After the recent upset of Kentucky’s basketball team by the University of Wisconsin, one of the Kentucky players was heard to mutter a racial slur under his breath. While the slur was barely heard, it was the most highlighted moment of the interview — perhaps the game itself, as the following story suggests:
An open microphone and a frustrated Andrew Harrison made for a dangerous combination Saturday night.
When a reporter asked Karl-Anthony Towns what made Frank Kaminsky so difficult to defend in Wisconsin’s 71-64 victory over the previously undefeated Wildcats, Harrison appeared to mutter “F— that N—-” under his breath at the mention of the Badgers forward. Harrison tweeted an apology early Tuesday morning and said he’d spoken to Kaminsky.
There are several points I would make about this incident. To begin with, we are reluctant to say this Harrison was simply “wrong” to make the comment, excusing him on the grounds that he was “emotional,” “young,” “upset,” “thought he was off camera,” or whatever. One of the few I heard who actually said the man was wrong was Stephen A. Smith who reports for ESPN. But immediately afterwards Smith denied that it was a racial slur, though it would have been if Kaminsky had said it about Harrison. There’s your double standard: the “N word” is OK if used by blacks among themselves or toward a white player, but not if a white player uses it in reference to a black player. The obvious profanity was ignored. Why do we make excuses for people instead of admitting that what they did was wrong and shouldn’t occur again? And why do we insist upon using a double standard to excuse what we know is simply wrong? Because, we are told, that would be “judgmental.” Fiddlesticks.
But if we take a step back and look at the larger picture, we must ask why a reporter on the air is not allowed to say or print what we now call “the N word.” It is offensive. I get that. But Bertrand Russell made an important linguistic distinction years ago between” use” and “mention.” If I use the word “bald,” as in “George Costanza is bald,” that differs from my mentioning the word as when I say, “Curtler just wrote that Costanza is ‘bald.'” In the latter case, the word gets inverted commas and we know that it is being mentioned, not used. The question I have is why in this politically correct age even the mention of “the N word” is considered offensive? I can see it if the word is used, though I would say it is offensive no matter who uses it.
But when a reporter has to continue to talk about “the N word” or print a bunch of spaces in the word (even though we know perfectly well what is missing!) then language takes a hit. And heaven knows our language has taken innumerable hits of late. We begin to realize we are reading or hearing a garbled report about an event that many regarded as important enough to talk about on a national network. In short, we have become so paranoid about certain words that even the mention of them is regarded as offensive. As a result, we skirt around the word and end up with a garbled report that is simply confusing. In fact, I heard this story several times before I learned what the words were that Harrison used — and I had to read the above story to learn that.
In itself it is not a big deal. In fact, it is a small deal. But as a reflection of an age that has become tongue-tied trying not to offend anyone, we have diminished our vocabulary and rendered communication problematic. And given that we think in words, this is a big deal. Words can be used and when used are, given the context, at times offensive. But when they are merely mentioned they should not be found offensive since they are not directed at anyone in particular and are employed to help us understand what is going on around us. And we need all the help we can get!