MORRIS: Zero tolerance for the word police


Leo Morris

A white teacher in Chicago was fired recently for using the N-word in class.

She wasn’t trying to be offensive. She was explaining to her world history class why the former name of the Washington Commanders football team was so offensive and compared it to the N-word, making the mistake of saying the actual word.

The teacher of 41 years explained that she was just trying to make things clear for her students, apologized and said she would never say the word again. But administrators fired her anyway, saying in an announcement that the word was “never acceptable in any gathering of, or setting with” the school.

That was so insanely wrong. To virtually ban a word without taking context into question gives the already poisonous epithet more power than it deserves, unfairly punishes people who have done nothing wrong, and infantilizes a whole group by pretending that they can’t tell the difference between a deliberate insult and reasonable discourse.

At about the same time, a 2019 video surfaced of the newly elected black mayor of New York calling white police officers “crackers.”

He was speaking before a friendly audience and very much did intend to demean the group he was speaking of.

But he fessed up and apologized profusely (“New Yorkers should expect more from me and that was inappropriate”), the head of the police union graciously accepted, and life moved on. No harm, no foul.

Certainly, there was a double standard at work, but still it was a much more mature, civilized way to handle things. The adults were in charge.

Instead of saying “crackers,” I almost used “the C-word,” just to be flip, but decided that would be too clever by half.

For one thing, cracker (or any other pejorative for white people) doesn’t have the same level of toxicity as words denigrating other peoples, especially the N-word. And, yes, I know why that is so in the context of this country’s history, so no need to kindly remind me of my white privilege.

For another, I was afraid it might be confused with the other C-word, the real one, that is sometimes used to demean women. That is such an awful term that it gets my vote as the second-ugliest word in the English language, and maybe it should even be tied for first. The first time someone’s language flummoxed me was when I heard a woman use the word against another woman she loathed.

For what it’s worth, I was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky, so I am irritated, sometimes mildly, sometimes not, by the H-word, which some of you will recognize as the pejorative for Appalachian-American.

The newspaper I worked on for many years actually used the word in a headline, about some people arrested for some nonsense or other in a trailer park.

I tried to tell the copy editor why the term was offensive, but she patiently explained to me that the word did not refer to everyone from Appalachia, “just the white trash ones.” That sounded awfully familiar, so I decided not to pursue the conversation further. That was the second time language flummoxed me.

I wish I could work up more outrage about the word, but it’s hard to do so when it has all but entered the vernacular. There’s even a bread by that name, for goodness sake. And the more I think about it, the diminishment of a word’s power by usage over time Is probably healthier for society than its weaponization by banishment.

What’s happening, I think, is just another iteration of the zero-tolerance policy that has afflicted us of late.

The policy of no weapons in school is taken to such an extreme that kids are expelled for drawing a picture of a knife or eating a candy bar into the shape of a gun. The teacher does not have to exercise judgment and risk being wrong.

The rule against selling liquor to minors is so rigidly enforced that grizzled senior citizens are asked to show ID. The store clerk does not have to think and cannot be blamed for anything.

A company’s policy against sexual harassment is such that telling an off-color joke is treated the same as demanding sex from an underling, never mind that instead of a safe environment, a culture of fear is being established.

The N-word is so evil that merely hearing it spoken by some people will cause civilization to unravel, so no exceptions permitted, no explanations allowed.

Time after time, on issue after issue, we are taking the path of least resistance, the one depending the most on emotional overreaction and requiring the least amount of thinking. Zero tolerance, alas, means just what it says: No tolerance.

Tolerance requires judgment and perspective and nuance. We are turning away from reason and embracing simpleminded judgmentalism. No B-word needed here – leave your brains at the door.

Leo Morris is a columnist for the Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected]