From the editor: The n-word and other words

2013-12-15T00:00:00Z 2014-03-21T10:34:21Z From the editor: The n-word and other wordsBy DARRELL EHRLICK Gazette editor The Billings Gazette
December 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A month ago, it seemed like Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington hardly missed an opportunity to accuse The Gazette of witch-hunting him for using county taxpayer equipment to send an email full of racially insensitive, if not insulting remarks.

Rather than focus on his action, he instead wanted to turn public attention to The Gazette for daring to keep tabs on a public official.

Lenington's accusations of media conspiracy are so cliche that they hardly need response. Had not Lenington used his county email address to send incendiary notes, The Gazette would have had nothing to report. 

But several readers wondered about how we reported the issue.

One reader said, "In writing about Lenington and leaving out the 'N' word, isn't The Gazette a bit off the mark, or perhaps hypocritical in its choice of words to bleep?

"It just seems odd that The Gazette has ... made it clear both times it would not reproduce completely the word that Lenington wrote, yet it had no problems with using the word 'queers' each time?

"That seems odd to me, especially since The Gazette reading populace has more gay people ('queers') who might be offended than black people."

A bit of background: Lenington's email that caused the attention was written after the re-election of Barack Obama. Lenington surmised the president won the office again because "there are more lesbians, queers, Indians, Mexicans and niggers than the rest of us."

That's the passage without the word "nigger" redacted by hyphens, or as this particular Gazette reader said, "bleeped." In this column, I have chosen to run the word unsoftened by hyphens so that we could have a conversation about how and when to use it. 

I hope some of our readers will find comfort in this statement: Gazette editors had a long and spirited debate about whether to use the word with or without hyphens.

I hope it's comforting because there is no clear right or wrong answer.

By spelling out the word, The Gazette would be publishing Lenington's words verbatim, without redaction. The word certainly would stand out in its starkness — something rarely seen in print anymore, and that's for the better. Yet in doing so, The Gazette could also be accused of being cavalier and insensitive to the tremendously damaging way the word has been used to oppress people of color. Did we really want to risk falling into that camp? Any rookie journalist should know: Just because you can print something doesn't mean you should.

Yet, by modifying the word with dashes, we would be changing some of the power behind the word. The word "nigger" has true impact. By doing so, was The Gazette not giving a full account of the word? Did it look too touchy, as if we just couldn't bear to even see the word in print? And by "bleeping" it out, were we coming too close to censorship?

Ultimately, we settled on dashes. We reasoned that few — if any — readers would be left wondering what that word was. We didn't want to appear like grade-school kids who have just learned a new cuss word and wanted to try it out. We also ran the entire email on our website for anyone who just had to see the entire phrase in all its context. 

Going forward, The Gazette will likely use hyphens if the word comes up again. I can't see much good in using the word gratuitously. Virtually no one wonders what it could mean. 

But the readers who wondered about our use of the quote have a darn good point. In his email, Lenington wasn't talking about lesbians, Indians or Mexicans in a favorable context. Why did we allow him to take an unbridled shot at them, while "protecting" another group?

Fair question.

At the time, we were most concerned about how to republish the word "nigger." Since the reader feedback, I've wondered about the same point: Why is one word so dangerous, yet others used in the same disparaging way are offensive but not taboo?

I searched for the answer and came across an interesting solution in Harvard academic Randall Kennedy's "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word."

"The claim that nigger is the superlative racial epithet — the most hurtful, the most fearsome, the most dangerous, the most noxious — necessarily involves comparing oppression and prioritizing victim status.

"In the aggregate, though, nigger is and has long been the most socially consequential racial insult," Kennedy writes. 

He goes on to show that in a survey of federal court cases, the use of the word "nigger" has been part of more than 4,200 cases of violence through 2001. The next closest epithet is "honky" at 286. Granted, it would be hard to catalog cases that involve "Mexican" or "Indian" as the connotation can vary widely depending on context. 

Kennedy points out that when the n-word is used, it's almost always derogatory when spoken by whites.

For some, this may be little more than The Gazette trying to justify its own decisions with academic support. In truth, any decision about how we published the word would have come with its own set of criticisms. So, we tried to do what was right, and that was not to inflict any more harm than that word has already done.

One of the most poignant passages in Kennedy's book comes during the discussion of the word in relation to other epithets. 

"Declining to enter into a discussion comparing the Holocaust with American slavery, a distinguished historian quipped that he refused to become an accountant of atrocity."

In that spirit, I'd rather not compare which terms are more hurtful. Instead, I'd rather think of a Yellowstone County in which who you are is more important that what you are.

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