Rob Harper at HuffPo decides to illustrate a manifestly dumb argument:
No matter what any one says, whether they are black or white or even God himself (not that he would use the word), it is never, ever OK to use the ‘N’ word. In a joke, in a song, in private conversations, never, ever should the word be seen as acceptable to use. There are no exceptions.
…with a metaphor that’s almost perfect in its inaccuracy, which means it actually fits:
It’s like body odor. No matter how you try to cover it up with cologne or spray, body odor is body odor, no matter whose body it comes from. The only way to get rid of it is to wash it away. Or, more crudely, crap stinks, no matter how you try to mask the smell. Likewise, the ‘N’ word is demeaning, hurtful, and derogatory no matter who says it.
Of course, like most other scents, the offensiveness of body odor is pretty radically contextual. It does vary from person to person, it can be effectively covered by colognes and sprays (why else do we use deodorant?), and one’s experience of it is highly subjective: Spend a day running around in the sun and you get inured to your own funkiness pretty quickly. Our own modern intolerance for ordinary human smelliness is a cultural construct of fairly recent vintage. Not to say medieval peasants were fond of BO, but it’s a safe bet that people didn’t find it quite as off-putting as we do through all those millennia before the invention of Right Guard. “History” doesn’t get to “define” our reactions to odor any more than it gets to determine the connotations of a word in all contexts for all time.
In short, I’m with the late George Carlin on this one: Context is king, and offensiveness inheres in intent. If you have to convince people that a word is always offensive—including the very people to whom it’s supposed to be most offensive—that seems like sufficient proof that it isn’t, at least some of the time. More on this from Ta-Nehisi Coates.