When I was a kid, we called each other a lot of names. These names were not flattering, but neither did they reflect intense anger. Rather, they were meant to inflict momentary insult, often in response to a perceived slight, a physical injury, or an inconsiderate action. For example, if one of your friends smiled after spotting the thirty-seven at the top of your spelling test, you might tell him that he was a no-good rat fink. If he stepped on your foot or tried to cut in front of you in the milk line, you might call him a bonehead, or a blockhead, or pretty much anything that described his head as being composed of some dense material. If he made a ludicrous statement, like, “The pope goes to the bathroom,” you’d accuse him of being cracked, or crazy, or a stupid idiot.
And sometimes the verbal volley was just our way of saying hello: “Hey, you pathetic jerk, what’re you doing? Wanna read comic books?”
The point is, it didn’t really matter what you said, because they were going to ignore it anyway. We weren’t so afraid of words, and we weren’t easily offended. I suppose, without realizing it, we were focused on intent: if the person didn’t mean to hurt us, then we didn’t feel hurt.
One of the most popular television sitcoms of the 1950s – and of all time – was I Love Lucy. In the show, Lucy made fun of her husband, Ricky, who was a Cuban bandleader. She would imitate the difficulty he had when trying to pronounce certain English words, especially contractions, which he would shorten further to a single syllable. And she would attribute all kinds of negative traits to his Latin ethnicity, including a stubborn streak and a volatile temper.
It would be impossible to get away with something like that today. Protestors would picket outside the studio, while the actors and directors engaged in ponderous interviews, legal consultants offered in-depth analysis, and editorials called for somebody to be fired. The number of viewers who were disturbed, devastated, and emotionally scarred would grow by the day. Outraged politicians would compare the show’s dialogue to the brutal enslavement of Caribbean natives by Spanish explorers. A class-action lawsuit would soon follow.
Few observers would bother to mention – or even notice – that Lucy loved her husband, and that her harmless jokes were one way in which she expressed that love. Back then, the audience understood this, and no discussion was necessary.
I’m not suggesting that there’s any lack of evil behavior, or that language isn’t one of the tools employed to convey cruelty. But we need to make the distinction. During and immediately after the second world war, when people referred to the Japanese as Japs, they were talking about opponents in an armed conflict. It was that adversarial role that gave the term its significance. On its own, Jap was simply an abbreviation, just as Brit was a shortened and endearing way to identify British soldiers and citizens, who were America’s allies. It was the feelings behind the names that gave them their meaning, and their effect.
The latest controversy involves the National Football League and its Washington franchise. As it has in the past, the use of the word redskin has erupted once more in an explosion of indignation. Apparently, it’s a racial slur to refer to a group of individuals by their complexion, something most of society does routinely, and without great risk to civilization. I have to admit that I don’t like the practice, and avoid it whenever possible. But the words are an undeniable part of our culture, and while it seems inappropriate and anachronistic to call a professional sports team the Redskins, I imagine the name was chosen out of admiration. I’m sure it has, over the decades, engendered a sense of pride, as well. If it wasn’t intended as a slur, then it isn’t.
Racism is alive and well, everywhere. There’s no doubt about that. Humans are hard-wired in such a way that each group believes itself to be superior to others. At the same time, people are wary of those who look, sound, and act strangely. The results are never pleasant, and often gruesome. We annihilate each other by the thousands, sometimes for no better reason than that the gods we worship have different titles. We slaughter entire populations with a mindless sense of purpose, justifying our madness by pointing to the history books and explaining that this is what our parents did, and what they taught us to do.
Maybe it’s only a coincidence, but it seems that one day we put away our words, and replaced them with knives and ropes, handguns and automatic weapons. We stopped talking and started killing — almost always in the dark, under cover, or behind closed doors, in secrecy and quiet.
Now we find ourselves living in an age when moviegoers and shoppers are attacked without warning. Children are kidnapped from their schools or shot in their classrooms. Citizens of all ages are murdered by their own governments, or by the military paid to protect them. The stories come and go, moving onto and off the stage like a programmed slide presentation. And yet, we can’t stop talking about the owner of a basketball team — a pathetic, self-deluded billionaire — and his garbled ramblings. And we can’t get past the fact that some football players have that horrible name on the back of their jerseys.
We need to distract ourselves. I get that. It’s much easier to clamp down on speech than it is to deal with violence. But the worst genocides are always accompanied by restricted communication and a general fear of self-expression, so reticence isn’t a healthy sign. I worry sometimes that we’re turning into a mass of quietly seething loners. We hold our words and thoughts inside, concerned about losing our jobs or offending our friends.
I miss those days when we were all just a bunch of pathetic jerks, blockheads, and stupid idiots. And we weren’t afraid to say so.