You Can't Say That: Banning Offensive Words

Should government be in the business of dictating language?


Aug. 9, 2007 — -- If government bans a word, will people still use it? Should government be in the business of regulating speech, and if you do away with an offensive word, will it really change the culture?

New York City Councilwoman Darlene Mealy certainly thinks so. She recently introduced a measure to symbolically ban the words "bitch" and "ho" in the nation's largest city.

The move is one of many such efforts by government and other groups to at least symbolically eradicate words and phrases that they believe are harmful to society.

"Words do have the power to hurt people, but context is a big issue and things are situational. If you take away the word, but don't take away the meaning and context, you haven't improved anything," said Gwendolyn D. Pough, who writes about race and language. "In a rap song, you can have a rapper never use the b word, but say things like 'I'm going to kill her' or 'I'm going to cut her,' or talk about having a lot of women or using and abusing women. It's still problematic."

Others believe that rather than trying to limit the use of "bitch" and "ho" efforts like the councilwoman's should be aimed at the businesses and groups that influence popular culture.

"A lot of what's happening with this [legislation] is that it's shifting the conversation from where it needs to be," says Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture."

"The focus should be on the handful of companies publishing this music and running these radio stations. They have the power to promote artists and create balance. People make excuses about why artists who don't degrade women don't get radio play."

The music producers, for their part, are at least talking about the matter. In April, music producer Russell Simmons called on his industry to voluntarily ban racist and sexist words in hip-hop music. Simmons was successful in gathering together executives from Warner Music, Def Jam Music Group, Motown Records and Roc-A-Fella Records.

The group issued no recommendations — just a press release noting that the issue was "complex" and that discussion would continue.

Still, many believe that the rap culture is only a part of the problem.

"People want to pick and choose the battle," said Kitwana, "and often the battle is brought to the most powerless segment of society. We can't just say that we don't want 50 Cent to say 'bitch.' … Why is it OK for Jack Nicholson to use the N-word in an award-winning movie and nobody notices?"

Pough adds that "it's ridiculous to blame rap music for sexism and misogyny — these things existed before rap, but it's become a whipping boy because it's out there and we hear it."

This isn't the first effort in New York to ban words thought to be undesirable. Leroy Comrie, a New York City councilman, introduced legislation in February to symbolically ban the n-word citywide.

"Our job as legislators is to, at times, stimulate the conversation. We need to continue to raise awareness," he said. "I got great feedback from people all over the country [after the ban] — people that were very excited about the opportunity to have a discussion point."

Although any effect on the culture is almost impossible to measure, word-control efforts seem to be growing. The NAACP held a mock "burial" for the n-word in July. Oprah Winfrey conducted town hall meetings in April during the fallout over Don Imus' use of racist language on radio airwaves. And earlier this week the Rev. Al Sharpton held a "Day of Outrage" on the use of degrading lyrics in rap songs.

Pough said: "So far, I haven't seen any thing long-lasting come out of symbolic gestures. I remember the Clinton town hall meetings on race. … If we think about where we are now in terms of race relations, can we really say they've had any impact?"

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