“Daddy, what does the word f**k actually mean?”
I was seven or eight years old when I asked him that question. Of course, I knew there were other curse words, but a) I knew at least what the other ones meant, and b) I knew that while we weren’t allowed to use them, a slip of the tongue wouldn’t get us grounded for a week. The f-word was in a whole different category.
So while I knew I could ask my dad for an academic definition of the atomic swear word, the word itself scared me. It was a conversation to have in private – I asked him to come in my room and shut the door – and certainly not in order for the word to suddenly become acceptable for use.
For that reason, podcaster Joe Rogan was correct to apologize for his use of the uncensored N-word on his podcast – not because offensive words should be banned, but because the mother of all racial epithets is the atomic bomb of the English language. Because restricting the full use of that word in the public sphere serves to preserve the potency and venom of the explicitly uttered word.
When free speech activists make the important case that difficult topics and ideas should be discussed in public rather than hidden away, the underlying principle is that the way to render bad ideas irrelevant is to refute them with good ideas. That is why I founded Efrat Debate Workshops: to create an atmosphere in which any idea can be discussed openly.
That is also the reason I never censored for my children the history of North America’s complicated relationship with race. We read Mark Twain and To Kill a Mockingbird unedited, and watched uncensored footage and coverage of the awful abuse that black athletes like Jackie Robinson suffered at the hands of white fans, opponents and even teammates, that Dr. King suffered after that, and that President Obama was subjected to more recently still. We squirmed together as the mother of all racial epithets hit our ears and eyes – and proceeded to discuss the issue.
As a result, my children learned two things: the sting caused by racial epithets of all kinds, and the role they have played to promote and excuse injustice in society. They came to understand the historical and contextual reasons that there is a quantum difference between the N-word and other racial slurs.
The second thing they learned is that words are not violence. Words are not a threat. They are a tool to communicate – and when needed, to put offensive ideas in the public sphere where they can be discussed exposed for what they are: bad ideas.
But like the f-word talk with my dad, those frank conversations happened in the privacy of our home, not in public. In the context of our family and the lessons my wife and I demonstrated to our children from the time they were born, our home was a safe space for difficult questions and ear-splitting phrases on difficult topics. There was never a danger that any of our boys would have translated our uncensored discussions of racism for approval to use those words outside our home.
In other words, they understood there are (and should be) standards of behavior in the public sphere, and that adhering to those standards is conducive to creating a society in which individuals of all colors, beliefs, styles of dress and cultural mores can contribute and feel supported.
Avoiding the “F-word” does not tag the speaker as unsophisticated. To the contrary: it indicates a level of respect and dignity for the topic at hand. So, too, use of the uncensored N-word stands primarily to diminish the standing of the speaker as a person of serious ideas, not to display his or her sophistication or maturity.
Ironically, it is the unedited pronunciation of the N-word stands that serves to inhibit constructive discussion of race. True, uncensored readings of literature and history texts is a prerequisite for integrity and vigor in learning, as well as a survey of the development of cultural norms in recent centuries. Glossing over difficult words used freely by previous generations serves only to impede the process of education. The ability to analyze ideas, to quantify them and ask cogent questions in order to accept or reject them is at the very core of the inquisitive process. Shielding children from confronting difficult words and ideas when used in context robs them of a critical opportunity to learn and mature.
At the same time, if we demand uncensored encounters offensive language in its appropriate context, it stands also to reason that our subsequent discussions surrounding the same contentious issues reflect modern-day sensibilities.
Outside that very limited context, the N-word should indeed be treated as the linguistic equivalent of an atomic bomb.