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An Accidentally Apt Analogy

July 18th, 2008 · 4 Comments

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.

Tags: Language and Literature · Sociology



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tybalt // Jul 29, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    This was good.

    I’d eat the smell of my wife’s body on ice cream if I could. I hardly think “BO” (which runs the gamut from the girls who were offed in Susskind’s Das Parfum to the cabdriver who once forced me to stick my head halfway out the window on an hour-long ride once) is the kind of universal he’s getting at, and the n-word isn’t either. I am happy to use it, and have done, in two kinds of contexts (which I won’t get into now) where it was exactly the thing on the nose. Powerful words have a power to them that means that they _should_ be used in certain circumstances. The key is to identify with the power and to do no harm with it.

  • 2 Julian Elson // Jul 31, 2008 at 2:56 am

    “I’d eat the smell of my wife’s body on ice cream if I could.”

    I think that this commment is both the sweetest and creepiest comment I’ve read in a long time, Tybalt. (No offense intended on the creepy part, but what can I say? I don’t think you’re creepy — just that the comment was.)

  • 3 robjh1 // Aug 2, 2008 at 12:10 am

    I think you missed the boat and the point. The comparison was made simple for simplistic purposes. Surely, you would understand. Maybe not…keep trying.

  • 4 America's Future Foundation | Context is King, _***er // Apr 28, 2014 at 4:14 am

    […] Julian wants to argue that The N Word is not always offensive. I agree: we can run offensive vulgarities that degrade everyone in their full printed glory but yikes when someone types out The N Word. The title of this post would be considered cheekily naughty if that last word’s blank letter were filled in with an F, yet vile and unconscionable if it were filled in with an N. All without even supplying the rest of the letters. […]