Let’s Talk About the N-Word

It might be tempting to assume the uproar over podcaster Joe Rogan’s use of the N-word on his show is about cancel culture. But a closer look reveals there is something much deeper at work in this particular controversy, and it is important that we do not miss it.

After an organization aligned with a Democratic political action committee posted a video montage of Rogan uttering the slur, an outpouring of outrage – much of it faked – ensued and accusations of racism abounded. This happened even though the podcaster was not using the slur against an individual or group; rather, he was either quoting someone else who used the word or mentioning it in the context of a conversation about racist behavior.

Even though much of the outrage was manufactured, it did reveal what seems to be a shift in society’s attitude towards the usage of the word. Author and columnist John McWhorter, a liberal black man, recently penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which he pointed out that only a couple of decades ago, it was not considered a faux pas for a non-black individual to say the N-word when they were quoting someone else. He wrote:

Not too long ago, it was considered OK for people who aren’t Black to refer to the N-word in conversation. Not to use it, but to mention it. Within the limits of decorum, of course: Someone who, even if only mentioning the word, did so repeatedly within one conversation came off as noxious. However, under normal circumstances, white people could passingly refer to the word without the now-predictable pushback. I’m old enough to have done a couple of radio interviews in the mid-90s where this was the case.

McWhorter is right.

Before this era of toxic wokeness emerged, people of all races could have rational discussions about the slur without taking offense. But now, American society has seemingly become so hypersensitive, we cannot handle even the mention of the slur coming from a non-black person — even if it is clear they are not hurling the epithet at another person.

McWhorter rightly points out that, underlying this new paradigm, is “a strange kind of antiracism that requires all of us to make believe that Black people cannot understand the simple distinction between an epithet and a citation of one.”

In a sense, it is yet another example of the infantilizing approach progressives take towards black Americans. White progressives, in particular, seem to believe that by feigning outrage over the use of the word, they are somehow rescuing us from having to endure the horror of hearing it. “Plus, the assumption that Black people are necessarily as insulted by the mention as by the use implies a considerable fragility on our part,” McWhorter observes, pointing out that “if all someone has to do to ruin your day is say a word — even in the process of decrying it — your claim on being a strong person becomes shaky.”

This tendency on the part of white progressives is an illustration of what some call the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Many of these folks espouse the racist notion that black Americans not only lack the intelligence to understand the difference between using the word as a slur and discussing the word itself, we are also so emotionally driven that our white saviors must shield us from ever having to hear it.

Racism is the foundation of such a belief. But it is a more insidious type of racial bigotry in that it poses as a genuine concern coming from those who are, in actuality, only interested in exploiting the black community and using us as a political weapon against their political opposition.

McWhorter continues, suggesting that people must be willing to engage in good faith discussions on the matter:

I’m open to the idea that some people genuinely don’t quite see the difference between using and mentioning the N-word. But we have to have this debate and return some nuance to our collective view — not pretend the difference doesn’t exist.

It is only in this statement that I part ways with McWhorter. He is absolutely correct about the need for “nuance” in the conversation. But after over a decade of being a black conservative who is politically conscious, I can’t extend the level of grace that he does to these people. I do not believe for a second that those leading the charge against Rogan genuinely do not understand the difference between using the slur and simply discussing it.

In fact, I don’t even think these people truly believe Rogan to be a racist for using it. They are far too selective in their outrage. When it comes to non-black folks who agree with them politically who have also committed this most unforgivable of sins, they do not launch full-on cancelation campaigns. None of these people are willing to call President Joe Biden or the folks at The Young Turks racist for having used the word in a similar context.

Those members of the left-wing chattering class who are trying to cancel Joe Rogan are not showing authentic concern over the use of the word. Instead, they are pursuing an agenda. First, they want badly to ruin the comedian’s career. Secondly, they are using this entire fiasco to deepen the divide between Americans. They wish to make political discourse even more toxic than it has already become and they are using race – black Americans specifically – to exacerbate tensions.

The last thing these people want are civil, good faith, and nuanced conversations on sensitive matters such as these. They don’t want people of all political ideologies to find common ground and work towards actual progress. Political tension is what they’re after, which means they must poison conversations on race as much as possible.

They seek to make people hypersensitive so they are more likely to take offense at things that were not considered offensive years ago. The more sensitive people become, the less work the left has to do to make them fight. In essence, they are creating a political discourse that makes itself more toxic automatically. Unfortunately, they just might be succeeding in that objective.

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