In April of 2011, Kobe Bryant, in a fit of emotional childishness, calls an official a “f….t.” He pays a fine and all is forgiven.
In July of 2013, Paula Deen truthfully answers the question, “Have you EVER used the N word?” and loses love, respect and lucrative television contracts. I added the emphasis for a reason. It’s a lawyer’s trick question.
To ask any adult, if they have EVER used a commonly used word is a trick question. If the word has been used at any time in one’s life, in any format, the honest legal answer must be “Yes.” This type of question is designed to force someone into a corner without any type of contextual understanding.
Context is crucial when it comes to language. Times change and with them conventions. Language is a fluid and evolving construct.
For example, the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries are changing the meaning of the word “literal.” It no longer means that something has to be actually true. Google, for example, uses this for literal: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”
This type of redefining is indicative of the fluidity of language. I can now write the phrase, “I literally saved a man’s life in divorce court fighting for his children” and not be grammatically incorrect. But clearly I didn’t really “save his life” for it was not in mortal peril. The word is merely used for emphasis, to express how awesome a divorce lawyer I am.
The reason that words matter is that they carry weight, both psychic and legal. We allow domestic violence or harassment cases to go forward because we recognize that if you spend weeks, months or years being verbally abused it will take an emotional toll on you. This type of propaganda is what the victors have always used to keep control over the victims.
In “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” the script uses the N word repeatedly, by both white and black actors. In the movie it is historically accurate in its usage by politicians and the public, yet there is no giant outcry that the movie is continuing to use a derogatory term and that the script should be rewritten and the movie re-cut to avoid the usage of it. One has to ask why?
The answer is clearly that it is crucial to the story and understanding the times from both a white and black perspective. This is because context matters. To redact, or cut out, the ugly and painful parts of history would be to destroy context and meaning. We can’t understand how painful something is without reliving the pain in some fashion.
As I sat in the theater this weekend watching “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” the N word would ring out across the room and it felt like a slap in the face as it was spit out by actors, yet the multi-racial audience didn’t erupt into fits of anger or devolve into a race riot because it was an element of the story that was portraying the times as they were.
Which is why asking a white southern woman who was born in 1947 if she’s ever used the N word is a set up. It’s no different than asking Kobe Bryant if he’s ever used a gay slur. He’s a major professional black athlete who has come up through the ranks of street pickup games to playing at Staples Center. Of course he’s called men a “f….t.” Most men have used that term at some point in their life and if I were to ask the top 100 professional athletes under oath if they have ever used the slur, I’m willing to bet, assuming they answer honestly, I’d get 100 affirmatives. Does that mean that they are all homophobic? No. It means that the past two decades have been a time when that word has been an acceptable epithet to use when angry.
Times are changing and both the N word and the F word are decreasing in their use. There will be a time when both are considered as out of date as other racial slurs. At least, I hope.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles divorce and child custody lawyer specializing in father’s and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra