The CEO of Papa John's, John Schnatter, was forced to resign this week after saying the N-word during a conference call a few months ago. He also resigned from the University of Louisville's board of trustees. Next he will be stuffed into a burlap sack and sent over a 100-foot waterfall. But even this will not be enough to expiate his sins.
It is being reported that Schnatter "used a racial slur." But he "used" the slur in the same sense that a prosecuting attorney "uses" a gun by presenting it as evidence during a trial. In a conversation with a marketing agency, Schnatter pointed out that the founder of KFC called black people "n***ers." Only he did not censor the word, as I just did. He simply quoted Colonel Sanders, and not in a positive or approving light. But that is apparently enough to make him racist. He is a secondhand racist. By quoting a racist, he became racist. Even though the intent and context were not racist, and were actually anti-racist, he still became racist by some supernatural sorcery that nobody can explain.
Traditionally, intent and context are important facets of human communication. If you say a bad thing, and I repeat the bad thing by way of informing others that the bad thing was said, I am not myself guilty of the bad thing. With "the N-word," however, it has been decided that the word itself transcends intent and context. It carries with it a certain mystical power to turn into racists all who utter its syllables. That is, provided the person issuing the utterance possesses a certain skin pigmentation. The skin pigmentation, combined with the syllables, creates racism. Those are the ingredients, apparently. Though nobody can quite describe how the process works beyond that.
This is all silliness, of course. And we all know that it is silliness. And when a person loses his livelihood and reputation, it becomes something much worse than silliness. We all realize that it cannot be racist to simply say a certain word. Words aren't magical spells. They don't work like that. Words are just words. Words themselves cannot be racist. Intentions can be racist.
Despite the fact that we all have this basic understanding, we have decided nonetheless to turn the English language into some kind of weird game. Certain words must be avoided by certain people, for reasons that nobody can really justify. If the word is said by the wrong person — or player, I guess — then they will face the prescribed penalty. Because why? Well, just because. If you roll doubles three times in Monopoly, you go to jail. If you're white and you say a certain word in any context at all for any reason, you lose your job. Those are just the rules. That's all.
I am not arguing that white people ought to say the "N-word." I think it is a nasty word that nobody ought to say. I also think it is plainly insane that, even in this very article, I must find ways to refer to the word without writing the word itself, for fear that my livelihood may be destroyed should I make the mistake of actually articulating the word that I am already conveying by using the accepted euphemisms for it. I have no deep desire to say or write it. But I do have a deep desire to live in a society that is not governed by the whims of the faux-outraged mob and the arbitrary social rules they invent for no discernible reason. As always, that desire will remain unfulfilled.