the effectiveness of such a thing.

    Lenny Bruce — for me the first and last best authority on taboo language — said it best, “it’s the suppression of the word that gives it its violence.” Seek out and listen to Bruce’s unassailable position in his commentary “Are there any niggers here tonight?” He explains that if everyone said it, from the common man to the president, and it was repeated and repeated, and lost its meaning, “you’d never be able to make some six-year-old black kid cry because someone called him a ‘nigger’ at school.”