Monday, April 16, 2007

Giving them something to talk about

There are certain words in the English language that carry strong messages behind them. These words have the power to hurt or heal, scar or solidify. Sometimes, the same word can do both, entirely dependant upon the usage of the word. More often than not, the words themselves only carry one level of meaning. Naturally, the most logical thing to do with words such as these is to allow their usage to go unabated, or to make an attempt to outright remove the words from the language. It would be ridiculous to think that, perhaps, the best course of action would be to talk about the words, why they are used, and use that conversation as a forum to possibly sway the opinions of others.

And yet, that's exactly what some high school students at Benson High School in Nebraska tried to do with their report, "The N-Word". The report, for the school paper, featured interviews with students to ask why they use the word in question, along with other similar terms, and even went so far as to include a question-and-answer transcript from an ethics class.

Shameful, obviously. That's exactly why the principal of the school was put onto administrative leave (she has been reinstated already). The last thing that we want to do is to actually communicate why such words are used, and what they mean to the populations that use them. After all, gathering knowledge can only serve the purpose of helping people make better informed decisions. And, well, in America, we don't like well-informed decisions.

Let's look at it this way. We understand that there are words that were made harmful by the majority because of the connotations of their use. We understand that there are times when those words need to be "taken back" by those who were harmed by their usage. What we don't quite get is how the word can continue to be used freely when it's use is still harmful, even by those who repurposed it to cause less pain.

Of course, the sheer continued existence of these words leads to outbursts the likes of what we saw from Michael Richards a few months back. And while Richards definitely was leading with anger, where is the difference when rap stars use the word (in the same context) to talk about their rivals on other recording labels? Isn't that usage of the word, being supported by anger and hate, just as bad when it's coming from a black man as it is coming from a white one?

And what about the recent controversy over Don Imus, and his usage of the term "nappy-headed hos"? We, by no means, support Imus, and we certainly don't argue with him losing his job, but aren't there others who continually make money by using that term over and over again? Sometimes towards similar targets?

The principal of Benson High School was put on leave due to people who were offended by the content of the story, and because the Omaha School District felt that the story did not "appropriately guide and educate our students." We're still not sure exactly how opening up a dialogue about the usage of words doesn't help to educate students, or others.

George Carlin once said, "There are no bad words. Bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words." He was trying to showcase that it is the mindset behind the usage of the word that gives it either a positive or negative value. We can't help but feel that the way these students went about using the word in their report was with the best of intentions.

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